Professor of English and Chair of the English Department Sean McCann has been teaching at Wesleyan since 1993. A Faulkner scholar, McCann specializes in the study of post-Civil War American literature and has written two critically acclaimed books on the relationship between American literature and politics. McCann sat down with The Argus to discuss graphic novels, the rise of the American presidency, and the future of the novel.
The Argus: What are you reading?
Sean McCann: Pretty much always reading for pleasure. I’m reading Susan Choi’s “The Foreign Student.” I’m reading it in particular because my colleague [Assistant Professor of English and American Studies] Amy Tang will be talking about it at the Center for Humanities Monday night, and I wanted to be familiar with what she is talking about. It’s a really good book; I’m enjoying it very much. In my car right now, I’m listening to “Motherless Brooklyn” by Jonathan Lethem, which is, amazingly, something I’ve never read. He’s using the conventions of the hard-boiled crime fiction genre, and he’s got a detective who has Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s fantastic, very amusing, and clever. Great picture of Brooklyn in the 1990s.
When I was sick, I was reading the Alan Moore graphic novel “V for Vendetta.”
A: What’d you think of it?
SM: Well, I dunno! I found it really engaging and striking, and really hokey in lots of ways. The gender and sexuality stuff just seems so out of date. But you know, I thought it was pretty clever. It fits very interestingly with our class [The New York Intellectuals], because you can see how powerful the idea of the totalitarian society was, which was generated out of the mid-20th century U.S. All the conventional associations are still there in Moore’s novel.
A: What do you think of graphic novels as expressions of political realities?
SM: I don’t have any assumption about that at all. I did a tutorial a couple of years ago on the graphic novel, so I’ve read the big ones, the ones that people talk about a lot. I haven’t seen anything that leads me to think that they’re generically suited to some subject matter or some reader rather than another. My friend has a good view on this. He sees the graphic novel as a form of modern pastoralism in the sense of the word used by W. R. Empson…that it’s a kind of literature that puts complex ideas in simple containers.
A: You have written two books in the past decade about the intersection of literature and politics. Could you talk about them?
SM: Nothing could make me happier! My most recent book was called “A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government,” and the first was called “Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism.” That book [“Gumshoe”] was kind of about that pastoral tendency. The book was about major creators of the hard-boiled genre…famous people who wrote between the 1920s and 1950s or so and wrote the fiction that we now think of as the hard-boiled crime story. They thought of themselves as being avant-garde in a popular genre. Many of them achieved great recognition by their contemporaries, by artists and critics, and there was a sense that there was something striking or weird or strange about such high achievements in a low genre. I was interested in that: high ambition in a low genre. I was also interested in the way that situation accompanied a revision of the detective genre, and finally I was interested in the way that revision accompanied changes in the ideas of law, government, and society that people had as the New Deal developed and became institutionalized as the prevailing norm in American political culture.
The subject of the second book is the way that American novelists, mainly, became fascinated with the idea of the presidency, and took the presidency as a kind of model and rival for what they wanted to do in literature. A way to think about this would be to say…There’s the famous line that Shelley had about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of our universe; for a lot of American writers, especially in the 20th century, writers became the unacknowledged presidents of their universe. My book is basically trying to figure out why they thought that way and how the idea helps us to understand both the fiction they created and the political culture their fiction drew from.
A: Do you correlate that with the rising power of the executive branch?
SM: Exactly. And still more, the rising expectations, which rise much farther and faster and are much more compelling than the actual power. The executive branch of course became hugely powerful in the 20th century, and yes, relative to Congress in particular, it became much more the center of American power. But even more important for my purposes are the ideologies of presidential power that developed alongside this rise in power to justify it, or explain it, or, quite frequently, to celebrate it. You still see a legacy of these attitudes, for example, when Bob Woodward says, criticizing Obama, “Presidents work their will, and Obama failed to work his will.” This is an idea about the presidency and a pathos about the presidency that stretches back at least to the 1950s and probably before that to the earliest years of the 20th century. It’s a vision of the president as quasi-king, as commander-in-chief not just of the military but of American society and culture. That vision seemed to many people plausibly achievable in the 20th century; now it’s just absurd. For Woodward to say this about the past four years seems partisan and silly, [as if he weren’t] paying attention.
