Minor Updates: Writing & Teaching

October is always a busy month that starts with a birthday and ends with Halloween. Not having any major news doesn’t mean I’m not really busy. To wit:

  • Drafting paper for MLA presentation on Twain’s love of sea adventure fiction.
  • Teaching 2 sections of Writing in Science and 1 section of Advanced Composition at UC Davis.
  • Securing reviewers for three new, major books for Mark Twain Annual.
  • Working on Long-Term Writing Project #1, which is so secret I shouldn’t be talking about it.
  • Enjoying a number of things I’ve read, including Brad Denton’s new Wild Cards short story and David Epstein’s new book on the value of not specializing in a single field, Range.

Busy, but low key. This is good.

 

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Go Country, Young Man (90s Music Nostalgia)

The Ken Burns-produced Country Music documentary that premiered on PBS last week is predictably great. It’s also giving me fits of nostalgia remembering the time I tried to be an “alternative country” singer.

It was a very late-1990’s thing to do, especially if you liked roots-music and were getting bored with “grunge” or Lollapalooza bands. It’s just outside the era Burns covers in his documentary, which ends in 1996.

Most of the “alternative country” material that came out in the 90s was positioned (by promoters and journalists) as a remedy for the Shania Twain and Garth Brooks-driven suburbanite garbage-country sounds of that era. A lot (though not all) of the alt-country bands were converts–artists who started in indie, hardcore, or even metal bands who’d discovered older country and grew into it.

Now, I never considered myself a country fan. I’d grown up loving the earlier generation’s first wave of rock and roll (Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry)  and I’d grown up obsessed with bands channeling roots music through punk or bar-band lenses (The Blasters, X, The Beat Farmers, and, yeah, Bruce Springsteen). I’d heard George Thorogood covering Carl Perkins and Huey Lewis covering Hank Williams. Twangy roots rock was my thing before (and during, and after) I discovered alternative music.

By the time people started throwing the term “alternative country” around, I’d kind of sworn off playing live music. The band I’d played with in college had dispersed around the country and life/work balance became a challenge.

But, man, the music coming out that kept being labeled “alternative country” was so damn good. They had sweet melodies, powerful guitars, intelligent lyrics, some edge. And twang. “Timebomb” by the Old 97s jumps out of the stereo and grabs you by the lapels every time. So does “See Willy Fly By” by the Waco Brothers (on stalwart label Bloodshot Records). Songs like that convinced me that it was time to get a group, learn some covers, and write more songs.

It feels weird saying that in hindsight. It sounds like “cashing in on a trend” when it felt more like “holy shit, people are finally listening to the stuff I actually like.” And no real “cashing” happened. We barely broke even, never got a real record deal, never saw a royalty check, and toured outside our hometown only a handful of times. (On the plus side, we got airplay from deejays we respected and a good review from No Depression magazine, the alt-country Bible.)

Looking back, I was scared and a little snarky. I felt the lack of 80s hardco re street-cred that other bands had. I wrote a self-parodying Onion “Area Man”-inspired press release when our bands album came out. I wasn’t brave enough to send it out, but I cleaned it up a little and have it here.

Local Alt-Country Singer Still likes Springsteen

I also obsessed about what made our band more “poppy” than “country.”  My favorite bands made poppy records, but usually only after they’d done something more traditionally honky tonk or folky.* I wrote “Top Ten” lists on bar napkins pondering this stuff. Example:

Top Things Rockabilly Bands Never Say (But “Roots Rock” Bands Will)

5. I prefer James Burton’s textured guitar playing to Scotty Moore’s picking.

4. Those burlesque dancers are too fat.

3. I really need a Vox AC-30 for this song.

2. We’re heavily influenced by Big Star.

1. When you get right down to it, all of Johnny Cash’s Sun Records singles sound the same.

For a better example, this is a bit of our live show: bad sound, bad music, NSF anyone ever anywhere. Self-defeating humor aside, I loved playing the material and am still proud of some of the songs we wrote. It wasn’t fun, but it was real. That’s country enough.

*I’m thinking of Wilco’s Summerteeth, Old 97’s Fight Songs, Robbie Fulks’ Let’s Kill Saturday Night–all great records preceded by equally good but more traditional albums.

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Twain Trip and Strange Stars Review

I’ll have at least one more research trip to the Mark Twain Papers in Berkeley between now and December (before I present at MLA on Twain’s love of sea adventure novels). I’m hoping to work a Bay-area bookstore appearance in there to discuss and (sign copies of) Gears and God. More to come.

I’ve also learned that my review of Jason Heller’s Strange Starsthe most enjoyable non-fiction book I read last year–will be delayed a little longer before it appears in SFRA Review. Again, I’ll post more when it comes in. For fans of pop music and science fiction (esp. David Bowie but also soooo many others), it’s a must read.

I was bummed that Strange Stars didn’t get a Hugo nom for the Best Related Work category, even though I applaud the expanding definition of that category (beyond just books!) to include things like this year’s winner, Archive of Our Own, and other multimedia projects like the Mexicanx Initiative at San Jose Worldcon.

