Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Austin M. Wright, Wayne C. Booth, and the reliable narrator

Dr. Wright (I could never comfortably call him “Austin”) gave me – and any other students who paid attention – nothing less than a way to look at life, not only literature. His method encouraged inquisitiveness and especially critical thinking, and he showed us, rather than told us, how to enter a narrative from any number of points to determine what exactly was the point – or, rather, points. In a way, he spoiled me, ruined forever my ability to look superficially or non-analytically at a short story, a novel, a movie, a play . . . or life.

The stories we tell help us understand and share our lives. We choose our stories, or they choose us. Then we choose the words to describe what we feel and what we think. Our audience matters. When a friend dies, what we say to the family is shaped by whether we are saying it privately or publishing on the Internet. When we listen to others, we judge not only their choice of words but who they are: what we know of them in as many dimensions as we can access. Can we trust their narration?

Dr. Wright’s undergraduate courses at the University of Cincinnati focused on 20th century literature, primarily by American writers. Our judgment was not to be whether they were “good” or “bad” or “interesting” or “boring.” Rather:
• Were they internally consistent?
• Did character, action, setting, dialogue fit together?
• What did they know and when did they know it (a popular question in those Watergate days)?
• Who was telling the story?
• Were the readers getting the whole story?
• Were there elements of the story that made us question or accept what the storyteller was saying?

Later, I came to understand that Dr. Wright’s approach reflected the application of theories of the “Chicago School” of literary criticism. While a graduate student at the University of Chicago after World War II, he taught at Wright Junior College (my father’s alma mater). Wayne Booth taught at Chicago from 1947 to 1950, left, and returned later. In 1961, Wright published The American Short Story in the Twenties; Booth published his landmark The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he laid out his vision of the relationship between a text and its reader, including the concept of the reliable narrator.

Years later, I joined the administrative staff of the University of Chicago moving, as I noted to Dr. Wright, from one UC to another. My primary responsibility was describing the financial needs of various academic units. I met Wayne Booth, among many others, as I listened to their stories and chose words to shape compelling narratives. That circle of my life closed but has never ended.