Wednesday, July 14, 2004

A Slapdash Modern Lit Course

I've been reading John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" lately. When I was a younger reader, I'd have gobbled it up within a week, for it's a great read, but I'm slower now, not inclined to read for hours at a time as I used to. It's a very good book, and all the more so for having been written in 1939. I remember when I was younger and just becoming a voracious reader—it seemed like all the books I could find were exceedingly square and inhibited and bowdlerized.

Henry Miller and Pollyanna

Naturally, so much conformity and censorship made me steer even more willfully toward things like Henry Miller (whose books, I believe, weren't even legal in America until a few years after I'd begun to hear about him) and any other naughty old or new literature as soon as I could find them. D.H. Lawrence was more interesting then, for nowadays he's only a good writer and doesn't seem like a very great sensualist or shocker at all any more. Grove Press was always a little interesting, of course. I'm not sure who published it, but I remember being impressed by a book called City of Night, written by John Rechy. I found the paperback at a newsstand and bought it just because it looked like it was different. Published in 1963, it's about male prostitution, a subject I'd barely heard of then, much less had I read any accounts. I thought, "Well, I knew there was another side to all this Walt Disney Pollyanna stuff."

The Square Stuff And The Bad Stuff

I like the square literature, too, but one gets tired of such a wide world of people who don't seem to live in reality. It looks suspicious to anybody with a mind—even a young mind—when authors evade ALL the bad stuff. The door was always closing on things or the lights going out just before the Oouu-Ahh! Nobody was followed for the length of a single sentence into the bedroom or the bathroom. On the violence front, I felt gruesomely lucky if I stumbled across any but the most obscure description of chickens being killed and plucked on the farm. Bad things didn't happen in the front room, on the front page, or anywhere near the children.

The Naked And The Dead

I remember when I finally got around to reading "The Naked And The Dead" by Norman Mailer (published 1948, the year I myself was published). I didn't read it until about 5 years ago and I was surprised to find how compromised and how bland most of the famous-at-the-time bad language was. Though the book was partly vilified at the time for rough language, as a reader some decades after it was written, I had to remember to look for it or I would have missed it. Apparently it was daring back then to write "fuggin'" as a substitute for the unprintable "fucking". It's a little hard to imagine these days that in a war story for adults, an author had to make his manly (and sometimes savage) characters watch their language to such a degree. But certainly this was a book that made every effort to be honest and realistic, considering the times he was living in and publishing in! Mailer may not even enjoy cussing any more these days, since there's probably no one around to tell him to please curb his tongue.

Big Brass Balls

Charles Dickens had big brass balls in his time, I see now, just to speak as honestly as he did and as often about the poor, the destitute, the dirty hovels of London, the mistreatment of children, the inexorable crookedness of businessmen, and the wickedness of the rich. Still, he wasn't allowed to go very far in other matters and he certainly couldn't just say in "Oliver Twist" that Nancy was a whore. I don't think the word "prostitute" was used, either. It was all inferred, of course. An American child would never even "get it" enough to snigger over it, I don't think, not when I was growing up. I'm not sure that I "got it" myself as a teenager that Nancy's life was a degraded one whether Bill Sikes beat her or not. People who want to protect you from Evil sometimes just end up protecting you from knowing how bad Evil really is. Dickens is still a great author, I think, but like most authors of the past he wrote under some ridiculous strictures.

Émile Zola And The Coalminers

More recently, I got around to reading French author Émile Zola's book "Germinal". Zola, writing 2 or 3 decades after Dickens, was struggling to do so honestly and without being censored into milksop by old ladies and preachers. I never encountered many French writers when I was young, just "English Lit" and American novels. Oh, that American pabulum, it's so tasty!

You know, it's not that "Germinal" is naughty or the slightest bit vulgar; it just doesn't close the doors, doesn't refuse to see what's there, and doesn't pretend everything is okay. "Germinal" wasn't a sissy book. It's a book about impoverished coalminers, labor troubles in the mines, riots, drunkenness, sex, and death. It's a book that confirms that people did more than just sleep in their beds and that people had outhouses as well as houses. It also made sure you knew that good guys don't always win and that sometimes there aren't many good guys. How un-American! Well, he was French.

Grapes Of Wrath

Anyway, I'm reminded of books like those by "Grapes of Wrath", by it's honesty and determination to describe a wide and serious and unrelenting reality. Of course, it's not so much sex or bathroom activities that Steinbeck was honest about, but inhumanity and cruelty and the debilitating and enraging fear of one segment of society by another. That's not so rare a topic here in the 21st century where we can barely escape so-called honest talk about sex and toilets and inhumanity and torture. But when I was an obsessed young reader in the 1960's and wondering where the "real stuff" was, I screwed up badly not to have read Steinbeck's book. (I read other Steinbeck novels, but not this one.)

Maybe back in the mid-sixties, I would have thought it was too late for me to be reading such a "topical" book from 30 years earlier. Now 40 additional years later, I'm surprised at how topical and pertinent it still is. These characters are so real that it just blows my wheels off, even now!

Hate Hasn't Changed

Hate hasn't changed. Fear of "the other"—the stranger and the foreigner—hasn't changed. People who want to beat you down or chase you out of town or ban you from all existence haven't changed. Making pronouncements about how "them others aren't like us, they don't have no values, they're lower than pigs" hasn't ceased. If a fellow isn't "like us", even the President of the United States doesn't have to worry about the suspect's human rights or his civil rights, for we are God's chosen and in an emergency are allowed to temporarily become tyrants and terrorists ourselves. We know where to stop, but they don't—that's the theory.

There is still no more empowering or satisfying feeling, apparently, than banding together with Your Own Kind and treating "the others"—whether niggers, white trash, wops, spics, kikes, Japs, Irish Catholics, gooks, Chinks, or towel-heads—to a good old-fashioned dose of Get-Out-Of-Town.

Once we've cleaned Them out, I'm going to take a harder look at You—you've been acting a little funny lately yourself. You might be a Red or a fairy or an atheist or a freelance freelove oneworld sonofabitch and I just never happened to notice. Bad people are like cockroaches—by God, they're Everywhere and there's too many of them and you can't keep 'em out!

Wait a minute, what was I talking about when I started? There's no law against my going off on just a small tangent, is there?

Some people get tired of their left hand making them awkward and wish they could be normal. But this thing at Surprise Leftie Photo is too extreme a solution! Try to get some help.
Read a sentimental poem written when I was less than twenty called

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THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "Patience, my ass, I'm gonna KILL something!" — From an old poster with a couple of vultures looking down over an empty landscape.

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