Last night was the second night of the Hardboiled: US Detective Fiction course and we covered a few things ranging from A Domain of One’s Own pilot project to writing a #6wordstory on Twitter as a way to introduce the semester’s first author: Ernest Hemingway.
It was nice to see that by the second class all but two of the hardboiled students had their domains up and running. The Domain of One’s Own pilot is proving remarkably seamless thus far, and for anyone who says it’s far too great a technical expectation of our faculty and students I would simply reply that everyone else’s expectations are far too low. UMW students and faculty are managing this pilot beautifully. What’s more, we have the support system in place to help them figure it out should there be any difficulties—which there will be—because we are, after all, a learning institution and this is part of what we should be supporting. Period.
After an overview of the web host options, I gave them a crash course for creating subdomains, installing WordPress, and managing their personal blog site. Once again there were no issues here, and students seemed absolutely unfazed by what I was asking of them. If we can acculturate anywhere from 100-200 freshman to become the sysadmins of their own educational platform from day one of their college careers then anything is possible—and this time next year it will be anywhere from 900-1000 freshman.
As a transition from the technical elements of getting their own sites up and running we moved to talking about Hemingway. I make no pretense that Hemingway belongs to the detective fiction genre per se, in fact Dashiell Hammett (along with various pulp writers for Black Mask) in the early 20s can claim far more influence over the 20th century incarnation of the genre in the U.S. Nonetheless, I do contend that Hemingway’s style and theories about writing play an important role in shaping the stylistic approach of detective fiction. What’s more, Hemingway’s short story collection In Our Time (1925) helps frame the larger cultural, historical context for a “Lost Generation” — a literary frame for understanding a generation that experienced the mechanized and fragmented horrors of warfare during World War I. Themes that would remain relevant up and until the Great Depression, but also remain a referent point throughout World War II. In effect, Hemingway gets us talking about these concepts and themes while Dashell Hammett’s Red Harvest introduces the class to the emergence of gangster culture viz-a-viz Prohibition, and John Fante’s Ask the Dust frames the Great Depression through the lens of Los Angeles: America’s emerging epicenter of culture and depravity (a theme that will dominate much of the fiction we read thereafter).
Anyway, before I got into all of that, I spent a moment looking at the #6wordstory meme that Mike Wesch turned me on to when I was in Kansas this past February. According to snopes.com, this meme attributes the following six-word story to Hemingway: “Baby shoes. Never worn. For sale.” While apocryphal, this example is a compelling way to think about minimalism as a style to communicate as much as possible in as few words possible. The first assignment for the hardboiled students, in addition to reading half of In Our Time, is to start a Twitter account and tweet out a six-word story. A couple of them have already done this, and it’s a fun way to make first contact, and also realize there’s already a rich #sixwordstory community on Twitter.
Finally, I discussed a bit of Hemingway’s early biography. I’m fascinated by how young Hemingway was when he entered the world, so to speak. In 1917, when Hemingway finished high school and was exactly the same age of many of the students in the room, he wasn’t heading to college, rather he immediately entered the professional world of journalism and soon after shipped off for the Great War in Europe. At the age of 18 he was severely wounded while serving in Italy as a member of the Red Cross. Despite his severe wounds, he managed to carry another wounded Italian soldier to safety which earned him the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery. Did I mention he was still just 18? By his mid-20s he had already become part of possibly the greatest international literary scene of the 20th century in Paris and would soon after publish three of his most important works: In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises (1926), and A Farewell to Arms (1929). Say what you will about Hemingway, his first 30 years were pretty impressive!