Monday, June 6, 2011

Call Me Gideon: Being Literary and Personal

Perhaps the strongest difference between traditional writing about literature and how communication works in the digital age has to do with the personal. Traditionally, the focus is upon the literary work, upon the argument, and not upon the critic. Self reference is frowned upon, not to mention any hint of personal biography. This is how students have been taught to write about literature -- objectively, through analysis, research, and persuasive interpretation, not subjectively and personally. Let me read your thesis statement, not your diary.

Okay, here's my claim: In the digital age, discussion about literature is less meaningful the less personal it is. But I think you will be  more interested in my uncle, Wayne Omer.

That's him in the photo, next to another uncle, Andy Childs. Uncle Wayne is pointing with his cane (made from a tree in his yard that I regularly climbed with my cousins when I was young, eating green apples until we were sick). Surrounding my two uncles are my wife, sister-in-law, brother, cousin, and others that travel in a caravan each Memorial Day to family grave sites around Salt Lake City.

Uncle Wayne is the family storyteller, the bard. This time he told those in earshot about John Sutherland, whose grave is my next picture. John was a sailor and a convert to the Mormon faith from the Shetland Isles, far north in Great Britain. He was shipwrecked outside of Boston before meeting up with his fiancee and traveling to Utah.

"You know, John's father, Gilbert Sutherland," Wayne told us, "was a harpooner on a whaling ship."

A harpooner on a whaling ship? One of my great grandfathers?

"Oh yes, he went to sea as a young boy."

Well, call me Ishmael. It sounds crazy, but I suddenly felt connected to my ancestor (about whom I know nothing but this one small fact) because of the many hours I have spent on the Pequod, vicariously, chasing Moby Dick. One of my great grandfathers was a harpooner on a whaling ship. Now, how cool is that?

Only it got better. Musing on this, I returned to Moby Dick and at random began reading in Chapter 27, "Knights and Squires." It's one of those descriptive chapters that Melville wrote in which Ishmael is characterizing many of the unique personalities among the crew of the Pequod:
No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores. In like manner, the Greenland whalers sailing out of Hull or London, put in at the Shetland Islands, to receive the full complement of their crew.
Wait! What the heck?! In the same breath Ishmael brings in the Azores and the Shetland Isles. As I said, my ancestors, John Sutherland and his father, Gilbert, were from the Shetland Isles. But the Azores, that beautiful set of islands in the middle of the Atlantic populated by the Portuguese -- that is the homeland of all my wife's four grandparents.

This is a picture of Karen. I like this shot. She's gazing off into the distance, ready to be off on a fresh adventure (like a couple of summers ago when she suddenly whisked away three neighbor women on a tour across the United States because none of them had traveled much and it just wasn't right). Adventure is in her blood, and a kind of wanderlust. There is a statue in Fall River, Massachusetts (where she was born and where Portuguese settled en masse starting in the 1850s) of Prince Henry the Navigator. My father-in-law, Robert Mello, would tell his children that this was their ancestor. He was joking, but not really. My wife comes from the adventurer people, the Portuguese, who charted many an unknown island or continent. Hers was an island people, the sort that took sail to faraway places, as one of her grandfathers did, going to Brazil, or as all of her grandparents, who came to settle in America. Or her parents, who braved leaving Fall River and settled in Virginia. Or Karen herself, who braved joining a new religion, leaving all her family behind, and starting a new life in the West where she met me, married, and settled.

I've often talked about Karen this way, identifying her with her Portuguese questing for adventure. It's something I love about her. But I'd never felt this sense of common identity with her -- the fact that we both come from adventuring island peoples -- until Uncle Wayne connected me to a harpooning great grandfather, and until Herman Melville linked my ancestor's homeland (the Shetland Isles) to that of my wife (the Azores). And now that I think of it, I start to see myself even more as an islander-adventurer.

This is the book cover for a memoir my father wrote, "Missionaries Two," about the missionary ventures of my parents, Rulon and Josephine Burton, who traveled all over Micronesia (based in Guam) for one 18-month period, and then again in Papua New Guinea for another 18-month service period. My mother also served a mission to Samoa in the 1950s where she taught school. Wow. This island connection has started to really deepen. I'm seeing myself as being descended from and married to island-adventurers. I like that identity. Maybe I'm romanticizing it a bit. But it is what it is.

Melville's narrator, commenting about the many foreigners who filled the American whaling fleet in the 19th century, "They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own."

Now that is something to chew on. Islanders can be separatists, "isolatoes." That could mean a kind of rugged independence; it could mean a kind of stubborn parochialism. Does being an "isolato" make one more narrow minded? Or do the island peoples, open to sailing adventures, become more broad minded through their travels? 

As I contemplate the relationship between literature and digital culture, I see literature as potentially isolating. Books certainly do isolate and separate people. Recently, after cautioning my children during a family home evening about the dangers of the Internet in detaching us from real people and relationships, one of my sons commented, "Isn't that what reading books does?" It made me pause for thought. How many years have I spent isolated from others behind the walls of printed pages? What real relationships have I gone without because I was immersed in the adventures of Ishmael or other fictional characters?

And yet, as I listened to my Uncle Wayne talk about my ancestors this Memorial Day, what was it that took me so forcefully back to my ancestors, my wife, and my parents? What was the binding glue that connected me to an identity I share with generations past and present?

Moby Dick -- a work of fiction.

Does literature connect us or does it isolate us? Does it keep us from setting forth in the world or from connecting with others, or does it propel us forth, taking us across the voids of time and place?

Does the Internet connect us or isolate us? Does it keep us locked into vicarious ruts, detached from people, or does it carry us across the voids of time and place?

I'm not sure how to answer these questions, but I do feel comfortable about the power of the personal in mediating both the literary and the digital worlds. Just as I am certain that works of literature have enriched my personal life, I am certain that a personal approach to literature enriches that literature for more than just the reader. As I read Carlie Wallentine's blog (connecting her life on a farm to her reading of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web) or as I read Ben Wagner's blog (connecting the racism he has felt personally to that depicted in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), they are proving that the power of literature in the digital age comes with connecting it to who one is. The closer that connecting is, the more meaningful the literature becomes.

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