Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Huckleberry Friend, Samuel Clemens, and Me

In the early 1960s I worked on my master's thesis in English at what then was called California State College at Long Beach. In my thesis I examined the novels of William Dean Howells, and through this very sane gentleman, then known as the Dean of American Letters, became more interested in Samuel Clemens, Howells' closest friend. Through reading their voluminous correspondence I grew to know a lot about attitudes about suitable topics for novels in the late nineteenth century in both America and in England.

Those who have conversed with me recently know how I've rededicated some of my time to rereading Charles Dickens, who tackled every social issue in England during the early and mid nineteenth century. In our country, in the last half of the nineteenth century only Samuel Clemens had the courage to address prevailing attitudes towards blacks. This was the post Civil War period when antagonism towards so-called carpetbaggers and liberated blacks ran high.

I don't usually get embroiled in impassioned discussions on Facebook...but this piece of news set me on fire.

So today I posted this today on Facebook:

What the Huck...have we all lost our literary minds? You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger...and you don't mess around with Finn!!

I got responses...from my old friend, Chris, who runs a bookstore, Once Read Books, in Long Beach:

From Chris Statler:
They're ignorant swine and don't understand the irony of using a derogatory name to describe and dehumanize a character who in fact is smarter, more human and wiser then the Southern crackers whom he is able to evade. You can hear Twain chu...ckling to himself as you read the book and certainly Tom and Huck reorganize Jim's wisdom and understanding of the river (life) and its complexities. Who in modern times best resembles Nigger Jim? Obama, he's smarter then his detractors and they resent a black man who is more human then they are. "nuff said. Someone needs to write an article called IS Obama nigger Jim?!!!!!

And another, from my professor at UCLA, who taught Group Conflict and Change, a class that students referred to as Race Relations:

Dr. Alex J. Norman:
When I was in high school in Durham, NC we read Twain's Huck and although polite, we all cringed evertime we had to read the "N" word. I got through it but never had the desire to read more of Twain (I thought the use of the word was excess...ive). I thought then, as I do now, that it was simply a manner in which the society was reminded of the racist underpinnings of the country, and was a means of passing on prejudices (I think the same of "Birth Of A Nation"). Still, I don't believe that it should be censured, it is what it is--American Literature.

That said, any wonder why Twain didn't want his biography delayed until 100 years after his death?


And various other responses from all over the map. I finally commented on my own comment:

I have Twain's unBowdlerized recently released autobiography on my Kindle. Twain makes it clear that he wanted to speak openly about his views about people after their children and grandchildren were long gone. Huckleberry Finn satirizes th...e insensitivity and ignorance of southerners of that period and reflects how children who hear racist putdowns and derogatory words all the time have difficulty forming their own views...witness Huck's continual struggle, should he believe what he hears from the others or what he sees in his relationship with Jim? This was a brave attempt, given the era. When I taught high school English I drew a parallel for students about Huck on the river and Holden Caulfield on the streets of New York, and how youth try to deal with adults' hypocricy and meanspiritedness,

Have you read Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn? Several fascinating articles, mostly delineating how Twain, called by his friend, William Dean Howells, a "deSouthernized Southerner," struggled with his conscience in the same way that Huck does, and accepted personal responsibility for the American legacy of slavery, a practice that Samuel Clemens saw no use for or sense to and abhored.

Incidentally, I just read Sinclair Lewis' early novel, Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, set in the late 1910s in NYC, and the "N" word is used casually by insensitive people even then. And this by the man who later wrote Kingsblood Royal, which Ebony in 1947 named Best Novel of the Year.

The "N" word, unfortunately, is not limited to Americans. I heard it every day in Belize, used by Creoles, descendants of Scots and British pirates and their West African slaves, in reference to the Garifuna. And in India the officers of the British Raj used the term in reference to the Indians.

