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Postcards from the Future

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Robert said he had a rough day yesterday, and I had a rough day too, and I’m going to go into that in a second.   Trust me.  I couldn’t help myself if I  wanted to.

But first-Robert says that, classifying literature the way I do, I should call poems or novels “most typical” instead of “best and better.”  But although  I agree that we don’t say that penguins are a “really bad bird,”  we do say “x is the best specimen we have of y”  or “x is the most highly developmed form of y.”

What I’m thinking of for literature is that second one.  Paradise Lost is not a typical anything.  It is the most highly developed form of the epic poem, and it has had an enormous impact on this culture, mostly on people who have never read it and who think that the ideas they have received from it are actually from somewhere else, like the Bible.

Which brings us to the second way in which we study literature, and in the way most people who are not literary scholars find most interesting:  we study it for the ideas it brings, and for the ways in which it impacts the world we live in.

I don’t blame John for wanting to trample Milton underfoot.  Paradise Lost is a book so dense it can make graduate students cry.  And Robert was right in saying, in another place, that nobody ever gets all the allusions in anything, and that Terry Pratchett–in spite of being a “lightweight” writer–requires an unusual range.

But the fact remains that the allusions in both matter, and they matter even if you don’t “get” them, because they go out into the culture and change things.  In the case of Paradise Lost, its expansions on Genesis and Revelation have become the basis for a vast literature of Christain “teaching” that stretches across the range of American folk Protestantism and that color its interpretations and definitions of things like sin (both original and personal), virtue, creation, the Devil, and the “end times.”

And if you don’t think those interpretations and definitions matter, take a look at the referenda on the ballots of numerous states this election season.  Or better yet, because it’s more fun, look at a few of the popular Christian press “scripture novels” available these days.   Their vision of the Devil, of his personality, of his actions in the world, of what they believe we shoud have to fear from him, is out of Milton, not the Bible, even though the vast majority of them don’t even know who  John Milton was.

If we decide to look at the literature that has made the most impact on the culture, we’re going to get a mixed bag technically.  It’s not that literature has to be bad to have an impact (and bad is used here the way  we’d judge a penguin born with only one foot), it’s that it doesn’t matter one way or the other if the literature is bad or good.

It’s hard to figure out why readers want one thing and not another, why one book will have millions of readers and another practically none.  It certainly isn’t level of difficulty in and of itself.   Some very difficult works have been both very popular–anything by Faulkner, for instance, who was one of the best selling writers of his time and an enormous influence on generations of novelists, and not just American ones.

But just being lightweight and stupid won’t make a book sell, either.  Some publishers in the last ten years or so seem to be convinced it will, of course, and writers at some houses are under constant pressure to “clean up” their books–take out the “big words,” make the plots simpler, get rid of anything that smacks of “ideas.”

Then there’s the fact that just because a book is popular doesn’t make it influential.  It’s not just that nobody reads Lloyd C. Douglas any more, and not much of anybody knows his name, but that what ideas he managed to send into the culture haven’t had much resonance.   We still like to watch some of the movies made from the books when they show up on TCM or AMC–The Robe, for instance, or Magnificent Obsession–but to the extent that they promote any ideas at all that we’d recognize, we’re left wth the same sort of squishy-nice Christianity that pervades greeting cards and Miss America pageant interviews.

Contrast that, for a moment, with the monumental impact of two very bad novels:  Gone With The Wind and Atlas Shrugged.  At some later point, we can go into what is technically bad about each of them–Atlas Shrugged is practically the poster child for what is wrong with telling instead of showing–but right now I want to concentrate on the fact that both put ideas into the culture that have been enormously influential and that we are not rid of yet.

Gone With The Wind gave us a picture of the pre-Civil War South that was not only sympathetic to that South, but laudatory of it.  It was even laudatory towards slavery, so much so that all the evils of slavery–families sold away from each other, physical mistreatment of slaves–were presented as the fault of the Yankee overseers who ran the plantations, and not of the plantation owners themselves. 

