Mary Shelley: Her Life and Works

Mary Shelley was born on August 30th, 1797, to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Her mother, a renowned philosopher and feminist, died only a month after her birth. Raised by her father and a stepmother that she was not fond of, Mary’s early years were dark and lonely ones. Despite this, she distinguished herself by her thirst for knowledge and her love of writing. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she kept a journal in which she composed short stories about the grounds of her father’s estate and philosophical concepts from her education.

When she was seventeen years old, Mary met Percy Shelley. What followed was a tumultuous affair that resulted in Percy leaving his wife and Mary running away from her father. Her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, accompanied them. For the next two years, Mary suffered greatly as she endured poverty and ostracism from society due to her relationship with Percy. The greatest tragedy, however, came when her first child was born prematurely and died on February 22nd, 1815. In a deep depression, she withdrew from Percy and began to ruminate on what would become the theme of her greatest work: the idea of bringing the dead back to life.

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from Wikimedia CommonsIn an effort to repair relationships with family members, the couple decided to marry in 1816. During this time, Mary returned to writing. Her first published work was a travel narrative, History of a Six Week’s Tour, which detailed two journeys that the couple took: one to Europe in 1814 and another to Geneva in 1816. During their stay at Byron’s estate in Geneva, an eerie incident gave Mary the inspiration she needed to start work on her most famous novel, Frankenstein.

After a year of feverish work, she finished writing her story in May 1817. Due to her gender and the nature of the work, she chose to publish anonymously to avoid censure. Initially titled Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, it was published in January 1818 with a small run of only 500 copies. Despite this, it sold extremely well and gave Mary ample motivation to continue writing.

During this time, Mary Shelley’s life was in a constant state of upheaval. Percy, having run through most of his funds, was in danger of being sent to debtor’s prison. Her stepsister Claire was now pregnant with Byron’s illegitimate child. Facing the very real threats of prison and the potential loss of their remaining children, the Shelleys and Claire decided to move to Italy.

Their time in Italy was comprised of both light and darkness. Mary’s second child, a boy named William Shelley, contracted malaria and died in 1819. This, combined with the loss of her third child Clara just a few weeks after birth, threw Mary into an even deeper state of depression. During this time, she focused entirely on her writing as her only source of solace. Her relationship with Percy, already strained due to their financial insecurity and his womanizing, could offer her no comfort.

Her first longer work after Frankenstein was a Gothic novella called Mathilda, which she worked on from August 1819 to February 1820. She sent the completed manuscript to her father with the hope that he would praise it and submit it for publication. However, he was so disturbed by the theme (a father’s incestuous love for his daughter) that he refused and the work was only published posthumously in 1959.

In the summer of 1822, Mary Shelley moved with her husband and her stepsister to an isolated villa near the sea. It was here that Percy revealed to her that Claire’s child, sent to live in a convent by Byron, had died from typhus. Mary was so horrified by the news that she had a miscarriage, which prompted her to once again withdraw from Percy. In response, he chose to pursue a relationship with Claire and to spend the remainder of his free time with his new sailboat. In the midst of Percy’s return from a trip down the coast, there was a violent storm. Waiting anxiously for any correspondence to indicate that all was well, Mary felt the specter of death hover over her once more. Ten days after the storm, his body washed up on the shore. He was cremated on the beach with select portions of his remains taken as mementos by Mary and his close friends. From that point, Mary resolved to sustain both herself and her infant son, Percy Florence, on income from her writing.

For the next two decades, she edited Percy’s poetry, submitted short stories to magazines, and published four novels. The first of these, titled The Last Man, was published in 1826 and focused on a world that has been almost entirely wiped out by a plague. Her second novel, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, was historical fiction set during the War of the Roses. Her third novel, Lodore, illustrated the precarious situation of women in a patriarchal society as the wife and daughter of Lord Lodore struggle to stay afloat after his death. Her fourth novel, Falkner, further explored the theme of family as the heroine negotiates a reconciliation between her father and the man she loves.

