Ever since the third grade, when an assistant principal generously offered to teach him and two classmates French, John Miles Foley has been curious about how languages work. Starting with the early epiphany that language is always embedded in culture, Foley followed this line of thinking until it led to oral tradition, which the MU Professor of Classical Studies and English has now been researching for over three decades. It will surely be a lifelong journey, for the field far outstrips written literature in size, diversity, and social function. In fact, all the written literature we have, Foley is fond of saying, “is dwarfed by oral traditions.”
The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.
M. Heather Carver is framed by her clown shadow—a black mannequin head wearing a pink camouflage hat and red clown’s nose—as she joyfully begins to describe her place at MU. “I come from a background of performing,” the Associate Professor of Theatre offers. “As a means of studying something, we perform it.” As a way of studying autobiography, for example, Carver performs autobiography.
The basic idea behind the study of oral traditions, explains John Miles Foley, is that we must approach them differently from how we approach written texts. Foley’s seminal book, How to Read an Oral Poem (2002), now translated into Chinese, offers a methodology for approaching oral tradition while paying attention to such crucial aspects as performance, audience, structure, and specialized language.
West is currently finishing a book, From Celluloid to Tabloid, in collaboration with Penelope Pelizzon (University of Connecticut), on Hollywood crime films and tabloid journalism from the 1920s through the 1940s. Unlike the tabloids of today, which West decries as “pretty trashy scandal magazines and newspapers…often designed to expose and ruin people’s careers,” the tabloids of the earlier era contain much more liveliness and inventiveness. “Although the cliché is that the tabloids have always been pitched to the uneducated, these early ones from the 1920s are surprisingly literary, replete with metaphorical word play, allusions, wit, and irony.” Tabloid writers often went on to become celebrated novelists and screenwriters for Hollywood. Beyond their literary value, these tabloids also teach us about urban culture and modernity, especially about New York in the 1920s and 1930s. West and Pelizzon refer to these tabloids as “adaptation-ready sites,” because they know how to spin information so quickly from one source.
With her continual interest in adaptation study, West has already visualized her next research project, which will reflect on what it means to adapt a novel to the screen, specifically in the case of Masterpiece Theatre_. “_Masterpiece Theatre fascinates me because it’s an example of what’s called ‘good television.’” Released in the 1970s, it was “designed to appeal to more intellectual, educated viewers. It was designed for our parents,” reports West, and for years it thrived on that identity. “But if you watch Masterpiece Theatre now, it’s totally different…. It’s clearly geared to a much younger audience. Instead of writing faithful adaptation, they radically re-write the plots, interject back-stories, introduce new characters, and use some of Hollywood’s hottest actors to play the roles. They are tailoring these films toward a twenty-first century audience—a younger one, a sexier one, one that is impatient with the idea of fidelity, one that wants a more experimental adaptation.” West plans to look at Masterpiece Theatre’s last ten years so see what those experiments might reveal. “If nothing else,” she jokes, “it will allow me to watch a lot of old Masterpiece Theatre episodes with my mother, who is a huge fan!”
Performative writing is a way of writing about performance that engages the reader as one would engage the audience when performing in theatre: “So instead of performing over here and then writing about it over there, writing about the work as if the reader were not involved in any kind of audience relationship, performative writing takes the combination of audience, performer, and text and moves that into the writing of performance.” By involving those different levels, Carver suggests, writing “is more accessible to people.”