When I was in college in the 90’s, Seinfeld was still dominating our catch phrase vocabulary. As you may recall, one of the most popular lines from the show concerned an extremely anal retentive soup counter owner who demanded brevity, silence, and meekness from his customers. Infringing upon these rules resulted in the sudden loss of your soup-purchasing opportunity, as he would yank the cardboard cup away from you and shout, “No soup for you!”
Jerry called him the Soup Nazi.
One of my literature classes in college was run by a man who demanded respect and precision at all times. His formality was excruciating. If a student spoke out of turn, she would be singled out for a condescending lecture about decorum. One young woman in our class said she walked by his desk and saw a hand-written letter that he’d opened that began with, “Dearest Father…”
We called him the English Nazi.
Maybe his greatest offense against our barely post-adolescent sensibilities was when he told us to draw poetry. Keep in mind that this was a class mostly populated by future English teachers; it wasn’t some 100-level freshman requirement. We all loved reading. But, when he told us to read Keats and Shelley and Browning and draw pictures of the scenes they described, and our earnest scribblings were met by curt, withering dismissals of our perception, we were astounded.
“No. That’s not what it looked like,” he would say of most of our work. This offended everything we’d ever been taught by our culture. How can a work of imagination be wrong? How can an interpretation ever be wrong? Isn’t the picturing of poetry in the mind of the reader a sacred thing, not to be trampled upon?
But he would, with the direct authority of a drill instructor, read each poem again and draw them on the board as he went, showing where the text indicated in which direction people were looking, where shadows fell, what manner of flora and fauna were present, etc. And as much as it chagrined us to admit that our readings had been shallow and faulty, most of us grudgingly admitted our error.
The lesson was powerful: authors intend for concrete things to be understood when they write. Whatever else we might do with a text, we are honor bound as honest readers to discern that meaning accurately first.
Thus my often contrarian insistence in classes now that English does in fact have right and wrong answers.
I thought of this again recently as I reviewed drawings I had students do for scenes from Huckleberry Finn, and one young person drew a picture of Huck and Jim, with Jim roughly the same size as Huck, in the middle of the ocean, on a round, yellow sailboat.