General

And A Century From Now?

Books are what we as writers leave behind. So it is human to wonder about the longer-term reactions to what we write. We may ask ourselves occasionally: “What might I be thought of a century or so from now?”

Case in point. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of her childhood memories. Some of those recollections are framed in ways we would not usually in our present:

[Screen capture of Outside The Beltway.]

I feel as decades pass a fiction writer gradually shifts from being a writer worth reading for purely reading sake to becoming increasingly a useful historical voice and source for his or her time. I’ve noted previously that’s how I read Ernest Hemingway: not as a toxic male man of our time, but as a man of his time. Similarly the likes of an early-1800s writing Fenimore Cooper – employing memories of his own childhood and with access to older people who remembered those times – fictionalizing the pre-United States in New York and New England in The Last of the Mohicans: that is almost, to us in 2018, another galaxy.

It is a mistake to judge by “our” standards writers and their books written in “earlier eras.” Their true value in our present is instead what those books tell us about their authors and their time and place. Indeed if writers, including we today, feel the need to be “cautious” and pull punches to assuage the present, we are to an extent messing with history; for literary dishonesty is in its way a crime against the future because it distorts the past for readers inhabiting that future.

For instance, Wilder wrote her Little House books in the 1930s and 1940s; but the actual stories were of events and people living many decades before that. Suppose she had instead portrayed her parents’ and others’ attitudes towards Indians and African-Americans some sixty years before in ways that were inconsistent with what she actually remembered and what that late-19th century reality generally was? Would that not mean that we today reading her first-hand recollections, and those who follow us, might be misled into believing things were actually better than they were?

[Village Green, Codicote, England. Photo by me, June 26, 2018.]

We need to be mindful too of the danger of “presentism” (viewing the past as we do the present), for we cannot best comprehend today’s “27 June 2018” present if we attempt to alter the previously present because we wish, in a sense, to avert our eyes from it. We got to here, to today, in some ways due to the positive, yes, but also as a consequence of other ways that were negative. When we attempt to critique the present, we cannot begin reasonably to do so if we fail to understand how we got here, and we can only try to do that if we are able to interrogate as truthful a past as we are able to uncover.

And when we say “our” standards it is also worth remembering that although we all woke up this morning in 2018, we don’t live at precisely the same time in our lives; our existences overlap. I am increasingly aware that, for example, someone now “age 21” was born in 1997. (I’m not going to reveal to you how old I was in 1997.) We may walk the earth side by side (for now, at least), but what I write as a memory of the past in the mid-1990s therefore pre-dates the births of some readers; that means unlike to those closer to my age the books to those much younger are not a recollection of a shared past, but are instead tales of an earlier time… and might even be termed “history” by those readers.

That reality once smacked me across the face a few years ago when my oldest nephew (born in late 1994) revealed to me he didn’t remember New York’s “Twin Towers” much at all. They were only about “9/11” to him. He related to me that he enjoyed reading about them in my first novel as being merely an exciting tourist attraction and not as a place of mass murder.

Another case in point: my friends and I watched Friends, first run, when it was brand new

[Excerpt from Passports: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1995. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

…and we loved it, but we got it was silly too; for one, we knew even back then that no “normal” roommates could have afforded Monica’s and Rachel’s apartment. 😉 At that time, I also never imagined that I’d be discussing that program over two decades later and that people not even born then would have taken to watching every episode. Yet why should that be a surprise? Certainly I watched TV programs and old films that predated my birth too? (Yes, they did have television then.)

A wider point on our present day as compared to “1994’s.” Today relations are quite strained between our “West” and Russia. In 1994, that was not so, and OUR perspectives were then often framed at least in part as well by personal experiences with our Russian (or Ukrainian, or others from the former USSR, or its possessions, such as Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians) new friends, whom we had often met in university.

Most of us had never known even a single Russian before. We reveled in that we were no longer “enemies” and could even in ways laugh together about the former Cold War. So as I think back now in regularly reading “today’s” news, that aspect of “1994” seems like another time in history; but it is also a vivid part of MY memories of MY young adulthood.

As many of you younger readers now may be as well, we too were also often short-tempered with our own parents and grandparents:

[Excerpt from Frontiers: Atlantic Lives, 1995-1996. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Inevitably a writer will produce something(s) that some readers will dislike and/or condemn. But that reality does not mark out a book as being unworthy of being read; in some ways the opposite: we should discover what people had thought and which today we may find “cringeworthy,” for that’s how we learn. Especially when it comes to a novel written in – what is, once again, only to us – the distant past, first and foremost we need to better understand its context… and in doing that we are also taking in history.

I’d be lying if I said here that I did not hesitate now and then about being “too honest” in those 1990s stories. But unlike Wilder’s the books are meant for adults, and that is an important distinction too. Still, in the end as writers today we have to accept that our books shall by “2118” probably be viewed as “ancient history,” and we as once living people dismissed as “old-fashioned” or worse.

[Iconic Paris landmark. Photo by me, 1994 (I think).]

Some few of you, though, may still be alive and kicking in “2118” – perhaps 121 years old, which we are being told shall by then medically be quite possible, and even perhaps common. You’ll be able then to tell that “18 year old” who was born in 2100 and is “bashing” me: “Eh, I remember his books. Ya oughta read what he actually wrote, kid! Yeh, I know some of it is not what you’re used to, but that’s how we learn. It was the 1990s. He was his time, like I am mine too. What they’re sayin’ about him, geez, you’d think he was a monster. He wasn’t that bad. Well, not most of the time anyway.”

Have a good day wherever you are. 🙂

_____

UPDATE, July 2: About the comment “exchange” that appears below, and why I closed the comments on this post so quickly, please visit this post: “Sea lion, you’re in my house.”

