Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Long dark hair piled carelessly up on top of the head, perhaps stabbed with a couple of knitting needles. Should convey a sense of energy, unless she is an Amazon of absolutely staggering proportions. Always gives air of being more learned than she lets on and witty-smart, seriousnessness both of intellect and attention to own beauty tempered and beautifully proportioned. The sexiest of all general artsy-bohemian looks, shouldn't be that hard to pull off...
I was about 90% asleep when I wrote that bit above, so I am going to keep it. It is something I have wondered about for 20 years now.
In the course of every day when I am not able to write I think of and compose in my head various letters, articles, etc, for the blog which when I finally get down to the computer don't seem worthwhile to put down anymore. As I often say, I practised for years to become, and am really more comfortable as, a fiction writer, which besides allowing for different emphases in one's style that I prefer, seems to me to offer richer possibilities for understanding than the typical scrupulously literal personal or rhetorical blog post allows for. Virtually nothing on the Internet is worth reading at all, of course, but as much of it is clearly the work of fairly intelligent as well as intellecually supremely confident people it is nonetheless maddening that it is often so thoughtless. Do people trained in hard sciences and technical fields really believe that the humanities, especially literature, have no substantial place in a serious modern university? Do they really believe that no one specializing in the humanities possesses significant intelligence, or that everyone in those disciplines is there by default in the full knowledge that they could not succeed in one of the legitimate subjects at a college level? Does anyone believe that there are any human beings, especially intelligent ones, who might not be motivated by money (or at least might not be motivated to compete for it full bore every waking second?) The general identification of high IQ/intellectually brilliant people (who by definition never have humanities degrees or employment in a field identified with those areas of knowledge) with great wealth that one sees all over the Internet is of extremely recent origin, even in this country. Yet it is regularly asserted by these same Libertarian-type writers that all of the smartest people exclusively pursue the most lucrative (and therefore most prestigious) professions and positions to the detriment of any others (such as teaching, either at the secondary or modestly compensated college levels) that cannot offer them a competitive salary. This assumes too that the vast differences in compensation between different positions and professions in our society is healthy for its communal and intellectual life, which I am pretty convinced it is not. Formerly it was considered an important element of the job description, certainly of priests and academics, that while they be maintained respectably, and given some allowance for travel and other activities thought to be beneficial to their ability to carry out their duties, that they were expected to live modestly, and be generally indifferent to material concerns. Now colleges bid on star professors and parishioners are impressed by a priest who flashes symbols of success and flock to his church. That so many trends are moving at once in the same direction, while the admonitions and wisdom of long centuries are not even considered seriously, I cannot regard as boding any good for the day-to-day, cultural, spiritual, what have you, life of the nation.
This is my pessimistic late night post of the week. Of course the actual world is not really like this. It is much better and much worse. I just have the good and bad parts backwards.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
I think this is one of those works that needs to be read under a very specific set of circumstances--in some sort of scholarly seclusion, surrounded by books and other tokens of learning, preferably on a dark or rainy afternoon or evening in a building with antique lighting, the leisure to try to make out some bit of the meaning in the original language, education enough to reasonably make such an effort--for the ordinary 21st century reader to get much of a charge out of the experience, and as none of these circumstances happen currently to be accessible to me, I consequently got nothing out of it. In truth there is not really much to it--it appears to be, if not a fragment, related to some series of other like histories that are not extant--the curious can take a look at it here, though this is one of the last things I would recommend to read off of a computer.For a time, from about the 30s up to around the early 70s, literary education in the most serious schools in Great Britain put an emphasis on the study of the Anglo-Saxon/Old English language and writings that seemed disproportionate to what the casual or even semi-interested observer would likely consider their stature and importance in the later literary tradition in the English language (in America any extensive study of Old English never penetrated beyond the specialists into the ranks of the merely generally literate). Like most academic study on subjects that admit of the possession and mastery of definable knowledge, in such corners where it was well done and undertaken by masters and students with some sensibility for it, I think it was undoubtedly beneficial, if not necessary or crucial, to such minds, and even small communities of minds, as imbibed it. My points in bringing this up are rather vague, but it is something along the lines of how intellectual communities form mindsets, sometimes in rather narrow channels, that go on to have a cultural or historical influence that seems rather fantastic when its origins are looked at closely. A decent number of English poets, academicians, historians, fiction writers, etc, in the 1945-65 era were fairly well imbued in this program of Old English study (as other circles of thinkers were imbued in Communist politics and intrigues on one side of the aisle or another), many of whom remain influential today even if their studies in Anglo-Saxon are not evidently apparent on the surface. Tolkien is the most obvious example, along with a few of the poets; I would need to do more research to verify my suspicions on others of these writers, and perhaps the influence is simply more Christian than Anglo-Saxon, but their affinity with the ancient language and spirit of their country, which they often evoked with comparatively unstudied naturalness, seems less superficial than some of the more authoritative assertions, or dismissals, as it were, of them which we see today.
