LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Collective Unity and the Hardboiled Detective

In a paper entitled “Philip Marlowe, Family Man”, Wesley Beal draws ideas of family and its relationship to work from the interactions of Philip Marlowe – a hardboiled detective created by Raymond Chandler – and the dysfunctional families he encounters.

From what I understood of his argument, Wesley describes crime-fiction as the “modern” – this particular character and style were popular in the 1930s and 40s – expression of 19th century sentimentalism and its tension between work and family. Specifically, Wesley tracks Marlowe’s interaction with a family called the Sternwoods.

The Sternwood family is generally described to be the definition of dysfunction; murders, blackmail, cover-ups, name it and they have probably done it. Interestingly enough however, while individually terrible people, they almost constantly have each others’ backs. In fact, all of their energy goes into protecting the collective unit. Wesley argues that this devotion to the collective whole acts as a pulling force on the protagonist and – even though it is a messed up bunch – begins to transform Marlowe from an outsider to a surrogate filial member of the family.

Marlowe, like any good hardboiled detective from his genre’s era, is more comfortable being on his own than part of a family. In Chandler’s stories, Marlowe suppresses his desires for family and social connection in order to more fully embrace what he feels is a necessary separation to operate effectively as . Unfortunately for him, his suppressed desires are inevitably dragged to the surface as he becomes more emotionally invested in working with the Sternwoods, particularly the father.

While the family’s dedication to a unified front is a strong symbol for collective unity, Wesley argues that the historical context is a more motivated to target this idea and weaken it. The target audience – based on Wesley’s analysis of the ads – is immigrant families; essentially, his argument is that these families come into America with a strong collective family idea and are presented with stories about increasingly dysfunctional families to weaken those bonds. By attacking these bonds, these families become more adjusted to the individualistic capitalist ideals more common in America in that era.

In his increasingly difficult dealing with the Sternwood family, Marlowe becomes more and more part of their collective unit, at times identifying himself with “we” and “us” when referring to the family. This makes it all the more difficult to maintain his hardboiled facade. Chandler has to develop his character while maintaining the essential tension of the genre between alienation and the desire to belong. In the end, he leaves the Sternwoods after one of the daughters tries to kill him and he solves the murder and its cover-up in the family.

Marlowe’s ideas of family become harder and harder to achieve in his continuing adventures; the Sternwood family is simply one family in a line of progressively devolving families reeking of dysfunction and loaded with problems. As his adventures continue, and as each family he encounters is worse than the last, Marlowe’s desire for family becomes easier to manage as it is deferred further and further along his personal timeline.

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I attended the Marxist Reading Group presentation “Rethinking Work,” for the last panel presentation.  While the topics introduced were all interesting in their own way, I had a hard time seeing a cohesive theme between the three.  One dealt with Indians, one dealt with New Wave Feminism, and one dealt with the Stieg Larsson “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy.  Each paper was an entirely new world onto itself and the environment of the panel changed with each paper.

The first paper about Indians was interesting in that it brought up the native laws and Indian casinos as well as species of rare orchids and a funny little story about a man attempting to steal them, but she chose to make her point by describing a movie called Adaptation which I have never seen, and I doubt anyone else had really seen either because it seemed to be just a weird Nicholas Cage film, and I, at least, had never even heard of it before she introduced it.  A lot of her paper was just summarizing the film which, admittedly, sounded interesting in a completely different and weird way, but not something I can see myself watching any time soon.  She was a good speaker though and seemed to know her material well, not reading directly from the paper for the majority of the time.

The second presentation was about Second Wave Feminism and although she seemed like a really nice person, she read directly from her paper without very many natural pauses and she just seemed a little uncomfortable the whole time.

The third presentation really made the whole night. He started with a speech about how he was going to capitalize on the coveted last spot by using all of the allotted time, and then proceeded to go about twenty or thirty minutes over the time I was made to understand the panel would be over.  He was a good speaker and interacted well with the audience, including taking a little poll at the beginning to figure out how many people had actually read the books he was going to be talking about, and his love for Swedish crime fiction was made really apparent, but I just found myself checking the time repeatedly and waiting to leave.  The moderator eventually had to cut him off.

