Category Archives: books that shaped America

A Teacher’s Diary: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man 7 “Bus Ride North”

I am keeping a “teacher’s diary” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Each video is under 5 minutes and serves as a review of the chapter as well as introducing a few of the numberless ways of thinking about this masterwork. All 25 chapters get a video as do the Prologue, the Epilogue, a couple of critical approaches, and there is a pre-reading video.

https://present.me/view/136821-invisible-man-7-bus-ride-north

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A Teacher’s Diary: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man 6 “Bledsoe’s Speech”

I am keeping a “teacher’s diary” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Each video is under 5 minutes and serves as a review of the chapter as well as introducing a few of the numberless ways of thinking about this masterwork. All 25 chapters get a video as do the Prologue, the Epilogue, a couple of critical approaches, and there is a pre-reading video.

https://present.me/view/136816-invisible-man-6-bledsoe-s-speech

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A Teacher’s Diary; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man Chp 5 “Barbee’s Speech”

I am keeping a “teacher’s diary” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Each video is under 5 minutes and serves as a review of the chapter as well as introducing a few of the numberless ways of thinking about this masterwork. All 25 chapters get a video as do the Prologue, the Epilogue, a couple of critical approaches, and there is a pre-reading video.

 

 

https://present.me/view/136801-invisible-man-chp-5-barbee-speech

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A Teacher’s Diary: Before Reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

I am keeping a “teacher’s diary” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Each video is under 5 minutes and serves as a review of the chapter as well as introducing a few of the numberless ways of thinking about this masterwork. All 25 chapters get a video as do the Prologue, the Epilogue, a couple of critical approaches, and there is a pre-reading video.

https://present.me/view/133910-before-reading-invisible-man

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Filed under books that shaped America, close reading, education, Invisible Man, pedagogy, Ralph Ellison, teaching

Not so Great Gatsby? A Dialogue about that Novel and the Canon

Dear Reader,

I invited one of my terrific young colleagues, Paul Clark, to talk about The Great Gatsby. Paul–speaking for many others–regards the novel as an American Masterpiece, I do not. Some of this back and forth reflects an ongoing conversation that Paul and I have about canon formation, what kids need to know, the virtues of teaching off-the-beaten track material and the importance of creating a common culture. I spend much of my time reducing Paul’s arguments to straw men and he humors me. I put Paul’s comments in italics.

We thought we’d structure this dialogue (and we are both committed to dialogue) around Gatsby since the movie just came out, though we could have picked something else.

Dan,
 Immediately I’m aware of your home court advantage — and I’m a bit nervous that your invitation to dialogue about Gatsby is in line with your comment about Hemingway’s praise of Twain (“All modern American literature comes from … Huckleberry Finn”). Your claim, if I remember correctly, was that Hemingway was setting a bar he knew he could easily surpass, and so perhaps you drag me to wordpress with similar plans. But I arrive undaunted, with a classic on my side and the memory of many of my students who have requested the “alternate ending” — so charmed were they by the title character.
For my opening: I enter the book the way Nick enters the city:
 Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world….
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .”
Gatsby’s magic is the sense of infinite possibility he radiates. Nick falls under his spell, and I think it is only the cold-hearted reader who is able to stay sober and clear. Of course, his dreams aren’t able to come fully to fruition, but there’s something hypnotic about his commitment to them, his belief in his own vision of what life holds for him, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This “romantic readiness,” as Nick calls it, should have been stomped out of him years ago, most certainly by the war if by nothing else. And yet the dreams persist, his foolhardy belief that “the rock of the world [is] founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” Admittedly, this is no way to live, but isn’t there something beautiful about it none-the-less? Isn’t there more than a little Don Quixote in him, a character to which you are more than sympathetic?

