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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

September 19, 2017: Legends of the Fall: American Pastoral



[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American images of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn. Add your thoughts on falls, seasonal or symbolic, for a crowd-sourced post sure to be as popular as pumpkin spice (if such a thing is possible)!]
On a novel with over-the-top moments that practically scream “loss of innocence,” and the quieter scene that much more potently captures it.
To follow up the main idea from yesterday’s post, I experienced a very different kind of teenage literary loss of innocence when I decided to read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) for pleasure in early high school (what can I say, I was a nerd and the son of an English professor to boot). I can still quite distinctly remember arriving at Chapter 2, “Whacking Off,” and encountering for the first time just exactly how far Roth is willing to go—how obscene, how graphic, how flagrantly over-the-top. For reasons not quite known to me, in my second semester at Fitchburg State I chose to put Portnoy on the syllabus of a junior-level seminar on “Major American Authors of the 20th Century,” and got to see 25 undergrads—24 women, by chance—having their own such encounters with Roth, the novel, and that chapter in particular. Let’s just say it wasn’t just me.
Roth’s late masterpiece American Pastoral (1997) is a far more realistic and restrained work than Portnoy, but nonetheless Roth includes a couple of distinctly Roth-ian over-the-top scenes, both symbolizing quite overtly his novel’s overall themes of the loss of innocence that accompanied the late 60s and early 70s in American culture and society. In the first, the novel’s now middle-aged protagonist, Swede Levov, meets with a seemingly innocent young women to try to learn the whereabouts of his missing daughter Merry; the woman turns out instead to be a brazen and cynical 60s radical, and she meets the Swede naked, graphically exposing and probing herself in front of him (while daring him to, in essence, rape her). In the second, the tour-de-force set piece with which Roth concludes the novel, a family dinner full of shocking revelations and betrayals is set against the backdrop of the televised Watergate hearings, and culminates with a crazy drunken woman stabbing an elderly man in the head with her fork.
These scenes are as surprising and shocking as intended, and I suppose in that way they make Roth’s point. But if he intends the theme of the loss of innocence to be tragic as well as disturbing and comic (which those two scenes are, respectively), then I would point a far quieter and to my mind far more potent scene. In it, the Swede finally finds Merry and sees her again, for the only time between her teenage disappearance (after she bombs a local post office in political protest and kills an innocent bystander) and his own later death. He asks a few questions, but mostly what he does is listen (to her stories of all the horrors she has experienced in the years since the bombing) and observe (her literally fading life as a converted Jainist, one for whom any contact with the world is destructive and so self-deprivation and -starvation comprises the only meaningful future). As a parent, I can imagine nothing more shattering hearing and seeing such things from one of my children—and in the Swede’s quiet horror and sadness, Roth captures a far more powerful and chilling loss of innocence.
Next fall tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Monday, September 18, 2017

September 18, 2017: Legends of the Fall: Young Adult Lit



[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American images of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn. Add your thoughts on falls, seasonal or symbolic, for a crowd-sourced post sure to be as popular as pumpkin spice (if such a thing is possible)!]
On two iconic YA novels that fractured my innocence right alongside that of their characters.
The early teenage years—those of late middle school into the beginning of high school—seem to resonate particularly well with the idea of a loss of innocence. I’m sure that kids who grow up in far more difficult situations than I did, or who have to deal with loss at a young age, or otherwise are confronted with the world’s darker realities experience the shift from innocence to experience, naivete to maturity, earlier. But even those of us who make it through childhood unscathed are going to come up against the harsher sides to life at some point, and ages 12-15 seems like a pretty common such milestone. I say that partly as a kid who was badly hazed by his cross country teammates during his freshman year of high school—but also partly the one who read John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (1959) and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) and Beyond the Chocolate War (1985) in 8th grade.
I’d be lying if I said I remember much at all of the three books—that’s about 30 years, and a whole lot of books, under the bridge. But what I do remember are a couple of specific and very dark moments, of literal and symbolic falls: the seemingly accidental fall that Knowles’ protagonist Gene purposefully causes his friend Finny to take, a fall that eventually leads to Finny’s death (among other destructive effects); and a profoundly disturbing suicide scene in Cormier’s sequel, one that locates readers in the perspective of a young student leaping to his death after being ostracized and abused for his homosexuality by his peers and even a teacher. Obviously those weren’t the first literary deaths I had encountered—in 6th grade English I read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None (1939), for crying out loud!—but they might have been the first in which kids my own age were killed, at least in such purposeful and brutal ways (ie, not the accidental drowning in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia [1977], traumatic as that was for this young reader).
Perhaps it was that sense of proximity and (in a way) threat to myself that led these particular moments, and the novels in which they occur, to hit me as hard as they did. Perhaps it was that all three books are deeply concerned with what it means to be a teenage boy, in some of the better but (I would argue) mostly some of the worst senses. And perhaps it’s a tribute to their interesting and almost entirely implicit engagement with the wars during which they’re set—Knowles does have his characters engage with World War II toward the end of his novel; I don’t believe Cormier mentions Vietnam at all, certainly not at length, but his titular war certainly gestures in that direction. War, after all, has long been one of the most overt and catastrophic ways in which young men—and their societies—lose their innocence; in my reading of these young adult novels and their effects on me, I was led to feel such effects far more intimately than might otherwise have been the case.
Next fall tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Saturday, September 16, 2017

