MAIN STREET

Sinclair Lewis

This worthwhile book has some flaws but many remembrances of times when human beings relied on one another. Trustworthiness, honesty and reliability had different meanings and importance in society. When human beings were apart, there was no communication. Telephone and telegraph lines could send messages but most news was one, two or three days late. Gossip slanted the news in town.

The novels establishes this complete setting in spades for a town, Gopher Prairie (3500 population). Town folk have nothing but one another to pick on and gossip about. The heroine, Carol, tries to remain apart from the settlement and its people, airing attitudes which town people attribute to her being city born and bred. Carol is married to home town boy who is the best doctor around.

Almost every limitation and opinion Carol has about the town is substantiated and correct. Her reactions to simplicities, ignorance and misguided loyalties are mostly justified. She is not always courteous, and not political. The Doctor’s position and stature protects his wife from her complete vilification. She wants the town and its people to improve – beautify the place, toss around a little architecture, and the citizens to uplift themselves with social and intellectual activities and conversation. She expresses much enthusiasm for her outside thinking.

There is a cheat in the story. Carol is not the woman she believes herself to be; she has enthusiasm but no skill, no talent and no education. She puts together a group for a play, but she has never directed; she’s never acted. She complains about hard-nosed church goers (as though going to church is the sin itself), yet she doesn’t go to church much herself. Her education is in librarianship but her efforts are a void there. Carol is not unlike any woman who complains about a new environment but lacks training and experience in psychology, sociology, history, politics rudimentary business, or any other practical discipline to do anything about the new place.

Carol wants people to be receptive to words, visions, poetry and music – anything to shift people from their stupor. What Carol faces is expressed well by Miles Franklin in My Brilliant Career: Sybil is confronted by her mother and the daughter responds (paraphrased), I wish I were born low with common desires. That I never learned. I never asked why. If I were born and lived like an idiot, I would never fear for lack of company. I would be among my people. Sybil’s mother believes her daughter is going to hell.

That attitude and adjusting to it is what Main Street is about. And Sinclair Lewis has Carol get through various scenarios: Attractive, artistic young man arrives in town; Carol befriends him. Town folk believe their love is hot and heavy. Nope, but after 150-200 pages, young man leaves. Carol later learns he is in New York City not Minneapolis; he’s changed his name and is acting in movies. An enlightened school teacher, fresh from the city, goes to a dance with a town ne’er do well, the son of a hard-nosed church goer. The son buys liquor and tries to assault the teacher repeatedly; she beats him off, repeatedly. The mother accuses teacher of corrupting her son. Everyone in town knows it’s a lie, but the teacher resigns rather than being fired. Carol loses a friend. She loses another friend when death takes his family.

Carol leaves Gopher Prairie and ends up during World War One working in Washington D.C. The War ends; she works for Women’s Suffrage. She has her son with her. Her husband at home remains steadfast and loyal to the marriage. Carol likes the work and independence, but there is a true grind: True work and effort result in uncertain accomplishments and outcomes. Life and work in Gopher Prairie and Washington D.C. are not that much different.

An older woman in the leadership of the Suffrage Movement befriends Carol, after meeting the husband. She gives the best advice about work in the public sector that I remember reading. The older woman believed Carol, a fine advocate and valued worker, does not have the correct mindset to ultimately succeed: Carol is sensitive and worried about criticism or strong feelings directed toward her. The woman says (paraphrased) You cannot be sensitive. Most people don’t know about the work I’m doing and whether it truly affects them at all, if they know about my efforts. When they hear of successful outcomes, they grumble. The older woman makes Gopher Prairie palpable. Indeed, when Carol returns home a few changes have been made and more are planned.

The power and force of the writing of conclusionary confrontations between characters (young man – Carol:Doctor) (school teacher: Carol:Prominent town’s people) (Suffrage: Carol:Older woman) surpass the issues of 1916-1920. Some of those events and words happen and are uttered today. Sinclair Lewis earned his money when he wrote and published Main Street.

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FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE

In literature this voice is not used often; there are good reasons why. Having “I” tell the story greatly limits the options a writer has available in any writing. The reader and world already know whose point of view is being presented: I, and to be consistent I must fill in all the action and description. A derivation into description present in a third party tale is noticeable and a flaw.

It may seem that dialogue can be accurately reported by using I. Indeed, some of the sentences may have been previously uttered, but there is not enough paper in the world to record every conversation completely. In all literature conversations reported in dialogue are edited and representative. That selection process picks the jewels coming from the human brain through the mouth rather than a jumbo mix of participles, prepositional phrases and adverbs. Someone writing dialogue I, the first person narration needs to tone down and eliminate as many words as possible: First, the words come from I, a person the reader is familiar with. Second, unless the dialogue drives the story forward, it should be dropped. In a first person narration I is the primary mover of the story. If points in dialogue have not been made, they may have already been implied, or they are not important and possibly conflicting. An author cutting his dialogue – this is my styleHORRORS! It is an impossible task.
Writing a novel is the first person narrative and having flashbacks seems an impossibility. I have tried reading such a novel. The author tried to clarify by dating each chapter of the multi-decade story: Chapter 1, Winter 2008; Chapter 2, Autumn, 1982, etc. Embracing I along with keeping track of incidences in I’s life over the decades is more than a reader should endure: Chapter 3, Winter, 1983; Chapter 4, Spring 1984; Chapter 5, Summer 2008.

The author jumped relying on dates and seasons and dialogue from those times, but I wondered, why bother. The author supposedly wanted to tell a first person narrative about a police investigation of a local heroin distribution ring. It seems a timely subject beset by the awkward telling.

