Making Movie Clips with VLC Player

I made this presentation for class, but I recently needed to use it to refresh my memory.

Lo and behold, Dropbox now renders all saved PowerPoint files as empty presentations, and its workaround doesn’t work. You have to go in and download the presentations individually.

Since the entire point of Dropbox is to be able to access your files on every computer when you want to, this seems a massive failure to me.

But here’s how to make clips for classroom use using VLC Player (below). Remember, this is just my experience; you might have a better way, and I’d welcome hearing about it. I’m posting this in case it would help you as it has helped me.

Using Zoom on the desktop and PowerPoint on the iPad: a game-changer for making my class videos

This week, I figured out how to write on PowerPoint slides with the Apple pencil and record that in Zoom. You classroom tech wizards can skip this post because you doubtless have a far better solution, but this one was a game-changer for me. I’m writing it down for two reasons (1) possibly to help those teaching online who aren’t tech wizards with an easy method to mark up and record their lectures and (2) so I don’t forget how to do this.

Background: Last year, WSU moved from Blackboard to Canvas, which includes Panopto as a video capture suite. I dutifully took the several weeks of training in all this from WSU’s office of AOI (Academic Outreach and Innovation), but I ran into a roadblock when trying to record with Panopto. I could never trust that it would actually show just the PowerPoint, as I told it to, and when it did show the PowerPoint, it would only show the speaker’s view. AOI couldn’t solve it, and neither could I, so I went to plan B.

Plan B was Zoom, which does a great job of recording PowerPoint and a tiny picture of me in the corner, so the students know that I exist and am not exclusively, or even primarily, a disembodied voice. Here’s the process:

  1. Open a Zoom meeting. Click on Share Screen, and go to the three dots that indicate more settings. Click on Record on this Computer. Note: I learned to share screen before I started recording after recording a lot of videos that began with my large concerned face clicking around to share after the recording started.

2. After you record the lecture, stop recording, end the meeting, and navigate to where the recording is on your computer. On mine, it goes to the Documents – Zoom folder. I don’t edit it because (1) I don’t have time and (2) I hate those videos where every pause is edited out, leaving the viewer gasping for breath.

3. Once the .mp4 recording is available, upload it to Panopto – Upload Media.

3. This will take a little while. After it’s uploaded and ready, click on Edit. Edit allows you to turn on Smart Chapters (based on the titles of your PowerPoint slides) and also to generate Automatic Captions. You can then Share the video link in other places in the Canvas course space (Modules).

4. The captions and so on will take a little while to render, but that’s basically it.

Now here is the game-changer part:

When I was recording with Zoom and using PowerPoint on my desktop, I could annotate slides using the Zoom tool. But if you use the Zoom annotation tool, the annotations hang there on all the subsequent slides like decorations on a Christmas tree, unless you remember to clear them for each slide. By the end slide, the whole thing looks like a Jackson Pollock.

This latter task assumes that you can juggle four things at once–Zoom, the annotation tool, the turn-off-the-annotation tool, and your brain. It also assumes the mouse will click on these instead of balking and sulking in a corner somewhere.

Enter the iPad! If you bring up the PowerPoint on an iPad and use an Apple pencil for annotations, these problems disappear.

  1. Connect the iPad to your desktop or laptop computer. I use a cable, since it’s usually more stable than AirPlay, but you could also use AirPlay.
  2. Open a Zoom meeting, click on Share Screen, and choose iPhone/iPad via Cable.
  3. Open the presentation in PowerPoint on the iPad and select Draw. Make sure the Apple pencil is already connected via Bluetooth.
  4. Go to Slide Show – Start and begin your lecture. You can use the Apple pencil to write things (much easier than manipulating a mouse), circle, cross out, and otherwise use the kinds of emphasis and explanations available when you’re writing on a whiteboard in a physical classroom.

Best of all, once you’re finished recording and are closing the PowerPoint on the iPad, it asks you whether you want to preserve the annotations. I always say “No, in thunder,” but you could choose to keep them.

Would a whiteboard feature be easier? Maybe. I’ve tried whiteboard features like Google Jamboard but couldn’t get them to do what I wanted; also, Jamboard tended to snap itself shut at odd moments. Trusty old PowerPoint won’t quit, and it is wonderful for annotating and discussing text when you’re doing close reading.

