In 2009, I taught a class at Culver-Stockton College called “Writing and Literature.” It was the second half of the college’s two-semester freshman writing sequence, and it’s one of those classes more eagerly anticipated by the teachers than by the students. It’s a composition course, and our job was to improve the students’ writing skills. But as grist for their compositional mills, we were supposed to pick some literary texts for them to write about.
I hadn’t taught a course like that in many years, and in fact I was pressed into service in this one because one of the regular instructors was on sabbatical. But I looked forward to teaching it. I hadn’t taught literature in a long time, even as a source for writing topics rather than for appreciation’s sake, and I was looking forward to the English teacher’s guilty pleasure – making students read works that mean a lot to you in hopes that they will also mean something to them.
The books I chose for the students to read were mostly ones that meant a great deal to me – books that in one way or another changed my life. One of them was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Walden has that effect on a lot of people. A friend of my family’s told us this story: She spent a semester as an exchange student in England, and while there was talking about American literature with a British student. She glanced over his class reading list, and casually remarked, “I’m surprised that Walden‘s not on there.” He hadn’t heard of it, so he went out and bought a copy. A few months later, she heard from him again. Transformed by his experience of reading Walden, he had gone in search of his true self, wandering across England with minimal money and possessions, seeking authenticity in people and social relations with that kind of blinding enthusiasm that is the property of the young. Now, I wasn’t hoping that any of my students would drop out of school and roam Missouri like Diogenes as a result of my class, but I wouldn’t have minded if the book had the same effect on one or two of them that it had on me the first time I read it – the sense of coming to grips with a truly independent mind, and the thrill of experiencing a writer who is simultaneously deeply dissatisfied with the conformity and dullness that most of us allow ourselves to fall into, and optimistic about the greatness that we are all capable of.
Something else that I think about a lot is the right relation between humans and nature, how we are supposed to live in the world and yet not claim it, how we can achieve a good level of comfort and pleasure without ruining the world for future generations. I’m not what you would call a “back-to-nature” zealot, but some of my most meaningful moments have happened in the woods or on the river. So in addition to Walden, I asked my students to read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Wendell Berry’s What Are People For? Into the Wild tells the story of a young man who is a back-to-nature zealot, whose rejection of society’s artificiality leads him to a tragic estrangement from friends and family, and ultimately to his own death. I can’t say that this book changed my life, but it serves as a very useful counterbalance to the unalloyed worship of nature that we are all a little prone to sometimes. Wendell Berry is one of the contemporary apostles of living the small and local life. His essays in What Are People For? articulate this viewpoint. I didn’t ask or expect my students to read the book and then become small country farmers; that wouldn’t be sensible, and besides, the world needs journalists and clinical psychologists and business entrepreneurs and everything else we were trying to teach at Culver-Stockton. But I did hope that they would develop some appreciation for their region and their origins. I wanted them to understand that they’re not inferior to anyone if they come from Canton, or Palmyra, or Hull, or Hamilton, and that beautiful and fulfilling lives can be led in such places as well. And I wanted them to think about their food – where it comes from, who grew it for them, what had to happen for it to reach their tables. Part of being a responsible human being is awareness of the impact of your actions, and too often we put food in our mouths, clothes on our bodies, or toys under our tree without giving much thought to the human and natural expenditures that lie behind those seemingly simple actions.
Another book that I had my students read was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and this really is a book that changed my life. I first read it when I was in high school; wandering in a used book store, I was intrigued by the title and bought it for ten cents without knowing a single thing about it. For those of you who don’t know the book, it was a big seller in the late 1950s and early 1960s – part Holocaust memoir, part pop philosophy. The thing that I remembered about Man’s Search for Meaning, and the quality that led me to require it for my class, was its remarkable blend of horror, realism, and optimism. Before the war began, Frankl was a successful psychiatrist in Vienna, the director of an institute that focused especially on the prevention of suicide and the treatment of those for whom life had lost its meaning. Then very swiftly he found himself in a concentration camp, stripped of his family, his possessions, his dignity, even the simple essentials of life itself, and forced every day to confront those questions that most of us rarely if ever confront: what is the purpose of my life? Is there a purpose to my life? Why should I bother to get out of bed today? Why not just die?
