Twain, Shakespeare, and Nonsense

April 16, 2014

Tonight, Andrew presented his proposal for a final paper on Mark Twain’s allusions to Shakespeare as nonsense in Huckleberry Finn. This will be the final paper for his Folklore of Play class. In the novel, Huck meets two con men who claim to be the Duke of Bridgewater and King Louis XVII. One of the Duke’s scams is performing scenes from Shakespeare, so he teaches the King to do Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, but the speech turns out to be a hodgepodge of disordered lines from Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III. In nineteenth-century America, parodies and burlesques of Shakespeare were common in performance and writing, often vulgarizing or combining the original text with American slang or folk songs for humorous effect. Twain’s allusions, however, maintain the original wording; it is the sequence of lines that is changed. The lines are recognizable but disarranged;  the mismatch of references spiral into nonsense. Drawing on Susan Stewart’s theories of nonsense as breaking common sense frames with overabundance of signification, and allusion’s connections with nostalgia, the soliloquy as nonsense suggests an intrusion upon the American realist project and a unified American identity. The constant invention of origins by Huck, the Duke, and the King, alongside the allusive nature of the text, point to a problem of American origins–America’s culture and literature lacking the deep history of European societies. The speech not only destabilizes American identity by reliance on a British past, but also destabilizes that British past itself by cobbling it together from various texts in an incoherent way, rather than pointing to a single, cohesive source.

Consult this color-coded transcription of the Duke’s recitation. The different colors show which play the lines come from, and the original Shakespeare passages are given as well.

Allusions to Shakespeare in Huckleberry Finn

Fun facts: as Twain worked on Huck Finn, he also wrote a few acts for a full-length burlesque of Hamlet, in which a nineteenth-century slickster book agent visits Denmark and tries to push his wares on Hamlet and his father’s ghost, but tries to help out the prince when he learns of the plot against him. Also, Twain published a book-length essay in 1909, a year before he died, called Is Shakespeare Dead?, in which he claims to side with those who believe Sir Francis Bacon to have written the works of Shakespeare, apparently a hot controversy at the time. Some scholars believe the work’s exaggerated vehemence of argumentation to be satirical.

William Shakespeare and Mark Twain

Mark Twain may have believed that Sir Francis Bacon, not William Shakespeare, wrote Hamlet. Or he might have been telling a stretcher.


O steel! O stone! Poems of the Brooklyn Bridge

April 10, 2014

Yesterday (4/9), Ayendy Bonifacio led the Kerouac Krew to discuss several poems that “contemplate, illustrate and even eroticize the Brooklyn Bridge”: selections from Jack Kerouac’s “Brooklyn Bridge Blues,” Marianne Moore’s “Granite and Steel,” Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Each of these poems engages with a radically different relationship to the bridge, and to its readers. We discussed how Kerouac’s take is more personal and ironic, while Moore broods over the exploitation of immigrant workers who made the bridge. They have not quite partaken of the liberty promised by the “Caged Circe of steel and stone,” represented by the Statue of Liberty as seen through the bridge (see photo below). Mayakovsky, a Russian futurist, challenges the iconic status of the bridge (and of America itself?), with the very form of the poem–its irregular line breaks and intrusions of white space create a sense of instability. Crane’s vision is of an ethereal, almost spiritual bridge, whose “curveship lend[s] a myth to God.” Finally, how can you talk about Brooklyn and poetry without Whitman? We only touched on “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” briefly, which does not reference the bridge directly, but uses setting to transcend the individual–reaching out to us in the 21st century, declaring that those who “shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.”

"Caged Circe of steel and stone."

“Caged Circe of steel and stone.”


Apocalypse Health Pt. 1 (Andrew)

February 26, 2014

Tonight, I got feedback for my paper on Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) from Ayendy Bonaficio, Matthew Connolly, and Joshua Leavitt. I look at how Porter’s use of monstrosity andbook cover of Pale Horse, Pale Rider apocalypse ties in with the tradition of American Gothic fiction. I’m interested in how Porter challenges notions of normative health and nationalism by showing that, as mutually reinforcing forces that control, shape, and contain bodies, medicine and patriotic fervor actually fuel war, plague, and alienation.

Porter’s subtly unsettling work is set during the 1918 influenza pandemic and the final days of World War I. The fusion of Gothic and modernist elements diagnose the widespread flu deaths and unquestioning devotion to a demonized German enemy as symptoms of a deeper American sickness of hatefulness, greed, and conformity. The bizarre dream sequences, stark descriptions of suffering from disease, and the cynical yet tortured protagonist, Miranda (who features in a number of Porter’s other works), has made this one of my favorite works of American modernism.

We discussed the introductory section of my paper, with some good discussion not only of tweaks to my paper, but approaches to constructing introductions in general. While I’ve been led to think that introductions need to lay out your project and claims as quickly as possible, we discussed a number of ways to set up your paper with more interesting build-up, such as introducing a brief close reading, or laying out some historical context.

I’m preparing a proposal for this paper for an edited collection on Women Writing World War I.

Katherine Anne Porter, circa 1928

Katherine Anne Porter in 1928. Rights and Reproduction: © Estate of George Platt Lynes


November 13, 2013 (Andrew)

December 16, 2013

For my second round with the Krew, we again discussed my paper exploring the intersections of race and disability. This time, we looked at the section analyzing Francis Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892). The novel follows the Leroy family from a generation before the Civil War, up through the War itself, and the years immediately following. Marie Leroy is a slave who marries her white master, and has two children by him, Iola and Harry. The children are light-skinned enough that they are raised to believe they are white. When circumstances reveal the truth, they get involved in the Civil War and racial activism during Reconstruction. “Disability” appears in the novel as a metaphor of race prejudice, as the “disabilities of color,” and as a permanent condition that limits function, as when Harry is injured in the war. But disability, as a stigmatization of bodily difference, also appears implicitly in two characters: Tom, an escaped slave with unspecified “defects,” and Dr. Gresham, a white doctor with the Union Army, who is missing an arm. Their disabilities function differently depending on their race, but both contrast with the essential able-bodiedness and beauty of the Leroys.


October 23, 2013 (First Meeting!)

December 15, 2013

At the first meeting of the Kerouac Krew, I (Andrew Sydlik) met with colleagues Matt Connolly and Ayendy Bonifacio to discuss a paper I’m working on for my portfolio project at The Ohio State University. The paper explores the intersections of disability, race, and gender in two nineteenth-century African American texts: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s novel Iola Leroy (1892) and Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman’s novella Beryl Weston’s Ambition. I seek to bring together literary Disability Studies and Black/African American Studies because not much work has connected theorizations of disability and race, especially in regards to texts by nineteenth-century African American authors. Developed from a seminar paper done for Adeleke Adeeko’s 6757 African American Literature: 1746-1900 course in fall 2012, my investigation looks at how each text’s version of the “racial uplift” narrative reflects African American attitudes toward disability, scientific racism, gender stereotypes, and white middle class norms at the end of the nineteenth century. As this is a 34-page paper, we were only able to discuss the intro section, the first 10-12 pages, which describes the need to bring together Disability Studies and Black Studies, and some possibilities for doing so in a literary context.