It’s interesting to contrast this vision of white trash–Northern, uppity, ambitious–with the somewhat more accurate vision in  Faulkner, with the Snopeses and everything they represent.   In Margaret Mitchell’s Georgia,  white Southerners might be stupid, and prone to drink, but they were almost always noble. 

Gone With The Wind was, of course, written and published in the 1930s, and some of its appeal, originally, was simply as an escape from the problems of the Great Depression.  It offered a lot to escape to.  There were plantations and parties, balls in Atlanta, battlefield scenes, escapes in the night.  

But beyond that, the novel offered both the people of the North and the people of the South something they desperately needed:  a vision of the Civil War, and the reasons it had been fought, that did not result in an outright and unyielding condemnation of “the Southern way of life.”  And it did it without the usual Suother protest that the war hadn’t been about slavery, it had been about “states rights.”

Of course, it was about the right of states to maintain slavery, but that’s another issue.

Here’s the thing–it would probably have been impossible for the South to morph itself into the Sunbelt if it hadn’t been for Gone With The Wind.  From the 1860s until that novel was published, the American “take” on the former states of the Confederacy was almost universally bad:  a backward, ignorant, violent region where black people were kept in poverty and misery when they weren’t lynched, a place where no really decent people would want to live.

The interesting thing about Gone With The Wind is that its vision of the South managed to overwhelm not only one generation’s memories of the Great Conflict, but another generation’s present-day experience of racial violence.  The movie was actually rereleased to theaters at the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, after literally years of nightly news broadcasts of burning black churches, black children stoned on their way into elementary school, the National Guard called out to protect the first black student at the University of Mississippi–and the rerelease worked.  It was a smashing success.  One of my teachers took our entire English class to New Haven to see a matinee.

Sometimes, really influential but technically bad books lose importance over time.  Think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which has become almost unreadable ove time, and is now mostly interesting to history and sociology students studying the abolitionist movement.  Its technical badness may even be working against it.  Its histrionic tone tends to strike modern readers as silly and false.  The book that once made readers outraged at the evils of slavery now makes readers wonder if those evils aren’t being exaggerated.  After all, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, everything seems to be exaggerated.

Gone With The Wind has not become unreadable.  It’s still in print, and it still sells reasonably well.   I’ve owned at least three copies of it over time, and you can buy a hardcover edition if you want something more permanent to put on your bookshelf.   Like a number of other writers of the same era–Agatha Christie, for instance–Mitchell wrote plain, clean, uncomplicated, unpretentious prose, and her very lack of erudition worked for her. 

Besides, Scarlett O’Hara was a stroke of genius.  To the women of the Depression, she was an example of sheer feminine will power overcoming the worst of disasters.   Surely being poor in an occupied South after the Civil War had to be worse that getting through the Great  Depression, and  Scarlett had come out all right.  To the women of the Fifties, fed an ideology of feminine passivity from every expert who managed to write a book, she was a hint that women were stronger and smarter and more capable than anybody was giving them credit for.

For most of America, what life was like in the anteBellum South is what life was like in Gone With The Wind, and no matter how crazy that might drive both historians and other Southern novelists, they haven’t been able to make a dent in the popular mind.  

I said, at the beginning of this blog, and literature sometimes lies.

I’ll try to get to the other lie tomorrow.

For the moment, you’ve been spared the rant I was going to deliver in this post, and you should really be thankful for that.


Written by janeh

October 31st, 2008 at 4:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Postcards from the Future'

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  1. I will have to add “Gonewith the Wind” to my reading list. For some reason, I’ve never gotten around to reading it.

    But back in the 1970s, a young acquaintance asked me if I thought “Huckleberry Finn” was racist. My answer was that it was written at a time when the slave states had laws making it illegal to teach a slave to read. Hence, it was realistic in showing Jim as ignorant. But I thought it was a strong anti-slave book.

    So a question, if Gone with the Wind is seen as an attempt to soften the attitudes toward the slave owning South, why isn’t Huckleberry Finn seen as an anti-slave book?


