Category Archives: American Lit

Lessons from the Classics: Harte’s Outcasts

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of posts that take what I’m teaching in my 11th-grade American Lit classes and then shows how that could translate into creative writing, using examples of what I’m doing. I welcome feedback, because I’m no expert on American literature–just somebody who’s been teaching it for a couple of years. I would also love to hear how other writers are using these tools!   

This week in American lit, students are working in small groups to read Bret Harte’s* short story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1892).  This is our first example of literary naturalism, or a story that presents as its theme a bleak worldview in which individuals are crushed and destroyed by an unfeeling world/social order (or, as I tell the students, “if everybody’s dead at the end and nobody cares and nothing changes about the world, it’s probably naturalism”).

The plot of “Outcasts” finds four ne’er-do-wells from the town of Poker Flat escorted out of town: John Oakhurst, gambler; Mother Shipton, who runs a brothel; The Duchess, an employee of Mother Shipton’s; and Uncle Billy, a drunk and a suspected thief. This being naturalism, they all end up dead in the wilderness, but Harte’s focus on their actions between their expulsion from civilized society reveals that “in the end…these seeming derelicts really had hearts of gold” (VanSpanckeren 5). Well… most of them, anyway–Uncle Billy definitely takes the mule and horse and leaves the rest of them to die.

But Oakhurst offers his horse to the Duchess, whose mule isn’t capable of carrying her; Mother Shipton starves herself to give extra food to the innocent Piney, who was running to Poker Flat to marry her sweetheart, Tom; and Piney and the Duchess die huddled together for warmth, equal in death:

And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other’s arms. (Harte 33)

The story ends with Oakhurst writing his own epitaph on a playing card (“who struck a streak of bad luck…and handed in his checks”) and nailing it to a tree–“And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat” (Harte 35). As I made several students explain to me, Oakhurst is physically strong, and stays calm, and cares for others–the strongest–but gives up and kills himself–the weakest.

That juxtaposition–the innocent and the sinner, the strongest and the weakest–is, to my mind, what gives this story its punch; and let’s not pretend we don’t all love a noble thief or a charming rogue, right?

HAN SHOT FIRST
The “rebels taking down an empire” thing may also have some promise.

One of my WIPs features a romantic-hero-mafioso, and the other a band of rebels desperate to bring down an empire. These things have, like everything, been done before, but I think I can get some good hints from Harte about how to use juxtaposition to create interesting characters, and to do it using indirect characterization.

Continue reading Lessons from the Classics: Harte’s Outcasts

Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

 Note: This is the first in an ongoing series (I hope?) of posts that take what I’m teaching in my 11th-grade American Lit classes and then shows how that could translate into creative writing, using examples of what I’m doing. I welcome feedback, because I’m no expert on American literature–just somebody who’s been teaching it for a couple of years. I would also love to hear how other writers are using these tools! 

This week in American Lit, we’ve been talking about dialect (writing that imitates the way people actually speak, including accents, slang, and idiom) and how writers use that to provide indirect characterization.

The story we read is Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short, humorous exploration of the type of characters populating a rural mining camp in the 1860s. It’s also a frame story,  with an unnamed narrator introducing and closing out the tale in deliberately prolix style, the better to heighten the contrast with the main tale, told by “good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler” (Twain 1). The version at the link has a different ending than the version in our textbook, but the same general ideas are at play in both.

Obviously, Twain’s intent is to satirize both the stuffy narrator, who can’t see the humor in Smiley’s adventures, and Wheeler himself, who’s a bore and a boor and won’t let the narrator escape. We spend time while we’re reading picking out the words that really help characterize the two of them in order to analyze Twain’s use of diction as character. Some of the students’ favorites:

  • The Narrator: compliance, garrulous, hereunto append, personage, infernal, tedious
  • Simon Wheeler: feller, flume, curiousest, so’s, solit’ry, dangdest, thish-yer–and I was very unsuccessful in convincing them that “Well, blame my cats!” should make a comeback in teen vernacular.

