English II

Instructor: Charles Logan
Class Description: To paraphrase the American poet Walt Whitman, each of us contains multitudes. The stories we tell help us arrange these multitudes into a single, cohesive identity. In their memoirs, Malala Yousafzai, Jeannette Walls, Dave Eggers, and others give voice to their stories, and in doing so they bring order and understanding to their upended worlds.

Of course societies also contain multitudes. Whitman chronicled mid-19th century American multitudes in his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Near the end of his poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s speaker proclaims, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” That yawp and its insistence upon an independent, dignified self can be heard in the protest music of artists such as Billie Holiday, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Arcade Fire.

Sometimes the sounds of struggle cannot be heard until it’s too late. The Lee family, for example, find their lives shattered by tragedy in Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You. Trying to solve the mystery of Lydia Lee’s death, the family will confront difficult questions about gender and race, and the answers they find will help them piece their family back together.

Whitman’s barbaric yawp, with its tones of otherness and transgression, can drive people and cultures to create monsters. Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood explore these monsters in their short stories. Nimona, the eponymous shapeshifter in Noelle Stevenson’s comic, must reckon with her perception of her own monstrousness. In the novella The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, Tommy Tester confronts the barbaric — both of this world and another — as he hustles on the streets of New York City. And then there’s Iago in William Shakespeare’s play Othello. Is he a monster? Or all too human?

That yawp: it is a complex sound reverberating in a complex world, a world containing multitudes, sorrows and joys, rejections and redemptions. That yawp: the noise and its echoes are what we’re listening to and exploring this school year.