10 replies »

  1. Joyner’s “cringeworthy” comment is entirely unjustified, as is the posthumous punishment meted out to Wilder by the ALSC. She wrote nothing in her childrens’ books that promoted racism (as evidenced by the quotations in this op-ed piece: http://qwiket.com/context/topic/an-act-of-cowardice/zoom/z). People who think they detect racism in Wilder’s work are reading it so superficially, it would be laughable, if it weren’t so sad that their reading comprehension is so poor. As far as I’m concerned, Wilder is timeless, and therefore no charitable allowances need be made for her work.

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    • Thanks for that. Because of the link, it ended up directly in my spam folder – despite your history of commenting. Sorry. That’s why it took so long to appear.

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    • Having read the link, I do want to say this: Any high-profile children’s book that uses a word like “d-rkies” is certainly going to get hammered nowadays. And that shouldn’t be a surprise.

      I suspect the criticism there is not about the minstrel show per se; it’s about the use of the word “d-rkies” – which the link’s author glides over by noting she uses “the verbiage of the time.” That “verbiage of the time” is in fact the exact problem here and it cannot simply be waved off. Change that single word to, say, “performers” and that paragraph is probably otherwise “fine”… for children born in this twenty-first century.

      That’s why I hold that appreciating time and place and context in reading is absolutely vital. However, doing that is tough enough with teenagers and even adult college students. Managing it with under-12s – who don’t have nearly the breadth of even general historical knowledge of teens and adults – is MUCH tougher.

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      • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “d” word was considered to be more polite and respectful than the “n” word (even though people of sub-Saharan ancestry – from antebellum times through the present – use the “n” word among themselves). In the mid-20th Century, the “b” word was acceptable for a while, but then it was supplanted by the “hyphenated-American” label (to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt). But that’s political correctness for you – it changes with every season.

        Perhaps the real problem is not labels, but assimilation, which is a voluntary effort on the part of the individual. Roosevelt’s speech is highly instructive in that regard: http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/txtspeeches/672.pdf

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        • You are right: “d-rkies” is not the “n” word. The Marx Brothers even used “d-rkies” in comedy, too…in the 1930s. The word was once considered a more polite… slur.

          I’m a fan of TR, and that speech actually makes my point in a way. I took the time to read it carefully and it turned out as I expected it would and I think this needs noting. While discussing “hyphenation” especially over German-Americans during WWI, aside from his statement opposing political parties on “racial lines,” he makes not a single clear reference to 10 percent of the population: the freed and the descendants of African slaves in America. He is talking here about European immigrants as Americans (“race strains” to him is about varying European backgrounds), so that omission partly makes sense. Yet TR also caught hell when as president he’d invited Booker T. Washington to visit the White House. In the WWI that we joined less than a year later, although many blacks wanted to prove their patriotism by serving in combat units, aside from a few who got that chance in segregated units late in the war, mostly they were relegated to driving trucks and heavy-lifting at French ports. Those of “old Colonial American stock” of whom he speaks here clearly does not stretch to include the blacks who served in George Washington’s army; they evidently didn’t exist. The US has most definitely sadly not always been fully for everyone even if they were born in the US and desperately wished to be fully accepted.

          It’s a straightforward (to me, anyway) issue. A children’s book is a unique creature in educational terms. And given that “d-rkies” has been an acknowledged slur for centuries – wherever it may come down in one’s opinion on the “slur scale” – I can fully understand if it upsets many who see it pop up, possibly in a school assignment, in a kids’ book in 2018. Even if that book is from the 1930s and recalls the late 19th century, it’s mean-spirited to toss that residual nastiness and, yes, racism, at pre-teens before they are old enough to try to understand why that word was used. As for that and other disturbing historical facts (such as the treatment of American Indians), they’ll learn about all of that soon enough.

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      • To tell the truth, when I was an under-12 reading the Little House books, anything that others may have considered racist went right over my head. And as an adult re-reading them, I had no difficulty with understanding the context. For example, Laura also reported her mother’s fear of Indians, and that there were occasions when her negative emotions were transmitted to her children; nevertheless, Laura’s father’s esteem for the tribes, manifested by his reported remarks and his respectful salutation to the departing chieftain, was equally influential on her subsequent emotional and intellectual development. She also confines her remarks about the minstrel show to a short (252 words) description of the program and its effect on the audience. Perhaps if the book’s illustrator had not supplied a drawing of the blackface musicians and dancer, nobody would have noticed – or cared about – the mild, period-specific vocabulary.

        Laura is also honestly unsparing of herself when it comes to describing her own childishly impetuous behavior, incidents of which persisted into her teens. Are there readers out there who will decry these negative portrayals as prejudicial against children?

        It’s too bad that those who do not understand the context of Laura’s writing choose to take out their spleen on the author. (Maybe she’s an easy target because she’s dead and has no living descendants.)

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        • I don’t see a point in continuing an exchange on this. I’ve made myself clear: I believe the word “d-rkies” is indeed racist and I can understand people feeling it is inappropriate in a children’s book read by children in 2018. Evidently you have a different view. You are not going to change my mind, and given what I’ve written in my comment above obviously I haven’t made an impression on yours.

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          • I apologize for having offended you. I thought we were just discussing aspects of the issue, because we are in agreement about the need for authors to write the truth and for readers to understand an author’s time. I wasn’t trying to change your mind about anything. I have always enjoyed reading your viewpoints and have benefited from our prior discussions, but I will now un-follow your blog, so I may avoid contributing to another misunderstanding. Thank you for your time and the space you have shared for comments.

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