In 2019, the Vassar Critical Journal was added to the English curriculum as an intensive, ensuring that student editors would get academic credit for what had been an extracurricular activity. Under this new regime, the responsibilities of each member of the editorial group kicked into a higher gear. Asked to read and evaluate every submission, rather than a handful of essays on literary texts the editors had personally studied, student editors began to see how sharing a classroom with a contributor shaped their reception experience. Submissions were anonymous, but a shared classroom experience lent coherence to arguments and approaches that sometimes puzzled the general reader. Conversely, the originality of certain essays came into question when editors were familiar with class discussions, handouts, and essay prompts. In addition to the requirement that all essays selected for publication be well written and raise compelling questions that showcase a variety of approaches to literary analysis and to canonical and noncanonical writing, students formulated holistic criteria for acceptance. Essays must be readable and engaging while articulating a bold argument and managing the through-line of argument, from start to finish, in a display of cogency and solid organization. In addition, the age-old question for students— “do I address my paper to an informed or clueless reader?”—took on special urgency. In reckoning with these and like problems, the student editors learned more about writing literary criticism than we professors could hope to teach them in the classroom. The stakes and benefits were raised for student editors who had submitted their own work and then had the opportunity to listen to honest and astute critique. In fine, the process was not only democratic, it left students better prepared to participate in the final cull based on the quality of the submissions and the composition of the volume.
I think this history is worth recapping, as the Vassar Critical Journal’s evolution from a student-run extracurricular activity for English majors to an accredited intensive has influenced the character of our current offerings. Every year the Vassar Critical Journal has showcased a wide-range of literary texts covered in courses taught by the English department, and 2022 was no exception. However, for the first time, the 2022 editorial collective of twelve attracted students from a wide range of majors: Psychology, Biology, History, Art History, Film, and American Studies. We met before the semester began to plan and disseminate a call for papers. At our initial meeting, it was decided that the 2022 edition of the Vassar Critical Journal would welcome multidisciplinary approaches to literature and related disciplines. Consequently, the current edition boasts an array of essays that draw on Anthropology, Psychology, Philosophy, Gender and Film Studies to frame their discussion of texts. It was precisely this multidisciplinarity of approach that convinced the editors that it would not be a mistake to publish four exemplary essays on literary modernism. I think you will agree that this was the right decision, in so far as a range of approaches is itself a guarantee of variety. The current selection of essays features noncanonical and obscure works, largely from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. During the pandemic, certain essays stood out to us for their cynicism about the present and others for their optimism about strategies for evading the consequences of racism, sexism, classism, and indifference to human suffering in the future.
As I reflect on the review process, what stands out is the careful and conscientious preparation of the entire editorial board, which came prepared to discuss every submission on the merits. We had over 25 submissions this year—all had admirable qualities, and it was not an easy matter to choose among them. Students defended their choices eloquently and informedly. They were prepared to push back against the majority view, which helped us reach a higher consensus. They were prepared to work hard through editing and conversations with contributors, which required tact as well as critical acumen. Peer editing and copyediting took place after the 6-week intensive ended, a testament to the editors’ dedication. The current iteration of the Vassar Critical Journal reflects the learning, critical propensities, and tastes of a true collective. However, I would like to single out our art editor, Liz Slein, for her cover design. I would also like to thank my research assistant Janet Song for populating the WordPress digital platform for the Vassar Critical Journal, where our back and current issue can be accessed. All of our editors: Estel Anahmias, Lucy Brewster, John Gilbert, Adonis Mateo, Maison Powell, Wilayna Putterman, Keira Seyd, Elizabeth Slein, Kenza Squali-Houssaini, Morgan Stevenson-Swadling, Emma Tulchinsky, and Grant Wu have given their best to the selection, preparation, and production of this volume. It is to be hoped that a few of our first-year, sophomore, and junior editors will stick around in 2023 to provide continuity to the journal.
