Popeye’s Hackneyed Friends

As happened with my reading of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I’m struck again with McTeague by what seems to be a period-bound literary (or maybe vaguely “artistic”) phenomenon– here, the trope of an unbelievably strong, big dumb brute paired with oh-so-dainty little lady. Yup, the title character of Frank Norris’s McTeague, except for hair color and ethnic background at this stage, is pretty much interchangeable with our main man in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Same goes for the boys’ respective brides, who provide stark physical contrasts with their men, all fragility and nice smells.

Not quite the brute I was looking for, but sometimes you have to make do. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Not quite the brute I was looking for, but sometimes you have to make do. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Admittedly, Sinclair’s Jurgis gets political by the idealistic end of his own story, and I don’t think that’s going to happen with McTeague. But this mawkish portrayal of gendered stereotypes is equally irritating in both cases– not because it’s offensive in terms of holding anyone to an impossible ideal, but because that ideal is itself so schmalzy.* The offense, in other words, is in its naive aesthetics– or maybe in this instance, in the upper-crust Norris’s portrayal of working-class communities he probably didn’t interact with in any real way.

But my slightly peripheral question is, once again, did anyone ever actually buy this sort of set-up? Did readers of Sinclair or Norris find these characters realistic in any sense, true to any part of life they’d actually lived? The query is probably in line with the reaction of under-thirties viewing many a movie or sitcom from the fifties, and wondering how people could ever have stood such stilted goings-on, much less have believed people spoke in the manner they were seeing on screen. (And what of all those tough guys in old detective or propaganda films, who ended every demand with “see”? I’m thinking specifically of what may be a misremembered line from Reefer Madness: “Gimme the reefer, see?”)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve of course come to realize just how carefully manufactured are the mediated images and ideas we’re bombarded with at all hours of the day. And I’ve seen some masterful recognition and reaction to this situation, from a Sub Pop records employee handing out a list of fake grunge slang to The New York Times back in the ’90s, to Bruce Willis’s fantastic appearance on Wayne’s World as the leader of the high school social hierarchy, coming on to reveal the cool word for the year (which happened to be “sphincter”).

Why should the constructions of hallowed literature be any different, even the creations that purport to capture the spirit of a particular time and place? Maybe what we can at least glean from these dated pieces is not what was actually going on– but what people were being told was happening, expected, and normal. And so, “realism” might in some instances be more accurately read as “aspiration for something more interesting,” and an author’s attempt to create that richer life, at least in readers’ heads.** What if so much of what’s been assumed to be a classic presentation of the authentic life of the masses was really just the old-timey equivalent of suburban white kids taking on some sort of risky ghetto lifestyle of their own (sorely, and yeah, offensively, mistaken) imagining?

Inevitably, we’re going to arrive at the probably unanswerable question of who speaks for whom, and whether or not such ventriloquism is fair or accurate, among other considerations. But for now, I’d just like to be done with McTeague, and hope that I don’t have another run-in with such overdone stock characters for a very long time.


*McTeague’s feats of strength often approach the Baron von Munchausen variety; breaking arms and pulling not-loose teeth with his bare hands, etc., etc.

** I’m thinking here of more benign, possibly unconscious, instances of audience manipulation– not outright, purposeful propaganda.

Sidetracked by the Trivial

Having somehow put four decades of mostly American existence behind me without having read Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I decided to remedy that situation after experiencing one of those weird coincidental combinations of events: namely, having a review of said book showing up on my desk, and my mom sending me one of her spare copies of the novel a couple of days later. The universe threw down its challenge, and I decided to accept it.*

I’m not big on “Southern” writers,** so my “it was OK” rating probably isn’t worth much. Poverty, punishing heat, a particular variety of racism, the predictable presence of semi-mad loners trying aggressively to convert people to Jesus and damn those not open to such a gift: although I didn’t grow up in the deep South, I was close enough to it in my childhood, and lived in enough parts of it as an adult, for many of these authors’ pieces to feel like anything but fiction.***

A real person actually called Biff. Photo from 1940- the same year Lonely Hunter was published. Via Wikimedai Commons.