Would a document camera be easier? I sometimes use a little inSwan USB Document Camera that I bought for teaching from home at the beginning of the pandemic, which does a good job of showing actual books. But to use that for close reading and discussing texts means switching the camera view in Zoom in the middle of the video, and it’s not necessary if you have the text already typed in to PowerPoint.

inSwan Document Camera with Documate.

So, in short: this method is easy, reliable, and fun. I can’t ask for more than that from a tool for teaching.

Teaching Online: Everybody Has a Voice, and Everybody Gets a Response

Here’s one of the things I like best about teaching online: everybody has a
voice, and everybody gets a response.

That’s not a new idea; a lot of people, including me, have thought and
written about this for years.

But in thinking about online teaching this morning as part of my daily
love/hate meditation about Canvas, this is what struck me:

When students write in the Discussion Board, and you respond to them with
encouraging comments and questions, it’s the only place where that specific
kind of interaction happens.

Think about it: in a face-to-face class, you have the dynamic
of calling on students who raise their hands while encouraging those who don’t
to participate. Often you can do this through various kinds of class exercises,
but one technique could be somewhat stressful for students: calling on them to
answer a question that you’ve asked.

Sometimes this gives them a chance to shine, especially if
you can see that they have something to say but seem to be holding back. In-person
teaching is an exercise in constantly reading the room, looking to see how you
can engage everyone, so this can work. But what if the student is tired, not
feeling well, didn’t read the assignment, or is otherwise giving off signals
about not being called on? And what if this happens a lot, so you can’t draw
them out?

In a Discussion Board, though, the students’ thoughts are already
there. You don’t have to put them on the spot. You can just listen and then reply—not
with a grade, or criticism, but with encouragement and specificity. I can’t
respond to everyone every week, but I can systematically reply to everyone over the course of two weeks.

What I like about responding in the Discussion Board is that
there’s no upvoting (I guess Canvas has this—whoever knows with Canvas?—but it’s
not turned on) and that this is spontaneous; I’m writing with my voice rather
than with teacher voice.

WSU’s Global Campus, which runs all the online classes, mandates
that everything except student office hours is asynchronous—that is, I can’t do
lectures or hold any sort of group meetings. Yet there’s an immediacy to responding
in the Discussion Board that approximates what happens in a face-to-face class.

This is extra work, in a way; the Discussion Board posts
still have to be assigned points at the end. I still think it’s worth it.

Edith Wharton’s The Book of the Homeless (1916) and Fighting France: Pictures for Veterans’ Day

Fighting France

As is well known, Edith Wharton put her tireless energies to work for her adopted country of France during World War I (1914-1918), founding and running charities, organizing her wealthy friends to support her efforts, and writing essays from the front that were published in Scribner’s Magazine and later collected as Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belport [misprint for Belfort] (1915). For this service, she was later awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.

Wharton’s biographers (R. W. B. Lewis, Shari Benstock, Hermione Lee) have written about Wharton’s war efforts; for more specific information see Alan Price’s The End of the Age of Innocence, Julie Olin-Ammentorp’s Edith Wharton’s Writings from the Great War, and Alice Kelly’s recent edition of Fighting France.

The Book of the Homeless was organized and edited by Wharton to raise money for the American Hostels for Refugees. For Veterans’ Day, here are a few pictures from that volume. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of artists (Bakst, Blanch, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Sargent, etc.), musicians and performers (Stravinsky, Sarah Bernhardt), and writers (Cocteau, John Galsworthy, Rupert Brooke, Thomas Hardy, W. D. Howells, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Roosevelt, and of course Wharton herself).

These pictures are from my copy of The Book of the Homeless, but you can see the entire volume at

Lawrence Selden: A Cad among Men

Figure 1: Selden, once again missing the point

For the edition of The House of Mirth that I’m preparing for the Complete Works of Edith Wharton (OUP), I’ve been collating the Scribner’s Magazine version of with the first American edition, and that means that I’m going line by line, punctuation mark by punctuation mark, through the text. Although this isn’t close reading, the process gives you time to savor every word and react emotionally rather than in a literary critical sort of way.

Here’s one takeaway: most of the men in this book could, to paraphrase Mark Twain writing about Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, be taken out to the back yard and drowned without any of the women being the worse for it.

[Spoilers ahead if you haven’t read The House of Mirth and content warning for assault.]

