Video / Audio  Reading

Essays are central to students’ and teachers’ development as thinkers in their fields. In Crafting Presence, Nicole B. Wallack develops an approach to teaching writing with the literary essay that holds promise for writing students, as well as for achieving a sense of common purpose currently lacking among professionals in composition, creative writing, and literature. Wallack analyzes examples drawn primarily from volumes of The Best American Essays to illuminate the most important quality of the essay as a literary form: the writer’s “presence.” She demonstrates how accounting for presence provides a flexible and rigorous heuristic for reading the contexts, formal elements, and purposes of essays. Such readings can help students learn writing principles, practices, and skills for crafting myriad presences rather than a single voice.

Last Works: Lessons in Leaving by Mark Taylor. Living in the shadow of death may enhance the gift of life. In 2006, Taylor (Religion/Columbia Univ.; Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left, 2014, etc.) developed an infection after a biopsy, resulting in septic shock that took a month to stabilize; five months later, he underwent surgery for cancer. That life-threatening experience, he reflects, was like “dying without dying,” and the last 10 years have seemed like “life after death for me,” a reprieve that made him feel unexpectedly liberated. Trying to make sense of the experience, he turned to writers whose works he has read, taught, and cherished during his long career. The result is an erudite intellectual autobiography focused on 11 writers’ insights about the end of life: several (Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and Freud) committed suicide; two (Nietzsche, Poe) died in delirium; and two (Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida) are likely to be unfamiliar to readers without a background in philosophy. Kierkegaard, Melville, and Thoreau round out the cast. None could be characterized as bright spirits but rather echo the abiding depression that Taylor believes he inherited from his mother. “In one way or another,” he admits, “everything I have written over the years has been an effort to overcome the melancholy of unhappy consciousness.” From his father, however, a science teacher, poet, and artist, he inherited an uplifting love of nature and artistic talent. Living in New England, Taylor senses the ghosts of Melville and Thoreau close at hand. As he watches the sun rise each morning over the Berkshires, he is struck by the moment before light appears and “reality remains virtual and all things seem possible.” As an artist, “exploring ways of writing without words,” he has created large-scale land art from steel, stone, and bone that depict letters from the signatures of Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. They stand as impressive homages to a trinity of beloved philosophers. Taylor’s personal recollections emerge as the most engaging passages, punctuating analyses of often challenging works.

Terrance Hayes is the author of several books of poetry, including How to Be Drawn; Lighthead, which won the 2010 National Book Award for poetry; Muscular Music, which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award; and Hip Logic, winner of the 2001 National Poetry Series. A recipient of a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, he is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, poetry editor at New York Times Magazine, and Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU.

March 7, 2016: Robert Alter presents the next installment of the Lionel Trilling Seminar.  The David story and Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, the first narrative very early and the other relatively late in the Western literary tradition, are deeply instructive instances of how the vehicle of fiction can provide insights into the realm of politics.  Herbert Marks and Michael Wood serve as respondents.

Since the 1940s, invocations of "close reading" (however understood) have figured centrally in controversies over new methodological developments in literary studies: e.g., the New Criticism, structuralism, New Historicism, deconstruction, ideology critique, and, notably now, the Digital Humanities. The talk recalls some of those controversies and considers how the idea or ideal of "close reading" operates in current debates about-- and within-- the Digital Humanities.

As part of The Disciplines Series: Evaluation, Value, and Evidence, authors Alison Piepmeier, George Estreich, and Rachel Adams take up many of the questions raised in our November 2013 event on "Genes, Children, and Ethics" (featuring Michael Berube, Faye Ginsberg, and Rayna Rapp) in their discussion of "Parenting, Narrative, and Our Genetic Futures." Elizabeth Emens chairs.

Authors Colm Tóibín and Julie Orringer discussed the topic of “Family Novels" with Deborah Cohen, Professor of History at Northwestern.

Uzodinma Iweala, MD, is the author of the multi-award-winning novel Beasts of No Nation (prizes from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Public Library, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Booktrust) and of the non-fiction Our Kind of People: Thoughts on HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (2012). In 2007 he was selected as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. Dr. Iweala will read from his latest work, Speak No Evil –which he describes as a “a series of interlinked narratives set in Washington, DC that explores the themes of choice, freedom, and what we must compromise to live in a secure society.”