That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic
Welcome to "That Thing With Feathers: Hope & Literature in a Time of Pandemic" a Torrey House Press online series. Launching the conversation this week is Karin Anderson, author of Before Us Like a Land of Dreams.
In January – really, just a few weeks ago – I began my fifty-eighth semester of teaching at Utah Valley University. I reminded my students that we were here to wallow in gorgeous, terrifying, hopeful, and gloriously bewildering language as the solstice lifted us into springtime.
That’s still true, but not in the ways I generally prophesy. We’ve been forced apart in this stunning pandemic season; I’m writing foremost here for my beloved students as we muck our way toward a remote and disorienting finish. Even so, we will finish this term together. Soil and sunlight await our carrot seeds. But I may not have to work so hard to persuade my anxiously “professionalizing” English majors how much literature matters, well beyond the classroom and confusing options for a paycheck. At this point, we’re not merely wallowing – we’re hungering. When standard market priorities flicker and dim, literary voices blaze to incandescence.
“Real” writers strive to convey meaning that transcends tired tropes. When the messages are urgent, language is pushed to exceed itself. Readers lean in. Centuries compress. My job teaching literature has kept my little family tribe warm and fed for three decades, and I’m grateful. But reading for myself, as an idiosyncratic human being, has also generated the only survivable meanings I can grasp in the most confounding moments of raw existence, of perpetual care for family and neighbors, the reach toward eager and uncertain scholars, loss and wretched mortification, fear for the future, fear of extinction, absurd and transcendent moments of human encounter.
"When standard market priorities flicker and dim, literary voices blaze to incandescence."
It’s a contemporary “fact” propped to the level of Barthesian myth that our students are already crippled by depression, temporal anxiety, fears of inadequacy, and personal trauma. And now they face pandemic and recession, in such dramatic manifestations that the “news” can’t be dismissed as mere conspiracy. How will they cope?
The better question: How will they rise to the call of their own slender lives?
Like every generation that gets to pretend, for a little while, that they are unique in all the universe, some will begin to perceive the generous, hard-wrought voices of their ancestral kind. They will realize that their kind is vaster and more encompassing than they’ve been allowed to measure. They will answer and bequeath the violent exquisite human song.
I’m no optimist. I’ve read too much literature to believe it’s all going to “work out in the end.” Wars and plagues sweep us away. Families, nations, and species stratify in the geological record. We make cruel and hideous mistakes, generation by generation. Sometimes I wonder how it helps to ponder why we fail, even as we fail. But we make words – and music, and art, and elegant equations, and bridges and pretty orchards – because we know we cannot open our mouths forever. Not in hunger, song, or speech. Brilliant but fallible storytellers have marked the way – so (un)familiar at each new leg, century after century. What an appalling cruelty to cheapen their value to living, breathing, sensate human beings at the threshold of generational contour. I don’t think optimism has ever been the literary point, which is why so many of us turn our hearts in that direction once we’ve been made to see beyond our first dimensions. The literary gauntlet is hope: hope for courage, love, apprehension. Touch. Extension. Small holding. Mind and heart in our narrow interim.
I’m busy altering my already damaged syllabus for the final weeks of a garish academic term. I always tell my students that literature can finally only mean itself beyond the classroom – and now here we are, banished from the classroom. Torrey House has generously offered a venue beyond campus exercises as well, and as long as they’ll let me keep it up, I’ll post some of the most courageous, idiosyncratic, and realistic literary responses to “pestilence” I can find. And of course I’ll unload a bit of personal commentary. I want to write soon about Katherine Anne Porter’s singular portrayal of young lives at the brink of the 1918 flu epidemic – so disarmingly like our experience these past few weeks, so likely prescient of the coming months. Writers and colleagues I admire have reminded me of other striking works of hope and horror: Camus, The Plague. Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year.
Albert Goldbarth recounts the shock of the Bubonic season in his richly-wrought essay “Delft.” Louise Erdrich chronicles annihilating waves of sickness in the Dakotas in Tracks and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Mary McCarthy’s memoir of her childhood and coming of age, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, defies her reputation as a flippant society card. The poet Daniel Westover reminded me that Kyrie, a collection of poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt, portrays the 1918 pandemic. I read dozens of tiny, half-made, trailing-off snippets of firsthand narratives of the 1918 flu as I researched turn-of-the-century lives for Before Us Like a Land of Dreams. They’ve certainly infused my own dreams since.
Enough for now, though, except for nonce benedictions from Flannery O’Connor and, of course, the darkest-hopefullest poet of our Anglo-American sojourn, Emily Dickinson.
People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.
Dickinson (and can I say? I love to hand my twenty-first-century students the word “chillest”):
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Now to our gardens, children of Voltaire. To springtime and sunlight, and to hope and courage.
A gardener, writer, mother, wanderer, and heretic, Karin Anderson is a professor of English at Utah Valley University. She is the author of Before Us Like a Land of Dreams and hails from the Great Basin.