English 222 American Literature Questions on Hughes through Cheever, CSU Fullerton Spring 2014



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Note: see the Journal Schedule and Instructions Page for the details on how to keep your journal. You can either work up your own material altogether, or use your choice from among the questions below to help generate your responses; you can also move back and forth between these two ways of keeping the journal.


From "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (Norton Vol. D 348-50); All Poems (Vol. D 871-80): "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (Vol. D 871); "Mother to Son" (Vol. D 871-72); "I, Too" (Vol. D 872); "The Weary Blues" (Vol. D 872-73); "Mulatto" (Vol. D 873-74); "Song for a Dark Girl" (Vol. D 874-75); "Genius Child" (Vol. D 875); "Visitors to the Black Belt" (Vol. D 875-76); "Note on Commercial Theatre" (Vol. D 876); "Vagabonds" (Vol. D 876-77); "Words Like Freedom" (Vol. D 877); "Madam and Her Madam" (Vol. D 877-78); "Freedom {1}" (Vol. D 878); "Madam's Calling Cards" (Vol. D 878-79); "Silhouette" (Vol. D 879); "Theme for English B" (Vol. D 880).

From "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (Norton Vol. D 348-50)

1. In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," what basic argument does Langston Hughes advance regarding the development of African-American art in the United States? How is jazz central to his argument? That is, what qualities does jazz possess that supposedly make it ideal as a vehicle for a genuinely "black" mode of expression?

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (Vol. D 871)

2. Who is the "I" that speaks in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"? The Rivers the rivers in this poem are obviously charged with symbolic meaning in that they reference historical experience and the flow of time. But what more specific connotations can be found in some of the eight or so references to rivers? For example, the Euphrates, the Congo, or the Mississippi that carried Abraham Lincoln to New Orleans?

"Mother to Son" (Vol. D 871-72)

3. What is the most important piece of advice that the mother in "Mother to Son" imparts to her son? What should we make of the "crystal stair" metaphor that she uses at the beginning and end? Consider, for example, that it could be an allusion to the story of Jacob's dream about a ladder ascending to heaven, a dream he had while fleeing from his brother Esau – see Genesis 28:10-19. How would that kind of allusiveness affect the poem's meaning?

"I, Too" (Vol. D 872)

4. The first line of "I, Too" is rather Whitmanesque in its claim to "sing America." What kind of song does the speaker go on to sing, if we are to take the poem's content as the equivalent of a song? What does the verbal form "am" in the poem's final line (rather than a repetition of "sing") add to our understanding?

"The Weary Blues" (Vol. D 872-73)

5. In "The Weary Blues," how does singing the blues, according to the speaker who heard a black man singing them, affect the singer? How do the lyrics given to us (i.e. the material in quotation marks) compare to the effect described by the speaker throughout the poem and especially towards its conclusion?

"Mulatto" (Vol. D 873-74)

6. In the form of a partial dialog between a mixed-race child and his white father, "Mulatto" describes the rape of a black woman by a white man in the South. The italicized words make up the dialog, of course. What's the substance of that argument, and if there's a winner, which party is it? Moreover, what about the non-italicized portions of the poem -- how do they affect the meaning of the conversation itself?

"Song for a Dark Girl" (Vol. D 874-75) and "Silhouette" (Vol. D 879)

7. Both "Song for a Dark Girl" and "Silhouette" are poems about the abominable Southern practice of lynching black men for various alleged offenses or violations of a strict racial code. How do these poems, their imagery and perspectives or voices taken together, convey the horror of lynching?

"Genius Child" (Vol. D 875)

8. In your view, who is the genius child in "Genius Child"? What attitude does the poem develop with respect to such a child? Why should the song be sung "softly," and what might happen if the song were to "get out of hand"?

"Visitors to the Black Belt" (Vol. D 875-76) and "Note on Commercial Theatre" (Vol. D 876)

9. Hughes' "Visitors to the Black Belt" and "Note on Commercial Theatre" both deal with fundamental matters of identity and authenticity amongst African Americans living in places such as New York City and Chicago. In at least one of these two poems, what is the speaker's point of contention with white American culture – how does the speaker deal with the error in perspective that he is calling to account?