Dear Paul,
What a wonderful opening! As you know, you have the much more difficult task in our discussion. You love and admire Gatsby and want to share that with others. I do not like Gatsby and think that it and Catcher in the Rye are the two most overrated novels in American Literature with Huck Finn coming in third.
I have taught Gatsby twice (on the recommendation of a colleague I admire greatly–John McGean) and have not re-read it since then–please forgive me if I get things wrong. I found several things disturbing about the novel. Let’s start with this one: is there a likable character in the novel? An admirable one? Daisy? Myrtle? Tom? Gatsby? George? Jordan? Nick?
It is, of course, in theory possible to write a fine novel with no likable characters or admirable characters (but I am struggling to think of one). Nick’s voice, for a WWI vet and Yale grad, has always seemed to me to be remarkably naive (and at times impenetrable–I have no idea what image I am supposed to get from a city “in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money” and I object to seeing a city “always for the first time.” A city could “seem” new each time one enters it but could it be seen for the first time more than once?). While novels have no absolute ethical obligations, I am curious to know what I should learn by watching people who have worshipped themselves and status climbing and money–and finally their own pleasure. You know that when Gatsby was first published reviews were decidedly mixed and the novel was little read until it made it on to so many high school curriculums in the 1950s. During WWII it was handed out free to tens of thousands of soldiers–who having little else to read, read Gatsby. It is my experience that when one has read little, it is easy to have a “favorite” book–when one has read much, few works have no value and few are unassailable masterpieces. Let me answer the question about Don Quixote and pose one to you–Quixote is indeed a character that I admire–a dreamer whose goal is to serve humanity and God (and to become famous doing so). You assert that Gatsby is a “classic,” I wonder on what basis–that lots of people read it (The Da Vinci Code qualifies; that it deals with a particular time period well (perhaps–but wouldn’t that make it a history book more akin to Grapes of Wrath); that it presents a philosophical world view that deserves serious consideration (if so, I’m struggling to figure out what that would be–a Gordon Gecko “greed is good”? a Victorian-era roman a clef looking at the lives of the rich)?

Dan,

I agree with you about the lack of “likable” characters — by my count there’s only one, Gatsby’s father. It breaks my heart when Mr. Gatz arrives from Minnesota, having learned of his son’s death from the newspaper, and asks, “Where have they got Jimmy?” (And the way he beams with pride when he shows Nick his son’s copy of Hopalong Cassidy with that schedule written inside kills me). Though I always find myself rooting for Gatsby, I do think there’s a bit of trickery involved. This has been replicated by countless romantic comedies — to justify the male or female lead cheating on his/her partner to find his/her true love, the partner is made out to be a horrendous character, a trap that the hero/heroine must escape. It’s a failure to provide a reasonable conflict. So we’re rooting for Gatsby to break up a marriage (that has produced a kid no less!) simply because Tom is so vapid and cruel. And when Nick shouts to Gatsby that he’s “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” what, really, is he saying?

But I agree with Claire Messud on this topic. “If you’re reading to find friends,” she says, “you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” For me, Fitzgerald’s characters are alive — even (and especially) Nick, whom I tend to “like” less with each read. Quick to judgement and blind to his own short-comings, cold himself while criticizing others’ lack of care, happy to retreat to his own moral upbringing in the face of a conflict of values, yet unable to fully extricate himself from the situation… Nick is still captivated by Gatsby’s strong romantic vision, the little piece of humanity he believes is worth something. Admirable? Heck no. But I think we can find these qualities in ourselves in our lesser moments.

As for what makes a classic, I’m happy to be generous with the term. Isn’t there a natural selection that happens with stories within a culture? So even if Gatsby began its tremendous run in the 1940s barracks, doesn’t it mean something that it has stuck around decades later, and that so many people carry that character around with them in their heads?

We’ll see if Da Vinci Code (or Twilight or 50 Shades) stands the test of time. We English teachers are reader-for-hire, and as such, we are of service in two ways (I’m stealing a bit from you here): we conserve and pass on the great books from the past that our students wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and we help them make sense of the stories they encounter without our suggestion in their daily lives. (The latter is one of the many reasons I’m teaching Frank Miller’s incredible The Dark Knight Returns right now.) I believe that we do not like stories accidentally — maybe they speak to the best in us, maybe they speak to the worst. And maybe they speak to a quality that is just there, one that we have to figure out what to do with: that yearning for perfection, for the ultimate prize, whatever our personal interpretation of it may be.