The only surviving text of Widsith is at Exeter Cathedral in Devonshire, one of England's most highly esteemed churches by the experts, but for the most part spared the ravages of mass tourism by its comparatively out of the way location. For most people, especially any who lead in any way degraded lives, it would definitely be worth a visit.
"I have heard of many men who ruled over nations.
Every leader should live uprightly,
Rule his estates according to custom,
If he wants to succeed to a kingly throne."
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
After the beach we went to Cedar Point County Park, which is also in East Hampton. This is a completely different sort of place from the usual attractions in that city. It is mainly a big campground with 1950s-ish facilities: charcoal pits, overgrown baseball fields with rusting backstops, playgrounds, metallic-flavored water fountains, picnic tables, etc. The picture below is the office where you check in. They show family movies, I presume outside, on Saturday night, which the ladies at the desk invited us to come back for; our stay in the area did not extend to that day however.
The park is situated on the north shore of the south fork of Long Island, on what I suppose would be called an inlet. The effect is of a large lake, as land is visible all around, including one decent-sized town with a large marina directly across, possibly Sag Harbor or part of Shelter Island, but I was not certain. It is a genuinely pleasant spot, and still the nearly exclusive domain of some remnant of a class that is middling in every way, a rarity in that part of the world. New York State, I understand, is famous for the quality of its parks among aficiondos of that sort of thing. While they show some signs of age--though that is no strike against them with me--the ones I have seen seem to be well designed to appeal to and accomodate city people who are looking for a taste of nature without desiring a struggle with it, which is about the level I am currently at. Garbage cans, snack and soda machines, restrooms (often 1930s-50s vintage, with radiators, bubble-shaped soap dispensers, paneled doors on the toilet stalls, checked tiled floors, etc), and trails devoid of roots and stones and poison ivy are plentiful and placed at strategic intervals. You won't find any of this at a state park in Vermont or New Hampshire; there you are expected to bring your own drinks, carry all your trash out with you, tire yourself out with exercise and relieve yourself in the overgrowth off the trail. It is still not quite up to the level of hiking or bicycling in the Czech Republic or other parts of Europe, where two to three hours of such activity, and sometimes even one, inevitably leads you to a tavern, but it is near enough at least to arouse the association.
We got dinner one night from a fried-clam stand on the Montauk Highway (Route 27). This was not the famous place known as "Lunch" which is listed in all the guidebooks, but the next one to the east of it, on the opposite side of the road. I thought my children would cause the least offense at a place like this, but there were actually rather severe warnings posted all around the counter and picnic area that children must be seated, etc, at all times. We got the food (which was on the very high end of the deep-fried seafood category, that is to say, it was good) to go, but of course the two older boys wanted to get out and check out the scene. The wait/counterstaff seemed to be mostly Irish. They did not smile at the children. They seemed socially a pretty cool and desirable crew to me, but they were evidently not cool and desirable enough to the people they wanted to be cool and desirable to, which always makes people very impatient at having to deal with the likes of me. The gentleman taking orders at the register was listening to a blues recording that sounded like it was important and something I should know about, and if I were a successful practitioner of some art or science myself and able to look the capable portion of humanity in the eye, perhaps I would have asked him what it was, but under the circumstances I declined to do so. I could not help imagining that he must have gotten with one of the waitresses, especially the sour-faced one who was maybe ten pounds above the general ideal. Neither would have been able to bring themselves to admit love for the other; I thought that they probably listened to this music or some kind of classic jazz when they were about their erotic business, changing to whatever is the current hip equivalent to ska in the (late) morning when they made coffee and brushed their teeth and covered their flesh and all those things that lovers of convenience do. But this was really going too far...
