March 5, 2009

Profs Analyze, Praise Cornell Writers

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The 105-year-old Creative Writing program at Cornell played a key role in shaping 20th century American literature, several acclaimed literary scholars said at a panel discussion yesterday.
At a talk sponsored by the Creative Writing program as a part of the Spring Centennial Plus Five Reading Series, English department panelists Prof. Roger Gilbert, Prof. Mary P. Brady and Prof. Molly Hite, discussed Cornell writers Prof. emeritus A.R. Ammons, Thomas Pynchon ’59, Manuel Munoz ’98 and Loida Maritza Perez ’87.
Over the past century, Cornell’s top-ranked creative writing program has produced numerous celebrated writers. Among those who walked the halls of Goldwin Smith are E.B. White ’21, Kurt Vonnegut ’44, Kenneth McClane ’73, Alice Fulton MFA ’82, Vladmir Nabokov, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison MFA ’55, and Pulitzer prize winner Junot Diaz MFA ’95. [img_assist|nid=35835|title=Eyes wide open|desc=Prof. Roger Gilbert, English, discusses the work of A. Ammons and how it influenced the writing of his students.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“It’s really, really heartening to think how people who also studied here have done such great things,” said Claire Barbour ’10, who attended the discussion.
Hite, who teaches ENGL 2060: The Great American Cornell Novel, says teaching a course entirely devoted to Cornell writers is “like teaching a contemporary lit course. True, everybody is from Cornell, but [the course] does not exclude anyone I would teach [about in an ordinary American literature course].”
The first panelist, Gilbert, spoke about the life of the late poet Ammons, and his influence on Cornell writers Fulton and McClane.
“Archie Ammons’ 37-year relationship with Cornell is a long and complex one,” said Gilbert. Ammons came to Cornell after a series of odd jobs and failed ventures including working as a night school teacher, sales executive, realtor and an attempt to start a publication called “Country Club Women”, he said.
Ammons provided students with “legendary accessibility” as an instructor, often holding day-long office hours and encouraging his students to “do the outrageous more outrageously,” according to Gilbert.
“His office was the life and blood of the campus,” he added.
Gilbert also commented on Ammons’ stylistic influences on active Cornell creative writing professors McClane and Fulton, who now occupy Ammons’ office.
“Archie [Ammons] was such a big influence,” Fulton said in an interview. “He encouraged me to be more wild, and I needed that. He encouraged me to be more intrepid, take risks and experiment [with] things, even if it seemed weird to [do so].”
According McClane, Ammons had a powerful “sense that there [was] nothing more valuable or sacred than poetry.”
“[For Ammons, poets] had essential things to say about the world, and if you were able to find that part of you that was unique and learn to celebrate that, there [is] a possibility that you can say things far more generative than your own experience,” McClane said.
The second panelist, Hite, spoke about Thomas Pynchon ’58.
Pynchon originally came to Cornell to study engineering physics; he left after two years to serve in the Navy, and changed his major to English when he returned to Cornell in 1955, according to Hite.
Hite began by discussing Pynchon’s mysterious and complex writing style, quoting a classic “Pynchon moment” from Pynchon’s well-read novel The Crying of Lot 49: “A sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen, because the slope faced west.”
According to Hite, Pynchon’s life is just as mysterious as his writing style. Pynchon avoided fame and public appearances –– the most recent accredited photo of him is one taken while he served in the navy –– even when he endorsed Marge Simpson’s novel in an episode of The Simpsons as a cartoon version of himself, his face was covered with a paper bag.
“First generation Pynchon scholars still call each other at night and read passages, sometimes backwards, to see if they mean anything,” Hite said.
Brady spoke about Munoz and Perez, describing their contributions to Chicano-American literature, as well as the liberalness in the Cornell English department that set the program apart from similar programs.
“Cornell is an unlikely locale in some ways to support Latino literature, and certainly outdistances the rest of the Ivies in number and impact on the field. At the very least, this demonstrates the English department’s confidence and ability to do things differently, to commit to fields that seem to lack certain cultural prestige,” Brady said.
McClane also commented on the growing diversity in the English department since he arrived at Cornell in 1969. “When I first got here, I was the second person of color in my department,” McClane said. “Within five or six years [we got] to a situation where we have twelve people of color, and [the] same [happened] in terms of gender and sexual preference. It’s [now] a much more interesting, much more diverse place than when I first came.”
Yet, despite its vast cultural impact, the creative writing program cannot escape the plague of economic woes.
“We’ve came a long way, but what worries me is the economic situation. We are shrinking [due to financial constraints], and that’s terrifying,” McClane said.