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What Is Literature about?

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Can literature be about life? When I was teaching a course on American Literature, one of my students, a woman in her twenties, was a mother of five children.  I would occasionally see her and her husband with the kids in the park where my son played soccer.  One evening her husband was alone with the kids and approached my son and me as we were tossing a Frisbee.  He emanated an intensity that I associated with being the young father of five.  Nodding hello, he said, "My wife is in your American literature course."  Honestly, I assumed I was in trouble and braced myself.  "At night we sit at the kitchen table," he said, "and my wife tells me about your course."    Then he told me, "I thought a literature course would be just about books, but yours is about life." He went on to express his regret that he couldn't take the course.

The Rules of postmodernism It was a supreme compliment, and I cherish it to this day.  But, at the time, I rem…

The Grapes of Wrath

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Number 10 on the list of top 100 novels John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath is number 10 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 Top Novels of the 20th Century.  After a couple of years trying to convince my students of the virtues of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (#6 on the list), I gave up and substituted the more accessible, single-third-person narrative, not-stream-of-consciousness Steinbeck novel.  In the process of teaching it, my admiration for the novel grew.  But what does "Grapes of Wrath" mean?


The title was suggested by Carol SteinbeckIt is widely reported that the title was suggested by Faulkner's first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck. The expression “Grapes of Wrath” comes from the Bible: Revelation 14:19–20 (New Testament) and Isaiah 63 (Old Testament). The expression was re-used in the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” written during the American Civil War.
"Wrath" means anger  In the simplest of terms, "grap…

Holding a Mirror up to Hamlet

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It was the worst of plays; it was the best of plays Hamlet is either the best play ever written or the worst, depending on your perspective. I have, at different times, held both opinions. T.S. Eliot was very critical of the play and of critics of the play. Ultimately he was categorical that “the play is most certainly an artistic failure” (Hamlet and His Problems. T.S. Eliot. 1921. The Sacred Wood; Essays on Poetry and Criticism).
The problem of many Hamlets Eliot reminds us that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a “revised” version of earlier Hamlets, most notably one by Kyd—and Eliot seems convinced that the play is inferior for this among other reasons. Eliot also points out the tendency of “creative critics” (he mentions Coleridge and Goethe) to imagine a Hamlet character rather than the one actually in the play. Hamlet is so vague and inscrutable that the character invites speculation, confabulation and imaginative interpretations of his “true” nature.  Hamlet is a young man's play--…

The Sour Glossary

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actually (adverb) as an actual or existing fact; really. (Random House Unabridged Dictionary) [False cognate warning: Francophones will sometimes mistakenly use “actually” (or actual) 
when they mean currently, presently, at the moment and up to date.]
allegory [. . .] symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a second meaning (or meanings) beyond the explicit, literal details of the story (my definition, adapted from Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature). A simple allegory would be something like a story about Mary Whiteteeth and Johnny Toothbrush and their enemy named Sugar. The story, in this case, is not about these three characters but about the importance of brushing your teeth. "[. . .] the term allegory can refer to specific method of reading a text."
allusion (noun) IIn literature, an implied or indirect reference to a person, event, thing or a part of another text. [. . . ] Allusions to biblical figures and figures from classical mythology are common in Western…