Wednesday, December 21, 2005

For Better or Worse

On a recent archeological dig in one of the literary areas of our attic, I came across a number of old hard-bound friends, and decided to see how they'd handled their interment. Not all faired well.

Next time you feel certain that the world is just now going to hell, remind yourself of the things we used to read.

Case in point: I re-read Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth, which I still consider to be one of the great classics of beat writing, although it predates the beat "movement". Cary's hero, Gulley Jimson, is a grimy modern artist-outlaw-ne'er-do-well-Robin Hood-thief-philosopher-jailbird and, as such, is pretty easy to love. He also beats women. Yeah, just kinda matter-of-fact like; he beats women. One dies. Did this book model the misogyny that was an integral part of the beat movement? I can't remember being so repulsed by that aspect of the book (published in 1944, the year of my birth) when I first read it, in the early 60's. Maybe the world's changed, maybe I have.

I looked at a few other old books from my collection -- an anthology, Poetry Out of Wisconsin, another book which is mostly quite good, and edited by August Derleth, contains a few pieces that refer to African-Americans in such hateful terms that you can't imagine they could have been printed in Poetry Out of Alabama !

Even Mary Mapes Dodge's Hans Brinker has some pretty hideous references to the Jewish communities in the Netherlands. Of course, disrespect of Native Americans was so widespread that I'm hard-pressed to single out an example.

So, just when I think things couldn't be worse, I look back and see that they were. At least the sound of most modern writing makes me think that things have, indeed, gotten better. I hope that our attitudes have changed, as well as our words.

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