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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ConQuesT 50th Anniversary

The Kansas City Science Fiction Convention (ConQuesT) has updated its list of panelists. I’ll be appearing there, along with some fine writers, artists, and fans, starting on Friday, May 24.

I’ll post more under the “Appearances” tab once I know what my actual schedule is.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the event. I think I attended my first one as a young Star Wars fan, accompanied by a nonplussed father, in the 1980s.

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Summer UC Davis Class: American Novel to 1900

This summer, I’ll be teaching the “American Novel to 1900” course for UC Davis English Department. The full information is on their course schedule page. The first three novels we’ll cover in the six-week class:

  • The Female American, Winkfield (1767)
  • The Coquette, Foster (1797)
  • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe (1838)

My goal is to incorporate something I’ve wanted to do since I saw Trinity College Professor and Heath Anthology of American Literature general editor Paul Lauter lecture on U.S. literature over a decade ago: student input into the choice of readings. Because books from this time period are mostly out of copyright and available online, I can do it without putting undue burden on the students.

On the first day, they’ll take a poll (what American “classics” they’ve read, what authors they think we should read in a college class) and then I’ll introduce parts of American literature that they may not be familiar with, including sentimental/domestic fiction, sensation and serialized novels, utopian fiction, dime novel western/invention/detective serial narratives, and more. Then we’ll vote on what novels to cover in the 2nd half of class.

As we do this, I’ll challenge them (or they’ll challenge each other) to pick a variety of material based on what they think is important. We’ll address inclusiveness, historical importance, etc. We’ll also cover things like how these novels were published and how writers or publishers conceived of what a “novel” was. Some things I’m particularly curious about:

  • Will they gravitate toward “American Renaissance” antebellum works or toward Realist novels of the late 1800s?
  • Are the books that were standard U.S. high school curriculum 20 years ago still entrenched? Have they all read Red Badge of Courage or The Scarlet Letter, for example? If not, what works have ascended to that often-dubious honor?
  • Will anyone question the inclusion of a work (Female American) from before the U.S. was actually a nation?
  • What novels have they already covered at the university level, perhaps even more than once?

I’m very much looking forward to it.

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Cambridge History of Science Fiction is Out!

I received my contributor’s copy of The Cambridge History of Science Fiction this week.

This book is a thorough, thoughtful collection of essays about key developments in the history of SF worldwide. Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link have done a splendid job in making this project happen and editing the edition. My essay on American Edisonades (19th-century “proto-steampunk” inventor tales) is just one of 46 chapters in over 800 pages(!) taking science fiction from antiquity to today.

It’s comprehensive, which is often publishing speak for very big and somewhat expensive. If you can’t buy it, ask a local library to pick up a copy for everyone to access.

Photos (with help from my office staff, Sam and Ed) are below:

ScienceFictionCambridgephoto

SFCambridgeopen

 

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This Year’s Sturgeon Short-Fiction Award Nominees

One of the coolest things my alma mater’s Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction does is facilitate the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best SF short story of the year. They announced nominees this week.

Named for the phenomenal author who bridged pulp SF and highbrow literary complexity, the Sturgeon Award is aimed specifically at short fiction: anything from flash to novella.  I’m copying the list of finalists from the Center’s Facebook page below:

This year’s finalists for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short science fiction story have been selected. The award will be presented this year during the Campbell Conference Awards reception on Friday, June 21, 2019.

Our 2019 Finalists Are:

“Freezing Rain, A Chance of Falling,” 
L.X. Beckett.
Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 2018.

“The Only Harmless Great Thing,”
Brooke Bolander.
Tor.com Books

“The Secret Life of the Nine Negro Teeth of
George Washington,”
P. Djèlí Clark.
Fireside Fiction, Feb 2018.

“Umbernight,”
Carolyn Ives Gilman.
Clarkesworld, Feb 2018.

“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,”
Daryl Gregory.
tor.com, Sept 2018.

“When We Were Starless,”
Simone Heller.
Clarkesworld, Oct 2018.

“The Starship and the Temple Cat,”
Yoon Ha Lee.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Feb 2018.

“When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,”
Annalee Newitz.
Slate.com, Dec 2018.

“Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach,”
Kelly Robson.
Tor.com Books

“On the Day You Spend Forever with Your Dog,”
Adam Shannon.
Apex, Dec 2018.

“Yard Dog,”
Tade Thompson.
Fiyah, July 2018.

Congratulations to the nominees!

And just to clarify, I’m on the advisory board of the Gunn CSSF, but I’m not on the Sturgeon Committee or involved in the nominations process in any way. That task is reserved for a dedicated group of pros with a collective publishing experience that spans more than six decades and hundreds of works, that includes Kij Johnson, Andy Duncan, Elizabeth Bear, the center’s founder and namesake James Gunn, and trustee of the Sturgeon estate, Nöel Sturgeon.

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This Year’s Nebula Finalists

Just a quick note that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) announced nominees for the Nebula Awards this week.

