Sunday, April 24, 2011
Why we struggle with Carolyn Chute.
I came across this really interesting essay by Professor Roberta Rosenberg while reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine. We had a good discussion on Monday in class about how some of the members of our class really didn't like the novel. I myself was undecided-- I couldn't decide between my love for Chute's writing and language and my overwhelming fear and sadness for the Bean family's situation. But there were definitely members of the class who didn't enjoy the book, and this essay addresses that directly. The author is an English professor who teaches the book in some of her undergrad and grad courses. She has had students in her course vehemently oppose this novel, and looks into why that may be so.
She centers around the idea of what it means to be in the middle class. Rosenberg suggests that to be successful in the middle class, one is required to have a significant amount of self-motivation, a self-sufficiency and autonomy that drives and sustains motivation. Middle-class success is hard work, and the middle-class students that she teaches approach the literature with a high value for "originality, innovation, and individual personality". Rosenberg then cites sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich in suggesting that to be poor is to possess "a peculiar psychopathology which precludes them from adulthood: "the poor person live[s] for the moment, unable to think ahead, to save or plan for the future . . . trapped in the past, unable or unwilling to grow up, as the middle class ha[s]".
As her students approach the Beans as "immature adults" that reject religion, education, work, motivation, and the possibility of a future. In many ways, we get to see our own view of the Beans through the eyes of Earlene, who is obsessed and yet repulsed by the Beans as she watches them from her middle-class window. Earlene denies to the end that she is a part of them, clinging to her middle-class value set despite her obvious integration into the Bean family life.
I think this is a fair analysis of why so many members of our class had such a tough time with this novel. Especially as Colby students, we have an immense value for the importance of hard work and motivation, and to face the Bean family is to face (to us) a population of individuals that ignore success and chose a stagnant lifestyle over one that is upwardly mobile. I know I have a lot of trouble with a few of my fellow Colby peers that refuse to work hard or put their all into their education. It's a small population, but the students that do blow of schoolwork for personal pleasure and fun infuriate me to no end. I see Colby as such a place of oppurtunity, and to waste the potential we have here is, in my eyes, to take for granted what we have as upwardly mobile, middle-class young adults receiving world-class educations.
I think I personally need to get much more used to the idea that the Beans are indeed trapped in poverty in order to accept and enjoy this novel to its fullest extent. As long as any of us view the Beans' extreme poverty as something of their own doing, I believe it's almost impossible to love this novel.