So I put the book down. There are others to read, one by Joseph Conrad.

NO NOVELIST HERE

I bought 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley, and wondered if it was also overblown and overwritten. Yes, it is. The laudatory sentence on the back cover underneath the author’s photograph has errors in it. It states that Smiley possesses a mastery of craft. Mastery is difficult to justify and not complimentary. Stating there is a facility of craft suggests an acuity and uniqueness unmatched in others; they are essential traits in all literature: Every story has its own style and its own way of telling – the characters, the setting and the events are different. Having a facility means the author tells one story from another without effort. If mastery is the standard, there is trouble e.g. A Thousand Acres, derived from King Lear by William Shakespeare. Did old Bill got a lot of stuff wrong or loose in the original?

Next buyers of the book learn Smiley has “an uncompromising vision.” Is this the same uncompromising vision held by that politician, aka the orange turd? The word vision needs no adjective, no adverb, no particle modifying it. Visions are brain images which the brain uses to compile and put together persons, settings and events, essentials to a story. Saying that a story is uncompromising, or a vision is so wrong. The effort is not in its adamancy. Work accomplished by visions are sustained. Visions become continuous, prompting the imagination to prolong them.

When critics like authors use adjectives to puff a piece, inflate a book or aggrandize a writing, the language should be exacting and specific. Otherwise, persons reading the outside of the book [like in the movie Tropical Thunder] may infer an improperly put comment may reflect the author’s abilities, masteries and visions.

HOCHSCHILD’S MISREADING

On March 18, 2016, Second D, page 5, Adam Hochschild ventured into an area where he lacks expertise, knowledge and imagination. He described why Mark Twain’s Life On the Mississippi need not be read in its entirety. Being familiar with Twain’s work, I am surprised. I’ve read works from historians competing with Hochschild for readers, and I now wonder if I ought to read his books. The world is more multilayered than Mr. Hochschild appreciates. Regarding Life On the Mississippi he has two grand oversights.

Hochschild stumbled upon the fact that Life On is a companion book to Huckleberry Finn. That novel is firmly set in the 1830s. Life On presents contemporary observations which were added to Twain’s previous publication of Old Times on the Mississippi (@1875).

In 1882 books and basic knowledge of the Mississippi River Valley were scare. Twain had written about 25 chapters of the novel but needed a refresher course about locations and the sense and feel of the South, and the river. In 1882 he traveled up the river, noting events and occurrences, present time to 45 years before. Not much had changed.

Life On came from Clemen’s notebooks and scrapbooks. Prior to William Faulkner’s observation about the past in the South, Clemens realized in the South that nothing was ever the past. In 1884 he told the world that in Life On.

The second point is what the South did with its history, this time and subject is described by a prominent American historian who quotes Life On the Mississippi from a late passage. SPOILER ALERT! Hochschild’s fans should stop reading NOW!

…Colonel Marshall graphically described the scene demonstrating Lee’s
posture and his forward wave of the hand as Jackson rode away.The
movement became the subject of a painting completed in 1869…Mark
Twain studied the original in New Orleans and reflected on the importance
of explicitly telling people the retrospectively defined meaning of what they
they see when one offers them a historical representation…Unless the
painting were properly labeled Twain said, it might readily be taken to
portray “Last Interview between Lee and Jackson” or “First Interview
between Lee and Jackson” or “Jackson Reporting a Great Victory” or
“Jackson Apologizing for a Heavy Defeat” or “Jackson Asking Lee for a
Match.” “It tells one story and a sufficient one; for it says quite plainly and
satisfactorily, ‘Here are Lee and Jackson together.’ The artist would have
made it tell that this is Lee and Jackson’s last interview if he could have
done it. But he couldn’t, for there wasn’t any way to do it. A good legible
label is usually worth, for information, a ton of significant attitude and
expression in a historical picture.”
Royster, Charles, The Destructive War, Knopf, NY, 1991, p. 203-204.

 

HISTORY AND FICTION

bitch. cover

When I went to write Bitch. (iBookstore, michael ulin edwards), I was determined to make it autobiographical. I learned after three major drafts and a long process of 20 years, that autobiography was impossible. It would make a bad book. Some of the reasons can be found in Twentieth Century Journey, William L Shirer, vol. i, Preface; Autobiography of Mark Twain, U.C. Press, Berkeley, 2011, vol. 1, on writing memoirs/autobiography.

I was motivated to write the life and times of Berkeley, 1968-1973. While there I had forces coming at me. I determined they would best be represented by FIVE major characters, plus subsidiary characters folded into the stories of the FIVE. At that point the book could not be autobiographical; it could not be biographical. It could be history. Recount events as truthfully and accurately as I could, but the characters had to be representations. [Readers have commented that they know these characters.]

As much as I ran from place to place in Berkeley, observing and stuffing everything into my memory (which is not entirely why I almost flunked out my first year – I was also taking the wrong classes and my perspective on learning was horribly distorted), I could not tell the story of Berkeley with one character being everywhere at once: Peoples Park Riot Day, May 15, 1969 – in class on the north side of campus; in the riot itself; at the swimming pools in Strawberry Canyon; wandering around Dwinelle Hall. The FIVE characters and others were useful to convey what had to be said.

It is also impossible for a individual to tell his story when hormones, urges, the environment, economics are exerting influences affecting the person. What is the order? What is the priority? What is important? Those day to day, sometimes hour to hour or minute to minute considerations which may or do change affected human being senses – hear, see, smell, feel, taste – will shift the ground and upend any story.

