These people from the corporate world, the world of management theory, the world whose discourse academics accuse of invading higher education, have a kind of enthusiasm for and faith in the English-department classroom that I would have blushed to share with my Oberlin colleagues for fear of sounding naïve or reactionary. In describing the value of the program, Books@Work invokes the “human experience.” Discussing literature, on this view, allows people to become rounded characters that go beyond their specific workplace function. And since employees who are open to new ideas and eager to collaborate provide a better-quality product or service, human flourishing can come together with the bottom line.
While higher-education administrators borrow language from management theory, these former management consultants were borrowing language from the humanities and liberal arts. What does this chiasmus portend for the future of higher education? Whatever the future holds for the liberal arts, the way people from outside the university (still) idealize the humanities seminar reminds us of the value of what we do. It can also turn us into an uncanny version of ourselves—familiar but also strange.
At the manufacturing company where I taught my first Books@Work seminar, the employees wanted to read something that involved minimal biweekly assignments. My liaison proposed Steinbeck short stories. I gladly agreed, delighted to have an assignment that filled gaps in my own imaginary canon.
To allay my apprehension about the first meeting, I tried to picture what the scene might look like. The “multipurpose” room where we met turned out to be close to my mind’s-eye rendering: Formica tables, industrial carpeting, recessed dimmable lighting, walls and tables slidable, the chairs stackable. The new classrooms at my college were versions of this—another indication of the intersection of values in the liberal arts and corporate worlds. In the seminar rooms of both institutions, metaphor and matter converge: flexible thinking and flexible space, spaces that are flippable and disruptable.
While I could imagine the corporate seminar room, I did not anticipate the intermediary steps between arriving and entering the conference room: figuring out the right place to park and the correct entrance; explaining to the receptionist the purpose of my visit; studying the promotional literature of the company while waiting to be taken to the seminar room by a person who, when she turned up, explained she was filling in for the person who had originally been assigned this task; trying to memorize the complex system of hallways for the next time while making small talk. The nervousness I felt the first day before getting to know the group was compounded by the unfamiliarity of the workplace protocols. Though I had read the precise instructions many times, I could not seem to remember the details. Once in the conference room, I felt like a traveling salesman lugging my wares—the book and notes in my bag—but also like a small shopkeeper stripped of the counter behind which so much of the dignity of her profession consists. All the ways professors can indulge a need for control over their classes—room, size of the group, lighting, equipment—I had no say over.
As it turned out, the participants (roughly twenty of them) were interesting, receptive and kind. I worried at first about what they might expect me to say about a story’s historical context or the facts of an author’s life, but my job was simply to encourage them to gain insights about themselves and the story. The act of coming in the room, taking off my credentials and putting them on the chair beside me like a coat, had a kind of ritual importance. My vesture conveyed their employer’s investment in the experience, my divesture the primacy of their experiences.
In the first session we discussed Steinbeck’s “Johnny Bear”—a story about the seductions and perils of dredging up small-town secrets. The title character possesses uncanny powers of mimicry. He eavesdrops on intimate, illicit conversations, and in exchange for whiskey at the local bar, he reproduces them with the accuracy of a recording device.
With help from the Books@Work liaison I came armed with a few personal, life-relevance questions. Yet it was hard to resist my usual approach to class discussion: translating a theory about the story into seemingly open-ended questions and thereby subtly guiding students toward an interpretation—my interpretation—of the story. This approach appealed to the technical writers in the room, who self-identified as having been English majors and felt at home in the ritual of interpretation. They traced patterns and zeroed in on objects with symbolic portent.
Yet except for drawing attention to puns (unfailingly a crowd pleaser), my analysis of the story’s formal elements killed the mood, eliciting polite nods and the dreaded deathly silence. I had much more success with my other impulse, which was to gossip about the story, comparing our experiences of shock at the ending’s twist, speculating about the identity of the tragic heroine’s lover. I talked in impersonal terms about living in a small town and everyone knowing your business, and asked the participants if they had had similar experiences. We talked about the human need to build idols only to tear them down.
