“At pettiness that plays so rough”
Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)”
Man, oh man – or should I say, woman, oh woman – the culture wars are heating up bigtime in this fractured nation of ours.
For example, in Virginia, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved has become an issue in the governor’s race. Last Monday, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin ran an ad featuring a conservative mother complaining that the novel gave her son, a senior at the time, nightmares.
As a former chair of an English Department, I’m not unfamiliar with over-protective parents shoving their noses into reading curricula. In fact, I faced a very similar complaint about Margaret Atwood’s The Hand Maid’s Tale, that reading the novel had depressed another high school senior, in this case a star of the football team.
Here’s an excerpt from an email I wrote to the parent.
I think that it is understandable that you are concerned that students, after so much sorrow last year, might react negatively to the novel. However, given that the ending of The Hand Maid’s Tale offers a more upbeat conclusion than that of the 8th and 9th grade summer books, Of Mice and Men and 1984 respectively, I am confident that rising seniors will be ultimately encouraged by the novel rather than depressed by it. After all, some less-sheltered eighteen-year-olds might very well encounter the real thing in war-torn Afghanistan if they enlist in the armed services.
Come on, if high school seniors are so delicate that they can’t vicariously deal with fictive unpleasantness, perhaps we should consider sending them to military school in Tunisia to toughen them up a bit.
Meanwhile, over in Texas, state legislator Matt Krause has compiled a list of 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
Titles include John Irving’s The Cider House Rules and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.
On the plus side, I see an opportunity for authors who gaze at the human condition through rose-tinted glasses to crank out novels that, rather than challenging students to confront our history or to experience the travails of others, provide them with the stress-free experience of having their narrow world views celebrated.
Humbly, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, I offer this excerpt from a novel in progress:
Chapter One: Awakening (in which our hero greets a brand new, God-given day)
Like two tightly strung window shades, Justin Odessa’s eyes popped open precisely at 6:29 a.m.
Blinking, he retrieved his phone, fully charged, from his bedside table and disengaged the alarm, which had been set for 6:35. Now he had six or so minutes to lie quietly and think about the upcoming morning, which featured a school bus ride, a history and AP chemistry test, and a chance to interact with Margo, his current infatuation.
How fortunate, he mused, to live in the greatest country the world had ever known, the land of the free and home of the brave, a nation where anyone could succeed if they just worked hard and did what they were supposed to do. And what he was supposed to do was to get up, walk to the bathroom, take a shower, brush his teeth, run a comb through his tawny hair, and get dressed, which he did.
Already from downstairs he could smell the pancakes and bacon his stay-at-home mom was preparing in the kitchen whose bay window looked out over the plain where pioneer ancestors had traveled via cover wagons and created a true civilization based on cattle breeding, oil extraction, and the Word of God Almighty.
Clad in his school uniform – a purple polo shirt emblazoned with the Midland Senior High Bulldog and a pair of khakis – he greeted his aproned mom with a cherry good-morning, and her glittery smile proclaimed the benefits of rigorous dental hygiene as her teeth fairly sparkled in the October morning sun that streamed into a bright kitchen and illuminated metallic appliances that shone like mica.
As he ate his breakfast, Justin glanced at the sports page and saw that his beloved Astros had triumphed over the Atlanta Braves, the way that civilized Europeans had triumphed over the savage Indians, which reminded him that he should glance over his history notes during the twenty-minute bus to school. He had spent most of his weekend studying chemistry, which he found challenging. Nevertheless, he had been brought up not to shy away from challenges, but to confront them head on.
Once he had cleaned his plate, he bussed the dishes to the sink, rinsed them off, and arranged them in the dishwasher.
“Bye, Mom,” he said, grabbing his bookbag, which had been packed the night before and hung on the pegs next to the door.
“Bye-Bye, sweetie. Good luck on your tests today.”
“I’m ready, I think.”
“Of course, you are,” she said, drying her hands on her apron. “Dad and I are so proud of you!”
So out the side door he went and over to the road to wait on the bus where nothing stressful at all would occur because people in Midlands, Texas, are brought up right.
Anyway, I’ll end with another excerpt from my letter:
It is a legitimate question to ask why so much of modern literature is so negative. After all, looking towards Hollywood, one rarely ever encounters an unhappy ending. However, unlike most movies, great literature provides students with a realistic portrait of the world and endows them with the vicarious experience that comes with experiencing the struggles, triumphs, and, yes, defeats of its characters. For example, Hamlet – about as tragic a work of literature you’ll ever encounter – provides a realistic picture of the mourning of a fallen father, a mother’s obscenely hasty remarriage a month after her husband’s death, the dissolution of an adolescent love affair, and about as many corpses as will fit onto a stage. Yet, when we finish reading (or seeing) the play, we’re not depressed but can share in the nobility of a person’s battle against “a sea of troubles” and say with Hamlet “what a piece of a work is man, how noble in reason.” Moreover, we can perhaps learn from Hamlet’s mistakes. They have become a part of our experience because Hamlet to us is a fellow human being.