I’m posting a link to the full list. I just want to commend Andy Duncan, Tina Connolly, and Mary Robinette Kowal on their nominations. (That’s just based on my prior reading; I need to book up and read some of the other nominees, esp. in short fiction categories).

Probably most related to this blog, however, is the nod Janelle Monáe got for her album, Dirty Computer. Sci-fi music turns up in the Nebula and Hugo awards for media/related categories more and more frequently. That’s a good thing.

SFWA is a fantastic organization that works very hard to help speculative writers get opportunities (for good-paying story sales, for representation, etc.). I’ve been an Associate Member since my first professional sale.

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New Review of Gears and God

U of Alabama Press just recently sent me a copy of a forthcoming Gears and God review by John Rieder that will be appearing in the next issue of Science Fiction Studies. I’ll try to get permission to excerpt it here, but for now you can read it on the book’s Amazon site (they’ve added it to the blurbs under “Editorial Reviews”).

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The Updates Before Christmas

The quarter at UC Davis is over, and I’m spending most of my time revising a 4,000-word entry on “Science and Technology” for Mark Twain in Context, a book forthcoming from Cambridge U Press. It’s a joy to read/re-read some of the famous moments in Twain’s life, especially now that we have all three volumes of the Autobiography out (thanks, Berkeley!) So I find myself writing about Tesla, vivisection, patent law, steamboat safety, and other things Twain was interested in.

On the fiction front, not so much luck. A rejection last week. Only one story currently making the rounds. I just don’t have the time to do the Twain entry and revise a couple of stories in progress to the level they really need to be before submission.

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Projects from Steampunk Freshman Seminar 2018

This week, students in my Fall 2018 “First-Year Seminar” on steampunk turned in their first round of creative projects.

The assignment asks them to “steampunk a common object.” As you can see from the photo below, I got some clever responses including steampunk “blue books” for final exams, hair salon fixtures, water bottles (with analog temperature gauge), and light sticks (for those Victorian EDM raves).

IMG_4158

I have a particularly smart and fun bunch of first-year students this year, though I wish we’d had more time; two sessions of the class were canceled due to smoke from the Northern California fires.

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Gears and God Signing at Avid Reader

I’m doing a reading/signing for my book, Gears and God, at the Avid Reader in Davis this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Please share with friends who like Mark Twain, science fiction, or U.S. history!

avidreaderpromo

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Mark Twain Forum Reviews Gears and God

As promised earlier, here is a link to the full text of John Bird’s review of Gears and God on the Mark Twain Forum.  Here’s an excerpt:

Gears and God is important for the way it places Mark Twain’s works within the context of dime novels that link technology, imperialism, and religion, all important topics in Twain studies. While Williams is careful not to claim that Twain was a reader of such popular sub-genre fiction, his study shows that Twain was part of a broader cultural movement that has not been fully explored.

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Book Review News: Gears & God; Strange Stars

Gears and God received a really positive review from John Bird on the Mark Twain Forum last week. I’m unable to reprint it, but will try to link to it in the future.

Speaking of reviews, I’m thrilled to be reviewing Jason Heller’s new book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, in a future issue of SFRA Review. This book is an astounding feat of research into rock history and science fiction.

strangestars

I was thrilled to hear about Heller’s book at Worldcon, and was so stoked by its contents that I promptly volunteered to review it for SFRA Review. I’m going back through it, doing a critical reading, but my initial impressions were “These connections are amazingly cool.” The Bowie material is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ll link to that when it’s out.

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Mark Twain Center Hosts “Gears and God” Short Essay

A few months ago, Joe Lemak from the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College asked me if I’d like to write something to promote my book for their web site.

Today, they’ve published that essay, along with some great visuals. The piece is called “Gears and God: What Powered Twain’s Speculative Fiction?”

I’d encourage folks to read it, and to browse some of the other material Elmira has published in the last year on the site. They do an excellent blend of notes on recent research, coverage of their “Trouble Begins a 8” lecture series, and notes on international Twain scholarship. They’ve really been knocking it out of the park.

image3_BeardandFRJ

The image on the left is one of Dan Beard’s illustrations from the original edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). The image on the right is from a Frank Reade, Jr. dime novel from a few years earlier. Both feature 19th-century guys in chain mail. To learn more, read the article at the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

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Dr. Who Draws from David Bowie (Again)

This week, BBC announced the official premiere date of the new season of Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker. The first episode’s title will be “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.”

It’s a tip of the hat to 1970s sci-fi film starring David Bowie. There’s more on the connection in the Radio Times article.

I’ve written before about connections between Who and Bowie:

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Gears & God (& Me) at Worldcon 76

My box of author copies of Gears and God arrived a couple of weeks ago. I’ve also heard that people who’ve already ordered it on Amazon have received their copies in the past weeks.

I’m lucky to have Borderlands Books carrying copies at the World Science Fiction convention this weekend.

The book also comes with a fine color photo of me on the back flap, taken by my friend Julia at Jewel Photography. I’m posting that here, mostly so the photo starts showing up on Google; there are a lot of Nathaniel Williamses out there.

