Yesterday I had the very best discussion of Daisy Miller, the novella by Henry James, that I have ever had with a class of juniors. I have had this book on my reading list six times, and it was this year that the discussion was lively, honest, funny, and unlimited.
I can think of a couple of different reasons why this year was different. Immediately prior to assigning the James we read another nineteenth century text, Ragged Dick: or Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks by Horatio Alger. We are going to read The Great Gatsby next, so you can see my drift here – Crossing Social boundaries: how’s that working for you?
My students loved the Alger and felt just a bit cheated when Dick’s success comes not from his hard work and ingenuity but from a chance occurrence and his reaction to it. And now they have read three of four chapters in the James. It was clear from the discussion that no one had read to the end (one more chapter!) . One young man asked if this was a cautionary tale and did Daisy end up in bordello somewhere. Cautionary? Probably. Bordello? No.
The big reason this year, I think
My class is made up of twelve boys and three girls. Yes, that’s right. Twelve very different thinkers and learners with lots of different strengths, but definitely male. We were talking about idioms and euphemisms the other day, and one brought up the Bud Light “cut the cheese” commercial – which he enacted for me as I am television-challenged. I laughed so hard I looked like Tammy Faye Baker, and he, of course, had to find it on YouTube to show me. That’s my boys! Well, I guess I’ve always thought that Daisy was a Chick Story because it is all about social mores and this girl who either doesn’t get or won’t try to get how she is scandalizing the American ex-pat community. There is a lot more to the book than that, but that is usually where the class starts. Two years ago, in a class made up of thirteen über-smart girls and four boys, the girls all decided that Winterbourne was “a creeper.”
But it’s not a Chick Book.
It’s a Guy Book. They totally identified with Winterbourne. They completely got how baffled he was by Daisy – how attracted and repelled, how teased and unsatisfied, how jealous yet unwilling to pay the social cost to secure her affection.
I had the best time in class, and who would have thought it possible at 2:00 pm on a freezing Friday afternoon at the end of the first week of the new semester?
Daisy photo by flickr member aussiegall