BASS 2013: Elizabeth Tallent, “The Wilderness” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2012

Here come the students. Why do they love it? What do they want? Is the end of such love inevitable – will there be a last English major?… They come. They are enthralled. The professor likes how enthralled they are. It is an odd thing, a deep thing, to be enthralled. While enthralled they are beautiful. She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth… Literature looked back at her from their eyes and told her certain things she was sure that ought not to have understood at their age. They had gotten it from books – books with their intricacies and the things they wanted you to know about love and death that you could have gone a long time not knowing if you had not been a reader, and which, even when you were a reader, you saw as universal truths that did not apply to you.

Given the current emphasis on STEM disciplines (I’ve already done my rant), the question “Will there be a last English major?” is not an idle one.

I’m not sure this is so much a story as an extended prose poem, the musings of a literature professor who finds joy when her students light up at a single sentence. Her descriptions of the way students interact with their “machines” starts off the piece, and it’s truly astute:

Students are the devotees and tenders of machines. Some of the machines are tiny and some of the machines are big. Nobody wrote down the law that students must have a machine with them at all times, yet this law is rarely broken, and when it is, the breaker suffers from deprivation and anxiety. Machines are sometimes lost, sometimes damaged, and this loss, this damage deranges existence until, mouseclick by mouseclick, chaos can be fended off with a new machine, existence regains confidence, harmony, interest, order, connectedness. Sleeping, certain machines display a dreamily pulsing heartbeat-like white light meaning this machine is not dead.…

As someone who’s pretty devoted to my own (very limited) cache of machines, I see myself everywhere in that description. I’m frantic when my internet connection goes out, and, indeed, the last thing I do before I go to bed is check the lights on the computer to be sure it’s 1) asleep, and 2) unplugged, as one without the other overnight is courting disaster. For the record: I get frantic when I can’t find a book I need to read, too. But my books behave themselves far better than my machines and need far less coddling, so that occurs more rarely.

The central metaphor of the piece is withheld until the end: Walmart is trying to buy up a patch of wilderness, a Civil War battleground, for its next superstore. This happened, in fact; Walmart bought the land, decided to build elsewhere, and just a month ago, donated the fifty acres back to Virginia; I’d love to know how that went down, because I suspect PR wasn’t the only benefit. Then again, when it comes to Walmart, I’m a supercynic.

If you’re looking for a traditional story with a narrative arc, this probably won’t do it, but it’s beautiful reading nonetheless. Then again, I was an English major, one of those enthralled. But: I was a computer programmer who became an English major. Two of my three favorite MOOCs so far have been math classes. The third was poetry. There’s room for everything – math, poetry, Walmart, wilderness, machines, people – if we just stop thinking it has to be all one or the other, if we stop setting it up as black or white. If we value the gray areas as much as the black and the white.

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