On the last day, before we went home, we dropped into the colossus on the Hudson itself for about 3 hours and visited the very celebrated Museum of Natural History. This was my children's 1st experience of any kind in that great city outside the car, and I, who had once figured on spending long stretches of my life in it in carrying out my literary functions, especially in my 20s and 30s, before retiring to the area where I actually live now sometime deep in middle age, had not been in town at all myself for nearly seven years. (Good Grief!) The extreme shortness of the visit was more a function of my desire to break this streak and also give the children some tangible impression of New York, however fleeting and comparatively insubstantial, because they are getting to the point in their fledgling engagements with learning where they have begun to encounter it, or have the idea of it alluded to, and I thought it might be of some utility to their understanding to know it as a place they had been to.
I had never been to the Natural History Museum myself. It has become something of an iconic site of New York childhood due to the homage paid it by the many New York children who grew up to write books and make movies and be generally sophisticated and important. The Catcher in the Rye is probably the most famous example, and even Malcolm X was shown hanging out in the African mammal gallery in the movie that was made about him. I would not be wholly astonished to discover that Lou Reed made a positive allusion to it somewhere. My children are probably a little young to be struck with any such kind of deep impression, and of course they are not New York City children anyway, but it is fun at least to pretend one is having some kind of exciting and meaningful experience, though I fear I do a very poor job of imitating the sort of people who do have such experiences. It was interesting that the children's favorite things in the museum were actually the old classics: the dinosaur skeletons (or the models/casts of them), the elephants, the models of various (American) Indian dwellings. Of the two older boys, one's style of museum-going is to race through the rooms as quickly as he can in order to make sure he is not missing anything and ask a lot of questions seemingly unrelated to what he is seeing (Is 92 minutes longer than an hour and a half?), while the other (the younger, actually) is more inclined to be attracted to the objects in front of him and make them subjects of his musings.
Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the guiding spirit of the building of this museum, which I had not known, and besides the over the top equestrian statue of the President dressed in armor and accompanied by an Indian on foot at his right hand (I am guessing there will never be such a monument of our present leader erected in New York) which stands in front of the museum, there are four stirring quotes of his on such topics as Manliness, Duty, Patriotism, and so forth, engraved on the walls in the main concourse which instantly arouse in one a sense of personal elevation quite apart from any intellectual analysis of the words themselves. This was my favorite part of the museum, though this concourse, as well as the rest of the place, was crammed with people (in the books the sensitive types are always depicted as wandering through the galleries alone, immersed in thought).
