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The Exam

In Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” regarding the comparison of the rolling of the balls in the game of nine-pins to “rumbling peals of thunder,” why is it impossible to state definitively which comes first, the nine-pins or nature?  Offer three refutations to Sedgwick’s (“homosexual panic”) and Morrison’s (Afro-centric) remarks on “The Beast in the Jungle.”  How often did your parent(s), guardian(s), institution(s) read aloud to you before the age of five? three? one?  On a scale of one to ten, with one being “calm” and ten “psychotic,” how nervous are you?  Do you see the exam as a challenge or a threat, considering that if you do not pass, you will not be allowed to hold a teaching position in this country?  Compare your anxiety to that of two of the following: Ichabod Crane, Young Goodman Brown, the narrator of “The Black Cat.”  Hurry.  The exam has barely begun, and already you’re falling behind.  Perhaps the consequences of your failing are even more severe than you’ve imagined.  Write brief (1/2 page) biographies of three of the following: Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer B’ar, Elizabeth Stoddard, Madeline Usher.  Can you imagine making love to your brother or sister?  Would you rather be a gravedigger or undertaker?  According to Borges, Hawthorne’s best stories “are those pure fantasies that do not look for a justification or moral and that seem to have no other substance than an obscure terror.”   Interpret “Wakefield” in light of Borges’ comment, and discuss the function of ambiguity in it and two other 19th century tales.  In 1906, Ernst Jentsch described the uncanny as a state of "intellectual uncertainty.”  For Jentsch, as he found in stories like “Der Sandmann” by Hoffmann, “the uncanny would always  be something one does not know one’s way about in.”  Discuss the uncanny in three of the following: “The Adventure of the German Student,” “The Ambitious Guest,” “The Domain of Arnheim, or the Landscape Garden,” “A Horseman in the Sky,“ “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”  The theme of the troubled (divided, lost …) self haunts 19th century American short fiction.  Discuss this theme in “The Jolly Corner” and two other stories (the exam knows that neither it nor “The Beast in the Jungle” are strictly speaking 19th century works).  Did you keep in mind during your six months of preparation “the notion of vital expenditure implied in a work and in its evaluation” (Julien Gracq)?  Careful how you answer this.  A function of local color is 1) to paint the landscape in vivid colors, 2) establish a marketing platform, 3) enliven the language.  Check two.  Who wrote “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking”?  Who wrote “The Sweetheart of M. Briseux”?  Complete the following sentence in no fewer than five hundred words: The point of this exam is _______.  Characterize the particular madnesses of the narrators of “Ligeia,” “The Diamond Lens,” and “The Turn of the Screw.”  Discuss Poe’s will-to-form, James’s, Jewett’s.  What is the power of blackness?  Consider not just Melville’s notion, but what it is in reality for you.  Think about the death of a close relative or friend.  Think about your own death.  If it were imminent, would you continue with the exam?  Compare the exam to the test James says his characters in “The Figure in the Carpet” are engaged in.  You are entering a space we have learned to designate Gothic.  How many Gothic elements can you entertain in your head before madness takes hold?  Twenty?  A hundred?  More?  Why do the characters at the beginning of “The Open Boat” not know the color of the sky?  Sometimes when we look up from the reading of 19th century American short stories, we feel as if it’s we who are the ghosts wandering the rooms of a New York house in search of our souls, that the fictions are realer than we are.  Why is that?  Does the narrator of “The Real Thing” fail to recognize the real thing?  In which four stories by James do the following characters appear: Count Otto Vogelstein, Marian Fancourt, Paul Overt, Jasper Nettlepoint, Mary Mavis, Mrs. Gotch, Lady Barberina.  Now, after months of studying, what is your relationship to the 19th century short story?  What do you imagine it will be in ten years? twenty years? forty?  What is the connection between alienation and the grotesque?  Elaborate on this theme as it appears in seven stories.  Bierce activates the uncanny through the topographical clarity of his descriptions.  In your explanation of the preceding statement, cite examples from five of his tales.  Did you approach the works under study on the basis of “the presumption of certain possible joys of reading” (Updike)?  Why?  Why not?  In general for you is the 19th century American short story a return to childhood or an escape from it?  (This question has been asked in exams dating back decades.)  Cite three 19th century American authors whose careers prove we cannot trust the institutional gatekeepers.   Is “The Fall of the House of Usher” more romantic or realistic than “The Abasement of the Northmores”?  Explain.  What is the difference between Poe’s use of the mise en abîme and that of, say, Jewett’s entering the consciousness of a tree?  Close analysis: When nine-year old Sylvia (whose dilemma is whether or not to tell an ornithologist/hunter the whereabouts of the bird he wants to shoot) climbs up the tree in Jewett’s “A White Heron,” the narrator breaks cover (and time) to directly address her young character: 

Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head.  And wait! wait! do not move a foot or a finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours, and cries back to his mate on the nest and plumes his feathers for the new day! 