During the questioning, the final speaker, Phil Wegner, made a big production of it again and spent about ten minutes answering each question so that the other two women had a hard time getting a word in edgewise.  I honestly didn’t understand much of what the questions were about, it was kind of just a weird dialogue/argument between Phil and the audience members with everyone adding on more to the conversation and leaving the poor women without anything to do or ad.

For the most part, what I learned is that the better speakers are more conversational rather than just reading from their papers.  It’s good to take pauses and the more specific the examples, the better the presentation.  It also helps to reference things that people have actually seen/read because then they have something to relate to. It’s also important to give other people a chance to speak because if you’re seen as dominating the floor, it’s a little obnoxious to the people watching.  Overall, it was a good panel and it wasn’t a completely excruciating experience, I just felt that Phil Wegner’s personality was a little much and really overshadowed the other two speakers.

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Extra Credit: Bat… Woman?!

Batwoman_Earth_Two_1 Batwoman

I attended the “Marginalized Women: Out  of the Margins and Onto the Page” panel for the Graduate Comics Organization on Sunday, March 17th and I learned quite a lot about the history of a super heroine known as Batwoman as well as queer theory in comics. The first speaker, Dianna Baldwin, had a very intriguing argument about the portrayal of the Batwoman character in the DC Comics universe and expanded on her development as well as her back story. Her initial argument of Batwoman’s creation is that she was used to quell rumors that the two renowned heroes of DC Comics, Batman and Robin, were in a homosexual relationship. In fact, Batwoman was used as a potential love interest to Batman  and throughout her very few appearances in the late 1950s she was often the one appearing in the nick of time to rescue the caped crusader.

Moreover, Baldwin’s first part of her presentation focused on emphasizing and pointing out the many feminine aspects of the character of Batwoman including her very bright and womanly attire with her long hair flowing in the back, her make-up inspired gadgets, and even some girly phrases that further accentuated the female stereotype she portrayed. In addition, Batwoman’s weapons consist of feminine products such as cosmetic compacts, bracelets, hairnets, and even lipstick that are literally used to attack her opponents. It is also interesting to note that Batwoman always seems to fight against male villains and, in some cases, rescued Batman and Robin from a pickle, most likely displaying a bit of female superiority and equality with a strong superhero like Batman.

Furthermore, Baldwin also included the deterioration of the Batwoman role which included the character giving up her life as a vigilante because a man advised her to stop. In addition, she spoke about how the term “Women in Refrigerator Syndrome” fit so well to Batwoman as she is “depowered” by the masculine figure, Batman in this case, that discovers her secret identity. Batman warns her that she may be in danger considering any villain may discover her identity if he was easily able to uncover it. Baldwin also talks about the “Bechdel Test” used to identify the gender bias in the Batwoman comics. The test usually consists of following rules: the comic should have two or more women, the woman must converse with one another, and they are to talk about something other than men.

The second half of Baldwin’s presentation expands on the Batwoman character over the years as she began appearing less until she completely disappeared from the DC Comics issues. Baldwin asserts that there was really no use for her character and found it difficult to use her. However, in 2006, the Batwoman character returned and had apparently become a lesbian super heroine. In this iteration, she is more independent and strong willed. She no longer fits in with the typical female stereotype and has become a more masculine character that fights crime without the presence of Batman. She has a romantic relationship with another female and her character seems to be completely rewritten to appease a broader audience.

Overall, Baldwin organized her presentation really well and a lot of people were very attentive to her analysis of Batwoman. It was interesting to see the transition from a character that was practically the epitome of the stereotypical female of the Golden Age comics to a tough, independent, and well-rounded super heroine in the 2000s. Her presentation was perfect, in my opinion, and elaborated a lot on a character with a very limited background. Not only did she include the developmental history of Batwoman, but her argument was consistent with the facts she included on her presentation. All in all, this was a very interesting experience and would love to attend another panel like this in the future.

