This article is part of a series introducing new faculty members.
In the summer between his junior and senior years at Amherst College, Jesse McCarthy interned at Books for Boys, a literacy program run out of a children’s shelter in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.
“That summer marked me,” he said. “I discovered I enjoyed teaching and was good at it, and I was able to communicate that love of books and reading.”
McCarthy is now completing his first year as part of the faculty of the English and African and African American Studies departments, an appointment he started a month after receiving his Ph.D. at Princeton.
GAZETTE: How is the teaching going?
McCARTHY: This spring, I’m teaching a lecture course, “Introduction to Black Poetry,” which introduces students to a black poetic tradition that I trace from Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon up to the present, to poets like Morgan Parker and Terrance Hayes. The idea of the course is to get students to interrogate the formation of this tradition, to ask how these poets thought about their work, debate the relationship between art and politics, and question the scope and nature of identity, of diaspora and cultural memory, and to anchor these reflections in close contextual reconstructions of important historical movements like the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude, the Black Arts Movement, black feminism, and the Dark Room Collective, a poetry circle that was founded right here in Cambridge. In the course I also teach music as a form of lyric expression that is inextricably bound up in the textual poetics of black poets, so I model critical listening and critical readings of spirituals, the blues, gospel, jazz, soul, hip-hop, and so on.
In my seminar “James Baldwin,” we’re reading the novels of Henry James and James Baldwin alongside one another and using their essays on writing to think about theories of the novel and its relationship to politics, morality, sexuality, and social mores. There was enormous interest in that course. I turned a number of students away and limited it to 15, many of them seniors. It’s exciting to have such brilliant students, and they just run with the material. When you’re a new professor, there’s anxiety: Will I have enough? Will they be bored? Will they like what I’ve brought to the table? I find my students come in with engines roaring. I’m excited about the passion in the room and the way we have discussions that feel very urgent and combine more traditional questions with more contemporary concerns about identity and appropriation. They’re extraordinarily sensitive and interpersonally generous in the way they share the seminar space. They enjoy the back and forth of exploring an idea further. You wonder about assigning that much reading, but everyone is prepared. They’ve read and they’ve read closely. What they recall in very detailed fashion within a James novel is impressive and makes for a wonderful atmosphere.
Sometimes it can seem like there’s a clash in the academy between offering courses that speak to contemporary concerns and honoring and transmitting important canonical works that the study of literature has been built upon. I want to show that you can take a figure like Henry James and one like James Baldwin and teach them together in ways that are mutually beneficial, that make the canon exciting and also bring it into urgent and contemporary debates that students are rightly demanding their courses address. These authors explore sexuality, expatriation, freedom and identity, and a preoccupation with the “American scene.” They share a concern for the novel’s capacity to function as a work of art with moral value. Henry James was James Baldwin’s favorite novelist; but, as my students are learning, there are many things Baldwin saw in America — especially in the way societal pressures shape individual consciousness — that allow us to read the Jamesian novel in a new light.