My least favorite part was the line for tickets--there is no fee, only "donations", though you have to declare to the ticket dispensers what you are donating, and I at was least informed that giving nothing is not permitted, though this seems a misuse of the word donation. I have been told by real New Yorkers and other reasonably cultivated people that all of the big museums in that city which have this donation policy have enough money to keep operating until my great-great-grandchildren's lifetimes and that the whole racket is an inside joke at the expense of the suburban boobies and earnest halfwits who fall for it. However true this may be, I have yet to find anyone who is going to let me pass myself off as exempt from donating on the grounds that I am in any way above the vulgar masses. While normally when I go to the bank, the grocery store, etc, I am the kind of creep who chooses what line to get in according to which one has the best-looking girl working at the end of it, on this occasion I was hoping, as I made my way through the maze to get to the ticket counter, that I would get one of the numerous unattractive or overweight people for this dreaded confrontation over the donation; but no, it was my fate to be directed to Miss New York 2007 herself, a swarthy, palpably hostile beauty, of a vaguely Latin though otherwise largely indeterminate ethnic origin. I appealed to her for guidance and she coolly informed me that the suggested donation for my party was $47. This seemed to me an absurd suggestion. Surely no one of sense is going to pay $47 for anything if he does not have to, quite apart from my determination not to appear too unsavvy to the great city people. I said, without adequate force however, that I wished to pay nothing. You have to pay something, I was told. I gave a very small donation--it was at the end of my trip, and I had not had much money to throw around to begin with--which I could not do with the effect of haughtiness, grandeur, whatever, that I was looking for. But really I couldn't have won, I don't think, short of sardonically throwing a $100 bill on the counter and telling them to keep the change, because they had pegged me for a bourgeois, and no spirit of finer stuff. If I had given 47, or 30, or 20, they'd have sneered at me, and I'd have sneered at myself as a sucker and been unable to have any fun from that point on, but being a skinflint without any justification--uncool provincial tourists devoid of sex appeal, the attitude is, should not expect to be allowed to do anything in New York without incurring some appropriate expense--I merely branded myself as pathetic. But I felt all right, I really did. I really believe now, as I slowly and imperceptibly grow ever so slightly mad, that there is some part of the melange of facts and ideas which constitutes New York, that I possess a real understanding of, which the cool people and the greatest artists and intellects are powerless to shatter utterly. I am eager to go back.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I was on Long Island for three days last week. Though I am 37, and have lived in the Northeast practically my entire life, I had never been there before, past Brooklyn and Queens anyway. This was in part because there was never any necessity for me to go there: I had no one to visit, there were always other beaches nearer by, it was inconvenient to reach, etc. From wherever I have lived it was always too far to go on a day trip and too close to be worth the expense of spending even a couple of days there. For similar reasons I have still never managed to make it to Cape Cod or Lake George, which some people consider to be among the most beautiful places on earth, though I have lived within a three hour's drive of them for at least ten years. However, not being able to go anywhere very far away or for more than a few days at this time, and having recently developed some affinity for parks and nature and picnicking where formerly I would have wanted to spend all my time in museums and bars, and wanting to go somewhere new, it seemed like a good idea to go down there and have a look.
We arrived on the island by the ferry from New London, CT to Orient Point, which besides cutting a lot of distance off the drive when coming from New England, was an event of note to my young children, who had certainly not taken any such long trip on a boat before. Unlike some of the modern ferries that run out of Britain, you can still walk around on the deck on this one, and as there are lots of small islands in those waters and the trip is only 17 miles (it takes 80 minutes) you are never out of sight of land so it is a pretty entertaining ride as such things go.
Once we got on the Island and were driving along on the North Fork past very pleasant, even semi-sleepy vineyards and farms, I had some pangs of regret at turning south towards the notoriously unsleepy and stress-inducing Hamptons, where I could be certain no one was eagerly anticipating my arrival, but I had already decided to make that area the focal point of the trip, not because I have an unhealthy fascination with billionaires and billionaire wannabes (I actually don't) but because the area does have comparatively a lot of historical significance and artistic associations, and I like to see places like that. Of course we did not actually stay in the Hamptons. Conveniently it was August so I can say that everything was booked up. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Hauppage, which is back in the suburban part of Long Island near the expressway, about an hour away. This was probably a $200 a night hotel that I got on Priceline for $57. I suppose some people get a thrill out of paying $60 for a $200 hotel, though personally I would rather pay $60 for a $60 hotel, only there are no $60 hotels on Long Island that you can respectably take a family to (I am of course not above staying in fairly vile places when traveling by myself). The situation with this hotel is that it is too big for where it is located, so that while they have mostly corporate people in expensive suits staying there, a grandiose lobby and bar, a golf course, etc, there is one floor where they warehouse all this obvious riffraff (including me) that got a deal on Priceline. Breakfast was not included--since most of my experience with hotels is from Europe I am always disappointed that hardly anyone includes breakfast in the U.S. The restaurant was one of these places where a couple of poached eggs cost $11, and a dish of fruit cup is 6. I know America is a rich country in part because there are lots of people in it willing to pay $11 for 2 eggs in the right environment; I may even be one of them, but this was not the right environment. This aside though, I liked the room. It had great air conditioning, which we don't have at home.