A real person actually called Biff. Photo from 1940- the same year Lonely Hunter was published. Via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s about as far as it goes for my thoughts on the book as a whole. But the silly question that’s really refused to leave my head is this: was anyone ever really called Biff? Sure, you’ve got the character here, another one of the same name in Death of a Salesman, maybe a few more in some 20th-century movies– but I’ve never come across any actual individual who got stuck with that nickname. Maybe it’s because the handle seems so definitively time-bound; calling someone “Biff” these days would seem to be an obvious throwback or bit of yearning for the past– but even then, would a present-day usage-as-nostalgia-trip be meaningful at all, if the name never really made its way out of fictional realms? Here’s a hypothetical: if the nickname “Biff” never was in (widespread) actual usage (and I’ve no idea whether or not that was the case), what does it mean to have a particular name pop up in such an essential sampling of our national literary heritage? Might we be prey to a societal yearning for nicknames themselves, a sort of desire for community that often only gets fulfilled in fiction, where people know each other well enough, or at least feel comfortable enough with each other to believe they do, to rebaptize their fellows with monikers ideally suited to their personalities?

Admittedly, I’ve had a number of uncles who got slapped with classic good-ol’-boy nicknames, raised as they were in the same atmosphere that trained George W. Bush in being able to whip out instant sobriquets for journalists and cabinet members alike. But I’ve also known at least one relative who wanted so badly to be part of that sort of inclusive teasing that, late in life, he’d just start introducing himself by the fishing-related term he wished others had started calling him of their own accord years ago.

I’m not sure I should admit to the fact that this question of a particular nickname is what struck me the most about McCullers’s book; for example, I should be more amazed than I am that the author was a mere twenty-three years old when it was published. And sure, there are the questions it poses about what it is we need and want from other people, who we expect them to be for us, and our blindness to our own recreation of their images in our own. But sometimes, as was the case with my own reading of the story, when you’ve been confronted with pretty much the same setting and characters one too many times, the one thing that stays with you is entirely, insignificantly peripheral to everything you were supposed to take away from the tale.



* Only after devouring the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle– and really, what can I say about that other than “Yum”?

** The prime exception being William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I’ve also grown more appreciative over the years of Flannery O’Connor’s writing as writing, but it’s still difficult for me to face her characters, whom I know.

*** Why, then (and in line with the previous note’s observation about O’Connor), can I not just celebrate these writers’ ability to present a truthful portrayal of people and places?

Predictions and Generational Precis

What can one say about a collection of stories meant to lead a reader into a decade, not reflect upon one that’s passed? I just finished the naked i: fictions for the seventies, published in 1971, and I’m not sure what to think, in terms of how well the book actually represented the general zeitgeist of the Western literary world during that era. After all, I didn’t even arrive on this planet until midway through said decade, not to mention being able to offer any authoritative judgment on it, even in terms of having paid attention to the seventies as a defining factor in whatever I may be reading.

Fortune Teller, Samuel Albrecht Anker, via Wikimedia Commons.

Fortune Teller, Samuel Albrecht Anker, via Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe what’s more perversely interesting to me is whether the editors of this collection felt that the authors they’d selected (mostly writers of fiction) would be remembered, and strikingly so, way down the line in the 21st century– and whether they thought the approaches and styles said writers were adopting would transform the literature of the future. As to the first question, maybe half of those featured in the “our contemporaries” section are well-known today; admittedly, most probably are, for voracious readers of stuff that tends to find its way into New Yorker-ish outlets.

As to the second query, maybe it’s just because I’m getting older in general that some of these pieces do feel dated in a particular way, almost as if they were the stuff of adolescent assurance in literary form, a bundle of attitudes and assertions that society had over and done with long ago (and hence, do make up the identifiable stuff of a particular time period, in which case, the editors really may have put their finger on something). The piece by Norman O. Brown, wrestling with Freud’s legacy and (in language he wouldn’t have used) the need to do away with boundaries, man, like, between thought and the world; Ken Kesey’s neo-Beat letter to a friend; the in-your-face fuckfest in an excerpt from a Leonard Cohen novel*– yeah, those selections do feel clad in bell bottoms– but in terms of lasting influence, I get a sense that they merely represent something we had to get out of our collective system, and then move on.