In 1831, she returned to Frankenstein and published the edition that is most commonly used today. In an effort to make her work less controversial and more acceptable for a mainstream audience, she made a significant number of changes. One notable change is that the characters were now presented as being victims of fate rather than exercising free will. She also changed certain controversial elements, such as Victor’s love interest, Elizabeth, being his blood cousin.

For the last decade of her life, Mary Shelley’s health continued to decline. Debilitating headaches and bodily paralysis largely prevented her from reading and writing. Her last work was a travelogue, Rambles in Germany and Italy, detailing a trip she took with her son and his friends from the university. She died on February 1st, 1851 at the age of 51 and was buried at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth.

Although her life was marred by tragedy, she nevertheless left behind a rich legacy as a writer. Throughout her literary career, she emphasized the importance of cooperation and compassion in order to create the best possible world. As her most famous work, Frankenstein perfectly illustrates the responsibility that we have as humans for ourselves, for those around us, and for whatever we choose to bring into this world. For these reasons, Mary Shelley’s writing will remain relevant for centuries to come.

Celebrate Franken Fridays with us! Frighteningly fun events are held each Friday to celebrate Frankenstein’s 200th publishing anniversary. Connect with us on social media using the #FrankenFriday tag.

Upcoming Events:

Friday, Oct. 12:

  • 1 p.m., Library 134, Gainesville campus—”The Many Faces of Frankenstein” film presentation by Dr. Candice Wilson of UNG and Dr. Tobias Wilson-Bates of Georgia Tech
  • TBA, Student Resource Center 311, Oconee Campus—From “Frankenstein” to Fake News: A brief history of science fiction by UNG instructor Derek Thiess
  • Film screenings of 1931 “Frankenstein” and selections from Films on Demand by Drs. Melissa Schindler and Ann Marie Francis and co-sponsored with the Student Government Association, Forsyth County Library (1931 film) and classroom on Cumming Campus

 

Thursday, Oct. 18:

  • 3:30 p.m., front of Library, West End Art Exhibit in Library, Dahlonega Campus—Birthday Party for Mary Shelley’s Creature. Reading by Scott Fugate

 

Friday, Oct. 19:

  • 11 a.m. to noon, Library 134, Gainesville Campus—Visiting artist Drema Montgomery, who creates art by assembling various found objects, will demonstrate her work and correlate it to Dr. Frankenstein’s manufacturing the monster.
  • Noon to 4 p.m., Forsyth County Library and Cumming Campus—Frankenstein-themed rock art by World Literature II students
  • 1 p.m., Library 134, Gainesville Campus—English faculty panel including Dr. Diana Edelman, Anita Turlington and Dr. Kasee Laster
  • TBA, Student Resource Center 311, Oconee Campus—The Many Faces of Frankenstein: media and roundtable discussion with Drs. Dan Cabaniss, Stephanie Rountree and Shane Toepfer

 

Friday, Oct. 26

  • 11 a.m., Library 134, Gainesville Campus—”Frankenstein and Posthumanism” faculty panel featuring Dr. Lynn Berdanier, Dr. John Hamilton, Dr. Jeanelle Morgan, and Dr. Kristin Yager
  • Noon to 3 p.m., upstairs lobby, Cumming Campus—PoeDown and costume contest
  • Noon, Library 134, Gainesville Campus—”Monster Theory” faculty panel featuring Dr. Jeff Pardue, Dr. Phil Guerty, Dr. Patsy Worrall
  • 3-5 p.m., Mount Hope Cemetery, Dahlonega Campus—”Secrets from the Grave” guided tour of Mount Hope Cemetery by Thomas Scanlin

Bringing Horror to Life: The Origin of Frankenstein

The story of Frankenstein started during a rainy summer night in 1816. After a year marked by an extremely long and bitter winter, Mary Shelley and her lover, Percy Bryce Shelley, sought to escape the weather by visiting Lord Bryon’s villa in Switzerland. The three friends wandered around the vast expanse of the lake on Byron’s property, searching for inspiration in the serenity of the natural world around them. Unfortunately, frequent rain showers confined the group to the house.