If the reaction to life under those circumstances is the same, that makes for a dull human being. If the reaction to life under those circumstances whipsaws the human being into incapacity, he becomes confused and worthless. If the reaction causes the human being to take the brunt of it and react intelligently, predictably or making-do, that is the easier story to tell.

IMG

In 200,000 words I came up with the FIVE characters, two guys and three women, living and telling their lives (some aspects of my life) in Berkeley from September 1968 through the summer of 1973. They lived through riots, demonstrations, classes, drugs, life, city and academic events and state and national actions, all told within this novel. [There are 450 notes and a bibliography.]

Also, I could not tell my own story for a personal reason. Who could be truthful about being psychological creepy and sociology awkward then, (probably eccentric today) in a terrifying place. That doesn’t describe the discomfort, the violence and the shock of watching crap on the streets being played out and the acceptance of it by everyone in Berkeley. About 20 years ago I talked to someone I knew as a student. He tried to fit in and spoke the language as a student. His evaluation of those times upon meeting him again was reduced to one word: “Strange.” He didn’t want to talk about what he thought or was doing as a student, which was likely “creepy” and “weird.”

It seemed I was the only person who considered everything going on was strange, weird and ill for society. I may have been suited for a college campus in the 1920s, but I was stuck at Berkeley. I did not want to be a statistic and a loser: Someone told me when I entered that the average stay of a student at Berkeley was four quarters. (The University is much more mellow today which is why it is not a place of excellence.)

While a student at Berkeley, I didn’t like and actually detested loud music, drugs, and the recklessness of students, their lives a step from the street. Everything seemed reenforced by the citizens of Berkeley. Condemning this gross, communal lifestyle is a theme of Bitch.. Indeed, I dislike any communal styles, community standards, something my generation embraced and never let go of, and something which has been passed onto to their children and grandchildren: The collective.

We are not raising children today to be individuals, to think on their own. They are accepting, too much of collective action, group-think, the so-called common good. They have been taught, It Takes a Village – Collective actions are the bases of all advancement. Those are  wet dreams rolling from the Left of the Sixties and from Radical Feminism. (See Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex.)

Finally, I did not want to be like any of the FIVE. I put a lot of distance between myself and Berkeley. Not in the novel is: at the end of my Berkeley studies, I wanted to be a composer, but I had injured my left hand and couldn’t play the piano. I was lost to the activities I was prepared for. Law school intervened, but within ten years I had turned to writing.

This post is the second using the cover and the diagram (outline) that I have made. The subject is different because the text differs.

STUPID: Novel Writing

I am not unhappy. I’m complacent. 

Under the mistaken impression that everyone was writing a novel in November, NANOWRIMO, I said, “I’ll try.” I’ve already written a novel this year: JUNKETS, iBookstore, michaelulinedwards, 99 cents, an espionage story without the flair of Ian Fleming or James Bond but funny and humorous.

Having advanced notice, I began novel writing in October with no theme and no concept, just write and continue writing. The protagonist ran through Chapters One and Two.

I can correct this in rewriting and revisions, but with the next text I began writing my thoughts about writing. Writing is what I believed my protagonist was doing. I stayed with the third person using my character’s name, rather than personalize the story to “I.”

I have 40,000 words with no iota of an idea, a particle of a plot, a fragment of fancy left in me.It’s not too bad considering I gave up on character development 30,000 words ago.

While writing it took a while to realize this is no novel [last weekend]. It’s an essay or worse. Reminiscences, a memoir or autobiography. I wrote a long book about university days [Bitch., a verb not a noun, a period not a dot, iBookstore, michaelulinedwards, Berkeley 1968-1973]. Afterward I vowed never again to write anything in that genre – autobiography, memoirs or reminiscences – true life or fibs.

Yet that is what I have in the 40,000 words, draft one. Thoughts and impressions of writing and my writing career. There’s no organization to it at all. I tossed in everything. I’ll learn whether there is an unconscious organization in my brain. A week ago upon finishing a topic, I believe I had a theme in it. Don’t ask which one or what it is about.

This week I asked myself, what to write next. I had a bunch of unrelated subjects – writing in coffee shops, intellectualism in the creative process, bookstores, and this morning, copyediting. I wrote sentences, one paragraph or multiple paragraphs, and I dumped all those unrelated subjects at the end.

Before Thanksgiving I thought, time to research. Learn what other writers have published: Library time. Books are essay-like with autobiographical overtones. Likely I’m stuck in this genre. Upon rereading something will likely make sense, and I can put all the pieces together in a massive cut and paste. It will be a masterpiece to add to two novels, already written about writing but not edited. 

That all may be a madness. I’ve gotten a lot of errant thoughts out of my brain and away from my being. That is helpful. I know, however, I won’t rewrite right away.

THE WRATHFUL GRAPE – John Steinbeck

THE WRATHFUL GRAPES

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.

The first chapter of this novel was excellent. It is three pages long.

Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 – at the end of that reading I had a hint, becoming suspicions, impressions and conclusions that if an editor did a hard read of this novel, they would shake 50,000 words from it, lose no content and make it more intelligible and comprehensible.

I had a sharper reaction. It seemed written by a government employee or someone working on a government program. So I checked, and I was correct. John Steinbeck spent time during the 1930s on the Federal Writers Project. No telling what he did, but government writing did do very little for him. It left Steinbeck very undisciplined. The only discipline he had was writing an outline which he followed but didn’t know how to use. This novel is the result of any government activism in the arts – poor works of literature, badly composed music, ill-conceived sculptures and paintings by applying colors identified by numbers.

