"From Theory to Practice" showcases the expertise of our teachers as they share the "why" behind the "what" of their teachings. English Department Chair and Dean of Faculty Michael E. Ingrisani, who began teaching at Browning in 1970, offers the third installment in this monthly series. Mr. Ingrisani has been honored three times with the Clair J. Smith Award and is the inaugural holder of the Stephen M. Clement, III Chair for the Humanities. What follows is an original essay written by Mr. Ingrisani for this series.
Until I started the seventh grade, I made frequent trips to the children’s section of the local library and borrowed every book on science I could. It was the era of “duck-and-cover” drills, the International Geophysical Year, and Sputnik. I cannot recall what caused me to shift my main interest from science to history and especially to fiction. My education in the succeeding years confirmed my love of and commitment to the written word.
Utility and delight are both sufficient reasons for caring about reading and producing good writing. The pleasure of losing oneself in a story, even a "lightweight" novel by the likes of Tom Clancy or John Grisham provides a welcome escape from everyday life. I do not sneer at popular fiction. I spent a good part of one summer reading the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming. There may be no deep insights on offer in the works of such authors, but they do offer ingenious plots, unabashed entertainment, plus a smattering of random bits of information.
The richer experience to be found in the works of the great novelists is quite another matter. Read the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, John Irving, or Margaret Atwood, among many others, and there you find characters whose humanity belies their fictitious genealogy. Though they are, in today’s favorite adjective, “fake,” they seem genuine; their complex humanity giving us an experience that mimics and even surpasses that of interacting with a living human being.
How do they do this? Henry James gives us two answers, each interesting in its way. “We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Yes, but how might we do it? In “The Art of Fiction,” published in 1884, James wrote of
[t]he power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it--this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience, and experience only," I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"
If this is how those writers produce their work, how should readers do theirs? Does reading The Golden Bowl ask more of the reader than Sue Grafton’s “N” is for Noose? If so, how does one learn how to do that?
Here is where education comes in. Just as one needs the ability to discern the proper mode of writing appropriate to a particular situation, so does one need to adjust one’s level of attention to what one is reading. Reading those James Bond novels with which I whiled away many an hour one summer with full critical attention would spoil what should be a pleasant romp. Reading The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch without giving it one’s full attention is to miss a much more meaningful experience.
Speaking at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1965, Lionel Trilling saw value beyond delight in serious reading:
The study of literature has traditionally been felt to have a unique effectiveness in opening the mind and illuminating it, in purging the mind free and active. The classic defense of literary study holds that, from the effect which the study of literature has upon the private sentiments of a student, there results or can be made to result an improvement in the intelligence as it touches on the moral life.
Enter my classroom, and along with the gerunds and appositives, spend some time with Hester Prynne, Jay Gatsby, Edna Pontellier, Shinji Kubo, Jake Barnes, and many others, some of the most intriguing people who never lived.