Let’s see: there’s Gus Trenor, who essentially tries to rape her; George Dorset, whose self-absorption makes a black hole look navigable; and Selden, the putative hero of the book. What are his sins?

  1. He is, as generations of scholars have realized, “seldom” there; like Winterbourne in James’s Daisy Miller, he likes to watch the spectacle of a pretty woman rather than take her seriously as a human being.
  2. He mocks Lily’s initial hunt for a husband, undermining her quest for Percy Gryce (not that Gryce was her soul mate) while giving her no alternative in terms of emotional support or affection.
  3. He is stirred by the vision of Lily at the tableau vivant, yet he’s willing to believe the worst of her as she escapes from Gus Trenor. In this, he’s not using any logic: why would Lily be Gus’s mistress when it would destroy her chances for a $$$ marriage? She’s not stupid, and yet he lets his conventional ideas and misperceptions read her escape as utterly damning.
  4. All right, he shows up one time–one time–with an actual plan to help her out, first telling her to leave Bertha Dorset’s yacht and then escorting her to Jack Stepney’s to stay the night. Then–nothing. She’s on her own.
  5. He tries to get her away from Mrs. Hatch, who employs her, without offering her anything in the way of actual monetary support. Sensing a theme here? He has a lot of ideas about how she can live a “republic of the spirit” life without any of the money that supports it. Thanks a lot, Lawrence.
  6. Finally, when she visits him for the last time, he has no idea what she’s sacrificed for him. He’s focused on her fragility and physical translucence. He takes hold of her thin hand, tells her “you can never go out of my life,” which she correctly interprets as “see ya,” without any obligation on his part.
  7. The next day he bounds up the steps to her rooming house like an eager puppy, now that he has “the word which made all clear,” but it’s too late. Question: since he had never bothered to visit her before, in all those months of trial, how does he even know where she lived? Gerty must have told him, and if she did, how damning is it that he knew what dire straits she was in and never bothered to send a note or a word?

Here is the big question:

Why didn’t Selden drop a dime on Bertha Dorset at one of the many opportunities he had when she was persecuting Lily?

Oh, sure, “gentleman’s code” and all that, but he had as much means of blackmail as Lily did–more, even. His reputation wouldn’t suffer.

As Bertha’s former lover, he could have called her and told her to lay off Lily. Or dropped a knowing reference in one of those withering triple-meaning and ironic statements that Wharton’s characters are so fond of using. Or even shot her a knowing glance when she’s ordering Lily off the yacht.

What does our boy Selden do?


On an intellectual level, I know that this is part of Wharton’s point, the tragic consequences of a rigid social order, and all that.

Sure, everyone justly hates Selden on one reading. But part of the brilliance of this book is that there are a thousand tiny points, like the “points of interrogation” about Lily’s character that Rosedale mentions, that allow you to hate Selden fully, madly, deeply.

Some Amlit-related posts: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, Jack London

If you’d like to dip into some short, scholarly-adjacent posts on American authors, here are a few:

Edith Wharton

Frank Norris

Jack London

Stephen Crane


Hello, 2021. 2020 was a long year.

So there I was, going along, writing little pieces here on literary mysteries and my take on biographies and tech tools and then . . . 2020. Need I say more? It’s been a year almost to the day since I’ve posted here, but I’m hoping to get back to it, including updating the research materials, CV, etc. 

In the meantime, here are some selected posts until I get new material posted.

Retro-reading for pleasure: The Graduate

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 12.54.13 PMThe Graduate by Charles Webb

What’s it like to retro-read a popular book fifty years after it appears? Spoiler: the book isn’t always what you think or hoped it will be.

The Graduate is a short novel about a deeply unpleasant, unhappy, and entitled man, Benjamin Braddock, whose idea of rebellion and a “zany revolt” is to refuse to speak to anyone most of the time and insult everyone he meets the rest of the time, declare his independence from working for The Man by sponging off his parents, and treat everyone who tries to help him with contempt.

He’s meant to be a sympathetic character, of course–a disillusioned young man resisting the corrupt affluence of his parents’ society–but Benjamin comes across now as a specimen of entitled white masculinity like Brent Norwalk in The Good Place–who Eleanor says “was born on third and thought he invented baseball.” He goes through life literally throwing money at everyone, taxi drivers included, to get his own way. It’s his father’s money, but in his deep narcissistic self-absorption, he doesn’t see that.

