Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Infecting Academia

We all know that Andrew Ferguson is doing perhaps the largest part to bring Lafferty’s work to the attention of the academic world. Here’s the part I’ve played so far in that same struggle:

Arrive at Easterwine: In college, back in the mid ‘80s I took a modern literature class. It was an excellent class--if I remember correctly, we read Dostoyevski’s Notes from the Underground, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Camus’ The Stranger, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. I wrote my term paper on Arrive at Easterwine forcing a copy of the book into the professor’s hands along with the paper. My paper focused on the stream-of-consciousness elements in the book. He gave me a B or B- on the paper, which I initially blamed on him not liking the fact that it was an SF book and not real “Literature.” However, I really suspect the grade was because I didn’t understand the book very well. It took three readings to really get a handle on it, and that was in the last year (look at my review on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Arrive-Easterwine-autobiography-ktistec-machine/dp/068412341X).

Okla Hannali: I’ve ordered evaluation copies from University of Oklahoma Press ($5.00 apiece, including shipping) sent to the teachers in charge of the American Studies programs at the two high schools my children have attended.

Space Chantey: My daughter’s class is studying the Odyssey this year (really a hell of a good 9th-grade English class, their reading list includes Ray Bradbury, Shakespeare, Sophocles, the Odyssey, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). After much discussion with the teacher, I am lending her my copies of Space Chantey and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” which ought to cause an enjoyable bit of cognitive dissonance.

The Flame is Green and The Fall of Rome: After a conversation with the head of the History department at my kids’ school, I am loaning my copy of The Flame is Green and The Fall of Rome to him. I’d love to see Lafferty’s point of view on the relationship between Alaric, Stilicho, and Theodosius get some consideration in a standard world-history class. 

I’d love to hear stories from anyone else who has spread the word to the academic world about Lafferty.


  1. Hi Kevin, this is John Ellison who comments on Andrew Ferguson's blog. My Lafferty 'interventions' outside of mainstream academia have been quite low-key but may be of interest to you. A few years ago 'spiritual reading groups' were quite fashionable and I was involved in an active group in a local catholic parish. There would be a rota whereby people would select a particular passage from the gospels or any associated kind of writing with a theological theme. These passages would be prepared a week before so that the group had the chance to read it in advance. So after a few months my turn for selecting material had come up a few times. I felt the group discussions had been quite successful given that I had picked passages from Balthasar who is seen as a notoriously difficult thinker for people to understand. Feeling my enthusiasm had carried things off I decided to try another writer on whom I could open up fruitful discussions about the nature of time, being and consciousness...
    Whereas I had labelled the photo-copied passages for the previous sessions when I decided to use R.A. Lafferty's Rainbird I had the idea of just copying the story without the name of the author or the title of the story. My idea in doing this was to provoke discussion about reading and recognition, to ask at what point they realised they were reading a story rather than an historical account. In the idealised lesson-plan I had prepared the discussions would then have moved on to memory and Augustine, etc. It didn't work out that way and my enthusiasm for Lafferty wasn't enough to save that particular meeting from being something of a flop.
    There have been other times I've used Lafferty in a church-related context. I'm a member of the lay catholic organisation, The Society of St Vincent de Paul. Each meeting of the organisation starts off with a spiritual reading followed by a brief discussion. So over the years I have at different times used paragraphs from Lafferty's non-fictional writings, most usually the passages where he speaks about happiness and the duty (not the right) of us all to be happy. These have usually worked quite well with not many realising I was actually quoting from a still-too-unknown science-fiction writer.

    1. John, thank you for stopping by and commenting. I love your story about "Rainbird." What kind of reactions did you receive, or were the group largely unaffected by the story?

      I would imagine there might be some lines in Fourth Mansions that might work very well in that setting, or is that content a little too strident and strong in its imagery for that venue? Perhaps the "Father of monsters" bit would be a bit much, but it is such a deeply religiously rooted and simultaneously hopeful book, there must be some text appropriate to a group discussion such as you describe.

      Given Lafferty's erudition and the fact that many of his fans have an acacemic bent, I'm surprised I haven't heard more stories of his work being snuck in to course syllabi on the secondary and post-secondary level.

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    3. Hi again Kevin. The reading group was quite informal although we did come up with some interesting ideas about making parish life more friendly, transforming the world, etc. It lasted for about six months and then when people moved away from the area it just kind of fell apart. It was the case that they didn't seem to get 'Rainbird' or Lafferty when I explained his wider work. My feeling over the years is that you can't compel people to like anything but enticing them or drawing them in can be a painfully slow process. At one time I used a strategy of giving away books to friends and relatives and just waiting for their reactions. Some enthused about Flann O' Brien but most didn't get him at all. No one at all seemed to have the similar enthusiasm for Lafferty as I did. Yet everyone I ever gave a copy of John Kennedy Toole''s A Confederacy of Dunces to thought it was brilliant and wanted to know more about the writer. This seems strange as Toole's idiosyncratic world-view and ironic take on modernity seems to me to be so similar in outlook to R.A. Lafferty and Flann O' Brien...

  2. I've taught a couple intro to philosophy classes at UNC, and when we study Berkeley, I've read aloud the relevant chapter of Space Chantey to the class.