Not all of the book was devoted to predicting what would define an era; the best part of it, in fact, was the section containing said era’s literary predecessors. The first hundred-plus pages constituted an unbelievable treasure trove: Kafka, Borges, Cortázar, Ellison, Nabokov, Wright, and a couple of others. My mind was blown with the sheer high-quality concentration of it all. And then… the rest. Ted Hughes’s “Snow” and Jan Gerhard Toonder’s “The Spider” were probably my favorite of what remained, but damn– start off a book with the big hitters and then expect newcomers to live up to that? Not quite fair to young authors trying to make a name for themselves.

Well. No answers, as usual. But I’m truly glad I didn’t toss this one into the Goodwill pile, as almost happened when I was in the process of moving. It’s got me thinking, though, even if I’m not the best person to ask: what might we include in a volume attempting to give a literary summation of the 21st century’s first decade, at least for a certain part of the world– and is anyone willing to make a bolder move, and put together a predictive list of what will be representative of its second ten years?


* Beautiful Losers. Having read that book years ago, I’m not sure whether to be reassured or not about the continuity of my own taste, feeling just as eye-rollingly disgusted now as I did then at his narrative shenanigans.


Quick, But Not Fleeting

Moving, trying to craft a massive budget at work, settling into a new place: all these things and more have sucked me entirely out of writing for at least the past month, and to a certain degree, out of reading as well. But one of the benefits of having one’s life taken over by demanding practicalities and a chaotic schedule while diving into haiku in a more-informed-than-in-the-past fashion has meant that I’m taking those poetic particles bit by slow, slow bit, letting a few sink in at a time and simmer until they’ve had their say in my brain.

I can’t remember when I learned about haiku; I was fortunate enough to have teachers convinced of small children’s need to learn about and experiment with different forms of poetry, even if said children had barely made it into a stage of comfort with two-syllable words. But, much as was the case with Greek drama and even Shakespeare, I think I had to put a few decades behind me before I could take the form seriously, as something more than pleasant or clever, and able to be whipped out by anyone with a pretty good vocabulary and a healthy wit. And now, especially when any time available for reading is seriously strained, paying attention to every well-crafted syllable is making me value this poetic form in a way I’d failed to do in the past.

Check out these few samples of Bashō:

Many nights on the road
and not dead yet–
the end of autumn.

but somehow the chrysanthemum
is budding.

A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

Summer grass–
all that’s left
of warriors’ dreams.*


And then, too, I’ve given an initial peek into waka. Here’s one from Yosano Akiko:

You have come at last,
And so I let go the dragonflies
Which I have held captive
In my five fingers
This autumn evening.

Of the numberless steps
Up to my heart,
He climbed perhaps
Only two or three.**


But going back to the theme that opened this digression from apparently more pressing things, I’m unable to spend any real time talking about what it is I love about these verses– but will note in quick passing that the chrysanthemum piece seems somehow to link in feeling with an essay over at the Center for Humans and Nature on the plight of the monarch. The general existential state of the species? Ailing, and badly so. But at the moment, somehow, a few blossoms still survive to help them out. Maybe, once I have my head on straight again, I’ll find a succinct poetic way to express what should pain us all about this situation– and better yet, lead to some action.

Until then, I’ll read when, and as much as, I can, and hope to God I’m seeing the light at the end of this stupidly jam-packed tunnel.



*Robert Haas, editor, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa (New York: ecco, 1994), 16, 20, 27, 39

** Donald Keene, editor, Modern Japanese Literature: From 1868 to Present Day (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1960), 207.

The Solace of Mortality

Once again, I’m packing up my books for a move. And once again, I’ve set aside a pile from which I can pick out reading material until the day arrives to load everything into a truck and dump it into a new abode– this particular relocation only and thankfully taking me uptown, and not on another cross-country exploit.