Another plus about the hotel was that when we did drive back to the Hamptons the next morning on the nearly empty expressway, and the sun was out with a few luxuriant white clouds, I really did get something of that Gatsby feel, which was in part what I was there for (Gatsby of course had to take the same drive to get to his place in West Egg). We went to the end of the island at Montauk and saw the famous lighthouse--commissioned by George Washington himself--and walked on the rocky shore they have there for a few minutes. It is a fine spot, but the awful biting flies, that I had completely forgotten about though I grew up in the Mid-Atlantic region where they are the scourge of just about every beach, were bad there. The baby especially bore the brunt of these attacks, though secretly I was not loving it too much either. We also went to one of the East Hampton public beaches--reading about this on the Internet one gets the impression that ordinary people/tourists, etc are somehow discouraged from going to these beaches, that one needs a parking sticker that costs $5,000 a year and is passed down in wills, fought over in divorce settlements, etc. These things may be true, but if they are they serve mainly as an example of the warped egotism of a certain class of people, because the parking is really not a big deal. You can pay--a lot, but not an absolutely insane amount--to park in a parking lot about 60 yards farther away from the beach than the people with the $5,000 parking stickers and the rented bathhouses. I guess if you park here it is equivalent to announcing to the people in the other parking lot that you are an unabashed nobody, so it is a very emotional issue for some. As public humiliations go however, I found this to be a fairly minor one.
East Hampton was voted the prettiest small town in America in the 50s by the Saturday Evening Post, which I was just writing about in the last article. While it is undeniably an attractive town, the traffic and the heavy shift to a wealthier and more cloistered population (most of the houses are famously concealed behind very tall privet hedges, or fences, one of which my wife pointed out must have contained $20,000 worth of wood alone) has given it a more imposing than graceful or charming character in our times. The area in general is not as beautiful, and certainly not as haunting, as the coastal areas in New England, especially Maine, though I suppose no one claims it is. The East Hampton beach is famous for its fine white sand, and this is very pleasant compared with the rockier beaches of the north, though the evenness of the coast and the absence of architecture along it apart from the large modern cottages make it less dramatic than many of the seaside towns in Maine, which settings remind me of the beach paintings that the early Impressionists made in Normandy (as opposed to those who came later and preferred the light of the Cote d'Azur; I am staunchly in the Northern camp when it comes to French seaside environments).
Such women as I saw on the beach on Long Island (there were not so many that you had to leave, but enough that you noticed a general pattern) I should note as a curious anthropological observation, made a more pointed, or at least more successful, effort, to be "sexy", as in, suggestive of being sexual creatures, than we ever see among the same type of affluent, high-achieving, where-it's-at crowd of women in New England. They also managed to do so without going over the top, even when they weren't actually very pretty, which I suppose is one of the secrets they teach you in boarding school. There were a lot of what I call "Esme" types around (though older than Esme would have been), obviously intelligent, sophisticated, bored 16-18 year old girls in sunglasses reading Trollope or something. One reads about such creatures a lot of course, but I have rarely encountered any in real life.
I will stop here and continue with the trip in another entry. Unfortunately my computer at home was left on during an electrical storm and appears to have been destroyed. It is highly probable that this will hamper my production for a time
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
My concentration for reading and writing has been poor of late. Such ideas as do occur to me do not form themselves into any kind of proper order and relation to each other but all fight individually for the primacy as they come. In such periods I perceive literature to be as foreign and unnatural an activity to me as everything else is; this impression is magnified if I should come across any author whose work appears to be the natural, artistically unselfconscious product of a confident and energetic life. I am not certain whether Ring Lardner was good enough to qualify wholly as a writer of this type, but he was legitimately talented, and legitimately interesting, and these qualities supersede and inform the subject matter of his books rather than the opposite, which is one of the secrets of all really successful artistic endeavor, though it is achieved very rarely.