September 16-17, 2017: The Worst and Best of Allegiance



[September 8th marked the 125th anniversary of the first publication of the Pledge of Allegiance, in the popular magazine The Youth’s Companion. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied this complex shared text, starting with a repeat of one of my oldest posts and then moving into four new ones. Leading up to this weekend post on the very salient question of the worst and best versions of allegiance!]
On what allegiance too often means, and what it might instead.
As I write this post in early September, a Cleveland police officers union has announced that its members will not hold a flag during the festivities before the first Cleveland Browns regular reason football game of the season. The union is angry that a number of Browns players have been kneeling during the national anthem before the team’s preseason games, and has pledged not to participate in the pregame ceremony as long as the players continue their silent protests. (It might be relevant to know that this is the same union that since May of this year has fought for the continued, consequence-free employment of the two police officers who shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice in November 2014.) While this action is more specifically linked to the argument that the kneeling players are “disrespecting” or even “attacking” law enforcement, is certainly also echoes other statements (many made in recent weeks by former NFL players and commentators, and of course many more made over the last year since Colin Kaepernick began his protests) that the protests are also “disrespectful” or even “unpatriotic” toward the flag or the United States.
That’s what “allegiance” is often taken to mean, of course. A kind of loyalty that is dutiful and obedient, that follows the rules of what to do during an anthem, that indeed treats those social mores as nearly as sacrosanct as the rules about proper handling of the flag itself. Such obedient allegiance to a nation not only doesn’t require independent thinking or action from its citizens, it actively discourages them, at least when it comes to the shared spaces and occasions in which we demonstrate our allegiance. The Kaepernick situation has laid bare the truths at the heart of such narratives of allegiance as plainly as could be: this is a young man who has exercised his rights of free speech, peaceable assembly, and protest as calmly and respectfully as I can imagine, and yet he has been treated and responded to by a significant portion of his fellow Americans (and apparently the entirety of his league’s powers-that-be) as if he is some sort of domestic terrorist or the like. When it comes to obedient allegiance, to paraphrase Anakin Skywalker as he becomes Darth Vader, if you’re not with us, then you’re our enemy.
Yet as I’ve tried to argue throughout this week’s posts, that’s not the only way to think about allegiance, nor the Pledge to it. My most recent book made the case for the concept of critical patriotism, and I would say that if we are to take such a concept seriously, it would have to entail spaces and ways in which we could exercise that form of patriotism communally. What precisely would that more critical form of allegiance entail? Perhaps something as simple as a moment of silence at the end of the Pledge or anthem, in which we’re asked to think about something we would like to improve or strengthen in our national society or community, and then to share our answer with a neighbor. That’s simply a symbolic gesture, of course, but that’s all that these pledges and anthems are, symbolic representations of the national community and identity to which we are dedicated. Isn’t it time we strove together to embody a more thoughtful and engaged version of both allegiance and America?
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other takes on these questions or the Pledge you’d share?