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Vehicular Approach

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Last May there were some drastic changes in our faculty, and as a result I discovered I would be teaching three sections of AP® English literature, a course usually reserved for senior teachers. This meant that I’d be teaching the same group of about fifty students for the third year in a row. Having already read with them nearly everything from Gilgamesh to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I was at a loss for a syllabus.  I joked with a colleague that I should base the syllabus on modes of travel: planes, trains, and automobiles. He took me seriously, however, and gave me several ideas. After some thought, I realized it was a viable approach. The vehicular theme was fun and simple, while also providing a refreshing approach to texts I was already familiar—and maybe a little bored—with.

When we talk about literature—which we do in AP® English Literature—it is difficult to avoid travel metaphors. We read literature to be “moved”; we are “taken somewhere”; we “get to the end” of the book. When we talk about life, which literature traditionally does, we can’t help but speak of it as a journey or ride, with a clear beginning and an inevitable end. Narrative, like life, is an act of motion, and as it moves there will surely be a way from point A to point B. Chaucer’s pilgrims walk; Don Quixote rides a horse; Anna Karenina hops a train; Gatsby drives a car. If characters do not move, they suffer. Hamlet is tortured by his inability to move (or act), yet in awe of Fortinbras’s ability to travel great distances. Gregory Samsa is limited to the movements of an insect. Vladimir and Estragon are stuck waiting for Godot. In each case, their immobility is at the center of their estrangement. In their angst we see the alienation of modernity and postmodernity.

At first, I thought of the vehicular approach as way to conduct a chronological survey of literature. Historically, modes of motion have been the subject of much discussion. How should one walk when on a pilgrimage? Can a train ride change the course of events? What makes a car different from other modes of transportation? Modernity from its start coincides with motion. I believed the oldest texts would concern walking, sailing, and equestrianism, followed by train travel, and so on as the years progressed. However, this is not the case. Joseph Conrad’s very modern Heart of Darkness features sea travel just as Beowulf—which in the end I decided not to teach—does.

Once I realized I could scrap historical coherency, I began to have fun creating my syllabus. A work of literature with a hot air balloon? I had just read Richard Holmes’s brilliant Age of Wonder, about the Romantic poets’ obsession with science, and realized I could incorporate Shelley’s “To a Balloon Laden with Knowledge.” And why not explore the gondola, the central symbol and vehicle in A Death in Venice? Or analyze stillness and absence in Cormack McCarthy’s The Road? Intriguing possibilities began to unfold.

I´m at the beginning of the semester, so I don’t know how well this will work. We’re still in the waiting area, listening for our row numbers, ready to board. But the journey promises to be interesting, and I know the route to take—more or less.

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