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Extra Credit: Panel 16- Marxist Reading Group “Rethinking Work”

The Marxist Reading Group panel I attended was held on Saturday, March 23rd, where panelists Kim Emery and Rebekah Fitzsimmons presented their papers on “Performance Counts: Productivity and Faculty Work” and “Professional Disputes and Early Reader Picture Books” respectively.  Although Kim presented contemplative points about work as labor and its means of measurement and rewards in hyper exploited conditions, I found her overall analysis of “work one” and “work two” difficult to follow.  Therefore, my blog will focus on Rebekah’s presentation.  Rebekah’s paper covered many points in the field of children’s literature, but I will only discuss a few of them and their connection with our class, while including my thoughts on them.

Like we discussed in class, Rebekah noted the control adults have in children’s literature.  Adults write the books, buy the books, and librarians market certain ones through displays, thus directly affecting the types of books consumers and children submit to.  Rebekah said that parents have a “patriotic duty” to get involved in children’s literature and that they should be more “savvy consumers” in the field.  These points go along with what we discussed since the beginning of class when we talked about Deborah Stevenson’s article, “Classics and Canons.”  Stevenson explains that children’s literature, as an academic, is controlled by adults; the content is written for adults who buy the books, so it is doubly removed.  I thought it was interesting that she made this connection to class by mentioning one of the major pivotal points in children’s literature.

Rebekah also argues that education is linked to the middle class.  I can agree with this point because there is an appeal to the middle class and people generally want to enter it.  And once you are “in it,” you have more available access to money, leisure time, etcetera.  With these privileges, one can afford to be educated.  So, I see where she makes the connection with education and the middle class dream.  Furthermore, this argument she makes in her paper made me think about the specific definition of the middle class.  I wondered what really defines the middle class and how do people get into it if the cycle of poverty and illiteracy keeps shifting.

Another major point Rebekah made, which I found interesting, was that the consumer culture and childhood are related.  The impurity of the money can relate to the purity of childhood.  I never thought of the two fields connecting in this way.  Primarily, I read the relation as the big companies exploiting the children for their own benefits and their own profit.  However, they are, at the end of the day, helping the children and their families and, essentially the country, if you look at the big picture, by raising literacy rates.  Also, Rebekah points out that the consumers are not buying the content of the picture books; they are buying the open access to them.  I agree with all of these points; the consumer and administration relationship is undeniable related.  In my opinion, it just seems like exploitation because small children are involved; in fact, the companies are simply using the child crowd to capitalize on their businesses.  These points also made me think about how parents can be savvy consumers.  How can they be savvy consumers?  First of all, they will need money to consume; second, they will need the time to set aside to make savvy-consumer-decisions; and finally, they will need to be literate and educated on the product and business they are buying from.  In order to have these qualities to be a savvy consumer, one needs to be of middle class, which brings me back to my previous question: how do people enter the middle class via education if the class lines are constantly being defined?

Obviously, the children literature field of study is a complex one.  Economics, big companies, consumers, children, and parents are all significant factors in children’s literature.  After attending Rebekah’s panel, I was able to reconsider the notion that children’s literature can be “figured out.”  In other words, I came to the conclusion that there are no right or wrong answers in children’s literature; instead, everything is a debate and is complicated due to the number of factors to consider when making any sort of claim.  The panel opened my eyes to another niche in children’s literature, one that involves the economy.  I was able to understand, in class discussions, that parents are a significant force in children’s literature, however, I never considered the companies or the class of the parents in the equation.  The new ideas that Rebekah pointed out about the middle class and the consumers’ relationship with the administration are important thoughts to use in future class discussions.

