Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Back From Slack: Reading "Our Town"
Hi, faithful Visual Thesaurus subscribers! I'm back! Did you have a good summer? Did you miss me? I missed writing this column for you. One of the nice things about having some time off from full-time teaching (besides the long days spent in pajamas and sleeping past 6 a.m.) was that I had an opportunity to think about the next direction to take my contributions to the "Teachers at Work" feature.
We've pretty much run the gamut of helpful online sources for the English Language Arts classroom (you can find all of these articles archived here), so for this school year, I'm going to be focusing each column on one literary work that you probably will have to teach at some point or another. This isn't CliffsNotes (perish the thought!); I won't be telling you the plot, or giving you the author's biography. Instead, I hope to help you take a look at the way language is used in the work, so you can open up the way words work in the play, novel, poem or short story to your students.
Probably the best way to explain what I mean by this is to just tackle the first work. Let's take a look at Thornton Wilder's beloved-yet-also-widely-misunderstood Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town. I love this play — and the way language is used within it — so much so I'll be splitting this column into two sections. The second half will go up in two weeks!
What Was That Wilder Guy Up To? Besides Making My Students Ask Questions About Milk Delivery, I Mean.
In his introduction to Thornton Wilder's three most famous plays (besides Our Town, they are The Matchmaker — which was the basis for Hello, Dolly! — and the brilliant but weird The Skin of Our Teeth), the playwright John Guare summed up how Thornton Wilder gets filed in the American consciousness: next to "Norman Rockwell. Irving Berlin. White Bread. General Motors." He's correct. There isn't an American writer who is so widely produced and read in the American school system despite being so misunderstood.
Many people dismiss Our Town for being too sentimental, while students who haven't been properly prepared before reading it are soon bored by the routine events depicted in a time that seems to have been long, long ago (and not, unfortunately, in a cool galaxy far, far away). There's lots of humdrum life depicted in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, the made-up town where Wilder set the play: kids go to school, milk gets delivered, the church choir runs late one night.
This is not coincidence, or because Wilder didn't know what else to write. Sometimes, he's depicted as a kindly old grandfather type, obsessed with the daily paper and chuckling over a baby. But Wilder was a closeted homosexual (if you want to hear my theory about the character of Simon Stimson and how it connects to this, drop me a comment!), and a literate, deeply intelligent man. He wrote novels about Ancient Greece as well as the (also) Pulitzer Prize-winning, South American-set The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which actually attempts to explain why bad things happen. He hung out with Gertrude Stein, and attended Oberlin and Yale. In other words, he wasn't anybody's kindly old grandfather, and he had a specific goal in writing Our Town, calling it "an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life."
And he wasn't being sentimental. Emily Webb (later Gibbs) is the main character in the play. Wilder made her 12 in the first act, had her marry young in the second, and killed her off at the age of 24 in the third. About this character, Wilder wrote, "Emily's joys and griefs, her algebra lessons, and her birthday presents — what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living and who will be?" Ouch. His point? Our specific lives mean nothing to the universe, and yet are everything to us. Don't waste them. He didn't say "Live each day like it's your last" — that's sentimental. He wrote that only saints and poets, perhaps, understood how beautiful life was — that's hard-core.
The Hull Truth About How Wilder Used Language
Wilder comprehended a truth about writing that is very difficult for most student writers to grasp — that is, if you want your writing to have universal impact, you must make it as specific as you can. Thus, Wilder didn't set the play in some nameless Everytown, USA, but in Grover's Corners, NH. He infused it with New England dialect and style. Be sure to point out all of the wonderful New England language quirks that he uses in the play. He makes use of specific regionalisms: "hush-up-with-you," or, my favorite, "'tain't very choice." He spells vernacularly (hull trip for whole trip, git for get, stummick for stomach). He uses euphemisms that add depth and personality to what could be clichés, as when the Stage Manager notes, about the town graveyard, "We're coming up here ourselves when our fit's over."
I love regional sayings. I often ask my students to think of their own sayings, or things they've heard said on their travels. I teach in a part of the country several hundred miles away from where I grew up, so I also offer a few examples from my hometown. Often, my students will share a saying in another language that is spoken at home. It might sound a bit odd once translated into English, but they're always interesting. This is a good way to remind students that imagery, metaphor and simile are not literary constructs, but exist in everyday language as well.
Don't Go to the Webb House Fishing for a Compliment: New England's Plainspoken Style
In one of my favorite portions of the play, a teenage Emily, who's quietly falling in love with George, asks her mother if she is pretty. Her mother, Mrs. Webb, points out that she has good features, and when pushed by Emily for more, finally says, "You're pretty enough for all normal purposes." This always makes me laugh — what are those normal purposes?!
The idea that comes across in this moment, and runs throughout the play, is the merit of being plainspoken. Say what you mean and get to the point, without dramatic or flowery language: this is a classic New England tendency. It's not a coincidence that Wilder set his play among people who are reputed to say as few words as possible. I always point out to my students how rarely you see adjectives or adverbs being used by the characters in the play, and when they do pop up, they're usually along the lines of nice, terrible, and very. Even one of the most emotionally compelling moments of the play — in the second act soda shop scene, when George and Emily admit they're in love — is so subtle, I find I must point it out to my students, or they spend the rest of the act asking, "Wait! When did they get engaged?!"
It's interesting that there's an actual linguistic contrast within the play. Wilder's erudite stage directions are full of precise words for emotions — crestfallen and radiant and brisk. But you don't see these words coming from the characters' mouths, with the slight exception of the Stage Manager. This really shows you how gifted Wilder was, as he was changing his natural style to suit his characters. (Of course, if you're reading the play, your students need to understand what those fancy words mean. That's why I've put so many of them into a word list that you can find here.)
On this subject, let me mention that there are funny moments in the play, but you may have to point them out to your class. For example, the Stage Manager makes the point that women "vote indirect" in Grover's Corners. Love that line! Be sure to ask your students what that means.
In a fortnight, come back for the second part of our examination of Our Town, which considers the play's historical place, the way that Wilder uses time, and a few important theatrical terms your students will need to know. See you then!