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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Live at ConQuesT 50

I returned from Kansas City a few weeks back and thought I’d share some highlights from the annual science fiction convention (ConQuesT).

I appeared on two panels (one on American Gods, one on Doctor Who) and had reading that included parts of Gears and God and a short story called “Boomaland” that’s still under construction.

The highlight, however, was artist James Hollaman’s Room Con party, which featured Bland Lemon Denton and the Lemonades playing one of their marathon sets of blues classics, 60s singles, and deep cuts from Texas songwriting legends. Photographer and Guest of Honor Keith Stokes was there to document it (as he has many SF events). That’s yours truly on the second page of photos.

I should explain. I’ve jammed with Bland Lemon Denton exactly once (at one of KU’s summer writing workshops). Apparently, I was just not awful enough for him to trust me with his guitar temporarily, while he grabbed another guitar (with a wireless connection to the amp) and sauntered off into the hotel hallway to perform a solo. I was happy to add to the show for a minute or two.

Also, in their alter egos, Bland Lemon Denton and Caroline “Honey Badger” Spector wrote a killer short story in George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards universe last year. Check it out. 

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Full ConQuesT 50 Schedule

My full schedule for Kansas City’s 50th Anniversary ConQuesT SF Convention is now available under Appearances.

Come by the Sheraton at Crown Center and see me talk about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Doctor Who, and read some of the stranger excerpts of my research on American sci-fi from Gears and God.

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