Should anyone write a novel like The Grapes following an outline? It is impossible to figure out at the beginning. The length of this novel is about 200,000 words. Notating this point, explicating that point and figuring out the relationship between them is important, and how to express each, but a detailed outline [I. A. B. 1. 2. a. b.]? Idiots believe they can use microscopic analysis to make every point, identify every adverb and specify every comma and period for 200,000 words.

Indeed, reading WordPress blogs for two months, I’ve come across posts acclaiming the benefits of outlining without the writers telling what their outlines consist of, or how they are used or how the outline prompts their imaginations to produce any passage, chapter or book making the novel, story or writing memorable and excellent. Moreover, I’ve seen a blog advertise a “Storyboard” for novelists, like film writers do so they have illustrations they can show actors, art directors, directors and producers [people who do not read]. This is outlining at its worst, and removes the imagination of any writer from the process. These Storyboards reveal the accuracy and truth of George Owell’s analysis (my previous blog READ ORWELL):

“It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery…Even more machine-like is the production of short stories, serials and poems for the very cheap magazines. Papers such as the Writer abound with advertisements of Literary Schools, all of them offering you ready-made plots at a few shillings a time. Some, together with the plot, supply the opening and closing sentences of each chapter. Others furnish you with a sort of algebraical formula…” (Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature,” January 2, 1946.)

Chapter 5 of The Grapes starts with 2,000 words of presentation. [Chapter 5 itself starts 10,000 words into the novel]. I suppose readers are to pay attention to identified parties – landowners, tenants, spokesmen for landowners, the Company, the banks. Steinbeck attempts to set up the relationships of all the people, and their visceral reactions to one another. In all those 2,000 words is not one character, no one to sympathize with, no one to hate, just Steinbeck’s raw, clunky social propaganda. The outcome to this outlined argument might be, tenants should remain on the land for free, although neither they nor anyone else can farm the land or otherwise live there without public assistance.

The beginning of Chapter 5 begins raw, didactic, cold and unfeeling:

“The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust.

“In the open doors the women stood looking out, and behind them the children – corn-headed children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare feet, and the toes working. The women and the children watched their men talking to the owner men. They were silent.”

Let’s help Steinbeck out of this passage:

Tuffs of dust blew across the farms like last year, the dry earth yielding nothing to the red-brown sun. Closed cars motored among the farmhouses sited in the wide fields. Everyone knew these men, met by tenants in their yards while their women and children watched from the doorways of the houses. Men rolled down the windows and looked: the hard life in the faces of the woman and children, wide, blank eyes, some barefooted, always thinking before moving.

These seven lines pick up the substance of the dozen lines of Steinbeck and provide the same impact. If readers need the children’s “toes working,” [I don’t know why that is important other than to show the kids were minutely active], it can be dropped in later. How about “the tenant men” squatting “on their hams and found sticks to mark the dust.” Other than being unclear, it is out of place where it is in Steinbeck’s paragraphs. It should happen after the conversation has gone on a while.

But as it is written, Steinbeck has no movement by any human being, no one is uncomfortable, no one reacts to anyone else. Steinbeck paints a poor still-life. Everyone is robotic, which makes his passage and the 1500 following words inhuman. There is point after point, point-of-view after point-of-view. Purportedly, humans adhere to some of them, but how many? How are they said to other human beings in that setting? Which points-of-view bring sadness or laughter? [For readers who say none of this is important, you are not fiction writers and likely you are poor non-fiction writers. Your strengths are in law, advertising and other PR pursuits.]

In reality ending tenant relationships and foreclosing on land produced very human situations during the 1930s. No one made money with the dust, drought and kicking tenants and other farmers of the land. In the 1930s America, there were thousands of local banks, and many representatives of landowners as well as landowners themselves. Most tenant farmers and farmers were part of the small community. Tenants knew the bankers, owners and representatives. They and indebted owners knew why they were in debt and that they would have to leave. They knew they could not make the land productive. It is also true that the tenants and land owners lived in communities for years or decades, knowing one another, socializing and sharing community responsibilities: Church, government, schools, community events.

These is no indication in The Grapes that the landowners “in closed cars” knew anyone they were driving out to see. Likewise, did the tenants or debt-ridden landowners know anyone who was arriving “in closed cars.” Steinbeck conveys no community – a banker or owner having extended credit or forgiven a loan, or knowing something about the tenants, gone to school together, to church together, played sports together, knew about health problems in the family and knew about marriages and events affecting that family from the outside. The 1930s American midwest presented a cruel environment, once kind for so long and then taking away lives and livelihoods. And the bankers and owners were not detached; they were unhappy about the destruction of their local communities.

However, The Grapes fails to respond to these circumstances. The next writing from Chapter 5:

“Some of the men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated mathematics that drove them, some of them were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from through and from feeling.”

I wouldn’t blame mathematics for a novelist’s inability to explain human circumstances within his medium. Nor would I give mathematics the burden of motivating owners, banks and companies. Mathematics are convenient to Steinbeck because they were abstract and let Steinbeck inaccurately describe the whole situation in a non-human way. Steinbeck is not a novelist. Novelists have told about much more complex situations: Riots, wars and meetings, and successful novelists relay thoughts and feelings. Steinbeck is guilty of the exact faults he attributes to the Banks and the Companies: There are no “thoughts” and no “feelings” in this passage. Perhaps Steinbeck gives those thoughts and feelings attached to characters later, but why is he repeating this passage later by adding human beings? He has to delete this passage or be consistent and delete the next.