"Vagabonds" (Vol. D 876-77)

10. Hughes' "Vagabonds" is a brief, almost Blakean poem about the desperate plight of America's poor. One could, of course, easily voice one's sympathy for impoverished and homeless people in ordinary prose. What does the poetic form of Hughes' lament add to the critique?

"Words Like Freedom" (Vol. D 877) and "Freedom {1}" (Vol. D 878)

11. "Words Like Freedom" turns on a distinction between two words -- "freedom" and "liberty" -- whose meanings overlap but are not identical. What, then, is the distinction between them and how does that distinction perhaps account for the speaker's different reaction to the two words? (It may help to recall that the word "liberty" has strong roots in the discourse of the American Revolution: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as in the Declaration of Independence.)

12. In "Freedom {1}," Hughes takes issue with the common C19-20 white-culture insistence (an insistence that became quite loud during the 1950s when the modern Civil Rights Movement got underway) that any attempts on the part of African Americans to gain full equality were somehow premature and impatient. How does the poem counter that notion? How does the speaker give the desire for genuine freedom an undeniable urgency?

"Madam and Her Madam" (Vol. D 877-78) and "Madam's Calling Cards" (Vol. D 878-79)

13. Madam Alberta K. Johnson is one of Langston Hughes' personae in his poetry. What kind of personality jumps out at us in "Madam and Her Madam" and "Madam's Calling Cards"? What, that is, animates Alberta? How does she assess her own value and circumstances? (In responding, you might want to have a look at another short Hughes poem, "Madam's Past History", which isn't in our anthology but offers us a bit of Alberta's back-story.)

"Theme for English B" (Vol. D 880)

14. The speaker in "Theme for English B" is assigned a brief version of what today would be called a personal essay in which he's supposed to tell the reader something he considers true, something expressive of his own identity. Why does he find that seemingly straightforward one-pager so hard to formulate -- wherein, for him, lies the complexity of the task, and how does he resolve the difficulty, if you think he does?


As I Lay Dying (Norton Vol. D 698-793).

1. There are many narrative voices or "consciousnesses" in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying -- the Bundren family (Anse, Addie, Darl, Vardaman, Cash, Dewey Dell, and Jewel), neighbors Cora and Vernon Tull and others (Peabody, Whitfield, Samson, Armstid, Mosely, and MacGowan). Trace the development of one of the more significant characters through several sections in which that character's words and consciousness are the central factor. Namely, what is revealed about the character, and to what extent does he or she seem to change from one section to the next that you examine?

2. In Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which relies on a multiplicity of narrative voices to tell its story, it makes sense to suppose that a given character is best understood not simply by means of what he or she says but also, or even primarily, by means of what others think and say. In other words, an individual's identity in Faulkner seems to be made out of a constantly woven and unwoven web of interactions, desires, and assumptions on the part of various characters. Discuss an instance in which we learn at least as much about a given character in this manner as we do from anything that character actually says or is said to be thinking.

3. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is obviously complex in its way of narrating a tale (non-linear, at times fragmentary, partially stream-of-consciousness-based, etc.), but it nonetheless tells a coherent story about the death of Addie Bundren and the quest of the remaining Bundrens (all of them with troubles of their own) to transport her body to Jefferson, Mississippi. Choose one relatively brief section of the text that you find easiest to comprehend and explain how it helps you understand some other section or aspect of the text that you find more difficult to follow.

4. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying might well be interpreted as unfolding in a fundamentally "comic" fictional universe (the author sets most of his tales, this one included, in a fictional but realistic place called Yoknapatawpha County, modeled somewhat after Lafayette County, Mississippi), meaning that in spite of much sadness and misfortune (Addie's death, Darl's eventual madness, Cash's leg injury made even worse by a cement cast, Dewey Dell's unwanted pregnancy, etc.), the story ends on a note of renewal, not despair. Choose one significant event or aspect of the text that you think fits this notion of a comic universe rather than a tragic one. Alternately, you might choose something about the story that you think cannot be subsumed under that heading or concept, and explain why.