The 2022 Vassar Critical Journal boasts a strong contingent of essays on literary modernism, dealing with British, American, and expatriate American authors, respectively. Isabel Drake’s “‘Getting into the center of things’: Rhythms of Shock and Novelty in the Urban Imaginations of Henry James and John Dos Passos,” concentrates on the effects of modernity that lend themselves to cinematic, musical, architectural, and literary representation. Beginning with Manhatta, a 1921 film directed by photographer Paul Strand and painter Charles Sheeler with intertitles excerpted from Walt Whitman, Drake highlights the modern aesthetic concerns that “enact and sustain the tension between the past and the present—and between stillness and motion, or immobility and shock—through the use of the cinematic and the mechanistic in subject matter and form. They construct disillusioned views of the images and rhythms of modern life without turning to an uncritically nostalgic view of the past” in works ranging from Henry James’s “Crapy Cornelia” (1909) to John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925) and Fannie Hurst’s Lummox (1923). It goes without saying that arranging this number of texts into a coherent and illuminating argument is a feat in and of itself.
Connor Healy’s discussion of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury represents a regional shift in the domain of literary modernism to the American South. Through an economic lens, Healy capably demonstrates the long reach of Northern capitalism, which has supplanted the older agrarian model, and supplies the economic framework underlying the Compsons’ catastrophe: “By viewing the Compson family story as a series of transactional relationships and material exchanges, the reader is able to better understand both how and why they were destined for failure. In particular, this materialist lens provides a deeper understanding of Jason’s character, as his story is one that’s defined through a feeling of material deprivation and loss. This understanding, in turn, helps the reader understand yet another overarching narrative present within the novel, that being the symbolic death of the agricultural South as a result of the burgeoning industrial North.” Healy handily demonstrates that a critical perspective can encompass a broad cross-section of textual and historical matters.
Drew Snyder’s essay, “The Sonic Wasteland of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room,” focuses on postwar Britain, where Woolf is shown to shatter narrative convention: “By activating the aural sphere through this creation of a sonic wasteland, Woolf seems to construct the novel out of the rubble of the war, piecing together a portrait of Jacob in a disjointed manner that speaks to the ephemerality of life and the difficulty of communication in an era of technological change.” Exploring postwar fragmentation, Woolf assembles letters, phone messages, snatches of overheard conversation that once might have bridged the distance between people, but now “impede communication and intimate knowledge, as Jacob is only glimpsed in the fragments he leaves around.” Invoking Woolf’s essay, “Street Music,” Snyder effectively imagines Woolf’s remedy to the sonic wasteland of postwar Britain through attunement to the natural rhythms of life, which harmonize with the pulse of the body (biorhythm) and natural environment: “If we can attune ourselves to the ‘vast pulsation’ perhaps we could live life inspired by ‘charity and love and wisdom’.”
Chu Yi Chang’s “Isn’t Everything Amazing? An analysis of It’s Such a Beautiful Day by Don Hertzfeldt as a philosophical allegory of Absurdist existentialism” addresses the malaise and the confusion of our moment without being directly, or even indirectly, concerned with the pandemic. Chang reads Hertzfeldt’s film as an inquiry into the effect of death on human consciousness through the film protagonist’s gradual deterioration and demise. Employing existential philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus, Chang places the film in dialogue with philosophy: “It’s Such a Beautiful Day can be seen as a philosophical allegory for Absurdist existentialism, in that it uses Bill’s story to reflect the universal tension between the meaninglessness of existence and humans’ fixation on finding the inherent meaning, what Kierkegaard (Kierkegaard) calls ‘the Absurd’. The film depicts the Absurd through the struggles of Bill in finding meaning amidst his deteriorating life. It then adopts the philosophical view of Camus (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus), in that it does not offer a cut-and-dry explanation for the consciousness, death and meaning of Bill’s existence. Rather, it argues for several approaches from which he could construct meaning for his conscious, fleeting life despite the universe’s meaningless nature.”
Claire Miller’s “Repulsion as Repression: Psychological Defense and the Posthuman Creature” contrasts two bodies of work in which multiple characters come to discrepant emotional resolutions when faced with the posthuman: Charlie Brooker’s Be Right Back and Ling Ma’s Severance. Employing the psychological concept “projection,” as explained by Damian Cox and Michael Levine, Miller lucidly explains that aversion is actually rooted in similarity, where a character represses a despised or untoward aspect of himself and projects this quality onto the other, in order to distance himself from disquieting associations. As Miller rightly observes, understanding this defense mechanism is valuable because “it is used to justify the Othering of people in contemporary society. By noticing patterns of prejudiced judgment in our fiction, we can hopefully recognize and avoid perpetuating these patterns in our daily lives.”