There is a reason why Chapter 5 begins without an identifiable human being, 12,000 words into the novel. and goes on without any sense of story telling. Steinbeck merely goes from point to point. This is obviously someone used to writing for the government entities, stating out-of-date motives, craving money for sloppy work, but unconcerned about human beings.This passage displays no traits of a novel, but it characteristics are more like a government story or a textbook.

The film with Henry Fonda is far superior to this novel. Screenwriters have never had to luxury of writing distractions, big generalizations, insignificant minutae and off-point scenes. Henry Fonda was the ideal actor – bitter on demand and an instant sulk as he lived and griped his way on the road from Oklahoma to California. In some ways Henry got typecast to these roles. [I prefer Henry Fonda in “Once Upon A Time in the West.”]

For Schools, it is not acceptable to assign a fat book for students to read for any class, especially English. It the writing – use of language, characters, story, vocabulary – that should recommend a book to students. However, The Grapes is poor; students have nothing to learn from it. It should be marginalized, although it was once considered socially significant.

Today, the grapes are sour and outdated. Knowledge about debt and losing property is much better understood. Millions of people lost their houses or are now underwater. The shenanigans by buyers and sellers abused the whole system that will not be cleaned up. No one is innocent and many are completely guilty of raping a corruptible system. My favorite passing-the- buck-story was about loan forms signed by a woman in Florida through 2006, I believe. She signed thousands of loan forms, the basis for the debt instruments providing security [collateral] to the lenders. I can’t remember which bank or loaning company she worked for, but she didn’t get paid for her years of service because in 1995, she died.

Today, Steinbeck would call the banks, money givers, loan owners: MEANIES. Poor old so-and-so lost her husband just before losing her house (she’s been married six times, is eyeing number 7). She now has to work at a convenience store. Job training has taught her to smile during hold-ups. Security tapes reveal she has lost her front teeth. [Dental Care is not covered by Obamacare – screw everyone with bad teeth like Harry Reid and Ted Cruz.] The widow-lady can no longer pronounce fricatives; she walks around all day saying “uck,” “uck,” “uck.” She’s fired for swearing uncontrollably but brings a disability lawsuit for unjust unemployment. That’s the problem because Obamacare cannot fix the housing market.

MORAL to this story: It is easy to write a character even if the writing is nonsense. 

READ IT AGAIN, AMERICA

TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD – Harper Lee

 

I was young when this book came out, and was older when the movie was released. That’s how I saw and remembered the book – Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a drama about law.

I’ve now read this book. Two passages are memorable and bear reproducing. The first is about the use of terms to denigrate a class or group of people. Atticus explains to Scout,

“…it’s just one of those terms that doesn’t mean anything …It’s hard to explain –

ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes 

over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like 

ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label someone…

“…it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just

shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you. (Lippincott, 1960, p. 117-118, Chapter 11)

The person who has been using the bad terms has troubles of her own. She is addicted to morphine and before she dies, she wants to end the craving – meet her maker straight. Atticus explains to Jem why he’s required to read to Mrs. Dubose. The old woman, 

“was going to leave beholden to nothing and nobody…”

“She had her own views, about things, a lot different from mine, maybe…I wanted

you to see something about her – I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead

of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you 

know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it 

through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do…(page 120, 121

Chapter 11)

Of course, it is also an explanation why Atticus has taken on a very disagreeable, unpopular case he cannot win and which will only damage his career and standing in the community. He knows all that going in. It is not a matter of money. It is not a matter of a man making a reputation. It is simply doing the right thing at the time no matter the consequences. 

[Coming upon the trial I was reminded of John Adams who was defense attorney in the 1770 trial for the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770). That representation was very unpopular, and I imagine Adams took a lot of grief especially because the defendants were acquitted.]

If that is all To Kill A Mockingbird was about (courage and using language), the author would have made her money in good conscious. But the author made the book thorough. Throughout are details of Southern society. Authors have done it before,  Mark Twain and William Faulkner: Trial and reaction of the town’s people, negro church society; standing and reputation within the town; family relations and ties to the past; ties of the family’s past to the town; a widower raising two children on his own; the sister (aunt) coming to live with them. The aunt adds stability as well as protection as the son enters puberty and sometimes the girl should not wear overalls. When the aunt has an afternoon social and Scout attends, the reader can fear that Scout will forever be contaminated. Finally, the people most feared, denigrated and hated by the society, Negroes, are not dangerous. Whites themselves are the most dangerous to one another and to other people.

None of the sociology is separated in chunks, where the reader has a dose of history, family ties or social standing. Indeed, very effectively some social standing is told in a classroom setting. The students know and watch the teacher make mistakes as she is introduced to pupils, the range of society. This feat of narration keeps the book in a child’s voice, without the child running here and there, or hearing this or that, or repeating gossip contrived for the novel. Maintaining the child’s voice (certainly an intelligent child) is very hard for any novelist to do with steady consistency and true telling. [Twain in Huckleberry Finn lets Huck be young, 8-9 years, but frequently older.] Harper Lee is very careful. To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of how to write a novel – a controlled voice telling a simple story and telling of actions and interactions all centered in a small setting. There is great movement by the growing awareness of the children in their world coupled with mischievous curiosity, seeing the world of grown-ups and blundering into disturbing adult situations.

To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the South, is about those people. They and their situation – ruled by bias, distrustful of the grand outside world, limited by ignorance, misperceptions and incomprehensible reason, using logic confounded by prejudice, harboring hates and suspicions and always controlled by conventional wisdoms – go beyond that little town. They are circumstances and characteristics shared by many Southerners. They are also traits and faults confronting all Americans. In this country are settlements, neighborhoods and communities that are prone to the same debilities as this novel describes for its town. It may not be race, but religion, economics, culture or any other force that becomes embedded into minds of human beings supported by obstinate certainty. Americans like to believe, but have not always demonstrated enlightenment or reasonableness. The South provides the setting for this story, but America is the canvass that has been painted.

