Great Books: Hillary Chute on Art Spiegelman's "Maus"


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Art Spiegelman's Maus is the story of an American cartoonist's efforts to uncover and record his father's story of survival of the Holocaust. It is also a cartoon, where the Jews are mice, the Nazis cats, the Poles dogs, and the French, well, you'll have to read it.

It's a story of survival and also a story of silences, and how the next generation can find and make sense of stories that seem to defy representation in their sheer horror. It's also a triumph in story-telling and a serious meditation on good and evil; on the nature of Romantic; familiar and filial love; on America's legacy of absorbing immigrants who arrive with often unspeakable traumas in a past that finds little resonance in a culture obsessed with entertainment and fast news.

Maus upended the conventions of representing the Holocaust and historical trauma for a far greater audience than the American Jewish communities. It broke several rules: it spoke about past suffering to outsiders, it used low-culture to represent catastrophes, and it refused to turn the catastrophe of the Holocaust into a redemptive tale.

It charted a way for others to take possession of their parents' stories without betraying them but also without letting them overwhelm the next generation, analogous to Alex Haley's magisterial Roots. I spoke with Hillary Chute, a scholar of cartoons and American literature and Distinguished Professor of English and Art + Design at Northeastern University.

Uli Baer is a professor at New York University. He is also the host of the excellent podcast "Think About It"

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