- Taking Stock in Live People:Using Contemporary Literary Journals in the American Literature Classroom
. . . but by-and-by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn't care no more about him; because I don't take no stock in dead people.—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Students often perceive literature (à la Huck Finn) as something done by "dead people" and, therefore, irrelevant to their lives inside and, certainly, outside of the classroom. Even creative writing students with extensive reading backgrounds are often completely unaware of the existence of literary journals, periodicals that publish new poetry and prose on a quarterly, biannual, or annual basis. They may know their college publishes a student literary magazine, but they generally recognize these periodicals as bush league, and they have no knowledge of the many intermediate steps between publishing one's work this narrowly and making it to the majors. This lack of information boosts students' unthinking acceptance of anthologized writers' status, and it increases the distance between established authors and the lives and writing of undergraduates. My goal is to narrow this distance and help students in American literature survey courses to become more aware of the works of contemporary authors. I want to show them that writers appearing in our anthology are often also currently, or were formerly, publishing in literary journals and that journals are a source of the most current works by major and minor literary figures. [End Page 461]
With this goal in mind, I designed an innovative assignment for a "quick and dirty" survey course called Great Traditions in American Literature. The assignment took place during the last month of the semester, a point at which class members were already familiar with many historical movements, key terms, canonical and noncanonical authors, and their literary works. Students thus had a basis on which to draw for their own analyses. Using a list of literary journals I prepared at the beginning of the semester, students were asked to do one or more of the following:
• Look at three issues of two different journals in order to compare the types of writing, subjects, and styles found in the two journals.
• Find a publication by one of our anthologized authors, comparing this more current piece of writing with the one(s) in the anthology.
• Choose one or more works and think about how they relate to works covered in class. For example, is an author's poetry or short story reminiscent of another work we've read, in terms of either content or style? How are they differing from or continuing what has been done before in American literature?
The only drawback to the assignment was locating the journals. I teach at a relatively small commuter campus within the Penn State system; since our library does not have any literary journals in its holdings, librarians at the University Park campus sent copies for my students to use. Unfortunately, they were bound into two- to four-issue volumes, making them heavy and intimidating. As one student said, "I didn't realize that journals were so large and was actually discouraged at first glance of them." That was clearly counter to my intent. One of my goals was to help students recognize literary journals on the stand in their local Barnes and Noble, and seeing them bound together into one giant tome did not aid in this end.
Despite this drawback, I persevered with the assignment, giving students the option of nine different journals to peruse, most of them found online. Options ranged from the Gettysburg Review, which was started in 1988 and is published at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, to the University of the South's Sewanee Review, dating from 1892 and including Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle in its long list of distinguished editors. The Prairie Schooner, produced at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, was a favorite with my students because of its accessible poetry; however, several students favored Callaloo, which publishes original works of black artists from all over the world. Other choices were the Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Pequod, Shenandoah, and the Virginia...