Paul,

I admire your response on several levels–I had forgotten that Mr. Gatz makes an appearance. I’m not sure the obstacles of a Rom-Com are comparable to the destruction of marriages and, ultimately lives, but perhaps they exist on a continuum. Also, I’m particularly intrigued by Claire Messud’s observation–and I am not sure I agree–though it certainly sounds reasonable on its surface. I do not read searching for “friends” but I suppose I read searching for knowledge of self or the world around me, to be entertained (I think it is easy for “professional readers for hire” such as ourselves to dismiss the appetite for joy or entertainment as somehow not worthy or noble enough–an attitude that says if we don’t suffer as we read then we can’t be learning anything. I suspect also that I am looking for a “friend” in the author if not in the characters–or worthwhile companions if not friends–I have to think more about this). Still, I am struck by your sense of what Forster would call “rounded characters.” Perhaps that is part of my “disillusionment” with Gatsby–the characters are round/real–and universally disagreeable, hypocritical, and repellent–so I do not find myself enriched or entertained by them. Your lovely sense that we “conserve” a tradition and pass that along is indeed something I am charmed by–but like anything else (as a Jungian I can’t help but say this), it has a Shadow side. What if the tradition we pass on is profoundly morally or intellectually flawed (like defending slavery or segregation or refusing to acknowledge the truth of Copernicus, etc–and what current things do we debate [global warming or drone strikes] that future generations will settle against us? What if the acclamation of Gatsby is really the accretion of thousands of readers led to believe that the emperor is clothed when, in fact, he isn’t? I’ll conclude with two things: 1) thanks to you I will re-read Gatsby next fall with my habitual generosity of mind; and 2) we’ll have another discussion like this on the blog and attempt to address the importance of creating common culture and teaching students to “make sense of the stories that they encounter” and, I’ll add, to learn to narrate themselves into a fuller, richer, human tapestry.

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Alan Parker’s “Come See the Paradise” complete with ruminations on historical fiction

About a year ago I watched Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise with a brilliant teacher. This past summer I took part in a seminar run by a gifted colleague that introduced us to the history of various immigrant communities to the United States in the 20th century. For my project, I produced the following review of Parker’s too-little-known movie.

Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise: Visualizing History
Visual images have a power over us unmatched by the power of words and even by the power of sounds. In the remembrances of Rodney King after his death two months ago several commentators pointed out that absent the video footage of the beating, King’s complaint against the police for brutality would have been merely words—and King likely another anonymous victim.

Repressive regimes have long regarded visual images as incredibly dangerous and have worked diligently to control them. The Nazis, whose obsessive organization and categorization of all things related to the death camps down to the amounts of Zyklon B to be used in any “extermination” and how many corpses could be burned at one time were equally fanatical about keeping photographs of the camps from becoming public. It is believed that only two sets of photographs from camp workers exist.

Visual images can take the form of documentary work and of fictional representations—and there can be a blurred line between these two. One thinks of Matthew Brady “posing” corpses for photographs during the Civil War to make his point more clearly or the work of Dorothea Lange and her relationship to her subjects, the staging of certain iconic shots. In documentary work there are countless ethical questions raised by even taking pictures—by being an “observer” when, critics often maintain, you should be a participant. The relationship between documentary and fictional representations raises both moral and epistemological questions; and perhaps nowhere are those questions more vexed than in a work of historical fiction.

In 1988, British filmmaker Alan Parker released Mississippi Burning, a retelling of the disappearance and death in 1964 of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner that drew outrage from numerous vantage points. Parker had already had some commercial success—and engendered some mild controversy—with Midnight Express (1978) and Angel Heart (1987)(based on the scariest novel I’ve ever read, William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel)