There is a observation about the book, personal to the author: How much of Scout came from Harper Lee, a girl growing up in a small town in the South? And how much of Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s neighbor when growing up, is reflected in the character of Dill?

 

BAD TV: Lord of the Flies

I got to the end of Lord of the Flies by William Golding and found the whole problem with the book in a few lines:

“We saw your smoke. And you don’t know how many of you there are?”

“No sir.”

“‘I should have thought,’” said the officer as he visualized the search before him, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys – you’re all British, aren’t you – would have been able to put up a better show than that…”

In the last analysis it is not the fault of Britain or the British boys on the island. It is the fault of William Golding who did not write a novel, but structured this book to support this phony conclusion, a condemnation of Britain or of something equally nonsensical.

Lord of the Flies is not a novel. It is a fable advanced as reflecting reality which is only possible on paper. How does a novel differ? There is setting, characters and what happens (story). There is an element of time – something happens before something else, and the reader understands that or the reader appreciates some order of events.

Lord of the Flies differs. The setting is a tropical island, I assume in the Pacific. The identified characters are primarily older boys, biguns Golding calls them. What happens on the island without adult input or supervision is questionable, inconsistent and in the end unreal. Time, the relations of events to one another, is scattered to the winds – the only means the reader can tell that something happens later than an earlier event is become it comes later in the text. It should be noted some events can be read before others, and it makes no difference to the reader’s comprehension or understanding.

The book begins with Ralph and Piggy, pampered fat boy with asthma, arriving on the island. They wonder how many boys survived the plane crash into the sea. As the reader learns at the end, no boy on the island has ever counted. Thinking back to my childhood, counting would be the first thing boys would do to know whether everyone survived each day. But Golding neglects this boyish whim; he wants no count. Indeed, he calls the young boys, littlums, and bigger boys, biguns. As events happen littlums and biguns are here and there when Golding needs them in increasing or decreasing numbers.

The island is explored, and the kids seem to know where they are going when they walk around, but no one knows how large the island is: Two miles, four miles, six miles long. The island is large enough to have remote areas and to support feral pigs which have not devastated all the plants. But it can only be inferred that it is small – there is one pit with a fire to cook hunted pigs [dead pigs are difficult for boys to move a great distance], and a signal fire. When Ralph is running for his life at the end, he thinks and acts like there is no place to hide (although the pigs hide pretty well) so the island is small. However, another boy Jack, breaks away from Ralph and Piggy and takes his “tribe” to another settlement on the island, so the island is larger. At best there are mixed signals about the size of the island.

Fat boy, Piggy, is on many pages but remains a mystery. Golding reports he has “brains,” but there’s little indication of them. It is suggested he is a bigun who likes to hang around with the littums, but I’m not sure how long that lasted. Piggy is fat because he is an orphan raised by Auntie who allows him to eat “sweets” and bon-bons all day from her candy shop. He also has asthma which limits his activities. Piggy remains fat throughout the pages, I suppose. His behavior doesn’t change. He is obstinate and obnoxious especially when his glasses are used to start fires [magnifying sun to get leaves and wood to burn].

It remains a question, how long are the kids on the island. Long enough to know hunting pig is real work; building huts is real work; maintaining a signal fire which always peters out [and Piggy’s glasses must be used again] is real work. Hair grows long; clothes are ripped, frayed and disintegrate. Golding doesn’t tell the reader how long, but it seems four months, perhaps six. Why is this important? Piggy. I was a fat kid once, and despite eating everything in sight at a one-week summer camp, I lost five pounds. Piggy is away from the candy shop for a time, and he’s eating fruit and occasionally pig but nothing else. [British kids are on an island and no one thinks to drop a line into the water to catch fish.] I figure after four months Piggy would lose 40 pounds, if he needed to lose that many. For a kid – lose weight, become more active, have more energy, perhaps the asthma symptoms are alleviated or eliminated – there is character development: “No one will call me Piggy, any more!” HOWEVER, William Golding has no sense of time or setting. Piggy is a person who is static, worthless, nonsensical and someone to kill, which Golding does.

Who is important in the book and disposed? Jack, the hunter, who invents the competing “tribe,” and who raises fears about the island “beast.” Somehow, Jack got most of the biguns and littums, how many no one knows (10, 12, 50) to join him. Activities Jack organizes include putting on paint (symbolizing primitive man) and dancing around a fire (when available), a primitive man activity. But how did Jack get the others to join him? Still no one knows; there is no reasonable or plausible explanation. What we know is the littums were worthless when work was necessary; they want to play, interacting with one another in that arena of a fantasy/reality world. Will they put on face paint and dance if there’s no Halloween candy? Will they abandon huts built in one place to go to another? None of this reality is spelled out in an organized, regular and straightforward manner. It seems Jack’s activities are planned but involve work, not play. A reader can infer elements of fear and terror are part of Jack’s tribe: Simon, Jack’s fellow hunter is killed, Jack raids Ralph and Piggy’s encampment, Jack organizes his encampment so it is defensible and Piggy is killed. There is no reason to stay with Jack’s tribe.

There is no part of Lord of the Flies which represents reality. There are holes, lacunae; there is no character development; after Jack breaks away and lives in his own camp newly invented biguns (Roger, Robert and Maurice) show up. The tale is myth and fantasy. What does it have to tell us about human beings? There are better novels, studies and histories to read to learn about the stuff which William Golding conjectures.

