Author Archives: healeyke

“Shoulder to Shoulder and Heart to Heart:” On the Road with Whitman, Steinbeck, and Springsteen

Kelsey Healey

The tradition of the road narrative has long been a part of American culture.  Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, and Bruce Springsteen are three iconic writers who have worked in this tradition to discuss the American experience. Interestingly, while the image of the road is often associated with a lone traveler or bold individualism, Whitman, Steinbeck, and Springsteen have also used the road as the center of their stories about community and convergence.
The road narratives of Whitman, Steinbeck, and Springsteen develop a sense of community that is both social and spiritual, and is rooted in a kind of protest that identifies unity as a vital part of the solution to social ills.

In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman characterizes the road as an equalizer, used by everyone.  He talks about the different people who travel the same road, and invites the reader to travel with him; he creates a sense of community. This is fitting, as Whitman is often described as having aimed to create a “national literature” that would unite the new country in a shared sense of identity.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath makes a bold statement about community as well. Much of the book follows the Joads as they merge with other families out of necessity. The narrator describes the communities that emerge among the displaced people on the road. Most famously, in Tom Joad’s speech near the end of the novel, Tom asserts that “a man is no good by himself,” and embraces the idea that there is “one big soul everybody’s a part of.”

In addition, I will look at three of Springsteen’s songs, representative works from the early, middle, and recent years of his career: “Born to Run” (1975), “Land of Hope and Dreams” (1999) and “We Are Alive,” (2012).  These songs continue the tradition begun by Whitman and Steinbeck, both lyrically and formally. In addition to speaking about the same themes, Springsteen draws on various ethnic musical influences to comprise an even more inclusive message of unity.

Today, the call for solidarity and empathy seems as appropriate as ever. Together, these writers draw attention to the experience of the individual, but also the individual as part of something bigger than him/herself.  They each create a picture of the American experience that emphasizes the essential connection between “I am” and “we are.”


Steinbeck Conference

Kelsey Healey

This May, the John Steinbeck Society of America will present an international conference: Steinbeck and the Politics of Crisis: Ethics, Society, and Ecology. The conference is sponsored by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies which publishes the Steinbeck Review  and maintains an extensive bibliography of articles and books on Steinbeck and his works.

This conference focuses on ethical issues of different kinds and explores some new ways of looking at Steinbeck’s work. The individual papers are grouped into themed sections that reflect some of the major trends in Steinbeck studies. An attention to global and social consciousness, for example, is seen in the sections on “The Female Space,” “Reports from Overseas,” or “Steinbeck and Race in America.” Some of the papers in these sections will take a feminist critical approach to Steinbeck’s novels, or looking at  race relations and what it means to be “American.” Interestingly, the conference will also hear from some international perspectives on this American writer. I find it especially interesting that there will be two papers on Steinbeck’s relationship with Japanese culture, as this is a connection I have come across in my own research.

Other sections of the conference include “Eco-criticism,” “Fresh Critical Approaches,” “New Economic Approaches,” and “Man and Machine.” These sections cover a variety of topics which indicate that readers and scholars are constantly looking at Steinbeck’s works in new ways. As the world around us changes, so do our ways of reading and understanding these texts. For instance, one of the papers to be presented is entitled “John Steinbeck, Spaceship Earth Cosmonaut.” Over the span of the three-day conference, many other topics of interest will be explored as well.

The conference on May 1-3 will be immediately followed by the 33rd annual John Steinbeck Festival on May 4-5; this year’s festival’s theme is “Home.” The festival will honor this particular theme by celebrating the specific places that Steinbeck considered “home” (Salinas, CA, for example) and also exploring the concept of “home” in American culture.

Some other things I discovered, via the Center for Steinbeck Studies website: the John Steinbeck Society periodically presents the “John Steinbeck Award” to recognize “writers, artists, thinkers, and activists whose work captures the spirit of Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes. The phrase “In the Souls of the People” comes from Chapter 25 of The Grapes of Wrath.”

I learned that the first recipient of the award was Bruce Springsteen in 1996– which fits in perfectly with my own research that connects these two. Other recipients of the Steinbeck Award include Rachel Maddow, Dolores Huerta, Garrison Keillor, Arthur Miller, and most recently, John Mellencamp in 2012.

Response to Freeburg

by Kelsey Healey

The last lines of Christopher Freeburg’s essay “Teaching Literature and the Bitter Truth About Starbucks” in my Profession book are now practically unreadable, so completely have I inked up the page myself. Upon reading those lines for the first time, I may have gotten a little carried away with the underlining and the starring.

Freeburg writes: “If we do not help them understand better what it is they are doing in our courses, then we undermine their potential success and ours. We should, especially for undergraduates, emphasize vocation more. We should… present the tools and options our fields offer in the most clear and cogent ways. What will make the students themselves bitter… is the realization that we didn’t ask them to do enough.”

Freeburg’s point about informing students about the relevance of their work, and the vocation they’re involved in, and the bigger conversation going on outside of the classroom is spot on. The idea of “vocation” and the “options” available in the field of English is something we definitely don’t know enough about as students for most of our undergraduate careers. And while job-mindedness is not and should not be the primary focus of our educations, it IS important to know what is going on outside the university. And, how we can not only passively consume knowledge but contribute and produce it as well.

His essay reminds me of Sidonie Smith’s essay “The English Major as Social Action,” when she talks about students’ work having an “afterlife.” She quotes Marshall Gregory, “Information we can look up, but when a thing gets absorbed, it turns into ideas and skills, and it turns into forms of socialization and cognition that shape students’ intuitions and that strengthen their powers of language, imagination, judgment, and reasoning.”