Perhaps because of his background and training, Frankl was able to view these questions with a measure of objectivity, even while enduring the terrible suffering of the camps. And he emerged from his experience with what he called a “tragic optimism,” and in this book he makes the case for it. His tragic optimism is perhaps best thought of as the living embodiment of existentialist philosophy, the idea that “the meaning of life” is not something outside oneself waiting to be discovered, but rather something that each of us creates through our own actions. At one point he writes, “Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” And to quote again, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” While this attitude is somewhat bleak, it is also quite bracing – sort of that cliff-edge sensation. From the time I first read Man’s Search for Meaning, I have reminded myself occasionally, when I get busy blaming my surroundings for some undesirable situation, that although I am subject to circumstances beyond my control, my response to those circumstances is under my control. I’m not responsible for the situations in which I find myself – but I am responsible for how I deal with those situations, and it’s in the way I deal with them that I make my life mean something.
I also had them read Self-Reliance and Other Essays by Emerson, specifically the Divinity School Address and the essay entitled “The Over-Soul.” I am not sure if my students got anything out of those essays, because they are tough, tough pieces of reading – and they are the easiest essays in the book! But being a teacher means being an optimist. You always think they might just get it – and I hope the students at least experienced what I always experience when I read Emerson: the sense of having engaged a great mind, successfully or unsuccessfully, and having come away with at least a partial understanding. Emerson is not afraid of talking about the divine, about the universal, the eternal. I find Emerson’s essays very difficult; the sentences glance off each other sometimes with little apparent connection, they are full of allusions to other works and figures from history, and of course he never stops to explain anything. But there’s always a sense that something is going on there; you catch glimpses of it, and the harder you work at his essays, the more you get out of them. There is great value to be gained from tackling something tough, even unsuccessfully. And that’s an experience every student ought to have.
If the privilege of a teacher is to inflict upon your students the books that mean a lot to you, the curse of a teacher is to have those students hate them. Or perhaps even worse, to fail to appreciate them. And I am sure that by the end of this semester, most of my class cussed my choices, once, twice, or many times. And I cussed their lack of understanding an equal number of times. But that’s all right. It’s not so much what book a person loves that is important, it’s the act of experiencing books, and perhaps coming to love a book. Books have a permanence to them; I like the way they feel in my hand, solid and stable. I like the concentration that goes into a book, the fact that someone took a long time and sustained effort to create it, and the fact that it takes time and effort to draw out its meaning. So if my students didn’t respond to my chosen books, okay. Maybe they will choose books of their own to hold dear. I think that’s the real secret to books – they speak to us in different ways and at different times. The book that resonated in my heart when I was twenty-five may leave you cold, and indeed may not speak to me in the same way today that it did then. We all have our own list of books that have changed our lives, and those lists are never the same. I’ve told you about mine – now I’d like to hear about yours.(This piece adapted from a talk I gave to the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church)
- That’s the way to please the Lord,
or so says Javert in the musical version of Les Misérables. I had the pleasure of seeing that show at the Quincy (Ill.) Community Theatre last weekend, and for various reasons, that line stuck with me more than it had in previous performances.
Before I go on about that passage, let me gush for a moment about the QCT’s production. Quincy is a town of 40,000, with a community theater that relies on all-volunteer casts (although this production brought in a professional singer to play Jean Valjean). Yet despite those limitations, the QCT brought in a version of Les Misérables that was remarkably robust and accomplished. I give the music director, Larry Finley, a lot of credit for coordinating a tight 20-person pit orchestra with the singers. The performance was a real triumph for a small-city community theater group and a fitting 400th production in its history.
But back to Javert. He speaks that line when he is sending Fantine on her path to ruin, and of course we are meant to recognize it as the heartless abstraction that it is. It’s a way for Javert to not-think about the human being in front of him, casting her as an example of a principle rather than a person with particular circumstances. We all know people like that; I work with some of them, and there are few more frustrating sorts to deal with than those who insist on an inflexible abstraction in the face of compelling circumstances before them.
What struck me about the line this time, though, was not merely that it shows the limitations of Javert’s spirit, but that it’s so palpably false. Some of my dearest people live for their honest work – devote themselves to it – and receive no reward at all. We’ve all known people who have seen their honest and devoted work get snatched away by workplace politics and the selfishness of others.