Do you experience this as a vital, lyrical exploding of narrative conventions that lead back to the Ursprung of story-telling, or do you dismiss this passage as kitsch?  Cite seven other authorial intrusions in 19th century American short stories.  Do you long to be, like James’s Mrs. Chilvers, “beyond verification”?  More now while you are taking the exam or less than ever?  Have you sufficiently exercised in your reading an historical imagination?  Elaborate, please.  What is your response to the simile in the following passage from James’s “The Lesson of the Master”?  “[Paul] Overt judged her at first to be about thirty years of age; then, after a while, he perceived that she was much nearer fifty.  But she juggled away the twenty years somehow—you only saw them in a rare glimpse, like the rabbit in the conjurer's sleeve.”  Can you imagine falling in love with such a woman when you’re, say, fifty? sixty-three? seventy?  Will you be reading Henry James then?  Why?  Why not?  Will you ever read him again?  Careful.  But you no longer need warning, do you?  (That question is part of the exam.)  Do you believe in the university system 1) more than the church, 2) less, or 3) not at all?  Identify the character and story: “Yes, this is a strange craft; a strange history, too, and strange folks on board.  But — nothing more.”  In what ways is this ship’s captain mistaken?  Which of these European authors—Hoffmann, Zola, Flaubert—most influenced Jewett? O’Brien? Crane?  Who was Davy Crockett? Owen Warland? Desiree’s baby?  Who was George Washington Cable?  Which of the following sentences were written by Hawthorne, by James, by Poe?  “His head went round; he was going; he was gone.”  “Sufficient without such guilt, is this nightmare of the soul; this heavy, heavy sinking of the spirits; this wintry gloom about the heart; this indistinct horror of the mind, blending itself with the darkness of the chamber.”  “The mountain trembled to its very base, and the rock rocked.”  Why so much “dreamy inquietude” in the 19th century American short story?  Why “every inch of ground mined into honey-combs”?  When Hawthorne wrote to Sophie about understanding why he had been “imprisoned” in his “haunted chamber,” i.e. his writing room, what did he understand?  Why did he tell her “we are but shadows”?  As you prepared for the exam, did you by chance or design pace to and fro your apartment’s floors like the narrator of “The Piazza” “haunted by Marianna’s face, and many as real a story”?  In what sense does this story serve as prologue for the rest of Melville’s only collection of tales?  In his essay on The Tempest James remarks on the “lucid stillness” of the play’s style.  In what way is this description applicable to the Master’s own late prose?  Why does the exam emphasize Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, James?  It’s not because the exam doesn’t respect, say, “The Mocking-Bird” or “The Diamond Lens.”  “The literal,” James tells us in the first volume of his autobiography, “played in our education as small a part as it perhaps played in any, and we wholesomely breathed inconsistency and ate and drank contradictions.”  Do not hesitate to speak from personal experience, whether real or imagined.  Point of view is more flexible, narrative’s potentialities greater by far than many narratologists can imagine.  For example, how many points of view can you identify in “The Beast in the Jungle”? one? two? six? seventeen?  If the self is as mutable as certain 19th American philosophers and writers believed (name two), what are the implications regarding narrative authority?  Is it possible the exam, like some 19th century stories, is attempting to express the inexpressible, and wishes for you to do the same?  In five hundred words, discuss Melville’s diptych “The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids” as a precursor to the Gilded Age.  The following sentence from the second panel may be helpful in your discussion:  “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.”  At this precise moment, what do you imagine your lover or mother doing?  Taking off his/her jeans? underwear? panties?  Has the exam strayed?  If so, in what direction?  Did you think the exam was only for the learned few?  How might you have framed it, had you been asked to write the exam?  Appearances can be deceiving, as any number (name eight) 19th century American short stories reveal.  Which stories best exemplify Peirce’s notion of uncertainty?  Relate Peirce’s “Man’s Glassy Essence” to the short fiction of Henry James.  Why is the confidence game so important in the 19th century story?  Discuss the trickster figure in Indian and African American folktales, Longstreet, Harris (George Washington), Harris (Joel Chandler), Poe, Melville, Twain.  Describe in detail the murder of the eponymous black cat.  Describe the murder of the narrator’s wife.  Can you imagine splitting the skull of your current or future spouse with an axe?  If you answered no, why not?  Why does the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” not know about the existence of Roderick’s twin sister when he’s known Roderick since childhood? “Take it off, take it off, before I tear it from your back!” shouts _____ in Howells’ _____ to _____.  Having mastered the 19th century short story, do you plan on mastering the 20th’s?  What is meant by “mastery” here?  Aboard the eponymous Pandora, what famous novella by the Master is Vogelstein reading?  Discuss Poe’s “The Quacks of Helicon — A Satire.”  Discuss in full James’s “The Great Condition.”  Are there things you wish the exam had asked but didn’t?  If yes, give examples.  Regarding an earlier, possibly misplaced question: Is madness quantifiable?  On a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being “stellar,” how would you rate that question?  Whose interest does the exam hold at heart, yours or its own?  If you fail the exam and cannot find a teaching gig in Baden-Württemberg, what are your plans?  If you think suicide is in the picture, cite three 19th century American stories you might do well to reread and three you might wish to avoid.  Would you want your child to study the 19th century American short story?  Recalling reading Poe as a child, James found “that predominant lustre in him which our small opening minds themselves already recognized and which makes me wonder to-day at the legend of the native neglect of him.”  Define here “lustre.” 


Tom Whalen

TOM WHALEN's The President in Her Towers is out now from Ellipsis Press. He is a novelist, short story writer, poet, and critic who has written for Agni, Bookforum, Film Quarterly, The Iowa Review, The Quarterly, the Washington Post and other publications. Co-editor of the Robert Walser Number of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, he has translated and written extensively on Walser's work. He teaches film at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Germany, and American Studies at the universities of Freiburg and Bamberg.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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