Parker was criticized pointedly for two choices he made. Instead of focusing on the three young civil rights workers, Parker chose to focus on two FBI agents as they searched for the missing workers. Parker defended that choice and he makes a plausible argument. The episode, though it should be extremely well-known, is not. And, by putting the audience with the FBI we follow the investigation and “learn” as they do not only of the crime but of the effects of Jim Crow and the kind of prejudice that ruled Mississippi at the time. The other choice that drew such criticism was to “create” a black FBI field agent who—in a remarkably tense scene, describes the castration of a black man with a heated razor blade and a paper cup. His threat to perform the same “operation” on one of the people who participated in the crime helps the FBI break the case. Problems abound, to point out only two: there were no black FBI field agents at the time because the FBI was a deeply racist organization. In addition, this fiction makes the FBI out to be criminals whose justification is that they are serving a greater good, a position voiced most thoroughly by the character played by Gene Hackman.

The actual facts of the case are now well-established. The three civil rights workers were almost certainly killed on the night of June 21 or early in the morning of June 22 following their release from the county jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The deputy sheriff, Cecil Price, working with the Klan, ran the workers of f the road. They were beaten and shot and then buried in an earthen dam. On July 10, the FBI opened a Mississippi office of the FBI and by July 31 they had discovered the probable location of the bodies when someone claimed a $30,000 reward. On August 3 a search warrant was obtained and the bodies were discovered on August 4.

Parker was stung by the criticism of Mississippi Burning and when he announced that his next project was to concern the internment of Japanese American during WWII he faced a barrage of criticism before he got to production. He has said that he is drawn to “the unfinished business of racism in the United States” (DVD commentary). To ameliorate concerns, Parker met with hundreds of survivors; he studied photographs from the time; he scrupulously constructed sets, used background music, and significantly used only Japanese and Japanese American actors for their parts.

     Come See the Paradise is the result and while not a wholly satisfactory film, it has many things to commend it—particularly the visual rendering of an event that the United States government sought to diminish or suppress by controlling visual images. Parker has said that he wanted to write a love story after Mississippi Burning and that at the same time he was haunted by a picture taken by Dorothea Lange of a Japanese grandfather and his two grandsons that he had in his office (“Director’s Commentary,” Come See the Paradise). These two sources exist in an uneasy tension in Come See the Paradise.

The movie is told in a frame where a Japanese American mother is telling her daughter about her relationship to her husband and the daughter’s father. They are walking to the train station to meet him. The scene shifts Brooklyn in 1936 when James McGurn, an Irish American labor activist gets involved in the burning of a movie theater that has hired non-union projectionists. They are supposed to only set smoke bombs but one team intentionally sets a fire and it nearly causes several deaths. McGurn is seen going back to rescue people and identified as an agitator. His local boss gives him money and tells him that he needs to get lost and get a new identity. With a brother in Los Angeles, he changes his name to Jack McGinn and heads to LA. Parker is often heavy-handed in his expository scenes and the scene with Jack (Dennis Quaid) and his brother (Colm Meany) is a primer on labor relations coming out of the depression. A series of events leads him to take the job as a projectionist (non-union!) at a theater in Little Tokyo.

Before Jack gets the job as projectionist we are introduced to the Kawamura family—Mr. and Mrs. are Issei but their six children: Lily, Charlie, Harry, Dulci, Joyce, and Frankie, are Nisei. When we meet the Kawamura’s they are at a Japanese social club where the father gambles and Harry, the oldest son, entertains—his signature song is the catchy “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.” The night we are introduced to the Kawamura’s there is a play being put on at the community center—Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—in Japanese. Parker filmed the whole thing and then left all of it save the curtain call on the cutting room floor.

The very “Americanness” of the Japanese comes through in all of their interests. Harry is getting small roles in Hollywood—ironically as a Chinese house-boy—and the children from older to younger understand and speak less Japanese until Frankie, the youngest, neither speaks nor understands the language of his parents. Jack and Charlie become friends—going to lunch together and playing baseball together. Charlie introduces Jack to his sister, Lily (the beautiful Tamlyn Tomida), and Jack is love-struck.