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American Novel to 1900 (Class Details)

This summer, I’m teaching UC Davis’s “American Novel to 1900” class. I used the class to try something I’d always wanted to do–something scholar Paul Lauter did while developing the uber-inclusive Heath Anthology of American Literature–namely, asking students to prioritize course content and choose their own selections.

After all, six weeks to cover 100+ years of national novels can’t begin to cover everything, so what should we read? And just as importantly, what do we have to leave out?

Before I provide the list, I’ll note a few things. In an anonymous preliminary poll, students didn’t seem overly worried that they might miss books they’d been told were “great works.” Only two students mentioned wanting to read the most famous works of the era (and one of them they wanted to read those just to “avoid looking stupid” when asked if they’d read something). At least 10% of the respondents mentioned that they wanted to read authors from diverse backgrounds (several of them specifically mentioning “books by people of color” as a priority).

After the poll, I gave them a list of about 15 books and some short introductions about each one. Here is the final reading list, with the ones they chose :

  • The Female American, “Unca Eliza Winkfield” (pseudonym) (1767)
  • The Coquette, Hannah Webster Foster (1797)
  • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Edgar Allan Poe (1838)
  • Benito Cereno, Herman Melville (1855)
  • Ruth Hall, Fanny Fern* (1855)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (1876)
  • Imperium in Imperio, Sutton E. Griggs* (1899)
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum* (1899)

As you can see, Fern, Griggs, and Baum were the winners. Some other thoughts:

A) They reeeeally wanted to read Wizard of Oz. That one received the most votes. It covers the “children’s literature that adults read” space occupied today by the likes of Harry Potter and company, though I suspect some students just thought it’d be a fun, easy read.

B) I added the novella Benito Cereno so that we’d have at least one representative from Mattheissen’s “American Renaissance” conceptualization of C19 literature.

C) Had I let them vote on it, I’m pretty sure Tom Sawyer would’ve been rejected. A fair number had read both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer (the former didn’t surprise me, but the latter did). The ones who’d read it universally disliked it. However, I was in Hannibal this summer and have a lot to share about the book. I also suspect that whatever my next long-term academic project is, Tom will be involved.

D) They found the idea of a secret Black republic from Sutton Griggs’s novel amazingly compelling. Several students are writing papers on it, even though we haven’t got to it in class discussion yet.

E) I had to pick the first three novels, mostly so we could start class and people could do advanced reading for summer session. The Female American is fun because it’s a gender-bent Robinson Crusoe narrative, and forces us to consider that there might be “American Literature” or an “American Identity” before the U.S. was officially formed. I’ve taught The Coquette and Pym before.

F) Personally, I was pulling for John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird)’s Joaquin Murieta novel. It’s a good example of popular narrative with a Latino hero written by a Cherokee author. But Baum won. Democracy in action, I suppose. (That said, we have numerous Native American characters–particularly heroic “half-Indian” characters in Female American and Pym, and the unfortunate villain in Tom Sawyer).

G) If the poll I gave is to be believed, The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, and The Awakening are the most frequently taught C19 novel in high schools. Other former stalwarts–The Red Badge of Courage, Daisy Miller–barely manage a blip of recognition.

 

 

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August Updates: Book and Articles

My American Novels to 1900 class for UC Davis started last week, and I’m finishing up some big projects before fully diving into that pool.

First, I’m doing final proofreading review for my “Science and Technology” chapter of Cambridge University Press’s Mark Twain in Context. The site says it’ll be out in January 2020.

I’ve also been working to get Gears and God into the hands of local booksellers. The good news is that the Hannibal History Museum in Hannibal, MO will be carrying copies soon, just in time for the Big River Steampunk Festival on Labor Day weekend. I’m hoping the convergence of Twain tourists and 19th-century retro-futurists will result in a few sales.

The first major paper for the summer class comes in next week, so reading/grading will overtake everything else for a bit at that point.

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New Gears and God Review

Last month’s issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature featured a review of Gears and God. It requires a subscription to read the whole thing, but I’m providing a link to the preview of the first page from University of California Press’ page.

Thanks to Thomas Allen of the University of Ottawa for his insightful review!

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New Editing Gig at Mark Twain Annual

Last week, I formally agreed to be the new Book Review Editor for the Mark Twain Annual.

The Annual is a fantastic journal–one that I look forward to each year. They publish Twain scholarship that takes risks, tries things, and digs deeply into the topic. It’s exactly what a single-author specific journal should be.

The outgoing Book Review Editor is Kerry Driscoll, former President of the Mark Twain Circle and author of the excellent, Mark Twain among the Indians and other Indigenous Peoples. It’s a little intimidating to follow her, but she has generously offered to help me get on board.

It’s worth noting that teach 8-9 classes a year (depending on summer schedule and whether I teach my first-year steampunk seminar) as a full-time lecturer whose job description is allotted 100% to teaching. Sabbaticals or decreased teaching load for national research aren’t possible. And I don’t get any research funds, unless I teach the first-year seminar.

But this position means a lot to me. The Mark Twain Circle means a lot to me. And there are several fantastic books on Twain being published in the near-future. This is worth working some extra-long days during the school year.

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