Each encounter has Benjamin obnoxiously pushing too far, either in his sullenness or in his questioning, until the person he’s interrogating gets fed up and leaves; at that point, he begins a dogged pursuit and always ends up charming the person back into a relationship through sheer persistence. The deeper idea may have been to press them to confess something authentic, something real, beneath their shallow facades, but it’s still  not clear why an actual human being would find such behavior charming. Yet in The Graduate, this technique is surefire. The novel may well be “brilliant. . . sardonic . . . ludicrously funny,” as the New York Times claimed, but it has definitely not aged well.

The natural comparison here is to the 1967 film, although much of the dialogue from the film was taken from the book and reduced by about 2/3.  Any scrap of humor–“Plastics,” for example, or the Norman Fell scenes in the Berkeley rooming house –was the work of Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, the screenwriters.

The plot unfolds in the same way that it does in the film, with Benjamin’s affair with Mrs. Robinson and the pursuit of Elaine taking center stage. In the film, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft raise the situation into both humor and pathos through the power of their acting. The weariness that Bancroft shows when she tells Benjamin that her major was art really is the deeper point of the movie, which hints at dreams lost and disillusionment with a life of meaningless affluence. In centering solely on Benjamin’s stubborn protest against said meaningless affluence, however, the book misses the pathos of Mrs. Robinson entirely.   Benjamin’s obtuse misunderstanding of what she’s going through and the pain he’s causing her comes through in the film, but in the book it’s merely part of his habit of interrogating past the point of comfort anyone who talks to him.

The pursuit of Elaine is the biggest mystery in both novel and movie. Benjamin spends the second half of one date, the first half of which he abuses her shamefully at the strip club by humiliating her, persuading her that he’s worthwhile, and Elaine agrees. It’s not clear why. After not seeing her again for weeks, he decides on the basis of this two-hour acquaintance to marry her, sells his car, and moves to Berkeley to stalk her. (All of the suspense of the last chapters of the book–the race against time back to the church, car running out of gas, finding out from the frat boys where Elaine is getting married, etc. is invented for the movie.) At one point the novel’s Benjamin grandstands by insisting that a woman student tap a water glass for silence in front of 200 other women in the dining hall to get their attention so that he can announce his desire to speak to anyone who knows Elaine. There is one large difference between Elaine of the movie and Elaine of the book, though: to the book’s credit, Elaine has actual lines and thoughts and sensible ideas. She persists in asking Benjamin what he’s going to do, tells him that he’s too young to get married and ought to travel, and expresses her misgivings about their relationship at greater length.

And what will he do? Retreat into class privilege, of course. He  stubbornly remains silent when explaining would help, as when the landlord asks why Elaine was screaming. “It’s a private matter,” he repeats many times, retreating into WASP privilege as though it’s an answer to everything and all will be well. And his plan for the immediate future?

“I can work for a degree and be a teaching assistant at the same time.”
“How do you know you could get in here.”
“I could get in this place in ten minutes.”
“I don’t think you could.”
“Well I know I could.”
“How do I know?” he said. Because I’ve been admitted to Harvard and Yale graduate school. . . .”I have had teaching offers from Eastern colleges. EASTERN colleges. And you don’t think this place would grab me up in five minutes?” (132)

A presumably podunk place like Berkeley (!) would be glad to have him, in other words, because Ivy and Eastern are keys to open any door. Unless this is meant to be satire, and nothing in the book indicates that it is, this is the most overt but not the only statement of class privilege; Benjamin has already mentioned that he’s an “Ivy trophy” for his parents. Sure, he’s passed up a prestigious teaching fellowship by refusing to show up on campus, but he’s sure that he can argue his way back into it. The refusal to accept that rules apply to him is the A-1 marker of class privilege then and now. What enables his rebellion is class privilege and the ability to come back home to the comforts of his room and the financial support of his parents.

Besides the dismissal of Berkeley, another gap between the sensibilities of 1968 and those of today is that Elaine literally has no future in mind as far as anyone in the film is concerned–except marriage. Elaine-of-the-book wants to finish her degree, but Elaine-of-the-movie is surprisingly compliant about being yanked in two directions, which the film defines not as school versus marriage but Carl Smith versus Benjamin Braddock. The question is not “what will she do?” but “whom will she marry?” which makes her a 19th-century heroine in all but name. Although it does give her more of a voice, the book really isn’t interested in her wishes or her mind except as an obstacle for Benjamin to conquer, as he conquers every other obstacle in the book, through sullenness, silence or excessive, intrusive questioning, and swinging his privilege around.

