Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Last night I got into a friendly argument with one of my professors at an Irish bar on 108th Street.

The image, I know, is rather pat.  A couple of students (three of us), young (or once-young), nursed our drinks (Jameson rocks, scotch and soda, white beer), while sitting at the bar of a mostly empty establishment (one other person there in the corner + bartender) while the professor, a wonderful and well-known writer, enjoyed his cocktails (Makers Manhattan--up) and expounded on one of his favorite topics:  dead, white, British male authors.

"It's not a question of why should you read this," he said.

"Sounds boring," I said.  "I'm pretty busy."

"Nobody ever asked us whether or not something was helpful.  Helpful?  They said Read This.  And we did."

"What about Cervantes?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.  "Read Cervantes."

"It's the first picaresque novel," offered one of my classmates.

"Read Cervantes, sure.  But England," said my professor.  "England!  This is our cultural heritage.  You want to be a writer?  You've got to read these guys.  16th Century, 17th Century.  It used to be that everyone read them.  I wish..."  and here his manner turned wistful.  "I wish that everyone, that more people, more writers..."

"I've read a bunch of Shakespeare," I said.

"Everything done has been done before."  He said with finality, then nibbled on his maraschino cherry.

"What about Grace Paley?" I asked.  And he ordered another drink to avoid hitting me.

With our professor in a cab on his way back to Brooklyn we three young (or once-young) students had a chance to  consider what he'd said about England and the Canon and dead white British male authors in general.  We came to the conclusion collectively--at least I remember the conclusion being collective, but I have, on other occasions, assumed that because I was the loudest and said the most, everyone agreed with me--that these dead white British male authors, though undoubtedly worth reading, are our cultural heritage only by far remove.  That we Americans have inherited the frontiersman mentality of our founders, and that American Literature really came into its own in the twenties, after WWI.  Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald (less so), these are our cultural forefathers.  Virginia Woolf and James Joyce as well, for their revolutionary spirit despite their Isle homeland.

In the 20s we Americans discovered that we were our own people.  We had helped win a war in Europe, we were reacting against Victorianism and Protestantism.  We were a generation removed from the Civil War.  American writers were creating their own language--they were shedding the dead, white, male British authors (though, admittedly, all the modernists are dead and most of them are white men), in favor of new considerations about the possibilities of language and story.

Dull-minded optimists no more, we set out history-free.  And now, 100 years later, that is our history.

He liked the girls that were walking along the other side of the street.  He liked the look of them much better than the French girls or the German girls.  But the world they were in was not the world he was in.  He would like to have one of them.  But it was not worth it.  They were such a nice pattern.  He liked the pattern.  It was exciting.  But he would not go through all the talking.  He did not want one badly enough.  He liked to look at them all, though.  It was not worth it.  Not now when things were going good again.
Ernest Hemingway, Soldier's Home