All said, though, I believe that banning, burning and Bowdlerizing books is never a good thing. The very idea makes me want to... light out for the territory ahead...the closing words of Huckleberry Finn

The Territory Ahead, by Wright Morris, though written in the '70s is still one of the best books on American lit that I know of. Wright criticizes American writers (with the exception of Henry James) who celebrate the theme of flight from civilization as a failure to address pressing socio-cultural issues in the art.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ice Land

At 8 a.m. when I let the dogs back in after their morning frolic in the backyard I just stood in the doorway shivering uncontrollably. I scuttled to the computer and checked My Yahoo weather; it was exactly 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

I used to live on tropical islands, longing for air conditioning on sweltering southwest monsoon afternoons. Then I fell for a guy who insisted he could only be happy where there were four distinct and consecutive seasons. Ken really relished January, lolling on his recliner, watching his beloved westerns, exerting himself only to beam and announce, "I just love it here."

I'm not so sure I'd agree today. I'm too cold to think, let alone write, so I'll soon swaddle myself with quilts and finish T. R. Reid's "The Healing on America," for one book group and begin Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" for another. It should be warmer, albeit snowier, tomorrow. At least My Yahoo tells me so.

If my fingers thaw, over the next couple of weeks I plan to write:

1. A tribute to Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, for Uncle Jam.
2. A story about what makes me happy...two possible markets in mind.
3. A memoir about son Steve's wedding...and how I nearly missed it.
4. The aforementioned essay on happiness.

These trees in today's posted photo are in my side yard. They are what I gaze at when I'm working on the laptop in the backroom. Tomorrow their branches will be laden with snow once again. And it will be warmer.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Immortality and The Note Project

“I understand [Willy Loman's] longing for immortality. Willy's writing his name in a cake of ice on a hot day, but he wishes he were writing in stone.” -- Arthur Miller

In earlier days I liked to haunt cemeteries. I never passed up a chance to roam and read the epitaphs. I paid my respects to my favorite writer, Charles Dickens, at the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. I pondered the terrifying fate of all those anonymous laborers who drowned off the California coast in the Chinese cemetery in Mendocino. One rainy afternoon I spent half an hour paying homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the tiny St. Mary's churchyard on Rockville Pike in Maryland. Now I reflect on how all these people have been remembered.

Christmas Week when I visited Tombstone, Arizona, my perspective about cemeteries shifted. The neat piles of rocks on more than 250 graves on the hill overlooking the old Western town commemorate brevity and brutality...women perishing in childbirth, gunslingers cut down in their twenties, hangings, drownings, massacres, stabbings, consumption, poisoning, suicides. Aside from a Confederate flag on Old Man Clanton's grave, I saw no tokens of remembrance such as I witnessed festooning Fitzgerald's final resting place, no flowers, no notes, no crosses. Just piles of stones.

All New Year's weekend I've been reflecting on how we live out our lives, and how we may or may not be remembered. On New Year's morning when Paula Deen waved to the crowds as Rose Parade Grand Master, my thoughts drifted towards those who rode in that position before. I looked up the list of previous Grand Masters for the Tournament of Roses. We may well remember Edgar Bergen, Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd, because their work is preserved for us on tape. But who, aside from family perhaps, remembers the doctors and colonels who dominated the early years of the event? Fame indeed can be fleeting.

Like Willie Loman, I'd like to write my name on something more substantial than a cake of ice on a hot day. My resolution for 2011 is to write more, if not on stone, at least on my laptop...more stories, more articles, and especially more notes to friends.

The Note Project, developed by Mike O'Mary of Dream of Things, invites everybody to participate by writing notes of appreciation. Mike's website says:

Become part of the ripple effect that will transform into a tsunami of good will in 2011!

WRITE A NOTE to someone you love today, and SHARE YOUR STORY with us here, so others will be inspired to do the same.

Check out the site and add your note here:

And, if you're ever in the Washington DC area, visit Fitzgerald's grave, which he shares with his wife, Zelda. The tombstone carries the final words from The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."