Friday, January 27, 2012

P&PC Anecdote: "The Heart of the Apple"

Two years ago, P&PC offered continuing, if sporadic, coverage of a "Poetry of the Pacific Northwest" class that was being taught in the English Department at Willamette University—a class that field tripped to the annual Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon, and that delved into microfilm archives to read and study poetry that was published in The New Northwest, a Portland-based, suffragist newspaper edited in the latter part of the nineteenth century by Oregon women's rights leader Abigail Scott Duniway. Another instantiation of that class is being offered this semester, and a P&PC representative will drop in from time to time to see what's up, especially since the archival work in The New Northwest is so timely this year, what with 2012 marking the centennial of women's suffrage in Oregon and all. Our sources tell us that there are interesting interdisciplinary activities afoot this semester, and we will bring coverage of those activities as we get it.

For the moment, however, we wanted to share a brief and humorous exchange that occurred in "Poetry of the Pacific Northwest" regarding the funky piece of advertising pictured here—a 5x7-inch poetry postcard issued around 1914 by the Commercial Bank & Trust Company (billed as "The Bank that Helps the Man Who Helps Himself") of Wenatchee, Washington. It's got a blank back side and a poem on front by Viola Adella Gill who was married to Major Edwin S. Gill and died August 28, 1922, in Chambers Prairie, Washington, just outside of Olympia. (Wenatchee, btw, is about 140 miles due East of Seattle.)

Having just read Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse's introduction to Writing out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture, the class—which had already read work investigating the relationship between literature and region by the 12 Southerners, Mary Austin, Eric Sundquist, June Howard, and Richard Brodhead—was especially attuned to Fetterley and Pryse's notions that (a) regionalism is a discursive phenomenon and not a natural, geographic one, and (b) since regionalist writing is alert to the power relationships of place, the best of such writing is also concerned with the ways that those place-based power relationships affect gender roles and identities, especially in the nineteenth century when the "separate spheres" ideology located men and women in particular places that were presumed to be most natural for them (women in the home, men in public). It was no surprise, then, when the class keyed in on the phrase "each in its place, united" that is the penultimate line of Davis's "The Heart of the Apple":
There's music in the laughter
Of a child like this above;
There's health, content, and plenty,
In the valley that we love;
The apples catch the gorgeous tints
Of Autumn's evening skies,
The people's hearts are kind and true
Warm greetings in their eyes.
Schools and churches are close at hand,
To uplift mind and soul,
Each in its place, united,
Helps to form a Perfect Whole.

The poem, one student quickly and rightly remarked, naturalizes the notion that people have an organic relationship with—and even become an expression of—the land. The "Heart of the Apple" in the poem's title, for example, mirrors the "kind and true" hearts of the people in line 7, as the soil in the "valley that we love" is imagined to produce human beings and fruit that, in the abstract at least, have similar anatomies. And the expression "each in its place," another student observed, recalls the "separate spheres" rhetoric of the nineteenth century—men do things in certain places, women do things in certain other places (as satirized in the cartoon here)—while applying that rhetoric to commercial ends as well, as money, the advertisement argues, belongs in its place too: in the vaults at the Commercial Bank & Trust Company. Not a bad analysis, right?

So here comes the punchline of this anecdote, at least as reported by our P&PC johnny-on-the-spot:
Professor: If each thing has "its place," then what do we make of the baby's face being located in the middle of the apple—seemingly out of place from where we'd normally see it?

Student #1: Actually, the logic of the overlap works perfectly, suggesting that we raise our children just as we raise our produce. In the "Perfect Whole," they do occupy the same "place" conceptually speaking.

Professor: What are the implications of a logic that imagines the raising of human children to be the same type of activity as the cultivation of apples?

[Dramatic pause]

Student #2 [wittily]: We get to eat the children once they're ripe!
That's the news from "Poetry of the Pacific Northwest," where Jonathan Swift is looking on, where all the students are above average, all the professors are good looking, and all the children are, well, the apples of our eyes.