Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Shape of Knowledge

In a book club discussion recently, I was asked if I would recommend Eric Drooker's animation -- and the resulting graphic book -- of Ginsberg's Howl. What I recommended was that the guy should read Ginsberg's poem. Drooker's a gifted artist, and was a friend and collaborator to Ginsberg in later life, but, while I haven't seen his film, I have looked at the graphic book he made from it and found it shockingly literal and Disneyfied. Drooker's Moloch, for example, comes straight from a Night on Bald Mountain, Ginsberg's "visionary indian angels," sought "through the streets of Idaho," here become one rather creepy, angelic ghost, and a girl. Doesn't work for me. It isn't just that these things are not what I saw, if I saw anything in this sense when I read the poem, it is the reduction of a poetic image to a cartoon that makes the whole enterprise seem to me silly, if not wasted entirely. Quite the opposite of what a poem does, or is meant to do, that is. As Charles Lamb complained of most illustrations to poetry, "To be tied down to an authentic face of Juliet! to have Imogen's portrait; to confine the inimitable!" There is an argument to be made for introducing, by means of a more popular medium like animation, a new audience to Ginsberg, but I doubt anyone saw the film, or read Drooker's graphic, without already some interest in the poet and his most famous poem. Maybe some kid somewhere will find Ginsberg because of the cartoon, but do kids now need help even to find their way to The Beats?

Seems a sad thing to be said, if true. Can poetry really be so moribund as to require actual animation? Rather defeats the purpose of the poor old Beats, if they now require CliffsNotes. Where's the rebellion in that, man?

In a letter to his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb complained of the sorry state of children's literature, circa 1802:

"Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed on tales and old wives' fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history."

What indeed. Elsewhere, Lamb described how ugly and badly made were most of the children's books he saw: crudely illustrated, clumsily written and badly printed. Above all, what Lamb could not stand in the kid's books of his day was their bald and blunderous didacticism. Then, as now, too much that gets printed as children's "literature," doesn't even attempt literature, instead padding out lessons; scientific, moral, religious, what have you, with a lot of gooey prose and sticky pictures. "Knowledge insignificant and vapid," as Lamb calls most of this, was on offer only "in the shape of knowledge," with little or no effort put forth to make any of the magic that might draw a child into reading.

Lamb knew whereof he spoke, having already produced something in this line himself. A little clerk in the East India Company, and the sole support of his small family, he supplemented his meager wages with whatever writing might pay, including books for children. Only a very few years after his letter on the subject to Coleridge, Lamb was to collaborate with his sister Mary on just such a project. Mary had hit on the idea of making from Shakespeare's plays a book of children's "Tales." Mary did the comedies, and Charles handled the tragedies, and with the histories they bothered not at all. The result of this happy collaboration, Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare, was published in 1807 under just Charles' name. This was not the result of female modesty. Charles by then already had some small reputation as a writer, and his sister none. More importantly, Mary suffered all her adult life from periods of insanity, in the worst of which, years before, she had rampaged through the household and stabbed their mother to death. Mary would periodically be committed to the care of various private nursing homes and madhouses for the rest of her life. When this became necessary, often as not, it was Mary who would suggest that it was time she went back into care, and Charles who would tearfully take her. A family friend, seeing them walking together on just such an unhappy journey, described the sight as the saddest thing he had ever seen. There was some justification then in not putting Mary's name to a children's book. Nevertheless, brother and sister were as good companions to one another as they were collaborators. Each, among other things, encouraged the other. For the rest of his life, Charles looked after Mary, as she looked after him. It wasn't entirely a sad life. They had friends, and books, and gin, and each other. And in their Tales from Shakespeare, they made a classic of children's literature, never since out of print since it's original publication in 1807.

The genius of the Lambs' book was in not attempting to somehow edit or alter the plays themselves to accommodate the understanding and sensitivities of small children, but rather to recast the stories as stories, suitable for the youngest readers. What's more, the authors' purpose in so doing was not simply to turn their affection for Shakespeare, and for children, to a profit -- though there was that -- but to make a book that would set children up on familiar ground and so to start them off from "Tales" on to the plays. As Mary wrote in her introduction to the book:

"What these Tales shall have been to the young readers, that and much more it is the writers' wish that the true Plays of Shakespeare may prove to them in older years - enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity: for of examples, teaching these virtues, his pages are full."

So, Mary Lamb meant her book to be instructive, but also to be good; an introduction not only to the familiar stories, but to stories told well, and in good English, stories that should also whet the appetites of their audience for more of both English and the Bard. I also think I hear Charles' interjection in insisting that good stories ought also to be "enrichers of fancy," as well as "strengtheners of virtue," etc. The authors were at some pain to insist that what they had done, they'd done for small children, and young ladies -- whose education, Mary knew only too well, was often a stunted and stifled thing. Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare then was never intended as a substitution for Shakespeare.