The burgeoning affair between Jack and Lily allows Parker to have Lily assert herself as a woman not merely be a Japanese daughter. Parker is conscious that intermarriage was rare though not unheard of in the 30s and he acknowledges as much in his commentary. There is substantial tension in the family as the father has tried to marry Lily off to a much older cannery owner—Lily fights back mightily even though her brother Charlie tells her it will clear the family debts (the father has a gambling problem) and she should marry to help the family. Jack and Lily are forced to move to Seattle, Washington to get married due to the anti-miscegenation laws in California. Their life there, with a child—Mini—and a Jack’s job in a cannery that treats its workers brutally is wonderfully evoked. Lily reminds Jack that he cannot think only for himself but despite her warnings he is caught up in a “work action,” kicked by a police horse breaking his arm and he is arrested. Lily takes Mini and heads back to California to be with her estranged family. It is 1941.

Jack, on parole, goes to rekindle his life with Lily and Mini. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Mr. Kawamura is taken away for questioning. At Christmas of 1941, Jack takes Mini to see Santa Claus and she is kicked out of the store for being a “Jap.” Jack’s “loyalty” to America is questioned by those who know he is married to a Nisei. After Executive Order 9066 is enacted on February 6, 1942, the Kawamura’s have only a few days to get their belongings together—only what they could carry. In an arresting scene at the yard sale Charlie sits spinning a basketball in his hands watching people pick over the family’s goods. Inside Harry, Lily, and the others break all of the albums they have collected and they destroy their piano—in response to the terribly insulting offer of $10. Mrs. Kawamura sits upstairs in the house burning letters, pictures, report cards and mementos. She explains to Lily that she doesn’t want strangers going through their things but that she is completely conscious that she is cutting them off from their history. Lily promises that she’ll remember.

The evacuation to the horse farms which house the 120,000 displaced people while the 10 “camps” were being built, up is depicted with extraordinary fidelity to the few photographs that exist. As the family is being relocated to Manzanar—perhaps the most famous of the camps—Jack is enlisting in the army. Scenes of his basic training where he is expected to bayonet straw dummies with Japanese faces are intercut with the Kawamura family’s installation in Manzanar. Charlie’s bag is searched and his camera is taken from him. One cannot help but think that this is a commentary on the lack of photographic evidence of the camps. Even though the government would hire Dorothea Lange to photograph Manzanar they required her to avoid shots that would show the barbed wire or guard towers in the back ground. In fact, her film was eventually taken from her and the photographs that have been released have been heavily edited.

In an act of historical fidelity, Parker depicts a group of Japanese American musicians playing to welcome the “prisoners.” For those who have studied the induction to Auschwitz the whole scene with the “prisoners” marked with their tags parading past the musicians playing to make them docile and comfortable is exceptionally disturbing—and accurate.

Life in Manzanar is extraordinary–the barracks at Manzanar contain pictures of Roosevelt, a school where the children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, baseball and basketball games, a structure for the making of camouflage nets (Lily gets paid $14.00 a week to do this), and a factory where the inmates work for the government that has betrayed them. They have “Miss Nisei” night and sing Andrews’ Sisters’ songs at gatherings. Every one of these activities is painstakingly rendered and is the result of hundreds of interviews and substantial research. That we “see” so many of the prisoners participate in these activities has an effect on the viewer that mere reading cannot replicate. Parker drew all of these images from diaries, histories, sketches, and interviews.

In camp, Mr. Kawamura—now a profoundly broken man—is returned to the family. He is suspected by the rebellious inmates (mostly kitchen workers) of having informed to the FBI—though he did not. Charlie and Harry battle for the soul of the family. Charlie participates in the uprising that leads to the Manzanar riot. Harry recommends that they answer the infamous survey questions 27 and 28 regarding loyalty with “yes.” Charlie becomes one of the “no-no” boys (those who answered “no” to questions 27 and 28) and is patriated (“repatriated” seems wrong as he is NOT Japanese) to Japan and Harry joins the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the most highly decorated Army division in history. Jack goes AWOL to see his family and arrives at the end of the riots. Parker’s sense of the dramatic and ironic is on display when Jack sits with the extremely ill Mr. Kawamura treating him as a father while Charlie is sent to Japan and Harry is in the army.
Mr. Kawamura dies. Harry is killed in combat. Jack is imprisoned for his involvement in the long-ago Brooklyn theater fire. The family never hears from Charlie. Dulci returns from a work camp pregnant. In a stunning series of events the Kawamura family is nearly broken—its male members are all gone except for Frankie who is so young he has the least connection to his own culture. When the Endo case is decided in late 1944 and the camp is eventually closed, the Kawamura’s are sent to Idaho. They will listen in horror to the radio reports of the bombing of Hiroshima in August of 1945.

