Thursday, June 18, 2015
June 18, 2015: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Big Man
[Each of the last few years, I’ve helped kick off summer with a series on AmericanStudies Beach Reads. If it ain’t broke and all, so here’s this year’s edition! Please share your responses and beach read nominees for a weekend post that’ll put its toes in the sand!]
On the autobiography as big and messy and entertaining and pitch-perfect as its author.
Almost exactly four years ago, Clarence Clemons passed away. Among a few different posts in which I wrote about Clarence, I featured Bruce Springsteen’s amazing eulogy for his lifelong friend and colleague and partner in musical perfection. There’s a lot to love about that eulogy, but I think what it does best is highlight three seemingly distinct but ultimately inseparable qualities of Clarence’s: his larger-than-life, mythologized identity; his undeniable flaws and mistakes (ones felt with particular potency, Bruce notes, by family members such as Clarence’s sons); and his inspiring greatness, not only as a musician and performer but as a man. Taken together, that trio of elements doesn’t quite sum up Clarence—what details can sum up a life?—but it does, perhaps, capture his essence.
Fortunately for Clarence fans and the reading public, not long before his death Clarence published an autobiographical book that likewise captured that unique and vital essence: Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales (2009), co-written with longtime writer and TV producer Don Reo. As its subtitle suggests, Big Man is as messy with the facts as was Clarence’s mythology (such as the many different stories about their first meeting that Bruce told in concerts over the years): featured throughout the book are stories that may or may not be true, legends that can’t help but call into question the more ostensibly factual stories from Clarence’s life with which they’re interspersed. All autobiographical writing should be approached more as narrative and story than as history, of course—but by foregrounding its playfulness with the facts, Clarence’s autobiography begs the question of what we can expect to learn or find about the man and his life even with such reasonable doubt in mind.
I don’t have any answers to that question, and can’t say that I finished the book knowing any more, definitively, about Clarence than I did when I began. But at the same time, I felt that I knew Clarence himself, his voice and perspective, his jokes and his passions, his relationships and his world, who the Big Man was, much better. If that seems like a contradiction, well, all I can say is this: like Clarence, and like that other great American artist Walt Whitman, Big Man is large and it contains multitudes. Am I arguing that Big Man is a work of American art on par with Whitman’s “Song of Myself”? C’mon, that’d be crazy—a final act of Big Man mythologizing that goes way too far, that can’t possibly stand up to the facts. Which is to say, hell yeah I’m arguing that—now get yourself a beach read copy and, as my boy Walt put it, filter it from your self.
Last Beach Read tomorrow,
PS. Other Beach Reads you’d share?