Thursday, November 8, 2007

Why Study Literature? Part One: The Usable Past (STL 59)

Really only scratching the surface, but the following began in reply to a student of mine who asked about what I thought about her use of the first-person in the conclusion of an essay she wrote. The usable past is from Lionel Trilling, and I first came to it through a book called The Unusable Past that usefully categorizes historical approaches to teaching American literature.

Dear X(tina):

Thank you for your e-mail. See I never really meet or speak to the students in this class, I am always glad to hear feedback. I did appreciate your use of the first-person in the essay. It was an appropriate and effective strategy. The reason that students are warned away from the first person is that it can steer them away from the actual subject at hand. Instead of studying the thing to form an understanding of it, the inexperienced student might rush to judgment view the thing (the story, the historical event, the biological specimen) with pre-formed and unwarranted opinions. But more experience and accomplished students should use the first person, since understanding is ultimately a personal experience. (Especially in literature, but true for other fields too.)

One of the reasons we study literature is to recover what is called "the usable past." So much of our lives are defined by the times we live in. Political and technological factors are always changing, so any moment in time is a "now" sealed off from the past. But as your connection with The Yellow Wallpaper shows, our reactions to where we are now aren't necessarily that different than people in the past. By connecting with a woman who wrote 100 years ago, you might begin to see connections between now and then. Without pausing to reflect on it, the conditions of a woman in Victorian times--that she is little better than her husband's property, that she is thought of as a child unable to make her own decisions--are far removed from your own life. Yet the fact that you can't end an academic paper without referring to your own experience is proof that Gilman's story relates to your life on some level. (The fact that you respond so well to this unit suggests that the experience of 19th century American women is somehow useful to you as a 21st century American woman.) As you point out, the specifics are different, so different that we can only partially empathize with that past. But part of it we can incorporate into our own 'now,' and so benefit from the power of a "usable past."

Blog Archive