Sample Two-Page Papers
American Culture and Fatal Attraction
clips from various endings of "Fatal Attraction" express
many different ideas about men and women and their positions in
American culture. According to Raymond Williams, a writer discussed
in class, "RED" represents an acronym for culture. The
letter "R" stands for "residual" and represents
attitudes from the past that are still present in modern society.
The letter "E" stands for '"'emergent" and represents
new ideas about culture. Finally, the letter "D" stands
for the word "dominant" and represents the main ideas
about culture. Williams' acronym represents progressions of American
culture, and explains why certain endings of "Fatal Attraction"
are more appealing to viewers than other endings.
With Guns: Masculinity in the Firing Zone
Gibson, in thinking about the Columbine shooting writes, Ive
got a feeling this problem is embedded in our culture, way beyond
bad movies and cheap guns. It is as transparent as the air we breathe.
Its in our history. Its in the myths we tell ourselves
about ourselves. If we see it at all we celebrate it. ...It might
be the sickest kids, the neediest among them who have taken our
biggest lies and thrust them back at us, bloody and terrible
(164). While hes all to painfully aware of the manifestation
of a particular kind of vigilante violence in our culture (having
lost a son in a school shooting in 1992), he seems at a loss as
to the motivations behind it. Violence is obviously no new problem.
What is relatively new, however, is the increasing number of incidents
in which a lone gunman enters a public space and seemingly randomly
opens fire, particularly disturbing when the gunman is a minor and
the public space is a crowded school cafeteria.
Education By Poetry
by Poetry," Robert Frost objects to the removal of poetry from
the college course. He says that even when poetry is taught it is
denatured and trivialized, because no professor is willing to admit
that their grading should be based on taste and judgment. Frost then
says that when college students get out of college they still need
education because they-have not been able to develop their taste and
judgment. I was particularly struck by the second half of the eighth
paragraph when he says of these "uneducated" college graduates
"they don't know how to judge an editorial ... a political campaign.
They don't know when they are being fooled...." Then he gets
to the thesis of his speech: Education by poetry is education by metaphor.
“The Negro Artist” and the Returnee to Martha’s Vineyard
Whether we like it or not, we all have roots. Black or white, from up north or down south, we all come from somewhere. While some do all they can to distance themselves from their roots, which they consider to be of the less prestigious variety, some cling to their roots, showing even greater identification with their culture than is found in the average person.
Hughes is not “black.” The “black” people tell him so. Because of his lighter-toned skin, he could be considered to be of a higher social class than those with the darkest of dark skin. According to Hughes, many Negroes consider their culture to be less prestigious than that of the whites. Many middle-class families work hard to distance themselves from their Negro roots, trying to become more and more like the generic white family. Because of this, the blacks expect him to use his lighter-toned skin to his own advantage and identify more closely with the white culture. But instead of trying to exalt himself socially, Hughes lowers himself, reveling in the beauty of this culture that its most true members aren’t even proud of. His “own people” are ashamed of their culture. Instead of being grateful for his beautiful expression of their life and culture through his poetry, they ask him not to reveal so much about what their lives are really like to the white folk- they are embarrassed of their own culture.
This contrast between extreme pride and shame can also be seen in Labov’s linguistic study of Martha’s Vineyard, an island about 3 miles from the coast of the New England area, which showed how people’s feelings about their culture are reflected in their accents. The people of the island have a very unusual, distinctive accent that involves their pronunciation of vowels. What Labov found was that people with negative attitudes toward the island, who want to move to the mainland, have very weak accents in comparison with those who are firmly rooted in the island’s way of life and plan on remaining there. However, the really interesting occurrence that Labov noted is that the people with the strongest accents out of anyone are those who left the island to try a different way of life and then came back to Martha’s Vineyard to live and work. Here we see the connection with Hughes.
These people who left and later returned are like Hughes in that they appreciate their native culture even more than the average person. Just as these returnees to Martha’s Vineyard unconsciously intensified their accent as a result of their greater appreciation of and identification with their culture, Hughes’ themes in his poetry come from the Negro culture that he appreciates even more than the people who have never had the opportunity to go beyond that culture.
In the same way, just as the attitudes of natives of Martha’s Vineyard about their way of life are reflected in their accents, black poets’ varying attitudes about their culture are reflected in their choices of theme and style. Like the poet Hughes describes who doesn’t want to be a black poet, blacks that aren’t proud of their roots don’t usually write in the vernacular of their native society or write about concepts, values, or traditions of that society. Since the blacks of Hughes’ culture see themselves as the low end of the social stratum, they don’t understand Hughes’ conscious lowering of his status by identifying himself with them.
What the blacks don’t see is that prestige to Hughes, and to the people who return to Martha’s Vineyard as well, is not found in the dominant culture, but in their native culture, in their roots. Those who look for prestige in other places, such as the poet who wants “to be as little Negro and as much American as possible”, reject the expression of their background in their lives, while those who find their sense of prestige in their heritage, in who they truly are, find contentment in expressing that heritage, no matter how that heritage classifies them socially.