Victor Frankenstein looks at his creation in horror and disgust. Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.
Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

Sitting in Bryon’s library by the dim light of assorted candles, cradled by the dull roar of the storm outside, the three writers turned to ghost stories to pass the time. Both terrified and enlivened by the tales of monstrous apparitions and cursed households, Bryon proposed an idea: Each of them should write a ghost story and share it with their peers. From that point on, Mary Shelley pushed herself to write a story that would chill the blood, haunt the mind, and set itself apart from all other works of supernatural fiction that had come before it.

Inspiration did not come quickly or easily for her. The loftiness of her goal and the immense pressure she placed upon herself to see it through forced her into a state of writer’s paralysis. As Percy and Bryon shared the results of the previous night’s work, Mary repeatedly had nothing to show. During this time, Bryon and Percy spoke at length about philosophy; specifically, the concept of life and whether it could be created using current scientific technology and methods. Of special interest to Mary Shelley was the concept of galvanism.

Luigi Galvini introduced the idea of galvanism through a series of experiments on the remains of dissected frogs. Holding a copper probe at one end of the frog’s legs and a piece of iron at the other end, he was shocked to find that the legs twitched as if they were still alive. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took his research a step further and applied it to the human body. In a public demonstration in 1803, Aldini subjected the body of an executed criminal to a series of electrical shocks. The result was bone-chilling. The corpse moved as if he were still alive. His muscles spasmed, his jaw opened, his hands clenched, and one eye actually opened due to the electrical shocks.

The men eventually lost interest in the topic and went to bed. Mary, however, remained haunted by the horrific potential of science to give humans power over life and death. She tossed and turned in her bed, finally falling asleep in the middle of the night, but her sleep was far from peaceful. She had a singularly vivid and horrifying nightmare which impressed itself on her mind, described here in her introduction to Frankenstein:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.

She finally had come up with the perfect ghost story: A man who, in trying to test the boundaries of scientific potential, creates a monster. Her protagonist, named Dr. Victor Frankenstein, is so hungry for knowledge about life and the human body that he turns to charnel houses and grave robbery in order to experiment on the bodies of the dead. After cobbling together a makeshift human from the remains of deceased criminals, Dr. Frankenstein uses the electricity from a lightning storm to give the monstrous creature life. Horrified by what he has created, Dr. Frankenstein flees from it and sets into a motion of series of tragic events for both his creation and those around him.

On that night in Byron’s villa, Mary Shelley took her worst nightmare and fashioned it into a living and breathing monster that would haunt readers for centuries to come. This Halloween, celebrate the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein’s release by visiting this classic. Find a dark corner, settle down, and see for yourself just why Mary Shelley’s “midnight specter” has chilled the blood and haunted the mind from the moment it took its first lumbering step in her dreams.

Celebrate Franken Fridays with us! Frighteningly fun events are held each Friday to celebrate Frankenstein’s 200th publishing anniversary. Connect with us on social media using the #FrankenFriday tag.

 Upcoming Events:

 Friday, Oct. 5: “Frankenstein’s Originality” by Anne Williams, University of Georgia professor and Gothic Writer

  • 11 a.m. to noon – Cleveland Ballroom, Nesbitt 3110, Gainvesville Campus
  • 2-3 p.m. – Hoag Auditorium, Dahlonega Campus (reception to follow)
  • 2-3 p.m. Student Resource Center 581, Oconee Campus (broadcast from Dahlonega)
  • 2-3 p.m. Cumming Campus (broadcast from Dahlonega)

 Thursday, Oct. 11:

  • 5:30p.m., Library Lobby, Dahlonega campus—David Plunkert, artist and illustrator for The New Yorker will present his creative process of illustrating the gothic novel and 200th anniversary edition of Frankenstein with modern influences. There will be a book signing before the event and afterward in the Library lobby.
  • 6 p.m., Rare Books Collections, Library 382, Dahlonega Campus—“The Monster in the Music of Mary Shelley’s Romantic Period.” Aria Performance by Benjamin Schoening, UNG Department Head of Music.