A: What brought you to Wesleyan?
SM: Good luck! Very good fortune. I fell in the gravy, frankly. Having a job at Wesleyan is incredibly good fortune, and I’m really, really glad to have it. This is a plum job in my field. The kind of working conditions that we get to enjoy here are very, very rare. I appreciate them very much.
A: What drew you to study literature?
SM: I always wanted to do it, I guess. But I didn’t think I always would do it, and I wasn’t aware of it as a career possibility until pretty late in the game. I went to law school for a year—my father’s a lawyer, my grandfather was a lawyer—I went to the same law school they did for a year. My great-uncle was a law professor at that law school; it was a real career expectation. I hated that, didn’t want to do that, but didn’t have any expectation that I could be a college professor. But I had a philosophy professor when I was an undergraduate who said to me, “You should think about going to grad school.” I thought he had two heads; I had never heard of anything so absurd. But he planted a bug, and that bug stuck with me.
I went to graduate school at the City University of New York and taught there at Baruch College. I loved that and had every hope of staying there. My first goal was to stay there. I didn’t get a job [at CUNY], but I was very lucky to get a job here. I jumped at it; I was thrilled, ecstatic.
A: You’re also known by many as a Faulkner scholar. What in particular interests you about William Faulkner?
SM: He’s great! He’s probably the greatest American novelist of the 20th century. He’s a genius; why wouldn’t you be drawn to him?
A: What are your reflections on the English Department as you assume the position of the department’s new chair?
SM: I’m really delighted to be the Chair of the English Department. It’s a great place to work, it’s a great collection of human beings-—really wonderful crew of scholars and artists. It’s a pleasure to work with them, the students are fantastic, and the department seems to be in a very good situation. It’s a happy time for the English Department.
It faces continual challenges. The challenges are to serve the needs of a big population of majors and students, to provide the education that we as a department think is important, and to provide the courses that students think are important. And that’s a constant struggle. In particular, there’s always demand for more creative writing opportunities. We are very aware of that problem and try to address it in lots of ways. One approach I want to take is to try to lower the barriers to co-curricular activities in creative writing such as reading groups and open mic nights. We can’t give students every opportunity they wish to have, but we’ll do what we can do and try to provide students with opportunities to pursue their interests.
A: Book sales are declining, bookstores are closing, and e-readers are coming into prominence. What do you see as the future of the novel form?
SM: That’s a great question. I’m not sure all of those stats are as obvious as they seem. Something else I have been reading that I would highly recommend is a book called “A Novel Marketplace” by Evan Brier. It’s a history of the relationship between the mass media and the world of literary publishing and literary taste from the 1950s to the 1980s or so, so it’s kind of a prehistory to our current moment. Brier argues that during these years there was a conventional narrative about the way that literary expression was being squelched by mass media…In retrospect, it now is obvious in some ways that this [narrative] was wrong. In fact, alongside the rise of the mass media, literary publishing grew in influence and prestige. The mass media and literary fiction rose together, rather than one or the other declining while the other rises.
Today the situation is different. What’s happening now is best understood by referring to the idea of what people call “the long tail.” The Internet has lowered barriers to entry in lots of communications, information, media, and entertainment industries—a development that actually has coexisted with the conglomeration of media and publishing companies. Rather than these developments leading to a decline in literary publishing or a decline in readership, though, it actually looks like they lead to the expansion of publishing and reading. Many more books are being published now than have ever been published before. Readership has gone up, actually. So in some ways the book publishing industry, and the fiction industry in particular, is very healthy.
All this proliferation of activity, and the creation of countless niche markets that accompany it, however, is actually harmful to the idea of cultural prestige. There are lots and lots of books published in a wide variety of genres, and many readers. But there are fewer cultural icons who command the respect of everyone. In the mid-20th century U.S., in the age of monopoly mass media, literary writers often had wide recognition and authority. They were recognized by mass media outlets—like, say, Time Magazine—as important interpreters of their culture. I’m not sure that situation exists anymore. If you look at the institution of the novel circa 1952 when, say “Invisible Man” was published, you could imagine the novel as the mouthpiece of a culture, as an interpreter of its society. The protagonist in that novel can claim plausibly to speak on the lower frequencies for all Americans. You can’t do that anymore.