Lardner's authorial personality was representive of a type of up-and-coming man that was prominent in the national character in his time. These men were often from the midwest or elsewhere in the heartland, possessed little in the way of formal education or credentials, usually no college at all, but were nonetheless ambitious to make their way in the great world. They were not awed by cultural or political authority, though they were not radicals either. Even the lives of the members of this caste who went into writing and entertainment were closely bound with the mainstream currents of contemporary life--sports, trains, lunch counters, radio, mass circulation magazines. They also had a good understanding of humor, a sense of it if you will, at an elemental level. If we cannot quite think their actual jokes and burlesques terribly funny due to our dislocation in time we can appreciate the skill with which they set them up so as to make everything that follows proceed from the premise set forth by the joke. I am thinking here of people like W.C. Fields and especially Will Rogers, whose persona seems almost lifted straight from a Lardner story.
Much more than the Great writers of his time, whose works inevitably tend to insist to us that the essential world we live in is very much the same as theirs and all people's in all times, reading Lardner is to enter an America that rings absolutely true on its own terms, and which has also been more absolutely lost as far as anybody reading it in 2007 is concerned. The very publication with which Lardner is most closely identified, The Saturday Evening Post, is an excellent illustration of this. This magazine was one of the first, if not the first, of the big magazines to get put out of business by television, being essentially finished by the early 60s. If you have ever looked into an old issue, the impression is that it is a magazine written for people who are waiting for television to be invented. There is nothing surviving that is quite comparable to it; unlike The Paris Review or the old New Yorker, which many people affect at least to be nostalgic for and which such traditional culture magazines as do exist try to imitate the tone of to some degree, no one seriously interested in writing or publishing has any thought of reviving the spirit of the Post, though it was certainly popular enough in its day, and contributed more to the national literary and artistic canon than most consciously highbrow publications ever manage to do. The sensibility and ways of life, the mindsets it reflected, which the writings of Lardner capture so well, are largely dead to us, at least as a force in our actual lives. I think this estrangement, at least for thinking people, or those who would be thinking people, is a pity.
I did not make too many notes on the actual story. Relating to the point I made about humor earlier I broke down on the 15th page of this 22 page story and laughed. Each individual joke as it were was not especially funny but the absurd and relentless build-up got to me. From what I have read of Lardner this seems to have been a pet technique of his. He favors a folksy, 1st-person narrator with a taste for a little mischief now and then who is generally peripheral to the main story. The narrator casually tells the story in his folksy manner, not at all as a writerly sort but in the midst of work or other unscholarly activity of some kind, such as cutting hair or taking infield practice. Slowly but surely the story becomes weird or disturbing in some way. The narrator indeed seems to reveal himself to be nearly as odd or objectionable as the subject of his tale. This is all done very skillfully, without any appearance of strain either in the writing or the structure, and as such the story becomes believable enough to take on an independent existence--to become literature.