Friday, Oct. 12:

  • 1 p.m., Library 134, Gainesville campus—”The Many Faces of Frankenstein” film presentation by Dr. Candice Wilson of UNG and Dr. Tobias Wilson-Bates of Georgia Tech
  • TBA, Student Resource Center 311, Oconee Campus—From “Frankenstein” to Fake News: A brief history of science fiction by UNG instructor Derek Thiess
  • Film screenings of 1931 “Frankenstein” and selections from Films on Demand by Drs. Melissa Schindler and Ann Marie Francis and co-sponsored with the Student Government Association, Forsyth County Library (1931 film) and classroom on Cumming Campus

Thursday, Oct. 18:

  • 3:30 p.m., front of Library, West End Art Exhibit in Library, Dahlonega Campus—Birthday Party for Mary Shelley’s Creature. Reading by Scott Fugate

Friday, Oct. 19:

  • 11 a.m. to noon, Library 134, Gainesville Campus—Visiting artist Drema Montgomery, who creates art by assembling various found objects, will demonstrate her work and correlate it to Dr. Frankenstein’s manufacturing the monster.
  • Noon to 4 p.m., Forsyth County Library and Cumming Campus—Frankenstein-themed rock art by World Literature II students
  • 1 p.m., Library 134, Gainesville Campus—English faculty panel including Dr. Diana Edelman, Anita Turlington and Dr. Kasee Laster
  • TBA, Student Resource Center 311, Oconee Campus—The Many Faces of Frankenstein: media and roundtable discussion with Drs. Dan Cabaniss, Stephanie Rountree and Shane Toepfer

Friday, Oct. 26

  • 11 a.m., Library 134, Gainesville Campus—”Frankenstein and Posthumanism” faculty panel featuring Dr. Lynn Berdanier, Dr. John Hamilton, Dr. Jeanelle Morgan, and Dr. Kristin Yager
  • Noon to 3 p.m., upstairs lobby, Cumming Campus—PoeDown and costume contest
  • Noon, Library 134, Gainesville Campus—”Monster Theory” faculty panel featuring Dr. Jeff Pardue, Dr. Phil Guerty, Dr. Patsy Worrall
  • 3-5 p.m., Mount Hope Cemetery, Dahlonega Campus—”Secrets from the Grave” guided tour of Mount Hope Cemetery by Thomas Scanlin

Our Lingua Franca: The Importance of Learning a New Language as a Tool for Writing

Globes of various sizes sit on a desk.
“Globe Collection” by João Silas

In an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, it is more important now than ever that we learn to develop a common tongue. There is no greater area for this than in literature. However, many writers tend to speak only in their own language when weaving their stories. I believe that this is limiting and ultimately detrimental. If you truly want to grow as a writer and have your work reach the widest number of people, I strongly recommend that you study at least one other language.

As any student of language knows, it is an extremely intimidating endeavor to step outside of one’s linguistic comfort zone. A new mode of grammar, a cryptic alphabet, and a challenging writing system—all of these are formidable obstacles. However, the greatest reward for a writer can be found in the phrases and stories that are specific to certain cultures.

For example, let us delve into the Russian language. Many Russian idioms are visually descriptive and oftentimes have an entertaining meaning. Here are two particularly interesting ones: Вешать лапшу на уши (which literally means ‘to hang noodles on one’s ears’) and Очки втирать (‘to smear eyeglasses’). Both of these phrases deal with lying or speaking nonsense, in a way that is new and unfamiliar to a non-native speaker. In exploring and learning different languages, we come across many phrases such as these that can add some spice and variety to our writing by simply changing our perspective.

