Reading List/On the Record: May-June 2004

June 1, 2004

Reading List

We asked professors from the English department: What are some of the most underrated works of literature?

Lecturer Christina Askounis nominates the novels Barren Ground, Vein of Iron, and The Sheltered Life. All three were written by Ellen Glasgow, who, Askounis says, "now may be the greatest of all overlooked American writers. In 1925, she desperately wanted to win the Pulitzer for Barren Ground but found herself up against Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer, Dreiser's An American Tragedy, and Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith (the winner). She eventually did win the Pulitzer in 1942 for In This Our Life, but it was clearly more of a 'lifetime achievement' award."

Speaking of Pulitzers, American literature expert Victor Strandberg has a beef of his own. "The biggest scandal in contemporary American literature is that Joyce Carol Oates has never won a Pulitzer Prize," he says. "Several of her books would be--and have been--leading candidates, among which I suppose I would nominate You Must Remember This." Strandberg also calls Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer one of the best reads of his life. "After a hiatus, it is back in print, but not with the kind of Oprah-like reading audience it deserves."

Associate professor Srinivas Aravamudan picks two little-read examples of "libertine" literature from the eighteenth century: Eliza Haywood's Adventures of Eovaai and Denis Diderot's The Indiscreet Jewels. "Both novels are available in modern classroom editions, and both deal with sex, pleasure, and eroticism in highly creative and humorous ways," he says. "And they are both novels of glittering surfaces rather than enacting the more conventional novelistic idea of 'depth.' "

Melissa Malouf, director of the A.B. Duke Scholarship program, says that, of contemporary books,

"The Night Inspector, by Frederick Busch, is under-read. Set in New York City after the Civil War, this novel's protagonist, a veteran of the war, befriends an unsuccessful novelist, Herman Melville."

Cathy N. Davidson, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies and Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English, calls Melville's short-story collection Piazza Tales "exquisite." "They range from wild, funky, and funny to tender and almost sentimental," she says. She lists two other under-appreciated works. "Harriet A. Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl reads half like a novel in its wrenching plot, half like an essay in its incisive understanding of the psychology of slavery. And then there is Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. When Martin Scorsese turned it into a movie, he called it one of the most brutal and violent books every written. Souls die--and nary a drop of blood is shed."

On the Record

South Korean scientists recently cloned human embryos to use in stem-cell research, reigniting the debate over its ethical implications. What is your view?

"A human embryo commands our reverence and makes serious moral claims on us." Few would disagree with that statement, which is taken from a position statement of the United Methodist Church, the denomination in which Duke's history is rooted.

When it comes to research that creates or uses embryonic stem cells, however, we are far from consensus. As a molecular biologist and physician, I worked with lots of cells. I did not believe they were human beings or treat them as such, although some were derived from human tissues. Making those cell lines, however, did not require killing their host. Making embryonic stem cell lines usually does. If an embryo deserves special respect, then how can killing it be justified?

Three answers are possible. One is that killing a cell is quite far from killing a person. Some agree; some do not. Another argument is that the value of the research outweighs the moral harm. Since I value research highly, that argument carries weight with me, but others will find it less persuasive. A third argument is that creating a cell line for research is not killing at all. If a cell from that line can produce a human being, just as the source embryo could, then is it accurate to say the original embryo was destroyed? While plausible, this will not likely persuade those who regard cells from an artificially cultivated line quite differently from the natural embryo whence they derived.

I do not expect disagreement to go away during my lifetime; it may not even diminish in intensity. So what do we do about it? This is a problem of moral disagreement within a democratic political system. What is that political system doing about it? After three decades, we have many reports, but little change of positions among the stakeholders, despite occasional shifts in power among them.

We need the stakeholders to stop playing a winner-take-all game that presumes their respective, morally correct positions will someday prevail, if not by persuasion then by force of law. We need a process that harnesses the vigorous moral debate to a set of practices that researchers respect, even if they do not fully agree with them all, and in which religious organizations, women's organizations, and disease advocacy organizations all have a stake. The UK has such a system in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority; we need a similar oversight body, rather than more reports and more invective.