There is a curious feature about the book. The characters are set and remain the same throughout; the setting is the same although undefined; the activities don’t differ greatly from one another; one activity does not progress easily from one chapter to the next. The dialogue is very mediocre and somewhat repetitive. Early in the book I had the sensation that each chapter was a episode of a TV show: Arrival on the island. Getting organized. Signal fire. Hunting – hut building. Looking for the beast. Successful pig kill. Painting bodies, dancing, tribalism. So episodic are the chapters that they suggest the reality TV shows today, whether set on a tropical island or in a house. What William Golding has written is a TV show for a season.

There are novels which are episodic and can be told in a series of episodes. Lord of the Flies is not one of them. In those books an episode is presented, and a second episode set out, adding to, developing and telling of the characters, although the time and the setting may be static. When I read that the biguns were searching for the beast, I thought, they have no memory, no experience and no knowledge of where they came from[British society] and what they learned there. They and the story are contrived. None of those kids has ever heard of a snipe hunt. Lord, this is a bad TV show.

Another static fixation at the beginning is the conch. Piggy and Ralph find a conch shell which Ralph learns to blow and make sounds. Island Rule One: When the conch sounds there will be an assembly; the person holding the conch has the floor. Golding sets this rule into cement for the remainder of the text, but in reality any group, even biguns and littums will change or modify the rule. The rule in cement is a reason why Jack splits, forming his “tribe.” The group psychology of that is not part of the text. Golding is interested in making an unsupported fantasy point. He does not want to represent reality. He is remarkably unsightful about the politics and the psychology of anyone or any group on the island, an extraordinary coincidence considering that the whole mess is coming from his mind. This is a bad TV show.

There is one setting, transplanted to the island, that might support Golding’s story: A private British Boarding School. I sense a lot can be written about those schools and those places, the horrors that are perpetrated and the demented boys they matriculate. They are not best represented by “Good-bye Mr. Chips.” Possibly, Golding wrote but didn’t want to identify the school. He thought, I’ll drop the kids on a tropical island. They won’t know why they are there, just use the word “evacuate,” like World War II. There will be no adult supervision; the kids can go hog wild. Using those bases the book is incomplete and imperfect. It is bad TV.

I suspect the boys are not British, despite Golding’s nationality and identification at the end. Nowhere among the thousands of words is “queue” mentioned. The world knows (especially in the 1950s) that queue and queuing were part of the genetic makeup of every person living on those islands. This omission gives the book no anchor, leaving the words adrift seeking the safety of land. Golding maybe writing about Latin American boys, or Chinese or Russian but certainly not British. He is not writing about Americans who are trained to numbers: 68. Look at the counting-box, 36. That’s a long wait, but the solution is obvious. As the clerk finishes one customer, he looks ahead and asks, Who’s next? Someone points to the counting-box, and everyone waiting learns the clerk can read and count: “37, 38, 39…61.” Suddenly life becomes more sensible and manageable.

There should be more sense and order in Lord of the Flies. 

HONESTY AND TRUTH FOR ONCE

This blog is both promotion of my own novel, Bitch., of which I’ll write more in other posts, and criticism of Radical Son by David Horowitz. Bitch. ($10) is published on the iBookstore. It is about events in Berkeley during the Nixon years (1968-1974) from the standpoint of five first year students.

Horowitz attempts to soft-pedal those years in Berkeley; he lives on Northside, the safest part of town. He is reasonable; he did everything reasonably; he made rational decisions; he understood everything; he was noteworthy enough to write a memoir. Reading his book, Horowitz sounds so plausible and sometimes reasonable, 30 years old, innocent, working for good against evil, using the purest motives while striving for justice and never being critical or judgmental of a thought, an act or plan. Everyone liked David Horowitz. He’s oblivious to dates, short on details, unaware of events, and unwilling to be honest. Horowitz and others of his ilk were phonies, or perhaps they were mentally ill.

Horowitz was part of the Berkeley radical circus, in a coterie of radicalness, a radical party cadre – the people who were responsible for ripping up Berkeley for five years. How do I know this? Bitch., 215,000 words, reading more than 3,000 books including Horowitz’s, years of writing, and having lived through it.

After reading Horowitz’s book, Radical Son, the public will understand why I entitled my book, Bitch., a period not a dot, a verb not a noun. Other than running a magazine called, Ramparts, Horowitz and his buddies colluded with “people” in Berkeley. Throughout Bitch.I call Horowitz and his pals “white radical shits.” The public can understand that term, too – mentally deranged dumb shits who constructed idiot scenarios for “street people” to perform street theater [riots].

Horowitz returns to Berkeley in January 1968 and tells of his Road to Damascus Conversion to the radical cause and its revolutionary ways. He took his son to a local elementary school, where they heard a rock band (Purple Earthquake) perform. Horowitz “felt: A new world is possible.”

Why is that is bull shit and an outright lie? Horowitz has told the reader how smart he is, and that he is well-connected with the left-people in Berkeley. He has come from London, where there is no shortage of electronic instruments and excellent rock music; he has undoubtedly heard the best rock music there. Has anyone ever hear of the Purple Earthquake ever again? [They didn’t become Creedence Clearwater, did they?] Did the band play so loudly that Horowitz broke a blood vessel in his head? Horowitz’s son, a youngster, did not have the same epiphany as his father. Horowitz did not say that he was sober or straight at the performance.

