Last month I had the pleasure of sitting in on Stanley Crawford’s seminar on Southwestern literature at Colorado College. Crawford wears many hats—novelist, non-fiction writer, farmer, creative writing professor—but he rarely teaches literature courses, and this was his first time teaching a specifically regional literature class. One of the interesting things about Crawford’s work is that his novels are not generally not focused on issues of place, whereas his non-fiction is focused on the interplay of culture and environment in the community of Dixon, New Mexico, where he lives and farms (many WLAers will be familiar with his nonfiction from Tom Lynch’s reading of Mayordomo in Xerophilia). An invitation from Colorado College’s Hulbert Center for Southwest Studies, however, enabled this singular Southwestern writer to teach a class on the literature of the region where he has lived and worked for nearly four decades.
After several months of consideration, Crawford decided to focus his seminar on five books: Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Ana Castillo’s The Guardians, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Crawford stressed, in discussing the class, how he saw one of his central aims in the course as helping students see how the Southwestern authors the class studied were both working within and challenging the Western (in the broader sense) tradition of outsider writing that had proceeded the relatively young “literature of the American Southwest,” even as these authors worked to express specific regional or ethnic concerns. Many of his students were impressed by both the contextualization of a regional literature within a wider literary tradition but also the focus of class discussions on issues of formal concern within the text themselves, allowing discussions of historical or political context to emerge from the specific language of the novels and memoirs being studied, rather than visa versa. In the class on Blood Meridian I sat in on, the students discussed several passages in which, as Crawford put it, McCarthy allowed “landscape to become a character in the fiction.” From there the class segued into a consideration of how McCarthy’s presentation of landscape compared to that of various other authors on the syllabus.
The students in the seminar were an eclectic mix of undergrads ranging from English to geology majors, and brought the refreshing approaches to literature to the table that an interdisciplinary program like the Hulbert Center makes possible. In addition to the standard seminar paper, the students wrote a parody of Cormac McCarthy as a part of their final. While this no doubt added some comic relief following a very serious consideration of the issues of ethnic violence in play in Blood Meridian, Crawford saw an important pedagogical role in the assignment. Commenting on the student’s parodies afterward, he said he said something that I felt expressed something of the unique perspective that he—who, as fans of his fiction will know, is no stranger to parody himself—brought to the teaching of literature. He said that he was “startled to hear those students who had twisted sentences of “academic” prose into knots become clear, straightforward tellers of stories of their own (more or less) creation. Parody as a teaching tool? We all had a great time, in any case, and it was a fine way to end the block. All courses should end in laughter: another principle?”
Crawford has now moved on to University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a visiting writer, where he is teaching a graduate fiction workshop before returning to his work at El Bosque Farm and the Sante Fe Farmer’s Market this summer.