The movie closes with Jack’s return from prison and his welcome on the train station platform by Lily and Mini. Finally, despite the destruction of family, geography, culture, and principles Parker seems determined to end on a hopeful note.

As a work of art Come See the Paradise is almost certainly too long—and not long enough. Its remarkable ambition guarantees that not enough time can be spent on any single story and yet its determination to tell a story that is still too-little known with as much fidelity to history as possible is a mark of distinction. Parker’s sense that a whole sweep of history can be told—shown—through an exhaustive examination of the “real” and “true” experiences of a fictional family is a claim that demands our attention.

                                                           Works Consulted
Akemi Kikumura. Promises Kept: The Life of an Issei Man. Novato, CA: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, 1991
Akemi Kikumura. Through Harsh Winters: The Life of a Japanese Immigrant Woman. Novato, CA: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, 1981.
Armstrong, Douglas. “Wartime Japanese American Injustice Plumbed in Come See the Paradise. Milwaukee Journal. Feb 03, 1991 E. 10.
Asian American Encyclopedia, ed. Franklin Ng. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
Carnes, Mark C. “Shooting Down the Past: Historians vs Hollywood.” Cineaste 2004: 45-49.
“Come See the Paradise,” Wikipedia. 7/21/2012.
Dictionary of American History Revised Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997
Drummond, William. Report on NPR about Come See the Paradise. Proquest.
Great Events: The Twentieth Century 1939-1947. Englewood Cliffs: SalemPress, xxxx.
Mathews, Jack. “Alan Parker’s Sentimental Paradise a Hit in Cannes Festival: After Mississippi, the English Director Softens His Approach in Dealing with the U.S. Internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.” Los Angeles Times May 15, 1990.
Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience. Ed. Lawson Fusao Inada. Berkeley: Heyday, 2000.
Parker, Alan. Come See the Paradise. DVD. 1990.
Sone, Monica. Nisei Daughter. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1953.
Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown.
Zinn, Howard and Anthony Arnove. Voices of a People’s History of the United States. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004.

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Filed under Alan Parker, books and learning, books that shaped America, Come See the Paradise, Dorothea Lange, Japanese internment, japanese literature, Mississippi Burning, movies, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

“List”-en Up: Or as Plato might say, “Who will evaluate the evaluators?”

I love lists and rankings–they are a wonderful inducement (incitement) to dialogue (argument), they teach us about evaluation and force us to discuss our values, and they ask us to consider the notions of inclusion and exclusion.  Here is a discussion starter I have with a baseball-geek friend of mine: Who are the best baseball players eligible for the Hall of Fame who are not in? (you can substitute football, basketball, etc.) So, is Pete Rose “eligible” (not in my book!); is “Shoeless” Joe Jackson eligible (tougher call but I’d say no).  I’d say that Tim Raines is the best player not in who should be in; “but what about Dick (Richie) Allen?” you might say–and off we’d go trying to discover what we value, how we value it, and how we can get others to agree with us.

When I was in Japan I read a fascinating guide-book that announced we were going to the “third most beautiful man-made garden in all of Japan.” Who could resist such a proclamation?! What are the first two? How do you “know” one is more beautiful than another? Is there a combined ranking of “man-made” and “natural” gardens? 

I was put in mind of the wonders of lists and list-making when I read Michael Dirda’s piece regarding the Library of Congress’ list of the “Books That Shaped America.” (BTW–it seems, unnecessarily in my view, that the books that shaped America are all written by Americans.  Why must this be?) Before we get to why that list is all WRONG (I just know you’ll agree with me about everything!); I have to mention my favorite story about lists.