I read with some relief Michael Chabon's recent piece in the Atlantic, on reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to his kids. In all the recent swirl of controversy about Professor Alan Gribben's bowdlerized new edition of the latter, I've been waiting to see something in print from someone who'd actually read these books with kids. I've been curious to understand just how one does that, nowadays. In interviews, the Professor has insisted that he only undertook to replace the offending racial epithet with something less incendiary after hearing from school teachers how much they should like to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but dare not for fear of being accused either of racial insensitivity on the one hand, or, if they altered the text themselves, risk being denounced -- just as Professor Gribben has been -- as cowards. Given that choice, why wouldn't a school teacher, or anyone else, simply avoid the issue entirely and read something else instead? Michael Chabon, having introduced his two small children to Tom Sawyer with what he himself admits was less than complete fealty to the text, and to his fellow novelist, Twain, found himself right and properly dropped down in it, when, the kids having learned that there were further Adventures, they insisted he read these next. Confronted now not by a few inappropriate nouns, but by a novel that becomes very much about race, and for many modern readers, that one word, Chabon was forced to have an honest discussion he might otherwise have easily avoided, at least until his kids were older -- or altogether. What to do?

I must have read any number of abridged classics as a child. Might never have realized this, had I not undertaken to reread Dumas as a grown man. Seems the Musketeers had sex and killed people, but there was more to it than that, more to Dumas than I'd suspected. Dumas, read in my forties, proved to be a happy revelation; a novelist of endless, brilliant invention and real wit, but also a writer of rare emotional sensitivity, with the most generous spirit among the 19th Century giants, bar perhaps only Dickens. I don't remember what versions of his books I read as a child, whose translations or abridgments or adaptations they were. Whatever ersatz Dumas it was, it didn't discouraged me from reading the real thing later. In fact, I suspect I only wanted to read Dumas again because I remembered him so fondly. How grateful I am then not only to the good faeries that put him in my way again, but also, I suppose, to the memory of those diminished "classics" and whoever made them. And what of Mark Twain? Was my first Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or just something like?

If there is actually anyone at this point who has not heard or read all about this, What Professor Alan Gribben, a respected Twain scholar and teacher, has done to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is replace the word "nigger" throughout with the word "slave." The idea being that in this way the novel might be taught again in public schools without objection from parents who simply do not want their children hearing or saying that word "nigger" in a classroom. A publisher has printed this new version and marketed it to the teachers and schools for whom it was specifically intended. I haven't seen this version, but I can only assume it is packed with supporting materials meant to address exactly the kind of controversies now exploding in the media, ironically enough, from news of its publication. In my own small way, here, I contributed what I hoped was just a fairly mild poke at the good Professor with a cartoon suggesting his next possible efforts at making literature safe again for American classrooms. For me though, as a bookseller, the most amusing and frustrating aspect of the present controversy over Gribben's nigger-free Huck Finn, has been the the media's failure to notice, or, more likely, -- so as not to dilute the impact of their editorials and sound-bites -- their willful avoidance of all the previous abridgments, adaptations and reductions of this and so many other classics for kids. It is as if this had never happened before!

Walk into any large bookstore today, if you can find one, and what you will find on the shelf of the children's classics will, hopefully be multiple copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the adult fiction section there will probably be, new and used, and again, hopefully, nothing but unabridged editions. In the kids' section? There will be both; the original and the abridged, the pure and the impure, the actual and the ersatz. This will be true not only of Twain, and of Dumas, but of even less controversial works, even works originally written and published exclusively for children; everyone from Tintin to Black Beauty, from Alcott to Baum, has been subjected, at some point, to simplification, edited for contemporary sensitivities, fundamentally altered for this or that admirable purpose or to in some way help the children who may now read these books. Have you ever seen the original illustrations of Dahl's Oompa-Loompas? Did the version you read as a child of Kipling's Kim seem subtly or not so subtly different from the version sold in the Penguin edition with an introduction from Edward Said? Did you never read "Bible stories" as a child?

It is ridiculous to suggest, as so many would now seem happy to go on television and do publicly, and loudly, that this kind of thing ought never be allowed to happen to the "sacred texts" of our classic literature, that all such efforts are the result of the new "political correctness," or that all the high school teachers who would choose not to teach Huckleberry Finn are just cowards, or the parents who might object to the word nigger being used in the classroom are all ignorant, illiterate or stupid. I've heard and read the most disgraceful nonsense on this subject for weeks, some of it coming from "experts:" critics, pundits, educators, publishers, and yes, even librarians and booksellers, and much of it then from people who really ought to know better. Ask yourselves, are there no abridged editions in the libraries where these librarians work? Do these educationalists never teach but from the full text? Do these publishers print only books as they were written? And finally, how many of these pundits and politicians and media-critics, do you honestly think, have recently or ever read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain? Do they remember accurately and honestly having read the book just as Mark Twain wrote it? Is it really Huck Finn they remember, or just Mickey Rooney, or Eddie Hodges, or a Classic Comic?

