On the once-popular author it’d be okay not to read, and why maybe we still should.
As is no doubt obvious to any reader of this blog, and as I’ve even overtly written in this space, I think there’s no reason, in our 21st century digital moment, why we shouldn’t try to read and remember as much as possible in our collective American consciousness. I know from personal experience that discussions of the canon still matter when it comes to choosing what we teach and what we leave out of our unfortunately time-limited syllabi—but I’m talking here about what we try to get into our public conversations, what we all read and engage with as a national community. Seen in that light, and again in an era where so much of our literature and culture is available in part or even in full digitally, I’d say almost without exception the more we include, the better.
Having said all that, you’ll understand that it’s not easy for me to say that it might not be necessary or even a good thing for us to read and remember Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922). Page was very popular in his late 19th and early 20th century moment as one of the chief proponents of the plantation tradition, the nostalgic embrace of the slave south (and accompanying rejection of the Civil War and everything that had followed it) that became a dominant national perspective by the turn of the century. In fact, Page created the single story, “Marse Chan” from his first collection In Ole Virginia (1887), that sums up that perspective better than any other, in the moment when the ex-slave Sam says, speaking of his life as a slave to the story’s Northern narrator, “Dem wuz good ole times, marster—de bes’ Sam ever see! Dey wuz, in fac’!” It was bad (and damaging) enough that such a-historical, propagandistic tripe was hugely popular in its own moment—why on earth should we continue to read it in ours?
Again, I don’t know that we should—it might well be sufficient to read descriptions of Page’s work like this one, and spend our time and energy on less objectionable texts. But on the other hand, if I were to make the case for reading Page I would do it in two distinct but equally valid ways. For one thing, the only way to truly understand why and how such works became popular (and even dominant) in our culture is to read them; since every moment certainly has its troubling or objectionable popular works, that’s a particularly important thing to investigate. And for another thing, I can’t be a hypocrite—I’ve long advocated in this space for Walt Whitman’s idea of “filtering things from yourself,” engaging with texts and facts, stories and histories, as fully as possible so you can figure out your own take on them. Clearly I have a strong take of my own on Page, and I would argue for it in any conversation about him and his works—but I don’t know that anybody should get to decide who we do and don’t read in any absolute sense, and I know for sure that I don’t want to play that role. So read this Virginia voice—but prepare to hold your nose as you do.
Next voice tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Voices from your home you’d highlight?
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