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Extra Credit: Hush

I attended the Graduate Comics Organization on March 15th, and listened to three different speakers, two females, and a male. I did not enjoy the presentation style of the two females because it felt forced, and sans passion for their research. That being said, when Matthew Ziegler, a presenter from Truman State University, spoke, I was very impressed. He delivered his presentation with casual elegance and subtle poise. It was clear that this presentation meant a great deal to him and he used this opportunity to demonstrate that. He gave a very impacting speech about a comic called Hush. This is a comic that originated in India and really intrigued Matthew to learn more. It is a comic that has no words or text, but only images. This way, the story is completely open to subjective interpretation. While this is true, the fact that the main character of the story was raped by her father is very well supported. The images just reveal too much pain to deny that.

The characters of the comic have no names, perhaps as a means to relate to more exterior individuals rather than just the characters in the story. The images that I perfectly remember are images that show pain and sorrow. Images of the main character with a smoking gun in a classroom, which symbolizes the murder she committed as an act of vengeance to salvage some sense of strength. She shot a teacher, who happened to be her father, because he repeatedly raped her throughout the course of her life. She uses the same handgun to kill herself because she kept seeing his image. While this is the basic plot of the story, Matthew was more interested in the way the images were portrayed as means of “speaking” to the audience, because of the lack of any text. The use of emotions, shadows, and gloomy imagery spoke more to me than did the mere appearance of an image as a whole. Matthew mentioned that this story applied to conflicts that are ongoing in India, in which women are the oppressed gender and males have a sense of supremacy. The interpretation that the main character was raped can be used to signify the “rape” of women in a society that is fit for the male gender.

I agree with the speaker, especially because of the manner in which he developed his approach. He stated what he felt about the images as parts and as a whole to envelop the entire text. After he laid out his argument, he went into why he believed it. He was able to support every point he made with the use of the images provided in the comic as sites of evidence. He was asked three questions from the audience and he was able to answer them all with ready success and no hesitation.

I learned just how powerful a small, wordless comic really can be. It told a story simply through the use of images, but it told a much larger story about the strife in India. It made me aware of current events that I was not aware of, and made me feel proud to know that this is another means of getting the knowledge out there.


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Extra Credit Response: Hush, the wordless comic from India


The somber cover of the comic.

I attended the graduate school conference for comics and learned about three very different comics, none of which fell into the usual superhero or comedy genres. Three students presented their papers and discussed and argued for ideas concerning the comics, usually involving a combination of theme with the comic’s manipulation of its form. The topic that resonated most with me involved a student presenting a very unique comic in India, one that contained no dialogue and only utilized images to convey its story. The student argued that the comic, titled Hush, not only surmounted comic tropes but also conveyed an Indian woman’s feeling of helplessness and futility in a world dominated by men.

The comic itself follows the story of an unnamed student who is repeatedly raped by her father. After years of  abuse, she shoots him (or so what appears to be him) in a class room and eventually shoots herself, but only after hallucinating his appearance after killing him. The bulk of the student’s presentation centered upon the nuances within the text (for example, the use of shading and how it correlated with the protagonist’s mood) and how the author used unconventional methods to create a feeling of helplessness in a man’s world. Although the comic only detailed the woman’s struggle with her father and her descent into madness and misery, the student claimed that the comic could be interpreted as a microcosm for the frustration of women everywhere in India in the face of male dominance. I found this idea very compelling, especially since I know many books from the United States used similar (although not as drastic) plots and character arcs to build upon the idea of a frightening sense of male dominance. The student’s argument that rape is the best metaphor for the feelings of Indian woman in their society also strengthens his argument. Many literary scholars and critics point to the use of rape in literature as a device to communicate feelings of degradation, helplessness, and inferiority. A rape represents the sickest and most final display of power of a man over a woman, so it makes sense why an author would employ a rape as a metaphor for the woman experience in India.

