Sunday, December 20, 2015

"You Don't Have Steinbeck to Kick Around Anymore" (Unless You're the NY Times Book Review).

Today, Sunday, December 20, 2015, marks the 47th anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck (1902-68). And almost a half-century after his death Steinbeck's work is still read and respected by a broad audience. Recalling fondly my own past readings, and eagerly anticipating future re-readings of Steinbeck's work, imagine my dismay at opening this morning's New York Times Book Review and finding its erstwhile editor Sam Tanenhaus throwing Steinbeck under the wayward bus.

Tanenhaus' target is Steinbeck's 1936 novel In Dubious Battle, which fictionalized real-life cotton strikes in the San Joaquin Valley. According to Tanenhaus, Steinbeck "first conceived [of the novel] as an almost documentary record, though he didn't visit the strike camps (instead relying on interviews). In the end he buffed and prettified the material, making it a fable of salt-of-the-earth whites, forerunners of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, when in fact 75 percent to 95 percent of the work force was Mexican."

Has our obsession with race poisoned even our ability to read, enjoy, and appreciate classic literature? Should Steinbeck's work be weighed in Tanenhaus' scales and be found wanting? Since In Dubious Battle is a work of fiction, shouldn't the author have the privilege of casting his narrative with anyone he pleases, regardless of color and gender? Should the exclusion of any demographic be looked upon conspiratorially, as an act of overt exclusion that belies racism or prejudice?

Tanenhaus finds a comrade in political correctness in Kathryn Olmsted, whose book Right Out of California sparked Tanenhaus' take-down of In Dubious Battle. Reviewing Olmsted's book, Tanenhaus says Olmsted, "is doubtless correct that Steinbeck's 'decision to erase brown-skinned people and women of all colors from the story was political.'"

Upending both Tanenhaus' and Olmsted's implications that Steinbeck harbored anti-Mexican prejudices, one need only look at his previous novel, Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, which was a celebration of the Mexican paisanos of Monterey, California.

John Steinbeck's work speaks for itself, at least to those who invest the time in reading his books. Doing so will dispel the cloud of criticism left by the likes of Tanenhaus and Olmsted, and prove to be both enlightening and enjoyable.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Reluctance to Reread Favorite Books

I finished reading The Temple of Gold and thoroughly enjoyed it. Yeah, it had its shortcomings and disappointments, but for a first novel by a 26-year author it was a great read. It was one of those books that leave a lot of ideas rolling around in one's mind and had me eager to discuss it with someone. But since I don't know of anyone who read the book, I enjoy the "virtual book club" of reading reviews on Amazon or Good Reads.

Among the comments on Good Reads was one left by Linda Robinson back in February 2010. She awarded The Temple of Gold the full five stars and posted the below comment:

I read this book in 1970, and it had an enormous impact on me. I'm not going to read it again because I don't want it out of time. J. D. Salinger just died, and I won't reread Franny and Zooey either. I'd rather remember them both as the most amazing books I've read in my life and leave the books and their brilliantly timely authors there.

Robinson's reluctance to revisit old favorite books left me vexed. On the other hand, I sympathized with her reluctance. Like most longtime readers, she has undoubtedly been burned by going back to a youthful treasure and finding fool's gold. Such an unhappy experience happened to me a year or so ago when I reread Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse. I first read it around the age of twenty and recalled it as a profound work that deftly contrasted the life of religious faith with the life of secular indulgence. It inspired me and encouraged me along the pilgrim's path. My original copy long gone, I serendipitously chanced upon the same mid-70's Bantam paperback edition at Half Price Books one day and was overcome with nostalgia. It was like meeting an old friend. Of course I snapped it up and looked forward to rereading it, naive fellow that I was. Reading it proved to be a chore, disenchantment growing with every page. "What was so great about this book?" I asked as I plodded along, waiting for the profundidty I was so confident was in there somewhere. I never found it.

Do I regret rereading it? No. Once the initial "bummer" passed, I spun the experience as an indicator of how far I've come--in life and in literary appreciation. It also gave me a sense of urgency to reread my sentimental favorites, to weigh them in the scales and see if they're found wanting.

And that is what brings me to Salinger. Goldman's Temple of Gold is compared right on the front cover blurb to Salinger. And virtually every reviewer feels an obligation to acknowledge the similarities. I was just last Thursday in my Western Lit Survey course bemoaning how few students read or are even aware of J.D. Salinger, a man with whom every English major circa 1990 was well versed. When Salinger died in January 2010 I looked to commisserate with my Creative Writing students, but only one had heard of him and none had read him. What happened? When did young people stop reading Salinger? Or maybe I should ask. when did Salinger stop speaking to young people? Could it be that what spoke to the disaffected youth of earlier generations is irrelevant to the students of today, who as a rule don't read a great deal and when they do tend to read Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight?