The famous ending is the same in both versions, with an awkward “what’s next?” Elaine and Ben on the bus, although in the book he throws money at the bus driver and orders him to “get this bus moving” (160). Their future is uncertain, as is the status of their relationship now that they’ve got each other. One thing is certain: they’ll land on his, or her, parents’ feet.
[Note: For this quick retro-read , I haven’t read any of the recent responses to The Graduate but look forward to doing so.]

Jack London and Eugene O’Neill: Separated at Birth?

In reading Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb’s Possessed by Women: A Life of Eugene O’Neill, I’ve been struck by the parallels between Eugene O’Neill and Jack London.


Eugene O’Neill (Wikimedia)

The Gelbs’ biography, as Barbara Gelb explains in the introduction, is the culmination of several books on Eugene O’Neill and decades of interviews, including some with Carlotta Monterey, O’Neill’s last wife and, as so often happens, the guardian and caretaker of his person and, after death, of his literary legacy (see also: Mary Hemingway, Charmian London, Valerie Eliot). This biography is based heavily not only on O’Neill’s work, about which the book is perceptive and fair in its evaluations, but also on his “Work Diary” (, although O’Neill’s ample commentary on his work, as cited in the bio, isn’t present in the pages shown on the Beinecke site.

Where to begin with the parallels?


Jack London

Both were born to parents who had known poverty, and each man knew that he was the unwanted son of a mother who was distracted and, while not physically neglectful, seemingly paid little attention to her son’s needs. London’s mother Flora was a spiritualist and worked various schemes that didn’t pan out in order to help support their family. In a case that made the newspapers, her lover, whom she regarded as her husband (William Cheney) had advised her to get an abortion when she became pregnant with Jack, after which she dramatically attempted to shoot herself in front of him.

Ella, O’Neill’s mother, was, as the posthumously produced Long Day’s Journey into Night makes clear, addicted to morphine for many of his formative years. Although she later “took the cure” and became sober, Ella, in O’Neill’s recollection, had vowed never to have another child after the death of her second son, Edmund, at age two (note that Edmund was the name Eugene gave to himself in LDGIT). In a fragment, he  “tells of the devastating death of her infant son, Edmund, and her guilty vow never to have another child, which led her—a pious Catholic woman—to submit to a “series of brought-on abortions.” And he asks, ‘Did this mark beginning of [her] break with religion, which was to leave her eventually entirely without solace?'”(325). As did London, who supported his mother all his life, O’Neill eventually came to terms with Ella and was devastated when she died.


Jack London and second wife Charmian, aboard the Snark

Each went to sea at a young age, after quitting formal education (London from poverty, O’Neill from discontent) and developed an addiction to alcohol that would last for the rest of his life, with periods of sobriety.  Each went through a period of dissolution–London in his early days in Oakland, O’Neill at the bar Jimmy the Priest’s, which he later immortalized in The Iceman Cometh–and, to oversimplify this somewhat, decided that writing would be his salvation.

For London, according to his autobiographical novel Martin Eden and his memoir John Barleycorn, this occurred because he realized that brain-work rather than the brute physical labor he had experienced when working in a steam laundry, shoveling coal, and so on would enable him to live like a human being.  The Bergs’ By Women Possessed doesn’t deal with this part of O’Neill’s life as much, because it’s already been treated in a host of other biographies, including their earlier ones.

In their private lives, London and O’Neill shared similarities as well. Each thought he could write better if he lived apart from people, on land of his own.  London found this in his Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma; O’Neill tried to find it in a number of places, from a place on the dunes in Cape Cod to Bermuda to (with Carlotta) a chateau in France, Sea Island, Georgia, and northern California. Both were more gregarious and needed people more than they thought, however. Each married  more than once and went through an acrimonious divorce proceeding once their marriages (London’s to Bess Maddern, with two children; and O’Neill’s to Agnes Boulton, with two children) had broken down and they decided to marry their lovers (Charmian Kittredge and Carlotta Monterey).