Our Violent Inner Landscape:
been grappling with American violence: our fascination/obsession with
violence, the violence in our art, the arguments of desensitization
to/by violence, etc. And although I agree with Gregory Gibson, in
his article Our Violent Inner Landscape, that we are hard-wired
with violence, I believe that the violence he describes is only a
symptom of a larger violence, one more pervasively harmful, yet less
exposed or examined: the anti-democratic violence in our societymore
lived than committed, more known and felt than documented or televised.
I will return to this notion of violence later, but first would like
to make a distinction between it and the violence Gibson describes.
And although I have neither the immediately adequate means nor intention
of explaining/rationalizing it, I, too, confess an interest in, and
fascination with the same celebrated violence from which Gibson cant
escape. From Cormac McCarthys Blood Meridian to a Tarantino
flick, Im interested in this celebrated (stylized
or romanticized?) violence. But like I said, Im
not trying to explain or justify it. Yet, I can say this: I dont
like real violencethe physical, emotional, and psychological
suffering in our reality. And for me there is a distinction to be
made between this real violence and the violence on the screen or
page, in the same way Chandler notes a distinction between murders
scented with magnolia blossoms and murders that are act[s]
of infinite cruelty. But rather than further explain this distinction,
let me just give another example of it, and this is perhaps the strangest
case of an inexplicable fascination with celebrated violence.
Midlife Crisis, Averted
I could not attend my 25th high school reunion in New York this spring. It was the night of my daughter Julia’s 11th birthday party. But, this month, there came a consolation prize: an alumnae event in Washington D.C., featuring a William Faulkner class taught by one of my all-time favorite English teachers.
The event brought together a couple dozen women ranging from their early 20’s to ages that made it impolite to dwell too long on the graduation years marked on their name tags. We gathered in the living room of a beautiful house in Georgetown while a waiter circulated serving drinks and canapés.
We all came in clutching copies of Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning,” scanned copies of which had been e-mailed to us in advance, and as the room filled up, I was gratified to see that I wasn’t the only one to have gone at the story with a busy pen, highlighting, bracketing, scribbling in the margins. Someone else’s notes, semi-legible (was it cheating to have read them?) were visible all around the sides. The words “objective correlative” appeared right above the first line. They’d given me an unexpected shiver of pleasure.
We were provided with pencils, embossed with the name of our old school. There were blue exam books, too, the contemporary version of the smaller blue booklets into which we’d once poured our ambition and drive. It was a self-parodic touch. It made us laugh.
“Sherwood Anderson told him, ‘write what you know.’ So Faulkner went back to Oxford, Mississippi.”
Mrs. Sagor, our teacher, gray-haired now and more delicate-looking around the eyes, was otherwise exactly as I remembered her from 25 years earlier when, I realized with a shock, she’d probably been about the age I am now. She had the same ebullient energy as before, the same sense of urgency, the same way of dropping her notes as the excitement within her rose, the same ability to draw all of us in the room into the shared conviction that what we were doing in that moment — analyzing the actions of 10-year-old Sarty, the sharecropper’s son who betrays his tyrannical, hate-filled, arsonist father in order to escape the crush of his family’s poverty and exclusion — was the most vitally important task we could ever encounter in all our lives.
And, as I looked around the room, at these women raising their hands, with their serious looks and reading glasses, I thought: Please, let me stay here forever.
I find, these days, as I wend my way through my early 40’s, that I spend a lot of time mulling over some middle-aged version of the question of what I want to be when I grow up. Only it’s really not so much about “what” as it is about “who”; late in life, I’ve come to some realizations about Making Choices and the impossibility of Having it All.
These realizations don’t turn around the usual poles of work and family, but rather, embarrassingly, around a series of much greater banalities: the impossibility of having pedicures at the same time that you’re meeting deadlines, of wearing unstained clothes when you haven’t the time or the inclination to buy a full-length mirror, the basic fact that sustaining a thought and applying a full face of makeup — without, say, forgetting one eye — are mutually exclusive. At least for me. With middle age, these things have become much more important than they ought to be.
That these extremely basic, excruciatingly obvious truths took nearly 43 years to lodge in my head may or may not be linked to the fact that, at some point along the way, something happened to turn me into the kind of a person for whom the words “objective correlative” could send a thrill of pleasure down the spine.
“Faulkner’s favorite subject,” Mrs. Sagor said, was “ ‘the human heart in conflict with itself.’ ”
“Hit’s big as a courthouse,” Sarty thought, contemplating the landowner’s stately mansion “with a surge of peace and joy whose reason he could not have thought into words, being too young for that.”
I went through high school thinking they went together — exquisite real estate and exquisite literature. Not because they did for me — I grew up in a tiny, rent-controlled apartment in a building that had seen better days — but because they seemed to for my teachers and classmates. Some day, I thought, without actually thinking it, taking the bus every day to the Upper East Side, it would all be mine — the books and the pre-war built-ins, the floral upholstery and “the spell of this peace and dignity,” to borrow words, once again, from Sarty.