Events like these are often responsible for forcing me to dig into some volume that’s been sitting on my shelf for years, wondering why I don’t just pass it on to someone who’ll pay attention to it, instead of letting it moulder and yellow among its luckier, been-read companions. This time around, Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal caught my eye, and I rescued it and its funky old cover, getting started on it yesterday as holiday explosions were bursting all around.

From Bridgeman Art, in The Telegraph

From Bridgeman Art, in The Telegraph

I’m not sure where I originally picked up this particular volume, or whether it was a gift from a friend, himself going through a move over a decade ago– but it has been on my shelf for an inexcusable amount of time. Sheepishly, I’ll also admit that off the top of my head, I can’t name a single poem Dylan Thomas wrote, even though I distinctly remember reading, having to recite, and loving his work in high school. Well– in spite of my multifaceted ignorance about the book, so far, I’m truly enjoying John Malcolm Brinnin’s recollections about playing host to the famed poet in the 1950s. But here’s where said pleasure gets a little strange.

Unsurprisingly, I had no idea who Brinnin was; turns out, he was a big-wig on the American poetry scene, teaching at universities and running New York’s Poetry Center and hobnobbing with the literati and their patrons of the day. His account of running around with Thomas involves, of course, a lot of parties, at which a lot of these important people were present, and (again, of course) mentioned by name. And guess what? Although the fame of some of these luminaries has survived into the present era, the appearance of so many others in this public diary makes no impression whatsoever; they seem to be slightly gilded blanks, or requisite extras on a set thrown in for atmosphere. And although he’s the author of this tale, and wrote poetry himself, I can only imagine Brinnin, too, blending into the throng of one-time personalities losing their places in the public consciousness.

That all sounds so glum, even bitter– but on the contrary, I’ve begun to feel strangely hopeful about what the fact of our inevitable individual forgettableness means, in terms of my own creative yearnings. Brinnin was a known figure, lucky enough to make his living doing what he seemed to love, as were so many of those other party-goers and socialites that show up in his memories. And even the boisterous figure of Thomas, who drew huge crowds to hear him read poetry– poetry!–* has faded, due to my own laziness and that of most of society, into a known name (and probably not even that to many people now, compared to the number who would have recognized it during his lifetime) and nothing more. But here’s the thing: with very rare exceptions, even good work, not to mention its creator/s, vanishes eventually– and even if these men’s poetry had been horrific, that fact, too, would have been forgotten. If everything, then, even the understanding that your output was subpar, is destined to dissolve into the ether, why not just enjoy doing what you do, and– while caring enough to do your best–** not worry about whether or not you’re producing a masterpiece, since even the grand exemplars of an age will probably follow your own scribblings into oblivion one day as well?

Steve F-E-Cameron, on Wikimedia Commons

From Steve F-E-Cameron, on Wikimedia Commons

The same year I read Thomas in high school, we also got to know Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which has stayed with me for the past twenty-something years. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”*** I’ve wanted many a time to shout out that declaration carved into a lonely, desert-enveloped ruin of a pedestal, reminding politicians, nations, and any number of big egos that they were far from invincible. And I still love the poem as I did when I first read it– but maybe with age, and with reminders like Brinnin’s, I’m also less prone to despair for the failures time forces upon us, and see a sort of relief in them instead.



* The romance of a past I never knew, and which I’m not quite certain how accurate my view of it is: an auditorium being filled by a poet! Were the 1950s really so different, or do things like this still happen in New York?

** I’m well aware of the fact that this argument is a pretty weak, even inexcusable, one, when taken to the level of ethics. But where harmless activity enjoyed for its own sake, even as a pastime, is concerned? I’ll hold my ground, even if that means a whole generation of schmalz-heavy “jazz” musicians and schlocky writers are inspired to spew forth because of it.

*** The full text of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” is available from the Poetry Foundation.

Production vs. Consumption in the Verbal World

An undoubtedly dull question, but very basically, I’ve been wondering today why, during emotionally (or otherwise) trying times, writing goes out the window for me, while my voracious reading habits remain largely unchanged. Writing takes up a lot of energy, it’s true– but then, so does reading, at least if you’re paying any meaningful amount of attention to the words passing before your eyes. One would think that the former would allow for some form of release or low-grade therapy, making it possible to bitch and complain and rain down curses without causing anyone any harm, clearing out some heart-based muddle to make space for a bit of calm.