Lardner refers in the story to a number of real baseball players who were at the peak of their fame around 1911--Laughing Larry Doyle, Rube Marquard, "Chief" Meyers (he was an American Indian), Wally Schang. I noted that it was remarkable to me how vivid the personalities/abilities/statistics/careers of so many of these now very long-ago players still are. Knowing them mainly through the irresistible, if rosy-hued oral histories of baseball that came out in the 60s and 70s (The Glory of Their Times, Baseball When the Grass Was Real, and Baseball Between the Lines are the best ones) they have in my imagination an existence by virtue of belonging to the remote past and being only knowable through books more substantial, or at least more exciting, than I can conceive of any contemporary athlete's having. In my imagination professional baseball, along with journalism, writing, travel, the beach, musical concerts, parties, college, etc, were all way more fun, that life in general was more thrilling on a consistent basis, in 1911 than any of it is today. Rationally I know this is not true--and certainly I know that life was comparatively awful for much of the population compared to what it is now (my own family seemed to be living relatively well at that time from I know of them however; they had cars and played in golf tournaments, which I take to be indicators that they were not employed in sweat shops at least)--but it nonetheless colors my impressions of my experiences. Back to baseball though, these old days were the classic era of the game, when it was the most popular sport in the country, and was widely and skilfully played by adults and children who had not been selected for organized teams. The eight-team league, the schedule of all day games, smaller rosters, no pitch counts (they have these in little league now), fewer pitching changes and less microspecialization in general, train travel, central cities visibly inhabited by human beings engaged in human activities--all these elements combined have such a powerful appeal to the imagination, and we can never have them again, because the time for them is past. There is truly something a little maddening in this, is there not?
p.16--During a road trip to Boston: "The rest o` the time they was sight-seein` over to Cambridge and down to Revere and out to Brook-a-line and all the other places where the rubes go." I honestly have no idea what this sentence is referring to. People used to go sightseeing in Revere? There is a beach there I guess.
I have not seen the Alibi Ike film that we have the poster for above, though it should be pointed out to fans of this blog and its peculiar sensibility that this movie was the debut of Olivia de Havilland, who is one of my very favorite movie actresses of all time for good looks. She was exceptionally pretty, in that matter-of-factly 30s/40s style that I wish were a little more in vogue in our current age, though certainly there are still people who have it.
Ring Lardner was another midwesterner, born at 519 Bond Street in Niles, Michigan, about ten miles from South Bend, Indiana. The house still stands and is designated with a marker memorializing the event. His remains are at the Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village (Queens), New York.
Saturday, August 04, 2007
James Thurber was at one time one of the most actively admired writers in the United States, at least by anthologists and middle school English teachers. I had a run of such teachers myself from 8th to 10th grade, two of them spinsters, who had been schoolgirls and college students during the height of Thurber's popularity in the 40s and 50s, and for whom his writing represented a certain accessible but slyly crafted, good-naturedly playful American quality that it was part of their function to pass on as one of the elements in the tenor of the national life. High school composition textbooks from the 50s and 60s frequently used selections from Thurber as examples of winning expository prose for students to follow. This was not a completely terrible idea. Like many of the famous magazine writers of the time Thurber was eminently readable, able to relate a story of usually endearing human interest without feeling the need to convince the audience, or himself, of his credentials, or that he was the smartest guy in the room before doing so. His art, and it seems most of his life, did not hinge upon any idea of himself as an especially great intellect, yet he occupied a prominent place in the national culture during what was probably the high point of its history, and he created, in Walter Mitty, at least one character who is still immediately referenced as an archetype; though, as I always find with the Monty Python television programs, the concept in this instance was the masterstroke, compared to which the execution lagged considerably.
The story of "Walter Mitty" however, the milquetoast, ineffectual denizen of Waterbury who daydreams about having attained greatness in any number of fields, clearly hit home with the American public, much of which over the last hundred years has spent a significant part of its collective life wandering around in a torpor wondering what exactly it exists for. Despite being only five pages long or so, the story inspired a full length motion picture starring Danny Kaye, which I have not seen (I presume Danny Kaye is dead now, but he was still kicking around in the late 70s when I was a child watching a lot of television, often appearing as a guest star on some variety show or providing the voice on a Christmas special, always presented as someone we were expected to respect as a great human being and be excited about as an entertainer, at which I always wondered 'Why?' I don't know who would be a comparable figure to a perplexed child in the present. Steve Martin?). While the dreamer is a staple figure in literature since Don Quixote, as with many modern developments in characterization Mitty is an especially disturbing evolution of the type. He has no personality, no will. His fantasies are vapid and passionless. They do not propel him to any action. He does not understand the substance of any of the things he dreams about; they are simply images of glamour and success he has picked up from movies and magazine articles and advertising. Anyone will recognize that he is bored with the sliver of life he knows, is intimidated by the vast part of it he doesn't know, and would like to escape from all of it. He wants no part of actually commanding a warplane or actually doing anything. He is no Don Quixote or even Mr Micawber.
