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  • Teaching Modern British and American Satire ed. by Evan R. Davis and Nicholas D. Nace
  • George Boulukos
Evan R. Davis and Nicholas D. Nace, eds., Teaching Modern British and American Satire. (New York: Modern Language Association, 2019. Pp. x + 374. $34.00 paper.

The term "satire" derives from the Roman satura, a mixed platter of food and nuts, and this volume, in its enjoyable variety, hews true to that source, even as it is as notable for the coherence that the wide-ranging approaches to Teaching Modern British and American Satire achieve, not in a shared emphasis on irony but in the sincere, even earnest, approach of the contributors. Even as the forms of, critical conceptions of, and pedagogical approaches to satire under consideration here are legion, and even as the contributors frequently take opposing positions on a given question, the volume coheres in consensus on the key problem of teaching satire—the tension that teaching satire produces between the teacherly role of providing context or information and the imperative of direct, experiential response to satire. Teaching students to interpret literature (and other cultural forms, including film, TV, and comics) always puts knowledge at issue, and satire puts additional stress on this problem. The classic professorial approach to teaching culturally distant texts is to draw on scholarly knowledge and authority by leading students, step-by-step, through initial confusion to confident interpretation. And yet satire depends on readers "getting it," and scorns those who don't. Traditional literary pedagogy requires treating students as outsiders who aren't in on the joke. What to do? A number of the chapters in this engaging volume grapple productively with a further, and related, problem: even when one feels quite sure of having gotten it, satire often ensures that uneasy feelings persist. As Swift reminds us (in a quotation cited repeatedly in this collection), "SATYR is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own"—it is indeed a daunting task to get students to see that they themselves may appear in that glass and to consider what to make of such unsettling discoveries. [End Page 523]

The thirty-three chapters in Teaching Modern British and American Satire present varying pedagogical strategies for approaching the daunting and intertwined problems of knowledge and self-knowledge in satire. Many of the chapters focused on eighteenth-century satire—the authors of which include David Alff, Fredric V. Bogel, Kirk Combe, Helen Deutsch, Daryl Domingo, James Horowitz, Catherine Ingrassia, Adam Rounce, and Howard Weinbrot—offer useful strategies to surmount the particular difficulty created by the need to convey period-specific knowledge. Daryl Domingo reports success in engaging students with eighteenth-century academic satire—indeed, the Dunciad Variorum, considered by other contributors as impossible to teach—through the simple expedient of projecting pages upside-down, making the disproportion between text and paratext obvious even as the words become unreadable. David Alff has students act out scenes from satirical plays such as The Country Wife. They must make interpretive decisions for their staging, and Alff finds that as students physically inhabit the characters they assume, they are awakened to the range of meanings and possibilities in their scenes and lines.

Teachers of more recent texts find the problem of students' self-knowledge yet more challenging. Joe B. Fulton describes Mark Twain's frustration with readers' inability to recognize his burlesques of late nineteenth-century sensational journalism and purple prose, evident, for example, in Twain's remarks that his contemporaries were so eager for sensational news that they would overlook a "string of absurdities" in favor of the "superior glare" of the apparently sensational information being reported (quoted on 64). Christopher Vilmar describes the ways that a prerequisite to teaching Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club as a satire of "possessive individualism" is bringing students to recognize both their immersion in the values under attack and their blindness to this immersion. Scholars of more recent periods, it turns out, sometimes turn with relief, in the classroom, to texts like "A Modest Proposal" and "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters."1 These texts more effectively introduce their students to satire than does contemporary satire because...


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