    31 Oct 08 at 2:23 pm

  2. “So a question, if Gone with the Wind is seen as an attempt to soften the attitudes toward the slave owning South, why isn’t Huckleberry Finn seen as an anti-slave book?”

    Huckleberry Finn is seen as anti-slavery, in some circles at least. At least, I thought it was because of the treatment of slaves as humans, and I’m sure I was told that. (That is, it wasn’t an idea I came up with myself.)

    I don’t know if Gone With the Wind (which I have read, although not recently) was an attempt to soften attitudes towards the Old South, but it does seem to have functioned as such, no matter what the intentions of the author were.

    Catching allusions is fun, and it’s lucky that it’s not an all-or-nothing activity, because I’m sure I miss lots. But knowing cultural referents is a lot more important than catching allusions. If people in a debate don’t know each other’s cultural referents, communication is slowed down and more likely to have errors in it. I once took a course in which I was supposed to translate a passage from a major news magazine – Time or Newsweek. Great, I thought. Dead easy. It wasn’t an opinion piece; all I had to do was put a description of the event in question into French. Then I re-read the article more carefully. It was full of allusions, cultural referents, which I was really incompetent to put into French (because I didn’t know the French equivalents) but which were essential for getting the tone of the article. I can’t remember a specific example now, but the problem involved me knowing that a particular turn of phrase recalled some similar event or reaction to it, and also knowing that the literal translation didn’t get the allusion, that someone from another culture or background probably wouldn’t get all the nuances even if I spelled some of them out, and not knowing enough about the target group to create a similar allusion, if one existed.


    31 Oct 08 at 5:25 pm

  3. Correction: Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885 so its not an anti-slavery tract but I would still say it presents slavery in a poor lihgt.


    31 Oct 08 at 5:42 pm

  4. Hmmm. Something more at work here, I think. If Milton were only important for his lasting cultural influence, surely a precis and selected passages would have been sufficient for poor John? After all, the Physics Dept doesn’t make lit majors do planetary sightings and calculate orbits in honor of Kepler.

    As for MItchell, whether she was a “bad” writer or not–that hasn’t been defined–it’s worth remembering that she was a very good historical novelist. She didn’t write a history of slavery, race relations, the Civil War or Reconstruction. She told the story of Georgia from Atlanta north to the Tennessee border between 1861 and 1876. When her characters crossed those boundaries, Mitchell did not accompany them. She lived all her life in that area, and was close enough in time to have spoken with people who lived through the events she described. She did enough primary source research to understand the culture, and to respond with citations including time and location when called on contemporary vocabulary. She was furious when the “Hollywood people” made Tara look like a northern Virginia plantation house: she had taken them around and shown them what antebellum north Georgia plantation houses looked like. That sort of bone-deep knowledge of another time or place is the foundation of a lasting historical novel.

    She also set out to tell a story rather than promote a cause. Many authors, like H. G. Wells in his later years, sell their birthrights for a pot of message.
    As for claims that the people at fault were surely not the author’s—or the reader’s—kind of people, that’s the stock in trade of political “nonfiction” today.

    But those books will be remaindered by next summer. And Mitchell will still be in print. Telling a good story makes up for a lot.


    31 Oct 08 at 7:40 pm

  5. “Hmmm. Something more at work here, I think. If Milton were only important for his lasting cultural influence, surely a precis and selected passages would have been sufficient for poor John? After all, the Physics Dept doesn’t make lit majors do planetary sightings and calculate orbits in honor of Kepler.”

    I always hated Cliff’s Notes and children’s versions – I felt cheated. Can anyone really be said to be familiar with Milton (whatever their subsequent view of ‘Paradise Lost’) if all they’ve known is the Cliff’s Notes version? That would be like studying Kepler by in the more usual way for an elementary approach: simply by putting his name on a list of the people responsible for the development of modern astronomy. The student would know quite as much about Kepler’s work as about Milton’s.

    I actually haven’t read Milton myself, although I think I tried Paradise Lost a few times years ago, but couldn’t get into it. Maybe I should try again, especially if I can find a nicely footnoted edition explaining the difficult bits.


    1 Nov 08 at 7:07 am

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