Monday, April 28, 2008

Transformed by Literature

by Sheridan Blau

Shortly after my thirteenth birthday, my cousin Wayne went off to college at the University of Pennsylvania and told his parents -- my uncle Joe and Aunt Celia -- that the box of books left in the closet of his bedroom was to go to me. My father, always trusting my older cousin to be a good boy, didn’t bother examining the contents of the box very carefully, before dropping it down on the floor of our shabby living room, telling me, Wayne left this for you; it’s books he doesn’t need any more.

Wayne had always been my hero for his athletic and intellectual accomplishments, as well for as his strength of character and commanding personality (not to mention his reputation as a sharp gambler in card games in the local parks), so a box of books from him was a gift to be prized, and I managed to lug it up the stairs to my room where I could inspect my legacy in private. I remember the sense of adventure and wonder I felt as I opened the box and took up the books one at a time, hefting and smelling them, and flipping through their pages, and I also remember the strong sense that somehow through these volumes I was coming into contact with the sophisticated intellectual and social world that my cousin was inhabiting in college and that I would never otherwise have access to in my own school or among my neighborhood friends.

The box included some anthologies of stories and essays and a number of novels, among which two stand out in my memory: Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, one of Hemingway’s last and least successful novels, but an utterly compelling introduction to Hemingway for me, especially in one forever memorable scene in a gondola in Venice, where an American military officer in the years just after the war made love to a tough-talking woman, who worried about his war-wounded hand. That scene, whose pages I nearly wore out through re-reading, would today be entirely safe for inclusion in any young adult novel, but in 1952 it was steamy reading, capable of shocking and arousing the imagination and desire of a thirteen year old boy whose literary taste had been shaped previously by the Hardy Boys series, Tarzan novels, biographies of great American patriots, and Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang.

But it was the Mailer novel, without even one sexy scene or, as far as I remember, any woman character in the novel that transformed my understanding of what defined literary language and the world of intellectual discourse, and my sense of my own potential relationship to such discourse and such a world. In fact, as I remember it (a memory that must be distorted), the novel consisted largely of an ongoing philosophical debate between a young Harvard-educated lieutenant (the Mailer surrogate) and his crusty but well-read West Point educated colonel. Exactly what they debated about I don’t remember, though I retain a vague sense that they discussed ethical and legal questions about combat and obedience to authority and loyalty among GIs. What I clearly remember and was most impressed by at the time is how their highly literate discourse, representing what I took to be the language of the intellectual community, was peppered throughout with four-letter words of a kind that I was inclined to use and overuse in my own discourse with my friends, with the most frequent entry in the lexicon of Mailer’s characters a three-letter version of the classic four letter ubiquitous term, rendered in the novel as “fug.” I don’t remember any sentence that I can now quote to exemplify Mailer’s use of “fug,” though for some reason I do remember one line featuring another familiar four-letter word. It’s a sentence uttered by a soldier as he arrives at the front of the chow line to have his plate filled by the mess workers: “What’s that swill?” he asks, “Owl shit?”

With my reading of the Mailer novel I was struck as if by a thunderbolt with the recognition that the language of real intellectuals and the language of the real literary community was more connected to the language I used than it was to the language of school, where the only models I knew for what passed as intellectual or at least academic discourse (outside of our thoroughly boring school books which sounded like teacher discourse in extremis and to which I paid no attention anyway) was the language of my teachers, all of them genteel and Gentile women whose language I was not about to imitate any more than I would have been willing to imitate their walk or hairstyle. One’s way of talking I seemed to feel (and still feel) was like one’s personality or style of dress or physical habitus, and I knew that the language they spoke and the language that seemed to be sponsored and privileged by the institution of the school was not one I was able or willing to inhabit.

I had always thought, moreover, that my alienation from that language bespoke some inferiority on my part, like the relative poverty of our home or the fact that we didn’t have a Christmas tree or my mother’s greenhorn ignorance or our alien Jewish customs and diet. I sensed in those years that I had thoughts of my own, but I also assumed that the crudity of my language like the shabbiness of our living room meant that whatever I might think, since it took shape in my mind in a language wholly unlike the genteel language of school, was hardly fit for public scrutiny and surely not fit for writing. But in reading Mailer I found a male rather than a female language that I knew I could and would one day employ and that I also somehow knew was a language that commanded greater authority in the world at large – and especially in the intellectual and literary community – than the language of my school. With that discovery I felt somehow authorized to use the language in which I thought – or a judiciously edited version of it – as a language fit for writing about what I thought. And this also meant that my thoughts, shaped and instantiated mentally by my own language, were also worthy of being expressed in writing, and worthy of being communicated to an audience that was itself more literary and intellectual, and more possessed of male virtues and power than any school audience I had heretofore known.

I didn’t know at the time, nor would I ever have imagined, that Mailer himself was also Jewish and that he too had his own set of problems with that fact. But I nevertheless identified strongly with the young lieutenant who was the point of view character in the novel, and embraced his transgressive language and his cultural role (which was Mailer’s as well) as one who presents intellectual challenges to conventional values and established authority, a role that romanticized and sanctioned my own uncomfortable and sometimes oppositional relationship to the culture of the school where my family’s relative poverty and my own attentional disorders or temperament alienated me from the orderly middle class and bureaucratic processes that characterized social and intellectual life in classrooms.

That I was given by a literary experience a new or changed identity to inhabit speaks of at least one feature of literary experience that is distinctively literary. Readers through what is a distinctively literary experience come to inhabit the minds and spirit -- the thought and language -- of a character with whom they can then identify and in that identification become transformed in their lives and relationships to their family and community and culture. And this process was repeated and enhanced for me a few years later, when in 11th grade in an independent reading course I read virtually all the novels of Sinclair Lewis and thereby became as anti-bourgeois as a 15 year-old lower-middle-class boy could manage to become, while at the same time aspiring to attend college and fashion a thoroughly middle class life as a middle-class academic who occupies the ultra-middle class role of a critic of such middle-class institutions as the school.