A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 1 (Norton Vol. E 93-155).

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 1 (Norton Vol. E 93-102)

1. On pages 93-96 of A Streetcar Named Desire, the stage descriptions render the play's New Orleans setting and Blanche DuBois makes her way into New Orleans, taking train lines with the symbolically charged names Desire and Cemeteries to get to a street called Elysian Fields (named after the abode of the blessed in classical literature) where her sister Stella lives. Once inside Stella's apartment, Blanche awaits her sister's return. If we combine the relevant stage descriptions with Blanche's words and actions up to this point before she meets Stella, how much do we already know or how much can we surmise about this character? Set down your thoughts on who Blanche DuBois is, based on what you've heard and visualized so far.

2. On pages 96-100 of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche greets her younger sister Stella upon the latter's return, and the two exchange pleasantries before engaging in a rather intense conversation about their childhood estate, Belle Reve. First of all, how does Stella characterize her marriage with Stanley Kowalski? And how does Blanche defend herself while delivering the bad news that Belle Reve is no longer a family possession? What more do we learn about her anxieties and unhappiness as she makes this defense?

3. On pages 101-02 of A Streetcar Named Desire, we are introduced to Stanley Kowalski as he makes his way towards and then enters the apartment, whereupon he and Stella have their first encounter. How do the stage directions as well as Stanley's own words and gestures help establish him for us as a strong, if by no means refined, character? How does this first brief meeting between Blanche and Stanley go?

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 2 (Norton Vol. E 103-09)

4. On pages 103-05 of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley rehearses his suspicions about Blanche to Stella. What are those suspicions, and how does he go about trying to back them up? What suggests that Stanley is misinterpreting Blanche and her personal effects?

5. On pages 105-08 of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley confronts Blanche about the loss of Belle Reve, and the two have a frank conversation about the matter. What does Blanche reveal to Stanley about the manner in which the old estate was lost? But what else happens during this conversation? What about the personal side of the interaction between these two very different characters -- how does Blanche try to maintain some control over the conversation, and how does Stanley try to undercut her or get under her skin?

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 3 (Norton Vol. E 109-16)

6. On pages 109-110 of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley and friends are playing poker when Stella and Blanche return home. A few unpleasant exchanges soon occur between Blanche and a very unchivalrous Stanley, but Blanche also meets Mitch and ends up talking with him at some length from pages 111-14. How does Mitch distinguish himself from Stanley during this conversation and afterwards, on 115-16 when he deals with Stanley's unruly behavior and comforts Blanche? And how does Blanche represent herself to Mitch as they talk?

7. On pages 115-16 of A Streetcar Named Desire, a brawling and out-of-control Stanley, after being treated to an unscheduled shower to sober him up a bit, starts wailing because Stella has fled the premises. This is the scene in which Stanley lets out his famous booming cry, "STELL-LAHHHHH!" Read this scene closely, including Tennessee Williams' detailed stage directions that fill us in on what happens aside from the words spoken. How does this scene epitomize the kind of relationship that Stella and Stanley have? How does it contrast with the ideal of womanhood and gender relations that Blanche seems to be trying to uphold when she meets Mitch?

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 4 (Norton Vol. E 117-22)

8. On pages 117-22 of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella defends Stanley and her decision to marry him from the negative assessment of an incredulous Blanche, who is determined to rebuild her life and get her younger sister out of a marriage she considers disastrous. What does Stella lay out for Blanche as the basis of her marriage with Stanley? How does Blanche's subsequent response (see page 121, "He acts like an animal …") go well beyond insulting the silently listening Stanley to constitute a passionate defense of "progress" in human affairs? What is Blanche defending under the umbrella term "progress"?

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 5 (Norton Vol. E 122-27)

9. On pages 122-27 of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley startles Blanche by sneeringly recounting rumors he has heard from a friend regarding Blanche's scandalous connection to the Hotel Flamingo in Laurel, Mississippi. Later, she and Stella have an intimate conversation, in which Blanche's fragility is very much on display. What deep anxieties and counteracting hopes does Blanche reveal to Stella during this conversation? How does Blanche's rather unsuccessful attempt to seduce the paperboy who shows up towards the scene's end reinforce or deepen our understanding of the dread she has already revealed?