All of which is to say that I'm committing to rereading the Salinger canon over the Christmas break. Unlike the Good Reads reviewer, I don't want to cling to romanticized memories when it comes to books. I don't want to be championing false gods to my students. While talking about Salinger to my students, I was startled to realize that the one and only time I read Catcher in the Rye was in the mid-1980s. I did reread Salinger's short story "A Good Day for Bananafish" last year and found it held up over time, so my hopes are high for a happy reunion with Holden Caulfield and the distinguished Glass family.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Playing Hooky, Buying Bookies!

Giving my World Civ I students a work day left me footloose and fancy free this afternoon. Idle time and a crisp $20 bill in my wallet will invariably find me in the stacks at Jackson Street Books. I always intend "just to look," but who am I kidding? After 40 minutes of browsing the paperbacks on the back wall I left thirteen bucks poorer and four books richer:

(1) The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. I love Bellow--Mr. Sammler's Planet my favorite thus far--and I buy up any I find that I haven't read (which are many). This is early Bellow from 1953. I found for three bucks a 1965 Crest Book printing that appears to have been unread. Cover blurbs are from  forgotten and fast-fading names like Clifton Fadiman, Robert Penn Warren, and Alfred Kazin. Augie March is now published as a Penguin Classic and is free from such crass commercialism (though I admit I prefer literary classic paperbacks from before they were anointed Literature, such as the 1960's Bantam paperbacks of Steinbeck's works).

(2) The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces by William Golding. Golding, "author of 'Lord of the Flies,'" as the cover reminds readers, is a genre of book I've come to love: the essay and article collection. I've sought out all of John Updike's collections (still need Higher Gossip, however), and from a flip-through Golding looks like a good addition to my groaning shelves. I have Golding's Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin, but--like so many of my books--I haven't read 'em... yet.

(3) The Temple of Gold by William Goldman. A new author find of 2012! This is one of those serendipitous stumblings upon that only happen when one is idly looking over the shelves. My eye caught a paperback of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I thought that might make a good read. I was disappointed to see it was just a screenplay of the film by William Goldman. William Golding I know, Oscar Goldman I know, but not William Goldman. I found this, his first novel from 1957, in a nice condition black-spined 35-cent Bantam paperback (A1834 4) dating to 1958 and for only $4.00.

(4)  The Thing of It Is... by William Goldman. This is Goldman's 1967 novel and I must confess that what provoked me to pull it off the shelf was its provocative cover boasting a rather risque painting by James Bama, whose covers for Bantam's Doc Savage paperbacks I've long adored. The inside cover description sold me on it, especially this line: "The Thing of It Is... Amos McCracken's very precious, very precocious daughter just happens to look like Edward G. Robinson." Yeah, this sounds like a book I'll enjoy. This copy is a little shelf-worn but nonetheless a still nice Bantam paperback (S3706 6) dating to July 1968 when it cost its original reader a mere six bits. I got it for $3.00 and am delighted.

I started reading The Temple of Gold on my hourlong bus ride home and was immediately drawn into it. I'm up to where young Raymond Euripedes Trevitt and his pal Zock run away to Chicago. There they sit and weep through three back-to-back screenings of Gunga Din. Raymond recounts Gunga Din's heroic climb to the top of the temple of gold from where he warns the British soldiers of an impending ambush. And that scene provides the book its title.

Before 3 o'clock today I wasn't aware of this author, so I feel as if I've met a fascinating new friend. Here's hoping this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, to quote another old movie.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

48 Spoons

"I have measured out my life in coffee spoons."

That deceptively simple and seemingly banal observation, as any English undergrad worth a battered Penguin paperback should know, is from T.S. Eliot's celebrated 1915 poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." That line sprang into my undercaffeinated mind a few moments ago as I spooned a mountain of Folgers Crystals into a styrofoam cup of boiling water. And that coffee is so good on a cold, late-November morning. A life measured out in coffee spoons isn't necessarily a bad life.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Collector's Item First Post!

Welcome to the unofficial 'blog of the Humanities Department of Grace University. Like Rod Serling on the Twilight Zone, I will be the front man here, leading you through the fascinating worlds of literature, the arts, religion and philosophy.

This site will also serve to notify students of the many goings on at Grace, especially those masterminded by or stamped with the imprimatur of the Humanities Department.

Finally, this 'blog will serve as a one-stop shop for all your Fall 2011textbooks! The faculty voted to allow each department chair to establish affiliate accounts with that will allow a percentage of your textbook purchases to come back to the department, which in turn will be returned to you in the form of materials we can purchase for our library or for each department's holdings.

You are encouraged to check back regularly. I am eager to host guest 'bloggers from among our students and faculty and to provide an outlet for Grace's many Humanities professors, whether on staff and adjunct.