Now it could be alleged that this character and I have more in common than I might like to acknowledge. His impotence as well as the extravagance of his fantasies are exaggerated , and therefore the effect of them on the reader tends to be more absurd than they needed to be, but surely the general attitude towards life which Mitty represents is a pretty recognizable mirror to this writer. He has no real share even in his dreams, a pitiable figure, truly a man without qualities--to the sensibility of the superior in person a typical democratic man, what is to be expected of a mediocrity in a meritocratic society--that is, having nothing to contribute to his society other than consuming goods and not causing trouble, he will lack a distinct self recognizable to other people, or even to work on with any seriousness in his own thoughts. While I sense all of these general themes in operation to some degree in my own existence, I will dare to assert that the harriedness, the nondescriptness, the detachment of thoughts from any relation to reality, even the boredness, while all well advanced in me, are as yet not quite so desperate, so obviously terminal as Mitty's. It is disturbingly within view though, I must confess.
Some brief notes on the writing: I do praise the economy and simplicity of the structure of the story, as well as the technique. I do not want to overload the page with quotes, but I will include a couple that I found mildly amusing in their absurdity within the context of the story:
"He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials."
"...Mr. Pritchard-Mitford from London. He flew over."
"A huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table, with many tubes and wires..."
"'With any known make of gun,' he said evenly, 'I could have have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.' Pandemonium broke out in the courtroom...suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty's arms."
"'I never see a man could hold his brandy like you sir', said the sergeant."
This story is much darker than it is generally presented to schoolchildren. It seems obvious to anyone reading it today that it must have been intended as such, but people really do not seem to have read it that way when it came out, and it may well not have been written with such an intent. Mitty is a weaselly, stupid little man, yet clearly supposed to be representative of the people and society from which he has sprung. On the few occasions when his mind is briefly turned upon his actual life he spends a good part of them devising false excuses and feigned injuries for his inadequacies. His life appears non-taxing and comfortable enough materially, yet existence is a burden to him because he has no appreciable adult mental life. Such an all-around schmuck is too revolting to the sensibility of a remotely lively mind to be a subject for gentle humor.
Thurber was from Columbus, Ohio, which is now become quite a large city population-wise, which I don't think it was in his time. He was born at 251 Parsons Avenue, that house unfortunately having been torn down in the 60s to make way for one of the interstates, whether I-71 or I-70 I forget at the moment. The house at 77 Jefferson Avenue where he lived with his parents while he went to Ohio State however is now a museum, though how long it will remain open--apparently no one except me likes to go to house museums of any kind anymore, because they are too boring--is anyones guess. The university seems to run this one and have some exhibits and people with some cachet coming through, so maybe it has a shot. In the area where I live we have the unenviable task of preserving two Franklin Pierce house-museums (Pierce, in case you have forgotten, was the President from 1853-1857, usually ranked solidly in the bottom 10 among chief executives). No one visits them, so every once in a while they throw the doors open and have a benefit night where for a modest donation a bunch of really old people encourage you to drink yourself into a stupor on cheap merlot while the local period-dressing musician entertains the crowd on the spinet and the world`s foremost Franklin Pierce imitator and his wife, the world`s foremost Jane Appleton Pierce imitator (this mainly involves wearing heavy mourning and sobbing a great deal; their son was killed when their train was derailed on the way to Washington for the inauguration) do some skits and try to persuade the room to join them in the barn for squaredancing. I actually enjoy these parties though, because there are few occasions left in modern life where you get to drink so much, and no one seems to notice. Also I think the houses and the artifacts they contain are worth saving. I will write more on this in some future post.
Thurber by the way is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus. Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace, is also buried there, as is Billy Southworth, manager of the 1942 and `44 World Champion Cardinals teams.