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Taxonomy, Interrupted

One pleasure of my job is I get to interview English department faculty. The interviews serve a number of purposes, but two, one historical, one ephemeral, are paramount: to create a video and audio record of the faculty and to show that faculty off. The unedited, hour-long interviews are archived within the department and also published on our Tumblr blog. Because they are lengthy, they generally become, after a couple of introductory questions, less interviews than conversations. The professors and I talk in-depth about their scholarly work and how their teaching and their lives in general affect and are affected by that work. I learn fabulously interesting things: Professor X was a punk rocker, Professor Y tapdances, Professor Z, for a time, because of a particular strand of his work, received death threats. But as much as I enjoy the interviews themselves, I am especially drawn to preparing for them.

By preparing, I mean the hunting down and then the reading of and thinking through a given professor’s scholarly work. Full professors have usually published at least a couple of books and up to scores of articles; for associate and assistant professors, it’s generally a book or two and many articles. No academic myself, I’m nonetheless taken, smitten even, with good academic writing. The strongest of it, like strong poems or novels, opens the intellect and the senses both. At college the second time around, in my thirties, I discovered JSTOR. My God, here were worlds revealed, in real time. Click. Click. Click. How would I get anything done, ever? Click. Why leave the house? Click. Why feed the dog? Click. JSTOR made a mess of me.

It still does. I began the week reading the work of Professor Elizabeth Hewitt, a scholar of early American literature. One of Hewitt’s current projects is exploring the intersection between economics and literature, focusing, in part, on how early American business magazines worked to develop “a happy union between letters and commerce.” The first business magazines, Hewitt explains in an article called “Romances of Real Life; Or, the Nineteenth-Century American Business Magazine,” were what were called “prices currents.” These prices currents published all sorts of factual information and statistics important to conducting business, including commodity prices, insurance rates, wages, stock and bond prices, currency exchange rates, etc. What the prices currents lacked, however, was romance. “'[T]he few dry details and quotations,’” Hewitt quotes a writer at the time as declaring, “’are no match for the rattling, sparkling commentaries of an expert commercial editor, who gives cause and effect.’” The editor, Hewitt tells us, “most responsible for establishing a business magazine dedicated to this synthetic analysis, and to using his magazine as the literary space to cultivate the unique vocabulary, standards, and tools for the burgeoning mercantile, manufacturing, and financial classes was Freeman Hunt.”

Fascinating stuff. But then this, and things for me go a bit haywire: Hewitt tells us that Edgar Allen Poe wrote that Hunt is “’thought of in half the countries of the world as early as No. 3 in their enumeration of distinguished Americans.’” A strange proclamation from Poe, sure. I mean, did citizens of “half the other countries in the world” really rank, in a Top-10 format accessible to Poe, a list of “distinguished Americans”? But that’s not what sent me reeling. What threw me was this: what the hell was Edgar Allen Poe doing in the scholarly business magazine article? Just days before, while trying to compile, for this very blog post, a taxonomy of prison literatures, I came across, in the first chapter of Howard Franklin‘s 1978 book, The Victim as Criminal and Artist, a comparison Franklin makes between the racism of Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’d set that analysis aside in a corner of my brain to return to when I got the time. But then when I saw, not more than a couple days later, Poe in Hewitt’s article, I felt the gods were ordering me onto the Poe train.

So off I rode. I clicked off the Hewitt and began clicking in search of articles on Poe’s racism. Eventually, because I’d learned in my research thus far that Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” features a hanged (lynched?) black cat, I typed as search terms into the library database “black” and “cat” and “race.” And what article displayed as the twelfth of 263 selections? I kid you not: “Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity.” Hadn’t I vowed, in the very title of my last blog post, to quit Cleaver for good? If you have ever broken up with your companion and your companion refused to go away, you know what I was feeling. But maybe, just maybe, you know what else I was feeling, just a tiny bit and mostly against my will: yesyes, despite it all, because of it all, I’ve missed you.

Next post, possibly: a taxonomy of American prison literatures.