In addition to idioms, many languages also bring with them a rich bounty of stories usually related to a cultural heritage. Russia, in particular, is a country that is well known for the unique figures of its folklore and mythology: the fearsome Baba Yaga, the devilish Chernabog, the bright and shining Zorya sisters, and the merry Father Frost are only a handful. When it comes to creating the setting (backbone) of a story, some of the best writers draw their inspiration from a variety of cultures. If you dedicate yourself to learning a language, you will be able to draw from and contribute to their stories in an ethical and enjoyable way for all parties.

As writers, our primary goal is not only to tell a good story but to do so in a ‘lingua franca’—a language that is commonly used as common ground between two speakers with different native tongues. Your books, poetry, poems, and music may reach further across the world than you think and, if that is the case, you want it to be in a language and voice that is accessible and enjoyable for everyone. To that end, I encourage you to write a piece that reaches out to someone in their own language and culture. Who knows? Perhaps they’ll reach out and do the same.

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Back to School Prep: The College Survival Pack

It’s near the end of summer and school time is drawing near. You probably had plans to learn a new skill or read a library’s worth of books (so did I), but alas! All your time was squandered on Netflix, a part-time job, and worst of all—maintaining family ties. And now, you’re going to spend all your time reading textbooks or learning mathematical equations. But it’ll all be okay! We’ve compiled a list of items to help you survive the next semester and maybe even do a little reading for fun.

1) The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction – Ann Charters

Cover of "The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction"by Ann Charters.
Buy on Amazon

Okay, I know. Why suggest a short story anthology when you’re already reading for classes? Hear me out. Short stories are great because they’re accessible. Only have 30 minutes to read? Good. You can read a short story while you eat, giving yourself just enough time to get to class for once. Plus, there are case studies in the back to help you become a better writer if that’s your thing.

 

2) A Scream Pillow

College can be stressful at times. When it’s too much, try screaming into a pillow to destress. Just warn your roommates beforehand!

 

3) Walden – Henry David Thoreau

Cover of Walden by Henry David ThoreauHaving night sweats about the frigid fall and winter weather? It might actually be a side effect of the heat. If that’s the case, be glad for the approaching cold. If not, try to hold on to the last of nature’s summer goodness with Walden by Thoreau.

 

 

4) A Lunch Box

A divided food container sits in front of a laptop. The container is full of rice, vegetables, and potatoes. Tired of stale cafeteria food or overpriced leftovers from the night before? Start packing your lunch and save some money (and your taste buds). Now, you can spend all that extra cash on something important. A certain short story anthology comes to mind. . .

 

5) Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

Cover of lood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.Is daily life becoming tedious? Do you want some action in your life? Look no further for the solution! Blood Meridian is a western which will take you back to cowpoke days and save you from the ailments and comforts of modernity.

 

 

6) An Adult Coloring Book

Cover for Adult Coloring Books: Cats from Laluna Books
Buy on Amazon

Coloring is a great way to destress. Whether you prefer crayons or pencils, carry this cat coloring book around with you and color the stress away. It’s a lot better than some alternatives. Warning: This is not permission to procrastinate like you did last semester.

 

7) Tea or Coffee

Coffee beans package for Death Wish Coffee
Death Wish Coffee

Whether you need the comfort of tea or the power of coffee, there is no doubt you should stock up on both. A warm beverage will help keep the creeping cold out of your bones, and it might even make you productive. For those caffeine fiends out there, could I recommend Death Wish Coffee? If you’re like me and prefer tea, Yorkshire Gold is my go-to for a pick-me-up.

5 Books Before the Fireworks

Fireworks burst into brilliant arcs of light overhead, a parade of bellowing trains leave candy in their wake, and the Star-Spangled Banner waves proudly from every homestead. It’s the Fourth of July! To celebrate this occasion, we’ve put together a reading list for the season. Ever wanted to learn more about our founding fathers? How about the unsung men and women who contributed to the Revolution? Whatever your area of interest may be, you’re sure to find an engaging and educational title on this list. Curl up in a nice and cozy spot under the glow of the fireworks, pick up one of these books, and celebrate the birth of America with a great new read!

1. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

From Penguin Random House, 2002

In this landmark work of history, the National Book Award-winning author of American Sphinx explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals–Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison–confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.

The United States was more a fragile hope than a reality in 1790. During the decade that followed, the Founding Fathers–re-examined here as Founding Brothers–combined the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the content of the Constitution to create the practical workings of our government. Through an analysis of six fascinating episodes–Hamilton and Burr’s deadly duel, Washington’s precedent-setting Farewell Address, Adams’ administration and political partnership with his wife, the debate about where to place the capital, Franklin’s attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery and Madison’s attempts to block him, and Jefferson and Adams’ famous correspondence–Founding Brothers brings to life the vital issues and personalities from the most important decade in our nation’s history.

2. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States by Gordon S. Wood

From Penguin Random House, 2012

The preeminent historian of the Founding Era reflects on the birth of American nationhood and explains why the American Revolution remains so essential.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood, the American Revolution is the most important event in our history, bar none. Since American identity is so fluid, we have had to continually return to our nation’s founding to understand who we are. In a series of illuminating essays, he explores the ideological origins of the Revolution—from Ancient Rome to the European Enlightenment—and the founders’ attempts to forge a democracy. He reflects on the origins of American exceptionalism, the radicalism and failed hopes of the founding generation, and the “terrifying gap” between us and the men who created the democratic state we take for granted. This is a profoundly revealing look at the event that forged the United States and its enduring power to define us.

3. Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era: A Brief History with Documents by Woody Holton

From Macmillan, 2009

In this fresh look at liberty and freedom in the Revolutionary era from the perspective of black Americans, Woody Holton recounts the experiences of slaves who seized freedom by joining the British as well as those— lave and free—who served in Patriot military forces. Holton’s introduction examines the conditions of black American life on the eve of colonial independence and the ways in which Revolutionary rhetoric about liberty provided African Americans with the language and inspiration for advancing their cause. Despite the rhetoric, however, most black Americans remained enslaved after the Revolution. The introduction outlines ways African Americans influenced the course of the Revolution and continued to be affected by its aftermath. Amplifying these themes are nearly forty documents—including personal narratives, petitions, letters, poems, advertisements, pension applications, and images—that testify to the diverse goals and actions of African Americans during the Revolutionary era. Document headnotes and annotations, a chronology, questions for consideration, a selected bibliography, and index offer additional pedagogical support.

4. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin

From Penguin Random House, 2006

The American Revolution was a home-front war that brought scarcity, bloodshed, and danger into the life of every American. In this groundbreaking history, Carol Berkin shows us how women played a vital role throughout the conflict.
The women of the Revolution were most active at home, organizing boycotts of British goods, raising funds for the fledgling nation, and managing the family business while struggling to maintain a modicum of normalcy as husbands, brothers and fathers died. Yet Berkin also reveals that it was not just the men who fought on the front lines, as in the story of Margaret Corbin, who was crippled for life when she took her husband’s place beside a cannon at Fort Monmouth. This incisive and comprehensive history illuminates a fascinating and unknown side of the struggle for American independence.

5. Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution by Joseph T. Glatthar and James Kirby Martin

From Macmillan, 2007

Combining compelling narrative and grand historical sweep, Forgotten Allies offers a vivid account of the Oneida Indians, forgotten heroes of the American Revolution who risked their homeland, their culture, and their lives to join in a war that gave birth to a new nation at the expense of their own. Revealing for the first time the full sacrifice of the Oneidas in securing independence, Forgotten Allies offers poignant insights about Oneida culture and how it changed and adjusted in the wake of nearly two centuries of contact with European-American colonists. It depicts the resolve of an Indian nation that fought alongside the revolutionaries as their valuable allies, only to be erased from America’s collective historical memory. Beautifully written, Forgotten Allies recaptures these lost memories and makes certain that the Oneidas’ incredible story is finally told in its entirety, thereby deepening and enriching our understanding of the American experience.