There is another explanation, somewhat goofy but with Horowitz one never knows. It comes from Charles Reich, The Greening of America, p. 260: “Music has become the deepest means of communication…When someone puts a dime in the jukebox…there is a moment of community. [P]eople begin to move, some nod heads, some drum fingers, others tap feet, others move their whole bodies…many sing…” This explanation is improbable because it suggests creativity and art, yet there is nothing in Radical Son which is creative or artistic.

Horowitz was well-connected with the left-people in Berkeley. His manner was agreeable; he was calm and voluble. Throughout Radical Son Horowitz tells about meeting wealthy people, outsiders to Berkeley, and getting money. Horowitz was the “money guy,” for that Berkeley clique as well as for Ramparts. In another book (The Destructive Generation), Horowitz tells about picking up Jane Fonda at the San Francisco Airport and getting her to Alcatraz Island. Why did Horowitz drive? Money beyond taxi fare.

Horowitz rightly criticizes Todd Gitlin’s book, The Sixties, but at least Gitlin tried. He observed the pervasive, on-coming influences from the street and hippie, youth culture including drugs. The Leftists, New Left, Weathermen and others couldn’t manage all that, and Gitlin couldn’t describe it. Horowitz avoided those agency-setting effects completely and disregarded the influences: He lived a normal middle class family life, doing middle class stuff in an upper class neighborhood. His job was a plaything; his ideals and principles – did one need ideals and principles? He was so remote and detached he never understood revolution was not possible and one could not write about it well, if loaded on drugs, blasted by iron-rock, trashed by women and among people whose business acumen didn’t extend beyond the street mantra: “grass, speed, acid.”

But if an author recognizes “a new world is possible,” shouldn’t the author develop the point – observe, do, influence, watch? On which bases was “a new world possible?” Horowitz raised the point and let it rot, in intellectual venality. He didn’t bother to wonder how people, culture and society were divorced from the narrow confines of selective, opportunist Leftist politics whose financial supporters were deceived with every check. Toward the end of his “radical” days, Horowitz met a backer who asked, “Is the revolution possible?” Radical Son proves that Horowitz is the last person in the world to know whether the revolution was possible. Strangely enough, Horowitz does not have the self-reflection and the wherewithal to phrase the setting of that meeting and the question as a joke.

Supposedly, Horowitz had a defining moment in his life when a friend with a job at a Black Panther run school in Oakland was murdered. Throughout the first half of the book Horowitz was chummy with the Panthers, visiting the Party big-wigs. He accepted Huey Newton’s statement that Eldridge Cleaver was too violent for the Party. Horowitz lied about Bobby Seale fleeing Oakland to get away from Huey Newton. Before and after the murder Horowitz casts allegations and theories about who did what, when, where and how. When he tries to talk to the pigs [police], they don’t believe him.

Horowitz was the money man. He liked talking to the top people, but everyone else wasn’t worth a shit and was a trifle. Horowitz initially recommended his murdered friend work at the Panther school. Why? He doesn’t say, but probably so he could have input, influence and control over things there, and the money. The Panthers didn’t need him; they didn’t need the woman who could have been fired and sent packing, not murdered. There is no answer, but it is a scenario which arises from circumstances. It is entirely possible that Horowitz pressed his case too hard, revealed too much and made threats. Horowitz didn’t say this in the book, but he may as well have written he was responsible for the woman’s murder, a personal message to him. [This assumes the Panthers were as irrational as Horowitz claims. They knew if he broke with them, there would be no more money, but they also knew he couldn’t prove anything. Why murder the woman?]

The murder and Horowitz’s role in pre-killing activities were a final revelation for Horowitz after being deaf, blind and mute for a decade. The Panthers had an unsavory side, and everyone but Horowitz knew it. The cops saw the street activities, gang style. Indeed the son of the murdered woman, not a cop, warned his mother. Apparently Horowitz had greater influence, and she worked for the Panthers. In books Black leaders wrote with distrust about the Panthers; Horowitz was illiterate. Black student groups kept their distance from the Panthers who were so entwined with white radical shits to become self-destructive. While Chancellor at San Francisco State, S.I. Hayakawa said, publicly, “The black radicals want a better America. And they may use revolutionary methods at moments, but they are willing to give them up as soon as it’s clear that the administration is willing to do something to improve the quality of their education and their opportunities within the system. White radicals, like the SDS, don’t want to improve America. They just want to destroy it and louse it up in every way possible. So I have nothing to offer them.” (Orrick, William, Shut It Down! A College in Crisis, Washington DC, 1969, p. 147.)

It is obvious that Horowitz would not change from his Mommy-and-Daddy brainwashing to get away from white radical shitism. And he wouldn’t support Black organizations which were trying to improve circumstances in 1968-1969. Instead, he liked the Panthers, isolated friends so long as they could be useful. He liked and likely laughed at their jiving – Martin Luther King was Martin Luther Coon. Radical Son, p. 161.

Essentially, Radical Son, is about Horowitz’s retarded progression from Pinko-Commie to Fascist. He was raised by educated Communist parents, and he believed their crap like it was Gospel. The book does not admit whether he kept his Communist rooting from parental love, or whether he was just an idiot. I’ll go with the latter. Unlike many kids of the Sixties, Horowitz never told his parents they were full of shit, which they were. A reviewer’s comment on the outside of the book says, “A courageous book, full of self-revelation.” That is erroneous. It is more accurate to say, A cowardly book, full of slow-revelation. More accurately, the book should be entitled, Memoirs of a Moron. Horowitz chooses not to be honest, to tell the truth and give a fair portrayal of himself. Instead, he displays an imbecilic rigor, revealing a lack of intellectual discipline and an idleness when seeking the truth.

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