Carlotta Monterey and O’Neill

Carlotta had stated that she would never learn to darn socks because she planned to marry a rich man, and did, but that was not enough. She wanted a sense of purpose, and she found it in O’Neill. Although she’d been married three times by the time she met O’Neill at 27 (?), Carlotta had a secret trust fund not from a husband but from James Speyer, a man 40 years older than herself whose mistress she had been. This supported her throughout her life with O’Neill, who apparently believed Speyer took only a fond, familial interest in her. But like Charmian, an accomplished pianist who had supported herself as a secretary, Carlotta had an acting career that she gave up to devote herself to her husband’s career.


Jack London with Becky and Joan.

Neither O’Neill nor London had much use for their children when they were growing up, unfortunately. O’Neill took some pride in his oldest son by his first marriage, Eugene, Jr., at first, but later was disappointed and showed it.  He and Agnes, who already had a daughter, had agreed that they would have no children, yet they had two, Shane and Oona. He was apparently a distant father to Shane, his son with Agnes; his daughter, Oona, he saw once for tea in the space of seven years, although she eventually came to visit him, and he never spoke to her again after she married Charlie Chaplin.  London, although he loved his daughters as children, could judge them harshly as they grew older and his ill health increased his irritability. In the famous “ruined colt” letter of February 24, 1914, frustrated by Joan’s loyalty to her mother, London’s ex-wife Bess, London wrote:

When I grow tired or disinterested in anything, I experience a disgust which settles for me that thing forever. I turn the page down there and then. When a colt on the ranch, early in its training, shows that it is a kicker or a bucker or a bolter or a balker, I try patiently and for a long time [to cure it, but] suddenly there comes to me a disgust, and I say Let the colt go. . . . Years ago I warned your mother that if I were denied the opportunity of forming you, sooner or later I would grow disinterested in you. I would develop a disgust, and that I would turn down the page. . . . I have turned the page down, and I shall be no longer interested in the three of you. (Letters 1298-99)

Joan was 13 at the time.

Although I’m overgeneralizing to say it in this way, these last wives proved to be similar. Both were dressy, self-dramatizing (which London and O’Neill loved), sexually adventurous, and determined to encircle their man with a combination of romantic and maternal love, bravery in the face of chaos, intense housekeeping and organizational skills, and the ability to put up with neglect, major mood swings, and actual abuse (on O’Neill’s part) at times, although there was also the time when London hit Charmian in New York and not with boxing gloves.

Each woman kept a diary, with an eye toward future generations, and their tone of voice in their writing even sounds similar–recording the declarations of love that they received from London and O’Neill as well as some coy suggestions of sexual activities, records of visits, and moods, sometimes theirs and sometimes O’Neill’s and London’s. Each also served as her husband’s typist, despite Carlotta’s continuing eye problems. London gave Charmian his manuscripts as insurance, and he inscribed them to her; O’Neill did the same with Carlotta.

The most striking parallel between O’Neill and London in literary terms  is probably their outlook–presenting life as it is, as O’Neill and London both said. Their naturalistic perspective was marked by a perpetual return to their own lives for the subject matter of their art, as though to work through torments inflicted in the distant past through the poor family dynamics they had experienced.  Each wrote about race, sometimes perceptively and progressively for the time but often in ways reflective of the worst “scientific” attitudes of the time, which were bad enough then and horrifying now. Each wrestled with questions of faith, including O’Neill’s lapsed Catholicism. Oh, and not for nothing, each was a literary celebrity of the time, and handsome, too (which didn’t hurt). London was known for his socialism and popular fiction, especially The Call of the Wild, and O’Neill for being America’s most original dramatist, the winner of two (or three?) Pulitzer prizes and the Nobel prize.

I won’t weigh in here on their works other than to say that I’ve read a lot of both. London doesn’t get enough credit for his innovations, and some of O’Neill’s might seem dated now (Strange Interlude), but they were daring at the time.

[What I’m hoping to do in the new year is to post more of these pieces, which aren’t polished work, obviously, but rough drafts with maybe some thoughts to pursue at a future date.]

Edith Wharton and V. L. Parrington

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 6.35.44 AMIt’s no secret that literary critics are shaped by their era, no matter how much the New Critics tried to pretend that they existed in a realm of Universal Truths about Aesthetic Judgment, so I’m not here to pile on to Vernon Louis Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1930).

Parrington was a giant in his day, and he synthesized and explained what he saw as, well, the main currents, etc.