That said, I read Twain's novel again myself, a couple of years ago, for the first time in years. So many of my friends, people whose opinions I respect, do not like it. I've heard it described in conversation as "a bad novel," and as "an incomplete thought." There would seem to be, in my own generation, -- so distant from Hemingway's famous claim that "all modern American literature" comes from this one book -- a certain condescension regarding both Twain's novel, and any attempt to define American literature as having either a beginning or any progression or so specific a purpose as that suggested by comments like Hemingway's. Have you actually read what Hemingway actually said? I hadn't:

"The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That's not the order they're good in. There is no order for good writers.... All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." -- from Ernest Hemingway, "The Green Hills of Africa" (1934)

(That ellipse troubles me, but I haven't a copy of Hemingway's book to consult, so it will have to stand.)

I can not agree with most of that statement, anymore than I find myself agreeing with much that I've read in Hemingway, anyway. (It is worth noting, just as an aside, that this famous bit is actually taken from a conversation, largely imaginary I should think, between Hemingway and some other expat game-hunter on a porch in Africa. Not like the novelist was lecturing at Harvard when he supposedly said this, perhaps the most quoted line in the recent coverage of the controversy about Twain's novel.) Whatever I might feel about Hemingway as a guide to American literature, or his advice to readers of Huckleberry Finn, I must respect the admiration of one artist for another, and Hemingway's obvious conviction that, if nothing else, as an American writer, Twain still mattered, and that literature still mattered, and by extension that it still does and should.

When the Lambs made their Tales from Shakespeare , no one would have questioned their assumption that Shakespeare mattered, that children being introduced at a very young age to so great a poet was necessary if they were to properly appreciate Shakespeare when they grew up, and that an appreciation of Shakespeare was a reasonable expectation of every literate adult in an English speaking country, if not among the literate portion of humanity. If the reputation of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, and Charles Lamb's own reputation as a writer, to say nothing more of Hemingway's, or Twain's, has suffered since from these assumptions coming into question, it is not the result of these assumptions being questioned, but of too much, too much altogether, being assumed on behalf and about what and why we read. Such a fuss as is now being made about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its potential effect on children, I'm convinced, is the direct result of literature, and education, becoming the exclusive province of "experts," experts who would seem to be far more concerned, however sincerely, with using books to support or refute their own theories of childhood development, the redress of social inequities, racial sensitivities and grievance, the behavior of consumers in a so called "consumer society," the value of language itself as a means of philosophic representation, and only the gods know what other topics of fashionable discussion that literature might be made to carry.

Helene Hanff, on reading a modern prose-rendition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, complained that it had "the classroom smell of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare." Hanff, who made her living for many years writing history textbooks for kids, was well qualified to recognize the scent. What she had no reason to suspect, half a century ago, and what the Lambs themselves, could they come back now to see the world in which we now live, would have found incomprehensible, is an intellectual atmosphere in which the novelist Michael Chabon reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be so striking an instance of parenting as to be singular.

So convinced have we become in the moral and ethical superiority of so called scientific theories of human behavior and interaction, so dependent on received opinion on how and what children ought and ought not to read and think, so distrustful of not only our society's capacity, but our own qualifications to teach our own values to our own children, and their capacity to learn, and so magnificently have these innovations failed us, that we can no longer assume that any child will want to read anything at all, or that having read some version of our best books in childhood, that any of us not employed in doing so will ever read them again.

Listening to so many good friends express indignation at Professor Gribben's no doubt workable, if painfully inadequate solution to what embarrassingly enough, I'm glad to say, we can not now even bring ourselves, most of us, privately to call the "nigger-problem," I think a word need be said in praise of Mark Twain for having had the courage and prescience in making that hateful and damaging word, nigger, a problem for more Americans than it ever was, perhaps even for Twain, before he wrote his great novel. Generations of readers, many if not most of them quite young when they first read Huck Finn, myself included, have been forced by that one book to confront their own and this country's inadequate understanding of that word's power, and certain segments, black and white, of the population's continued sentimental attachment to it.

I confess however that Professor Gribben may be sadly right in thinking that we as a people may no longer have the confidence, in ourselves, our system of public education, and or our children to read Twain's novel without it being bowdlerized, abridged and made safe -- the very last thing Twain intended that book to be. As I've tried already to suggest, when it comes to the littlest of us, there may be no shame in this. The failure, it would seem to me, is all to do with what comes after, with what our expectations are of our children, and our society to read on thereafter, to think for ourselves and teach our children to do so. If Mary and Charles Lamb, in 1806 could assume that adults would some day, inevitably, read Shakespeare, and Mark Twain, in 1885, could assume we were ready to confront not only the full humanity of a slave, but our own refusal, as a nation, of that fact, must we really now admit that these assumptions must be abandoned?

Have we so lost the habit of art that we can only accept knowledge "in the shape of knowledge," and see nothing to be gained in the wisdom that only comes from the experience of art, and life, with all it's original provocations intact, its imperfections preserved, it's dangers unmediated by experts, and its appreciation as natural to us as it was to our ancestors?

Or, as it would seem from the ridiculous debate about Huck Finn presently bestirring the shallow waters of the public discourse as represented in the popular media would seem to suggest, are we fit for nothing better, or more honest, then children's books? Are Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare all we can now read, if we can be said to still read even that?

I was assured just the other day, by a school teacher, mind, that "kids don't read that stuff anymore. It's too hard."

Shame on us.

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