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 6 (Norton Vol. E 127-33)

10. On pages 127-33 of A Streetcar Named Desire, how do things stand between Blanche and Mitch? To what extent is she honest with him, and he with her?

11. On pages 132-33 of A Streetcar Named Desire, what story does Blanche relate to Mitch about her young, now-deceased husband, Allan Gray? Why was she drawn to him, and what happened on the fateful night that he committed suicide? How does this story impact the end of the evening that Blanche and Mitch have spent together?

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 7 (Norton Vol. E 133-37)

To be continued as time permits ….

12. On pages - of A Streetcar Named Desire,

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 8 (Norton Vol. E 137-41)

13. On pages - of A Streetcar Named Desire,

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 9 (Norton Vol. E 141-45)

14. On pages - of A Streetcar Named Desire,

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 10 (Norton Vol. E 145-50)

15. On pages - of A Streetcar Named Desire,

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 11 (Norton Vol. E 150-55)

16. On pages - of A Streetcar Named Desire,


"The Swimmer" (Norton Vol. E 157-65).

"The Swimmer" (Norton Vol. E 157-65)

1. On page 157 of "The Swimmer," the story opens on a midsummer's day and everyone seems to have been drinking. Consider the role that alcohol plays in this story from here on out – how might alcohol consumption be thought to correlate to Neddy Merrill's illusions and, more broadly, his way of life and outlook?

2. On pages 157-59 of "The Swimmer," what initial description and characterization of Neddy Merrill does the narrator give us, and what seems to spark the idea of making his way home from the Westerhazys' poolside party by swimming through all the pools in the neighborhood? How does this strange voyage begin? What is Neddy's navigation plan and how does he handle his interactions with some of the first neighbors he encounters during his trip?

3. On pages 160-161 of "The Swimmer," a storm kicks up while Neddy Merrill is swimming his way home. How does he react to the storm at first? What unpleasant circumstances soon confront him, however, and what troubling insight comes his way as a result of them? Moreover, how does the narrator's description at this point suggest that the story is veering away from simple realism and towards the inclusion of a symbolic dimension accompanying Neddy's trip?

4. On page 161 of "The Swimmer," Neddy Merrill must cross the highway Route 424 and then use a public pool before he makes his way to the wealthy Halloran couple and their pool. In terms of the story's suburban landscape and its quality as an exploration of suburban ideology, why is it significant that Neddy finds it necessary to make his way across a very busy highway and then dip into a very public pool rather than the private, upscale ones of his neighbors?

5. On page 162 of "The Swimmer," Neddy Merrill makes his way to the wealthy Halloran couple and their pool. What startling and supposedly new information does he hear from them, and how does he respond to what they say? After his conversation with the Hallorans, what mood is Neddy in, and what is the condition of his body at this point? What does the narrator mention about the quality of the season, and why should that description jar us?

6. On page 163 of "The Swimmer," Neddy Merrill reaches the pool area of Helen and Eric Sachs, where he finds out that Eric had a major operation three years ago, one that has left him disfigured. How might the particular type of disfigurement, as it's described, be interpreted as having a symbolic charge with regard to the suburban lifestyle that the text explores? How does Neddy react to Helen and Eric's news at this point, and what reflections occur to him about the other disturbing things he has been told about his own recent existence?

7. On pages 163-64 of "The Swimmer," the wealthy Biswangers snub Neddy Merrill when he encounters them in hopes of getting something to drink, and his former mistress Shirley Adams also spurns him. What is the basis of these people's harsh treatment of Neddy, and what do they add to our understanding of his recent past? Why is the harsh treatment more or less deserved, and how, if at all, do these two encounters near the story's end change your view of Neddy?

8. On pages 164-65 of "The Swimmer," what condition is Neddy Merrill in (both physically and mentally) as he enters the home stretch of his strange trip through a suburban neighborhood's swimming pools, and then finally arrives home? What is "home" by the end of the story? How do the literal and symbolic dimensions come together at this point to cap our understanding of Neddy's downfall?

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