As hard as it is to define the value of studying English, the above quote at least gets at one big part of it. The ideas, skills, intuition, judgment, etc. that we may gain are part of the “afterlife” of our work that Smith mentions. Freeburg echoes Gregory when he says that students cannot “grab the syllabus” and accomplish on their own what they would accomplish in class. It’s not just about the information, but also the skills being learned and honed, and the participation in a conversation.

Explicitly addressing the ways in which our work is not  “inconsequential after submission” makes such a difference in the classroom experience, and I think it is just not done enough. If we’re not getting the sense that the work we’re doing is relevant, then what’s the point?  I think this holds true for college as well as high school. When assignments and classes have no “afterlife,” they feel like a waste of time, and that’s not fair to students or teachers. And frankly, that’s where the “bitterness” comes in. Furthermore, having assignments in English classes and humanities classes that we don’t connect to a bigger picture outside the classroom only contributes to the myth that these courses don’t have real-life value.

As much as I love it, it’s not enough to just read books and write about them and call it a day.  It’s vital to give students “an awareness of what they’re doing, why they are doing it, and what it offers them beyond the loose rhetoric of critical thinking and writing skills.” Students should ask these questions more often, and teachers should help them always to arrive at some answers.  Otherwise, we’re just going through the motions; we’re just David Foster Wallace’s little fishies, swimming blindly around with no idea what “water” is.

Still talking about Whitman

By: Kelsey Healey

One might wonder how much there is left to say about an author as widely studied as Walt Whitman. Apparently, quite a lot.

The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review is a peer-reviewed journal produced by the University of Iowa.   Founded in 1983, the journal publishes scholarly articles, essays, and book reviews dealing with Whitman’s life, work, and influence.  Anyone can submit work to be considered for publication (provided that it is compliant with the copyright and publication policies) but only a few (roughly 4-9) articles are published in each issue. Most issues consist of a few critical essays, one book review, and a brief article on some new piece of relevant information or discovery.  Overall, there are a wide variety of topics covered, but there seems to be an emphasis on the discovery of new connections between Whitman and other writers or artists, and new ways of looking at Whitman’s relationship with American culture.

One trend that stands out is the sheer number of essay titles that include the phrases: “never-before-seen,” “previously unknown,” “recently discovered,” etc.  It is interesting that there is still new information being unearthed about Whitman, and there is still more primary-source material for scholars to look at. One issue includes a “previously unrecorded” photograph. Another refers to a recently discovered note on the inside of one of Whitman’s notebooks, and another refers to two previously undocumented reviews of Leaves of Grass. Other articles  make seemingly unlikely new connections that build on our body of knowledge. For example, one article explores the connections between Whitman and the Korean writer, Yi Hyoseok, and demonstrates how Western influence and Whitman’s persona in Leaves of Grass appear in some of Yi Hyoseok’s work. Other, smaller trends that appear in recent issues of the Walt Whitman Quarterly include a re-examination of Whitman’s relationship with the American South, and new perspectives on the homo-erotic elements in his work, based on re-reading and looking at Whitman’s work in new contexts. I think all of these trends point to what we have been discussing in class – that literature is not a stagnant thing, nor does it exist in a vacuum.

People often say that the more times you read a particular book, or visit a particular place, the more you will find there. Whitman is like that.

One of the things about this journal that I found most interesting, and super helpful, is that each issue contains an updated annotated bibliography of Whitman scholarship. This bibliography is also available as a searchable database through the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review website.

Just a glorified book club?

By: Kelsey Healey

In her book, The Use and Abuse of Literature, Marjorie Garber discusses some of the joys that come with studying literature. As an English major, I fully recognize these joys, like allusion and memorization, as parts of my school experience. I get excited when I “get” a reference, or can make connections between different works. I have memorized (or, okay, almost memorized) pieces of literature that I love. For example, I’ve been assigned “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” for at least three different classes at different times. I’ve heard it performed aloud (and if there’s anything that can make a poem stick, live performance is it), and now feel as if it is a little bit “mine.”

But of course, it’s not just about the joy that comes with this kind of work. We do this stuff because we love it, yes, but also because we believe that it’s worth doing. That it’s more than just a glorified book club.

Well, probably once a week I find myself having to “defend” my choice of major. I’m confident that my fellow English majors (or anyone else in a liberal arts program) are familiar with this experience. Maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s a total stranger – a customer at work will ask, “Where do you go to school? What are you studying?” I answer “English,” and they (the nice ones, the ones who don’t laugh!) say, “Oh, so you’re going to be a teacher?” Sigh…

Or, my manager sees me on my break with Marjorie Garber’s book, and asks “Ooh, what are you reading?” How do I explain? “It’s a book about the study of literature.” Confused silence.  Never mind, Shirley…

Why do I start avoiding these types of exchanges? Because, on some level, it is secretly unsettling to find it so not-simple to explain what it is that I (more accurately, we) do. It’s not easy to define precisely what our work contains or why it is so important. But it is. We enjoy it, sure, but we also believe that this stuff matters. In real-life ways.  For reasons that are not easy to explain in an over-the-counter encounter.

So, I love that Garber has been able to articulate what I, apparently, have not. Studying literature is not just a self-contained, self-serving endeavor.  There’s a wonderful link between the joy and the hard work – and they strengthen each other, for sure. Like Garber says, there’s a “continuum between teaching and scholarship, intellectual excitement and painstaking research, pleasure and profit, learnedness and learning” (63).  It’s hard to explain because there is so much contained in it. We’re building skills that make us more critical, more aware of the “water” David Foster Wallace talks about. At least, I’d like to think that my chosen path in school has made me a smarter, even a better, person. And I think that that is another “pleasure of the canon” in itself – the knowledge that something you love is also something worthwhile.