When I arrived at Shimer, a group of students were doing a tutorial on the "political novel." Among their readings: the work of Marge Piercy. I had taught (having been nudged into it by my partner) a book called Sex Wars in Introduction to Women's Studies in my prior life -- and have read some of her other novels. And, I love her poetry. So, I am thrilled to say that Marge Piercy is going to be doing an event for Shimer in April (details below).
Why Marge Piercy for a great books college in Chicago? Well, of course, it is not all about the fact that I love her work -- and so do some other Shimerians. There are other reasons. Here are a few:
1. We read the Declaration of Sentiments in some of our courses here at Shimer. This document is a fascinating use of a founding US document to move forward the argument for women's rights. Written in 1848, a year when the Communist Manifesto and much else was penned, the document begins as follows:
"When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Recognize its origins? The changes?
What does Piercy have to do with this? S0me of the characters of Sex Wars were among the key figures in the creation of this document -- and in the social movements associated with the document. As historical fiction, the novel instances one way to take the past (including past texts) and make them alive and relevant today.
2. Because Marge Piercy is a poet -- and she knows what phlogiston is. Try this poem, entitled "For the Young Who Want To" to see her use the term in a poem. The poem is worth a read for many other reasons, including its relevance to reflecting on the purpose and the impact of education.
3. Because she is mathematically inclined. She knows that one plus one equals one. (Yes, she does. Try this poem.)
4. She knows the midwest, having been born in Michigan and ended her graduate work at Northwestern. Here's what she says on her website about Chicago as a part of her biography:
After that marriage, Piercy lived in Chicago, trying to learn to write the kind of poetry and fiction she imagined but could not yet produce. She supported herself at a variety of part-time jobs; she was a secretary, a switchboard operator, a clerk in a department store, an artists’ model, a poorly paid part-time faculty instructor. She was involved in the civil rights movement.
She remembers those years in Chicago as the hardest of her adult life. She felt she was invisible. As a woman, society defined her as a failure: a divorcee at twenty-three, poor, living on part-time work. As a writer, she was entirely invisible. She wrote novel after novel but could not get published. Piercy remarks that at that time she knew two things about her fiction: she wanted to write fiction with a political dimension (Simone de Beauvoir was her model) and she wanted to write about women she could recognize, working class people who were not as simple as they were supposed to be.
(Here I should note that this evidences, as do the comments further above, that she has been influenced by works read in the Shimer curriculum!)
For these and many other reasons, including my suspicion that her work itself is of enduring historical significance, she wil be joining the Shimer community -- and you, if you want -- in April.