the moment I decided to study american lit instead of british
It was just this past semester, actually, and took that long because I realized I never studied much American literature at all when I was an actual English major. I remember something about all of the classes I've taken—some mental photograph or a lecture or something
—but I never remembered learning a thing about AmLit. I had to refer back to my transcript, and indeed in 1990 I took "American Literature: Realism to Present" to fulfill my one AmLit requirement. I don't remember a damn thing about it. Not one. Not one book that I read, not even who taught it. I think I now know who taught, but only by process of elimination—we only had six faculty in the department, three would never have taught an AmLit course, one I never took a class from, and the other I'm pretty sure I only had for one class and it wasn't this one. So, that leaves one fellow, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, I didn't take another AmLit class for fifteen years, until this past semester.
In that time, I've done a lot of family history research, on my family and the families of my friends (who have much more interesting histories than I do, that's for sure). [Now that I have time again this summer, I can get back to it! Whoo! I have a few friends with gaping holes in their histories which need filling in.] Anyway, it was when I read My Ántonia
this semester that it started to make perfect sense.
This is my great-great grandmother, Sophia C. (Werts) Gill, circa 1928. She is 72 years old in this photo, and the little girl is my grandmother. She lived another four years after this photo was taken, to the ripe old age of 76.
This is the photo I think about when I think about poor old German women. Pennsylvania isn't the prairie, and this shack isn't a mud hut, but I always pictured Mrs. Shimerda with this exact expression on her face.
When I research families, I spend a lot of time in the census. For instance, this is what I know about GGGrandmother Sophia:
- At age 4, listed in the 1860 Census, in Decatur Twp., Mifflin Co., Pennsylvania. Lived with her widowed father and 3 siblings.
- At age 14, listed in the 1870 Census, in Strodes Mills, Oliver Twp., Mifflin Co., Pennsylvania. Lived with her parents, 4 siblings and grandmother. Was attending school at the time.
- At age 24, listed in the 1880 Census in Oliver Twp., Mifflin Co., Pennsylvania. Lived with her husband and 2 sons. Occupation listed as "keeping house".
- At age 44, listed as head of household in the 1900 Census, in Derry Twp (West), Mifflin Co., Pennsylvania. Lived with her 5 children and the family of her eldest son. Occupation listed as a day worker. Census indicates 7 children, 5 still living.
- At age 54, listed as head of household in the 1910 Census, in Derry Twp (West), Mifflin Co., Pennsylvania. Lived with 4 of her children. No occupation. Census indicates 7 children, 5 still living.
- At age 64, listed as head of household in the 1920 Census, in Derry Twp (West), Mifflin Co., Pennsylvania. Lived with her son David (listed as Arthur D.), daughter and son-in-law.
- At age 74, listed in the 1930 Census, in Yeagertown, Derry Twp., Mifflin Co., Pennsylvania. Widowed, lived in her son-in-law's household.
In other words she was poor, had a bunch of kids, and worked hard. I get that. I thought back to the genealogy-related papers (church bulletins, census returns, family histories, etc) that I've had to work with, and that's when I figured out that I'd be a better student of AmLit than British.
I've spent a lot of time following bits and pieces of families into the west (and back), seen entire pages of families disappear from census returns because of disease and/or war, seen families turn from white to mulatto and back to white again. I had pictures in my head of all of these things, thus when I read the novels in this particular class I had a much better understanding of the geography, the characters, their movements and their motivations. These were things I never fully comprehended when I studied British lit. Sure, I learned the answers to things because I was a decent student, but I wasn't able to fully appreciate the experiences because a) I'm not British and b) I've been to England once, on a bus trip with my mother, for a week. There was just something missing in my studies before, that I don't think is missing now when I study AmLit. I guess that's a good thing.
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