The great scholar of the Victorian period and noted expert on Sigmund Freud, Peter Gay, has a wonderful book called Reading Freud.  In that book he relates a story where, in 1906, Freud was sent a request by one Hugo Heller–a Viennese bookseller and publisher–to send him a list of “ten good books.” Heller’s idea was to write to numerous luminaries and compile the responses (a cool idea and one that has been done numerous times). Freud’s response to Heller survives and is fascinating.  He points out that Heller wants “ten good books,” which may be different from “the ten most magnificent works” in world literature or the “ten most significant books” or even Freud’s “ten favorite books.”  In each case, Freud would list several books such as, “If you asked me about my ten favorite books I might say [and then he’d list several books], but if you ask me for the ten most signficant books I might say Copernicus, Darwin’s Descent of Man [not Origin?], etc.” In this way, despite Heller’s request for “ten” (how totally arbitrary this number “10” is!–or maybe not given our base ten system–though that is a different conversation), Freud ends up naming about 60 books and–bonus for us–defines “good book.” The good book is defined as “somewhat as one stands with ‘good’ friends, to whom one owes a portion of one’s knowledge of life and one’s world view. [They were books] that one has enjoyed oneself and gladly commends to others….”  Making Freud’s final ten are these surprises (to me, anyway) Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain’s Sketches, the essays of Thomas Macaulay, and a novel by Emile Zola! I tell my students that they should ALWAYS write something interesting even if they have to abandon, mutilate, or ignore the prompt I have given them for their essay–and what a brilliant job Freud has done in answering/refusing to answer Heller’s request. (Send me your “10 best books”)

As stated before, the reason to have a list is to provoke discussion–so here goes.  The link for the full list is http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/books-that-shaped-america/.  How in the world does Ben Franklin (and I’m a big fan) rate 3 books! I love Melville and could make a compelling argument that he is America’s greatest novelist, but how does Moby Dick make this list?  It was widely panned when published (1851), did not sell, was not read, and was not even really recovered until a brief Melville revival in the 1920s.  Moby Dick only “shaped” America as a doorstop. How does Horatio Alger’s Mark, the Match Boy make it over Ragged Dick–the book that made Alger famous?

Moving on to those who were snubbed.  Where is the love for EA Robinson, America’s greatest versifier, four-time Pulitzer winner, and the most popular poet in America for the first 3 decades of the 20th century?  William Carlos Williams gets in though? I’m not even going to argue The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye (though those two make my list of the “most overrated books of all time”) because they have such a large following.  But the derivative Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (really a poor-person’s half-assed rendition of Orwell’s masterpiece) get a nod? That book changed America? How does Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee get in over Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man or Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins since it looks like we decided that ONE book on Native Americans would be the limit.  Apparently we needed two crappy books from the Beat generation (Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road), but had no space for any humorists–Robert Benchley and James Thurber get shut down? James Baldwin’s great The Fire Next Time and The Autobiography of Malcolm X make the list but not Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait? I wonder what caused that.  What about Thomas Kuhn’s remarkable The Structure of Scientific Revolutions?

From 1971-2012 only FIVE books (even 1758-1789 had SIX books)! Peter Benchley’s Jaws doesn’t make the list? Crichton’s Jurassic Park? No tip of the hat to Steven King? We’re not talking great literature (or maybe we are!); we are talking “books that shaped America.” Not ONE graphic novel!?

I will appreciate knowing why I am criminally mistaken about any and all of the above–after-all–that’s what lists are for. There are some cool effects of the wisdom of the crowd, however.  Go to any school, ask 60 students, 10 faculty/staff members, and 20 parents who the best teachers are–you’ll get a remarkably small (and accurate) list–it’s the “knowable but unquantifiable.” Let the Games Begin! Who are the 10 best baseball managers? Funniest TV shows? Best movies? Best movies to watch with your family? Best breeds of dogs? Cats? Beaches? Cars? Relief pitchers? Overrated symphonies? Underrated rock stars? Best popular songs?…Best blogs on pulp teaching?

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