Parrington died before completing the last volume of Main Currents, which exists as a sequence of lecture notes and previously published essays.  It’s a kind of critical voice–definitively categorizing, full of sweeping pronouncements, and obsessively worried about ethical actions and judgments–that would never get you past the covers of PMLA today. Who but Parrington could sum up Norris’s unfinished Vandover and the Brute  by calling it “a huge and terrible torso”? (332). And he does talk about now-forgotten naturalist authors like Ernest Poole (The Harbor, 1915) and progressivist Winston Churchill (the novelist, not the politician).

Yet the book is unaware of its own (whiteness) blinders: I saw no references to popular African American writers of the era that he covers so conclusively, such as Frances E.W. Harper, Charles W. Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, or Paul Laurence Dunbar. And how can you treat “main currents in American thought” without the insights of W. E. B. DuBois or at least a mention of The Souls of Black Folk?

As I alluded to in a tweet this morning (the one that made me want to write this post) Parrington’s judgments give a window into thoughts of the era but increasingly diverge from our own.

  • “Theodore Dreiser: Chief of American Naturalists.” Okay, there’s a case for that, which for Parrington relies on “sympathy and mercy” and Dreiser’s “vast and terrifying imagination.” (Just try getting away with language like that today at some of our more theory-oriented journals. Can you imagine what Reviewer #2 would have to say? I can, and it’s not pretty.)
  • “Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes.” Well, sure, if you really like Sinclair Lewis, and I do.
  • A short paragraph on “F. Scott Fitzgerald”: “A bad boy who loves to smash things to show how naughty he is. . . . Precocious, ignorant–a short candle already burnt out” (386). Obviously written before The Great Gatsby, let alone Tender is the Night. 
  • “The Incomparable Mr. Cabell.” I can hear you saying “who?” Like Joseph Hergesheimer, whom Raymond Chandler paired with Cabell as the “fancy boy” writers in contrast to his plainer style, James Branch Cabell was a well-considered writer whose historical fantasy novels set in Poictesme (link so that you can look up the pronunciation) were considered high art and whose novel Jurgen led to an obscenity case.  When I was writing the “Fiction: 1900 to the 1930s” chapter for American Literary Scholarship in 2000-2008, I read all the yearly criticism on him, and it’s fair to say that he’s much less popular than he was.  Parrington praises him for the “open door of woman-worship” that allows Cabell to “enter his world of deeper realities” (341)

Now here is the head-scratcher for modern readers: lumped under the heading “Certain Other Writers” with Willa Cather, comprising the front and back of two pages (381-384) for both of them, is “Edith Wharton–The Genteel Tradition and the New Plutocracy.”

In other words, Parrington devotes a chapter each to Dreiser, Lewis, Cabell, and Ole Rolvaag , but the front and back of a page each for Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, which for the time was probably about right.

Calling Wharton a “temperamental aristocrat” who was “isolated in America by her native aristocratic tastes” (I see what you did there, V.L.), Parrington approves of House of Mirth (Selden and Trenor are “the aristocrat and the plutocrat” [381]), Ethan Frome (“a dramatization of the ‘narrow house’ theme” [381]), The Custom of the Country (“a study of the social climber” [381]), The Age of Innocence (“an admirable work” [382]), and Old New York (“A return to her best manner” [382]). The rest of her work is “not important.”

Summing up, Parrington says “Mrs. Wharton [is] a finished artist who grasps her material firmly; an intellectual attitude, delighting in irony” (382).

But she is “[n]ot a thinker like Cabell, whose irony springs from an imagination that contemplates man in his relation to cosmic forces, but an observer whose irony springs from noting the clash between men and social convention. The last of our literary aristocrats of the genteel tradition” (382).

For those keeping score at home, let me sum this up:

Cabell: a thinker, interested in “cosmic forces,” in touch with “deeper realities” through his contemplation of an abstract conception of “woman.”

Wharton: not a thinker but an observer, an “aristocrat” (x3), and–most damning of all–a relic of the genteel tradition.

I said on Twitter that Wharton must have been laughing in four languages at a judgment like this. Wouldn’t her extensive reading in social and biological evolutionary thought qualify her has a “cosmic” thinker? In fact, wouldn’t her status as an actual woman give her a little insight into what makes Cabell so special?

This little exercise in how literary reputations are made is just one of many instances, of course, but if Edith Wharton–pictured in 1923 when she received an honorary degree from Yale University, the first woman to be so honored–is laughing, this may be why.