I left that first meeting feeling like I had just binged on Amazon reviews. My encounter with the confidence of the lay reader hinted broadly at the irrelevance of academic literary studies for the reading public. In the room, as on Amazon, was a vibrant, bustling community of readers who opine in blissful ignorance of the discipline of literary studies and don’t care a whit about the MLA. The Books@Work participants took for granted the value of literature and reading, but they also felt entitled to strong opinions about literary quality. They believed in the story enough to speculate about the motives of characters, but were quick to spot moments that felt contrived or unrealistic. I struggled to keep up with the conversation’s pace and the variety of responses, and to adapt to its rhythm—a steady patter of commentary and then suddenly, for no clear reason, silence.
At the second meeting we discussed “The Chrysanthemums,” a short story about an encounter between a traveling handyman and a no-longer-young woman who lives on a farm in the Salinas Valley with her husband. The handyman drives onto the farm in a wagon advertising his services. Elisa is in her flower garden digging around chrysanthemum shoots for any threatening pests. At first, she resists his offer to sharpen scissors or beat the dents out of pots. She can do both herself. Her economy and self-sufficiency seem impregnable. He looks around for a way in and spots the chrysanthemums. He asks her about them and she thrills to the topic. He stumbles upon a wonderfully apt simile to describe the flower, surprised himself, perhaps, at the power of his comparison: “like a quick puff of colored smoke.” He has her now. His having understood the beauty of the flower she identifies with brings her into focus; to find just the right words for the things she loves makes her trust him. He maneuvers the conversation to a fictional lady in a neighboring farm who has a beautiful garden but no chrysanthemums. Elisa, too eagerly, gives him shoots to bring to her, and explains exactly how they must be planted and cared for, thrilled at the opportunity to cast her gifts beyond the narrow boundaries of her world.
Although he tells the story in the third person, Steinbeck refrains from communicating the characters’ thoughts. Their emotions are displaced onto physical descriptions. After her encounter with the tinker, Elisa behaves in ways that are difficult for her husband to understand. He marvels at the mystery of her mood and physical transformation. He is struck by her sitting on the porch in her nicest clothes. Overwhelmed, he can only resort to an unsatisfactory compliment: “Why—why, Elisa. You look so nice!” His colloquial “why,” expressive of surprise, also captures the question at the heart of his compliment. Elisa wants something more specific: “What do you mean by ‘nice’?” A familiar domestic exchange becomes the vehicle for capturing the transformative nature of her encounter with the tinker. Henry notices the change, but does not know how to articulate what he sees: “Henry blundered on. ‘I don’t know. I mean you look different, strong and happy.’” (Poor Henry. The men in the seminar could relate to him as he navigates the perilous landscape of female vanity; they had experienced a woman’s irritable desire for precisely the right grade of compliment.)
That strength and happiness abandons Elisa in the last line of the story. Sitting in a horse-drawn carriage with her husband on their way to town, she spots a black speck on the side of the road. The dream of her gift to the tinker taking root somewhere has been dashed, and she attempts to hide her reaction from her husband: “She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.”
Some of the participants resented the story for its ending, which manages to be both bleak and enigmatic. You cannot imagine how Elisa will face the rest of her life. I suggested we go around the table, each person sharing a question. I listened for the kind that could go somewhere: “What I want to know is, what is her relationship like with her husband?” More pointedly, the oldest woman in the room asked: “Do she and her husband have sex?” I could build on these and ask broader questions, addressed to the whole group: Why is marriage such a fertile topic? Why do you think we have to piece together clues about this marriage, as opposed to the third-person narrator telling us about it directly? What indicates Elisa has unsatisfied desires? What does Elisa want? We went to the text to look for answers. Seeing grown-up engineers, HR managers and sales reps point to this or that line in the story to defend a claim was weirdly thrilling and touching. It embarrassed me slightly to see these people with real jobs taking what I do—engaging with fiction—seriously.