 

Literary Analysis and Discovery

Many of us are familiar with literary analysis. Maybe some of us even loath writing literary analysis. I can sympathize with that feeling. After all, literary analysis seems to be an ephemeral exercise in asserting a personal opinion which most likely doesn’t align with the reason for an author writing a work. I was on this side of the fence for a long time. At this point, you may be asking why I’m an English major if I feel this way, but that’s a story for another time. People change, and my feelings for literary analysis have shifted. Writing literary analysis has become a personal journey of discovery, but how did I come to this way of thinking?

First, I think it is necessary to examine how I approached writing literary analysis before I thought of it as a journey of discovery. If this was before. I would simply read a work and immediately have a conclusion about the meaning of the story. Then, I would write a paper based on my assumption of what the story means by finding passages which coincided with what I believed. And after finding a million passages, my paper would be complete with me not having learned much or really feeling all that accomplished.

Compare this to my approach to literary analysis now. The first difference would be my initial assumption after finishing a work. I try not to have a knee jerk reaction to the meaning of a work. This forces me to go back through the work and find common themes, motifs, symbols, and other literary techniques the author employed and examine them. By examining these techniques, a pattern is revealed. This is much different than my previous technique were I was attempting to force my own, knee jerk reaction onto the work. Doing this, you can look at literary analysis as a journey of discovery where little bits of a path are revealed until you come to the end.

I think this approach to literary analysis has given me a new appreciation for it, and honestly, it makes literary analysis so much more enjoyable. Before approaching literary analysis in this way, I would loath writing papers. Those papers almost seem combative or argumentative, trying to force the reader into believing me. Now, my papers act as a guide to the reader. I think using this method for literary analysis is much more true to the purpose of an author as well. Most authors purposely leave little remnants and literary techniques scattered throughout their works. Going back after an author and discovering these remnants makes for not only a more interesting process for writing, but also a way for you to discover what a work means to you personally. And while I think literary analysis is academically important, it can also reveal your thoughts and opinions on important subjects, which is why books are so vital in a society where it is hard to find who you are.

Zora Neale Hurston and Barracoon: The Importance of Preserving Dialect in Literature

Book cover of "Barracoon" by Zoea Neale Hurston
From HarperCollins, 2018.

Barracoon is a heretofore unpublished series of interviews between Zora Neale Hurston and a man named Cudjo Lewis who was the last survivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade. It has recently come into the public eye with the announcement of its upcoming release.

 Born in West Africa, Lewis (whose original name is Kossula) relates his harrowing story to Hurston: His abduction from his village as a young man; his trauma at witnessing the deaths of his kinsmen; his forced journey aboard the Clotilda; his time as a slave; and the creation of his own small community after he gained his freedom.

In keeping with Hurston’s preference for authentic dialogue, Lewis’ story is laid out in his own words and voice. For years, she struggled to find a publisher as they pressured her to present his story in “language rather than dialect” (Alter, New York Times). She strongly refused to give in to this demand and as a result, we now have an invaluable document of history. A firsthand account of the horrors of the slave trade and the efforts of African Americans to rebuild their lives in a new land once released from their bonds.

For the reader, this collection of interviews is an important addition to the growing body of work produced by African American artists in all genres. As a group whose voices have been oppressed and silenced throughout our country’s history, it is essential that every effort is made for their stories to be told authentically.

To this end, Barracoon represents an important and positive shift in the publishing industry, as there is now a concentrated effort to rediscover and present the words of those who have suffered in the past—without censorship or alteration.

Photograph of Cudjo Lewis, using his given name Kossula. From the book "Barracoon".
Photograph of Cudjo Lewis, using his given name Kossula.

We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama. (Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo, quoted in The New York Times article of the same name.)