There’s clearly a vast gulf here in terms of diction (syntactically, they both tend to run on, but only one of them does it grammatically). It would be very, very easy to label any sentence from this story as spoken by the Narrator or by Simon Wheeler, based on diction alone, because their dialects are so distinct.

So, how do I use this in my own writing?  Continue reading Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

ZzzZZzzZ (A Philosophical Interlude)

cast-your-whole-voteWell, we all know that being emotionally drained is… draining, and I’ve basically been too tired today to do… like, anything.

The election’s still got me reeling and yesterday I successfully ignored it and worked on fiction, where I control all outcomes and the good guys (eventually) win, but today I accidentally started listening to NPR and reading blogs and am just… done.

Luckily there’s still comedy.

Me, trying to read Thoreau with 11th grade: And then what if you took the locker out of your binder? Wait. No. Um…
Kid next to me, under his breath: Maybe you need more coffee.
Me, with a sad, knowing laugh: Oh, StudentName, there is No Such Thing as “more coffee.” Trust me. If “more coffee” were the solution to my problem, I would be perfect right now.

So I’m going to go to bed early (read: on time) and tomorrow’s a new day. The sun will come up (partway through my workout) and I will keep doing everything I can in my little corner of the universe to make sure my Black, Mexican, LGBTQ+, female, atheist, and/or disabled students (this covers 99% of my students, btw, without even mentioning how many of them rely on entitlement programs for food and shelter) know that no matter what else happens, I love them and will do everything I can to protect them–starting by helping them learn to express themselves, fine-tune their bullshit detectors, and use evidence to support an argument (that, by the way, is what we’re actually doing in English classes, whether we’re reading Beowulf or The Onion).

Luckily there’s still literature.

Heroes. Satire.

Hmm. Writing as catharsis: suddenly I feel a lot better about charging back into class tomorrow to stomp around insisting to my Creative Writing class that “they / Do not go gentle into that good night” and pulling the American Lit crew, kicking and gnashing their teeth, through the rest of “On Civil Disobedience” (a fortuitous coincidence that we just happened to be dealing with the Transcendentalists this week…).

So, as Thoreau reminds us, we can’t just vote on paper and let that be the end of it. We must do everything we can. Even if it doesn’t feel like much.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

So, as I consider the specter of 50k words–and read blog posts about NaNo and beta the revised version of my friend Stephanie‘s novel that started off as a NaNo–it’s easy to get very excited. But it’s also easy to get scared – I mean, 50,000. Fifty. Thousand.

That’s… a lot of words.

And I’m not usually scared of words – I was that kid who tried to fudge my 3-5 page papers onto just five pages, not to get them up to three!

From 2014-2015, I wrote 150,000 words with a partner over the course of about a year and a half for a novel that didn’t even really have a clear plot yet.

So, clearly, generating words isn’t my problem. And, sadly, word count isn’t the end-all and the be-all of quality.

I’m reading a great example of this right now:

nat-turner-cover

Using hardly any words at all, artist Kyle Baker portrays Nat Turner‘s life and rebellion. When he does use words, he is often quoting from Nat Turner’s own confession, given in 1831 from his jail cell as he awaited execution.

natturnerinside

I’m only about halfway through; it’s both easy and incredibly difficult to read. Oh, it’s quick and easy to understand; but the things it shows are things that, as a human, I would really rather not know about.

Which is why more people really ought to read it.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund offers information for people interested in teaching the book. (LIKE ME!)

Imitation and Inspiration

spoon river anthologyLast week in American Literature we did one of my favorite projects–unearthed from the vault, so to speak–based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. It’s a collection of poems, each written from the point of view of a former resident (now deceased) of Spoon River. The poems are intertwined, revealing the connections between the lives of the Spoon River-ers, showing town life from various angles.

What could be more fun, for a roomful of high school students, than to imitate that?  Continue reading Imitation and Inspiration