The student organized his paper very well and managed a consistent flow throughout. After summarizing the basic premise of the comic, he showed the audience page by page the events that unfolded and offered analysis for each image and plot point. This helped greatly with buildings his arguments by informing the audience of the plot of the comic, with which he was then able to naturally analyze and argue to the reader without having the reader be potentially confused. The only issue I found with this method was its conduciveness to time, for each presenter was allowed only ten or so minutes to present their topic in full. Although a separate reader would have his or her own time to read and fully digest the paper, an audience member here is limited by the time constraints of the panel and thus could feel as though the paper’s presentation was rushed. However, I felt that the student aptly presented and explained his paper within the time constraints. I definitely learned a variety of ways one could present a paper from this panel, particularly the method of building upon an argument while simultaneously guiding the audience chronologically through a work. I could see how this method would fail to hold up with a longer work, though. Overall, I greatly valued going to the panel and learning how grad students present papers on works of literature.

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Final Extra Credit Opportunity: Graduate Conferences

Two organizations associated with the English Department are holding academic conferences this month:

  • The Graduate Comics Organization will present the 10th Annual UF Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels on March 15-March 17 in Pugh 210 and the Ustler Atrium.  The title of the conference is: “A Comic of Her Own: Women Writing, Reading and Embodying Through Comics.”  See link for complete schedule:

For up to 25 points extra credit, you must attend one panel or keynote speech one of these two conferences and write a 500-600 word response.  This response will be due by Monday, April 1 at 5pm and will be posted to the class blog. You may attend as many panels as you like, but you may only post one response.

Responses should not be merely summaries of the panels, but a thoughtful and well-developed short paper that includes your own analysis. You may write on one of the following prompts (or a combo):

  1.  Discuss one of the papers presented at the panel. What is the main argument of the paper? How did the author organize the paper? What techniques could you use to improve your own papers? What could the author have done better, either in the paper or during their presentation?
  2.  Discuss the environment of the panel you attended.  How did the papers on the panel work together?  How did the panel interact with the audience? With each other? What was your experience as an audience member? What did you learn from this experience?
  3. Discuss how one of the papers or a panel at large helped you to reconsider some of the topics we have regularly discussed in class.  Did this paper/panel add to your understanding of this topic?  What new ideas or points to you hope to use in our future discussions in class.
  4. Attend one of the keynote addresses.  What is the speech about? What are some of the main arguments? Do you agree/disagree with the speaker?  What did you learn from this speech?
  5. If you are an English/Humanities major and are considering going to graduate school, use this as an opportunity to reflect on what that might entail.  How would you feel about presenting in this professional setting?  Did your interactions with this group of graduate students, faculty or other professionals in the field change your concept of what graduate school would be like?  What challenges or opportunities do you see emerging out of this type of work?  What topics can you see yourself presenting on in the future?

A few quick notes:

  • This is a professional conference. Please conduct yourself accordingly. If I hear from any of my fellow grad students or faculty that students, specifically MY students, were texting, talking, snoozing or otherwise conducting themselves in appropriately, I will cancel the Extra Credit for EVERYONE. Conduct yourself as if you were in class: plan to take notes and turn off your cell phones.
  • There will likely be free food at these events.
  • Please do not attend a panel if you can not be present for the whole thing. It is extremely rude for you to enter late or leave early: it is distracting to the speakers and disruptive to the audience.
  • You may attend any of the panels that you find interesting, even (or especially) if it applies to one of your other classes.  However, if you are attending the same panel for two different classes, you must produce original response papers for both classes in order to comply with the UF honor code on plagiarism.  I am presenting on one of the MRG panels but you will not get EXTRA extra credit for attending that one 🙂
  • These papers will be written at the professional/PhD level. Do not worry if you find yourself confused. Try to follow the argument as best you can. Pay attention to the way the speaker organizes their talk, the things they emphasize and the way they respond to questions.  If possible, ask questions!
  • If you are interested in going to graduate school, this is an excellent opportunity for you to see up close what graduate research (especially in the humanities) looks like, and what professional conferences entail.  I highly encourage those of you in your junior and senior years who might be pursuing higher degrees to attend at least one of the panels.
  • This will be the final extra credit offering for the semester.
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