Why did I think this (without the actual words, being too young for that)? Because I was in Mrs. Sagor’s class, and that made me special. She actually said it once: we were “the crème de la crème.” There was a girl named Jane in my class who never earned a grade under a 96 — from what I could see, spying over her shoulder. I was not as smart as that. But I could discern, right down to the very core of my being, the many layers of meaning contained in things like the sound of the sharecropper’s foot, dipped in horse droppings, “as it came down on the boards with clocklike finality, a sound out of all proportion to the displacement of the body it bore.”
I could inch my grades up from the low 90’s to a solid 95. And so, all was due to me.
“What are you going to do with your life?” my cousins, a New Jersey dentist and his wife, asked me soon after college.
“Read and write,” I answered, with no small degree of smugness.
They laughed. “How are you going to live on that?”
We were all just one generation removed from the Lower East Side.
My father always thought of himself as lower-middle-class, a child of the Depression — he’d been a City College student then, actually — long after the Depression was over and his circumstances had changed. We were not wealthy; my father drove an old car (proudly, defiantly, thumbing his nose at “planned obsolescence”), but we were not, by any reasonable measure, lower-middle-class. My father, by the 1980s, had not been lower-middle-class for almost a half-century. True, he’d told my mother that the food he’d had in the army in World War II was the best he’d ever tasted in the early decades of his life. But he’d earned a Ph.D in 1948. From the University of Chicago. Since 1961, he’d spent his days writing and seeing patients in an office on Gramercy Park, entering every day through a lobby that smelled like roses.
He paid for me to have the privilege of sitting in a classroom by the East River, watching the ice float by in the winter while Mrs. Sagor taught excitedly of objective correlatives and pathetic fallacies and Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Manley Hopkins!” we would shriek behind her back, being 16) and W.H. Auden.
“ ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past,’ ” she quoted Faulkner, that night in Georgetown.
“I remember every word you ever taught me,” I told her. I had counted the weeks, the minutes — or was it the decades? — until I would have the chance to say it.
“Yes, we still make the girls memorize poetry,” she said.
But that wasn’t, of course, what I meant.
I would have liked, that night in Georgetown, to have added my voice to the discussion about Sarty and his father, Abner Snopes. I would have liked to have said that Sarty’s betrayal wasn’t just conveyed by his actions; it was contained in his voice, in the slippage of speech from “Pap” to “Father,” from the unschooled language of home to the traitorous language of distant, educated adulthood, where the “lettering which meant nothing to his mind” had sorted itself into lyricism and loss.
“He did not look back,” Faulkner wrote.
But I did not raise my hand. I tried to do it — Mrs. Sagor’s eyes rested, for a moment, expectantly upon me — but I could not get the piece of arm above my elbow to rise.
I have been hit, in recent years, with freakish, episodic, bouts of shyness that literally leave me struck dumb.
That would not have been acceptable in high school. We were taught that, when we got out in the “real world” with the boys, we’d have to raise our voices. We were taught to speak strongly — no girly curleycues of doubt making the end of declarative sentences turn up into questions. (“Are you asking me or telling me?”) No Valley Girl “likes” or “you know’s.” (“Like what?” “No, I don’t know.”)
There was a voice I heard at the school. In the ladies of the Administration it was a kind of a lockjaw (my friend Juliet, her hair magenta, dried chicken bones in her ears, mocked it mercilessly), but in the girls it was modernized, less an accent than a series of accents on punched-up syllables, so that sentences came out syncopated with self-confidence.
If you were smart, and you wanted to be liked out in the Real World, you learned to temper your voice with a veneer of more pleasing self-doubt.
“Modulate your voice,” my father told me. “A man doesn’t want an intellectual sparring partner,” he warned. “He wants comforts.”
I’d learned to speak — to emit opinions and to argue them — at the dinner table. Night after night, starting in my late childhood, it was me and my father locked in combat, fighting for the definition of my world.
“At least they’re talking to each other,” my mother would tell her friends.
My father’s doctoral thesis was on the color preferences of psychiatric groups. Womanly women, he found, liked colors like pink. Manly men liked colors like brown. In my office now, I have his copies of the “Collected Works of Sigmund Freud” and “Feminine Psychology” by Karen Horney and the Old Testament, all heavily annotated, even the Bible underlined and bracketed, the very Word reworked by his own sense of significance.
He was horrified by the 1960’s. (“I’m not a square; I’m a cube,” he said, circa 1970). His horror hardened in the 1970s and 80s, grew seasoned by bitterness in a world that increasingly rejected his most basic ideas, and by the 1990’s, he’d largely retreated into a private, secret world of anger and fear. Most awful to him was that “hateful, horrible women’s lib” I’d picked up in that girls’ school.
Part of him was proud of me. Another part told me that I didn’t belong there. But this was the one place in my life where I ever felt that I truly belonged.
There are times when the simple act of growing up requires a betrayal. Sarty knew it; I lived it. When you have a parent both adored and maddening, their madness encases you, defines and delimits you. When you cut the umbilical cord, opening your mouth to find your voice, you find that you are out in the cold.
What safety there had been in those blue pages, I remembered, running my fingers down the cover of an examination book that I was taking home as a souvenir.
It has been with me, in my bag, amidst the checkbook and the crayons,
the forgotten school notices and 10 types of headache medication,