Literary Celebrity and Other Items

Dec 2023
5-minute read

A couple of days ago, I came across an article about a letter written by John Steinbeck to Marilyn Monroe—yes, the Nobel-prize winner to the curvy sex symbol. But what would a literary writer be asking from the Hollywood bombshell? Despite being a well-acclaimed, serious novelist, Steinbeck needed to get approval from a teenager, his nephew-in-law, who was, like many were at the time, infatuated with Monroe. I already knew Monroe was an avid reader, but I didn’t know that she and Steinbeck knew each other personally, which gave him the confidence to ask her from an inscribed picture of herself in a “pensive-girlish mood” for said nephew-in-law.

Image of letter from John Steinbeck to Marilyn Monroe.

This made me think about the connection between celebrity and literature that we were trying to utilize in our favor when designing the flyer for our project. With our goal in mind, which is to bring literature close to people, the selection of photographs makes sense to us. We chose to include a collage of pictures of Marilyn Monroe, El Paso-based politician Beto O’Rourke, Abraham Lincoln, and Emma Watson.  We want to catch the attention of people by having them think: What do these four have in common? A fun fact about Monroe, Lincoln, and Watson is that they all were/are avid readers of literature, and Beto O’Rourke is an English major. Hopefully, this supports our premise that literature has something for everyone, no matter who you are, and hopefully, these people’s celebrities help us catch the attention we are aiming for.

I am excited to start recruiting students for our workshops next semester. It’s been a challenging month, but I am pleased to welcome our new Undergraduate Research Fellow, Nathalia Sanchez. For the end of November, our plan is to get our flyers printed, get some feedback on them, and start posting them on the walls of our Rio Grande campus. It may seem almost like a mundane thing to explain the process of designing a flyer, but it has taken us a long time and a few drafts to get to what we think is the right approach. This has been one of the accomplishments of the month.

I started this semester with a different idea of what the timeline for the project should be, and our dates have changed due to the fact that we had to rethink the project’s logistics. I realized that it was a better choice to take the fall semester to plan it all first and implement the workshops in the spring, all eight of them. As of now, we are working on finding a new selection of literary texts that adds to the one that we already have, which includes four texts already. This new selection will also include shorter literary texts, so we are looking at finding poetry and short stories that are appealing to our participants.

When it comes to recruiting, after posting our flyers, we will do small presentations in classes that allow us to advertise. We will most likely start by promoting it in the classes that I teach and maybe the classes that Daniella and Nathalia are currently taking, then slowly expand to promote it throughout our community college campus. At the same time, we want to promote it on the social media accounts of the college. In the case of registration, the steps are simple. Students will contact one of us—Daniella, Nathalia, or myself—and we will email them the information about the workshops along with a form to complete. Once the student completes and returns said form, we will process it and confirm that they are registered. As a requirement, we do ask that the student is already enrolled for the spring 2024 semester and that they are not an English or Creative Writing major.

In December, we will work on preparing for our workshops by reading and analyzing all eight literary texts as well as generating guiding questions for each workshop. We are also working on figuring out how to provide our participants with access to literary texts.

Now that we have been thinking about the workshops themselves, our research is not the only place where we have had to focus our attention. We are not researching as intensely as we had been, but we still have several questions in mind for it.

We continue to wonder:

--How can we make literature more accessible and approachable to the general public?  

--How can English be a more diverse and inclusive major? If the major is diversified, would the public be more open to pursuing English? 

--What are some benefits that can be attributed to reading, according to research? and

--Why is a reading community important to motivate others to read?

We have also come across new questions, such as: 

--What is the reason canonical works or ancient texts are still relevant in modern times?

--How can literary works be the “mirror” of life?

--What historical written works have caused social and political change?

--In 1856, George Elliot argued that kindness to others requires some sort of emotive push, and suggested this could be done through fiction and other arts. How does fiction help with the expansion of morals?  (Bloom, 93) 

--In his writing, Charles Dickens would write about characters who lacked a social conscience to prove how ridiculous and harmful it is to lack a social conscience. What do we understand as social conscience? What other works depict social conscience? (Bloom, 105)

--Empathy and anger have many similarities. What are they? Which is more beneficial, anger, empathy, both or neither? (Bloom, 96)

--Why are the humanities indispensable for society? 

--How is the material taught in liberal arts programs today relevant to the future?

--Why do humanities majors choose to study the humanities in the first place?

--What are "soft skills," and why are they important? How do the liberal arts help harvest these skills, and how is this related to the study of literature?

--What fields within the humanities can be classifiable as “qualitative academia”? And what are the factors that have been making them fall out of favor?

--How are the humanities needed today?

Additionally, Undergraduate Research Fellow Daniella Felix Puentes has formulated some guiding questions for our literary text Animal Farm by George Orwell. She has posed: 

--What would happen if the animals refused to work the “voluntary” Sunday hours?

--What were the signs that the rebellion had been established as successful?

--It’s said that humans are keeping an eye on Animal Farm and looking forward to its decay. If you were in the story, what side would you choose?

--In one part of Animal Farm, it states, “For the first time since the expulsion of Jones, there was something resembling a rebellion.” Why was this?

--The character Napoleon is merciless and publicly humiliates the four pigs that opposed him before. They confess that they’ve been in contact with Snowball. Do you believe this is true?

We have a busy end of the fall semester ahead of us. Our challenge is to convince non-English, non-literature, non-creative writing majors to join us in what seems sometimes like an experiment (in a way, it is). I forecast weeks trying to explain what we’re doing, convincing students that reading literature has its benefits and that the workshops will be fun. From where I’m sitting, I can picture us talking to many students at the beginning of the spring semester, asking each of them to give us a chance to show them just once a week for a couple of hours that we really do need literature, that they do need literature, and that, in the end, we all need literature.

Written by Diana Esparza Lara, Faculty Fellow

El Paso Community College, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP


Letter copy image courtesy Diana Esparza Lara.

Works Cited

--Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Harper Collins, 2016.

--Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Project Gutenberg Australia, 2008,     https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100011h.html#ch2