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Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 531-534

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In My Tar-and-Feathery Dignity:
Textual (Mis-) Practices and Literary Studies in Taiwan

Kenneth Speirs

Teaching for nearly three years in China and now Taiwan has given me an opportunity to investigate at first hand how American literature "travels" to other cultures and, more urgently, to witness how the "new colonialism" of the English language, especially when garrisoned by canonical texts, creates a locus of authority that comes dangerously close to duplicating institutionally the subordinating codes that the texts themselves attempt to pull apart. As my students come to grips with Emerson, Dickinson, and Faulkner and with the overwhelming evidence of these authors' importance, they also struggle to maintain their own cultural difference and identity, their own voices and values. Tough work indeed. [End Page 531]

Broadly stated, my goals are to better understand how the written text can become an instrument of control and to help my Chinese students move to the center of their own learning. If it is true, as Walter Benjamin (1969: 86) writes, that every real story "contains, openly or covertly, something useful," then I hope that the following story of misreading, of the power of laughter to level and reveal, and especially of my efforts to effect agency in my students will prove useful.

Teaching in the convoluted context of the intersection of Western imperial culture and indigenous Chinese cultural practices has enhanced my appreciation for misreadings, for they create room for reflection and for interrogation of our assumptions. Such a misreading occurred recently in an American literature survey course I teach to approximately sixty seniors. Our work for the day focused on Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale "My Kinsman, Major Molineux."

The tale opens with Robin, a youth of barely eighteen and evidently country-bred, on his first visit to town and in search of his kinsman, who he believes will greatly assist him as he makes his way in the world. The place is Boston; the time is near the beginning of the Revolutionary War. We join Robin as he moves through town, encountering various characters--an innkeeper, a young lady in a scarlet petticoat, a strange figure with grotesque, haunting features--and gradually we realize that Robin is not as "shrewd" as he thinks. We also begin to suspect that the townspeople he meets know more than they let on. The tale moves steadily and eerily toward its climax, when Robin, in view of all of these townspeople, finally meets his kinsman, Major Molineux, and the mystery is revealed: Major Molineux is being run out of town, right before Robin's eyes.

Much of our work that day in class--or so I thought--involved following Robin and laying bare the dramatic irony of events. Who in the tale knows what? When? Why? Where? Assuming the students' basic comprehension of the plot details and their understanding of the key phrase tarred and feathered, I must confess that we did not focus on what is arguably the most basic question: What exactly happens, particularly at the climax of the tale? Only later, as we considered whether Robin's laughter signals a shift in his allegiance from Major Molineux to the townspeople, did it occur to me that my Taiwanese students lacked the social and political context to understand fully what it means to be "tarred and feathered."

At that point I gently chuckled. My chuckling grew, however, as I explained the source of my amusement and as the absurdity of my blind spot grew to full bloom in my consciousness; I was laughing more at what I imagined [End Page 532] to be my own tar-and-feathery dignity than anything else. Advancing age, cultural difference, and my new tailored suit all hung heavily on me. Then something beautiful happened. A few peals of laughter rang out, joining my own, and soon those were joined by more, and then more, until the whole class had had a good guffaw. My mild embarrassment at discovering suddenly that, like Robin, I was not as shrewd...


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