Russians Reading and Writing, by Utagawa Yoshikazu, via Wikimedia Commons.

And yet, I seem to prefer stuffing myself full of additional, extraneous thoughts and stories to blowing off steam through scribbling. We could allege that planting my nose in a book is a convenient mode of escape from and/or avoidance of my own troubles, a charge that’s probably at least partially true. On the other hand, I so often find in others’ writing helpful elucidations of or things to consider about my own situation that I’m hesitant to chalk up my easy relationship with reading to an obvious dodge away from self-confrontation.

After two paragraphs, then, we– or I, at least– have learned little to nothing about a situation that may boil down to simple, inexplicable preference for one activity over another, even though the two are so ridiculously closely linked. But, given a continual onslaught of stress over the past couple of weeks, that perfunctory go at an investigation is about all I can handle right now, and so I’ll sink into someone else’s construction of quandaries, adventures, and questions before falling fast asleep wherever my tired head lands.

The Play’s the Thing

Unknown photographer; from the Leo Baeck Institute via Wikimedia Commons

Unknown photographer; from the Leo Baeck Institute via Wikimedia Commons

I ain’t gonna lie, people: it’s been a tough and sometimes scary week, and I almost wanted to bow out of a gathering of a play-reading group I just joined, a nice, unassuming bunch who just want to get together and read things out loud. I’ve been looking for just such a thing for years now, and yet there I was, feeling so beaten down it seemed I was incapable of doing more that crawling into a corner and going into prolonged hibernation.

I forged ahead, though, and showed up to take part in reciting Red, John Logan’s drama about Mark Rothko. There are only two characters in this piece, so the readers switched out each scene, a compromise that was actually a perfect arrangement. With what ended up being one big, famous painter with a tendency to (in the play, at least) wax philosophic while yelling at his assistant, the latter of whom wouldn’t take his verbal volleys lying down, it was nice to be able to step in and out of bouts of spoken intensity.

But what absolute therapy– getting to hurl insults and express indignation left and right, without hurting anyone’s feelings or having massive repercussions come crashing down around your head! The act of reading the written word out loud, although not entirely different from sitting alone and quietly imbibing statements and dialogue, does change the experience of interacting with said word. In one sense, that’s obvious; perceptible sound has now been brought into the interpretive mix; the aural atmosphere has changed. But when lines get voiced, and are spoken between readers of the same text, suddenly, what it means to be engaged in a participatory experience is widened, less predictable, more exciting, more interesting. As a bunch of good-natured amateurs play off of each other, feed off of and add to each other’s energy, the same words digested in the lone comfort of a single, quiet reader’s head almost become, in this new situation, animate, independent beings involved in a conversation that somehow transpires between, and yet beyond, the speakers and even the words that have been chosen for them.

I’m not making a great deal of sense, and may seem to be caught up in romantic rapture. But I’ll go with it, at least for the moment– partially because I don’t really dig being part of a theater’s audience, and so my sudden enthusiasm for drama is a bit puzzling. Unless all aspects of the production are considered elite-level– and even then–, the stage frequently just doesn’t do it for me, and I’m bored in the presence of what so often seems a stilted situation, from written dialogue to live performance. And I’m guessing, were I to go back and read Red on my own, I’d walk away feeling skeptical about whether anyone ever behaved this way in real life, even an historical figure known to have had an outsize personality. But with a bunch of people in the back of a coffee shop, stumbling over lines and laughing at our own flubs? Beautiful. Satisfying. Fun and restorative.

Maybe that’s what the theater is supposed to be, and what’s missing for me in perfected productions: a sense of being an actual part of a living– not endlessly rehearsed, or smooth, or simply observed– conversation. Not just suspending disbelief, but really participating, to the degree that your absence, or that of any of the other readers, would feel like a loss. It’s only speculation, but I’ll try to keep the considerations in mind the next time the group meets– and hopefully provides just as much healing as it did the other night.