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Worldcon Academic Track and Schedule

This weekend, I’m working as the lead coordinator of Worldcon 76’s academic-track programming in San Jose. This means I’ll be moderating multiple panels, as well as attending most of the other ones. Full info is on the online programming guide. Stop by and say hello!

I have two additional events (both on Friday):

  • Moderating “Un-Pulping the Pulp Heroes” panel with Cat Rambo, Sheila Williams, Sean Grigsby, and Ira Nayman at 1:00 p.m. Friday in Room 211C.
  • Signing copies of Gears and God at the SFWA Author’s Autographing Table from 2:00 to 2:30 p.m. Friday.
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Oxford Fantasy Class

In four weeks, I taught seven novels at Jesus College, Oxford and oversaw multiple day trips. Examples?

  • After reading Alice in Wonderland, we visited Christ Church College in Oxford where Lewis Carroll taught and took a boat ride down the Isis River to see the meadows where he’d picnic with the Liddell Family.
  • After reading Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we visited Magdelen College where Lewis taught and followed the path at Addison’s Walk (where Tolkien convinced Lewis to convert to Christianity).
  • Before finishing Fellowship of the Ring, we went to Stonehenge and looked at the barrows around the area.
  • After finishing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we took the Harry Potter Studio tour outside London.
  • After finishing The Book of Dust, we ate at the Trout pub and walked the ruins of the Abbey nearby (both prominently featured in Pullman’s book).

I’m posting a few pictures below:

We also enjoyed following the English team during the World Cup, playing Aunt Sally, and many other events.

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Teaching Fantasy Class at Oxford

This summer, it will be my honor to cover Dr. Amy Clarke’s regular UC Davis Study Abroad class called Oxford: Portal to Fantasy.

Right now, I’m having a wonderful time revisiting some classics (and reading a few new ones). The course includes the following novels:

  1. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
  2. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  4. J. R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
  5. Diane Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle
  6. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  7. Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust

My students will be coming from UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UCLA, and Foothill College.

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Steampunk Class Projects

Last quarter, I finished up another section of my UC Davis first-year seminar on Steampunk. Fifteen students came on board to read the VanderMeer’s short story collection, the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel, and watch Wild Wild West and Howl’s Moving Castle.

One of the special projects asks them to design a steampunk character (for a comic, or video game, or other media). I thought I’d share a photo of some of their entries.

 

IMG_3305

This year I had two students who used porcelain-style dolls for their characters. Other submissions included a four-legged “steam sheriff,” a girl balloonist, and an electric-robot version of “The Little Mermaid.”

Overall, the assignment simply asks them to show familiarity with steampunk iconography. Each one comes with a description of the characters, similar to the ones featured for costumes at the Steampunk Emporium.

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There are Two James Gunns, but Nobody’s Confused

James Gunn had two great stories in Asimov’s last month, finishing a string of works he’s published there over the last year, all affiliated with his recent Transcendental series for Tor Books.

Asimov's GUnn

But the author is not the same guy that I wrote about last month who makes movies and is a longtime Replacements fan.

Oddly enough, there are two James Gunns in the world of science fiction.

The one in Asimov’s is a nonagenarian and SFWA Grand Master, a true literary legend. He’s written scores of novels and short stories since the 1950s, and is still writing today. His dystopia about futuristic medicine was turned into a TV series (ABC’s short-lived The Immortal). Oh, and he pretty much invented college-level science fiction instruction as a professor at the University of Kansas.

The other James Gunn is a fortysomething who writes pictures in Hollywood and who directed the best, swellest sci-fi movie you saw in 2014 and its equally fun sequel. He started working at Troma, the place that brought you Toxic Avenger and the like. Clearly, the guy revels in the “so bad it’s good” school of art. (And, as the huge popularity of his Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack proves, he has an omnivorous taste for great pop music, whether sappy, cheezy, or just plain sweet.)

The two Gunns aren’t related, but they have a lot in common.

Both bring a wickedly dark sense of humor to speculative material. Gunn’s novel Kampus (1977) is a twisted take on hippie academia, with a lot of the same over-the-top violence and cringe-worthy sex found in director-Gunn’s awesome movie Super from 2010.

They’re also both Missouri boys, although author-Gunn is from Kansas City and director-Gunn grew up in St. Louis.

The big question: does this confuse anyone? The answer seems to be “no.” I’ve checked the Internet (never known for its lack of complaining) and found no one nonplussed about two James Gunns.

Maybe it’s just the bifurcation of science-fiction fandom. Conventional wisdom says that most of the Comic-con types don’t the read monthly fiction magazines, and the fandom that does follow print media and novel series may not embrace the same material as its popcorn-eating, media-frenzied brethren.

I don’t know if I agree with that summation, but I hear it a lot in SF circles. Make of it what you will.

I enjoy both men’s work though. I count KU’s James Gunn as a mentor and friend. And I enjoyed the hell out of Slither.

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