What is a literature professor to talk about the morning after a national election, especially with students who are excited about having voted for the first time? It so happens that I was able to connect the election to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Jane Austen’s Persuasion fairly easily.
To link Obama with Song of Solomon in my 20th-century survey of English-language literature (see my post on this yesterday), I simply had to extend the historical trajectory of African American liberation that we had been talking about throughout the course. Using the novel, I reminded the students of the key moments in African American history that we had talked about.
Earlier in the semester I had described the great black migration north, and we see a version of this in Macon Dead moving from Virginia to Michigan. We discussed Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred” poems and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, and Morrison’s novel mentions the Emmitt Till slaying. The Guitar-Milkman relationship, I said, represented the evolution from late 1960’s black rage to the more grounded 1970’s “roots” movement. And while Morrison didn’t necessarily see Milkman’s dreams of flying taking the form of a black man one day becoming president, to many of us the latter has seemed just as miraculous. Obama’s election and then re-election seemed to resonate with the spirit of antebellum slave tales where men flew back to Africa.
The fact that my students take an African American president for granted—they don’t find it miraculous at all—I find to be wonderfully encouraging. I recounted to them a rule of thumb related to me by my old Emory grad school professor Jerome Beaty: to understand a writer’s vision, he used to say, look at what was occurring in the world when he or she was 21. This has proven very useful over the years, and I thought about how a black president and a multicultural electorate would shape my students’ sense of reality for the rest of their lives. (My own perspective has been shaped by the Vietnam War and Watergate.)
Surprisingly, it was equally easy relating the election to Persuasion in my Jane Austen first-year seminar. A major conflict in Austen’s last novel is between an older traditional and out-of-touch gentry class that is becoming impoverished and a new up-and-coming middle class defined that is advancing by merit. On the one hand, there is Sir Walter Elliot, a spendthrift baronet who is stuck on his own vision of the world. On the other hand, there is Frederick Wentworth, a naval officer who, though initially poor, has confidence in his abilities and makes a fortune for himself. You see the parallels one can draw with Tuesday’s election, which went Obama’s way in part because of the declining percentage of older white voters.
One of my students talked about how proud she was of both Obama and Romney for reaching out to each other in their final speeches. She was desperate for the two parties to work together to address the nation’s problems, and I noted that a version of this happens in the novel. After all, Anne Elliot (tradition) marries Wentworth (new money) in one of the most romantic of Austen’s couplings.
Noting this gave me a chance to deliver a mini-lecture on how novels operate. Drawing on the ideas of literary theorist Georg Lukacs, I noted that novels will often set characters against each other who represent opposing sides of a historical conflict. When the conflicts can be resolved, we often get comic endings. When they can’t, we are apt to get either tragic endings or ironic endings. Jane Austen is able to pull off convincing comic endings, especially in Persuasion.
We agreed we’re rooting for a happy relationship—or at least not a tragic one—between Obama and Congressional Republicans.