Louisa Gear’s “How to Find Joy: Look at The Map” provides a close reading of Native American poet Joy Harjo’s An American Sunrise, a poetry collection born of her physical and spiritual journey to her ancestral homeland in Oklahoma. The poems tell a story of multigenerational abuse and also of healing in three poetic registers: the personal, the collective, and the earthly: “The first poetic register gives us a sense of her coming-into-being. She maps out her experience of genealogical memory without suggesting the same experience is true for others.” Harjo creates a through-line of her family’s matriarchal and feminine power by honoring her Indigenous mother’s poems and placing them on a continuum with works in the western canon by the likes of Blake and Tennyson. In so doing, she “radically resists the cultural and political erasure of Indigenous identity.” Furthermore, by mapping out her own journey toward “becoming,” Harjo demands that her spatial and personal existence be recognized.
Audrey Wilkinson’s “Biomythographical Home: Afro-Caribbean Lesbian Goddesshood in Audre Lorde’s Zami” crosses a range of disciplinary boundaries, encompassing gender, race, and post-colonial studies. Wilkinson argues that Lorde insinuates herself into the canon of Black autobiography, while subverting its patriarchal tropes, to better represent her intersectional identities: “Lorde embodies the fullest degree of self-actualization on both the mythic and real island of Carriacou, Grenada in her correlation of the Afro-Caribbean lesbian with goddesshood. The Afro-Caribbean lesbian divine is manifested via Lorde’s inextricable relationships with Carriacou women: her mother Linda whom she must transcend, juxtaposed with Afrekete, her queer lover whom she becomes.” Despite or perhaps because of her mother Linda’s unacknowledged same-sex desires, she fails to give her daughter the affirmation she needs, seeks, and finds elsewhere.
Applying a feminist and anthropological lens in “Desiring the Father: Transgression and Kinship in Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story,” Chenxuan Hu explains how the theme of incest transforms a novel of manners focused on the behavioral constraints of eighteenth-century female conduct books into a gothic tale: “This essay focuses on the incestuous undertones of relationships which result from the patriarchal attempt to control female desire through familial structures. It also considers how subject positions are shaped by experiences of dissent and subordination.” Comparing the way patriarchal approval and refusal center incest prohibition in A Simple Story with the Lévi-Straussian kinship system, Hu argues that “female desire’s association with incest reveals the long-standing restraints imposed upon the passions of the subordinated within familial structures, which subsequently encourage subversion through not only the liberation of personal desires, but direct confrontation with traditional kinship and its homologs.”
Naomi Cazal’s “‘The Possessed’: The Haunting of Robin in Nightwood” is our fourth essay devoted to literary modernism; this time, the author is an expatriate American, Djuna Barnes. Elegantly written and intensely alert to Barnes’s exquisite prose, Cazal’s depiction of Robin Vote as the eternal feminine, both angel and monster, trains our gaze on Baron Felix Volkbein, a converted Italian Jew posing as an aristocrat, who projects his desires onto Robin. Cazal argues that “Robin’s actions are the result of the haunting she suffers at the hands of her lovers, concentrating my analysis on the effect Felix has on Robin. Indeed, the character himself is damned, haunted by the ghost of his father and his legacy, which explains his obsession with the past. Because Felix uses Robin as a mirrory surface on which he projects his dreams and aspirations, transforming her into a mystical feminine figure, pastoral and statuesque, he chooses her to bear his son. Following the conception and birth of their son Guido, Robin becomes a monstrous figure, beastly, vampiric and medusoid.” However, as Cazal shows, ambiguating the characterization, everything the reader knows of “this dangerous femme fatale whom nature condemns to sensual wandering” is “filtered by the perspective and feelings of her rejected lovers.”
It has been a pleasure to collaborate with Vassar students over the past 4 years in the reimagining the Vassar Critical Journal as a part of the curriculum, while retaining the values and goals of its founders. Through these trying times, our students’ love of literature and dedication to the practice of critical thinking was tested but unvanquished.
Professor and Chair of English
Director of the Vassar Critical Journal