I’ve just read How to Read Literature Like a Professor and I’m pleased enough with it that I’m figuring out how to implement it into my classes. In essence, it’s all the stuff English majors should know by the end of their sophomore year of college—how to read a text to find patterns like journeys and season, what might meaneth the rainbow, or why, to be fully literate, one must know some Bible, some Greek myth, some Shakespeare. In other words, great stuff for the demographic I teach.
The final chapter contains Katherine Mansfield’s lovely short story “The Garden Party” along with analysis from college students, followed by some from the professor himself. I read the story while walking to school and did not spend much time analyzing it myself before reading others’ responses to the story. I had noticed some patterns etc and figured I had a pretty solid grasp on the story. Then it was pointed out to me that it is a Garden of Eden story and I immediately felt hugely embarrassed. As an Eden junkie, how did I miss this? Reading while walking is no excuse.
It’s in that spirit of contrition that I will now discuss Sorensen’s tale (read online).My first sin is that, instead of the story, I was thinking about the introduction’s revelation that this story premiered in The New Yorker (but in 1955—not 1953). And so I have images of Mr Thurber and Ms Jackson and Mr White and Ms Parker and all my favorite old-timey New Yorker writers and here comes one more reminiscent story of rural Utah. And, I don’t know if you’ve heard my whine about this before, but I’m kind of tired of reminiscent stories of rural Utah.
[BREAKING NEWS: Just now, I realized why this story of irrigation ditches and murder was so familiar to me---I'd heard a very similar story once in General Conference. From David E. Sorensen. He's just twenty years younger than Virginia and I need your help: are they related? Could both stories share the same real-life source? Note that the stories have some significant differences but that only one claims to be nonfiction.]
Anyway. As that parenthetical suggests, the story is about a murder committed over an irrigation squabble. The narrator is someone who lives far away and for whom her erstwhile community is now far away in more than just physical distance.
She is no longer surrounded my hard-working men with white beards and Scandinavian accents (who are now mostly dead anyway); she seems, in fact, to have no connection left other than the clippings her mother sends her from Mormon newspapers. She finds it somewhat difficult to dive back into the past, having to repeat the phrase “the Tolsen trouble” a few times before she can finally relay the story. Then, at the end of the story, she reveals that, out of her family’s respect for the man involved, she had never before told this tale. The story bookends, in other words, within a code of silence.
The story is well written but I did not particularly enjoy it. As a specimen of its type, it is good. But I did not read it like a professor. I don’t doubt that it’s craft is even better than I realized, trying, as I was, to get through yet another reminiscent rural-Utah story instead of taking more seriously my first reading of an important Mormon author. Of this I am, of course, suitably ashamed. Though not enough to reread yet another reminiscent rural-Utah story to see what I’ve missed. I trust you will forgive me.
As the first story read in this project, this is not my most stellar bit of criticism. On the other hand, I must admit that even though I’m no great fan, I am glad to have read one of the earlier and better versions of a tale type so successful that it’s become a seeming inevitability. And, in all honesty, rural Utah is one of the important story types Mormon culture has to tell. (Sorry that I’m bored with them.)
I go forward with the intention to engage more deeply! Join me!
Next up: Maurine Whipple.
(to see previous posts in this series, try the Bright Angels & Familiars tag)