So what’s a person to do? There’s no good answer. Persist in your work and ignore the reward or lack of reward that may come from it? Nice idea but it feels like surrendering to those who choose to play the game instead of focusing on their proper work. Play the game yourself? That’s abandoning your principles.
Dealing with our fellow human beings is a messy business, and only the Javerts of this world make it tidy in their own minds with comforting, fake abstractions. And who wants to be a Javert?
Annie-Rose Strasser wrote a fascinating article that came out on Think Progress today about the act of memorializing the dead who are lost in massacres or tragedies. On the third anniversary of the mass killing in Norway by a racist fanatic, she recounts the moving, artistic tribute that is being created to memorialize the event.
The article got me thinking about the most powerful memorials I have ever experienced. To me, the two that I have found most profound are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the NAMES project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The common element in both those memorials is the act of naming, but I don’t think that’s essential to all memorial artwork. The magnificent Tribute in Light that commemorated the World Trade Center’s destruction was entirely abstract. I have not yet seen the new WTC memorial so am unable to describe it.
What the effective ones do have in common, I think, is that they are works of art, and are conceived as such. Even the AIDS Quilt, while not a work of art in the more traditional sense, draws upon the traditions of folk art and the loving acts of beauty created by many hands to achieve its power. The Norwegian memorial is so striking because it is, paradoxically, so beautiful. It takes a horrendous event and in its beauty renders it tragic, rather than simply horrible.
Likewise, the Vietnam memorial is not just haunting; it’s a fully realized work of landscape sculpture. The World War II Memorial just up the Mall from the Vietnam memorial has never had the same effect on me, even though I lost a relative in that war and it was an event that profoundly affected my family. You can sense the difference between the two memorials simply by walking around in them. At the Vietnam memorial, voices are hushed, and there is an air of solemnity; at the WWII memorial, people stroll around, chatting, taking photos as they would at any tourist attraction. I think it’s the artistic coherence of the Vietnam memorial that gives it its power.
I come by my snake-phobia honestly; my mom was the fiercest anti-snake crusader I’ve ever known, with the possible exception of my Aunt Gina. Even a four-inch ringneck would arouse her antipathy. For her, there were only two ways of approaching a snake – with a shovel or with a shotgun.
That’s why sad news such as this week’s death of a man at Sam A. Baker State Park after picking up a copperhead is not just sad, but enlightening. I would no sooner pick up a snake – any snake – than I would pick up a lit firecracker. Whatever you think of snakes, misunderstood outcasts of the animal kingdom or symbols of the Devil himself, the fact remains that they are wild animals that survive by biting things. Anybody who thinks they can pick one up without getting bit had better be a trained herpetologist, or else they’re in for an unpleasant surprise.
Over the years I’ve managed to calm my snake-a-noia to some extent, although not entirely. When we first moved to the farm where I grew up, the house had been used only on weekends for several years, and wild things had retaken much of the territory. I often ran over copperheads while mowing the lawn, and on one memorable occasion actually stepped across one before noticing that it was underneath my stride. Those kinds of childhood experiences tend to, shall we say, fix themselves in the subconscious.
Currently, there’s a four-foot blacksnake (now officially referred to as the Texas ratsnake) living around our backyard. I’ve worked out an uneasy truce in my head with it, and I recognize its value in keeping down the mice and voles. (The bluebird boxes are another matter, currently surrounded by a protective barrier.) But Lord help us both if I ever step on that sucker in the dark some night.
I was fortunate enough to obtain advance copies of these two new books recently, and I’ve been dipping into them section by section and page by page ever since. They are both essentially photo books, although both contain judiciously selected text (essays, comments, reminiscences) as well.
Subtlety is something of a lost value in our current esthetic environment. The outré and shocking gather attention and acclaim, encouraging a spiral of provocation in which each new art work must be more shocking than the last. But these books are subtle, and they take time to appreciate.
I’ve gone back and forth as to which is my favorite, but I think I’ve finally settled on Ozark-Prairie Border (176 pp.). This book depicts the area between Kansas City and Springfield, where the Ozarks slope down to wide bottomland and prairie, and where the beauty of the landscape takes more than one look to see. One response many people might have to some of these photographs – a wire fence enclosing a grassy field, a dilapidated building in a small town square, a bulletin board in a country diner – is “I could have taken that picture!” But would you? Would you have seen the unexpected richness of color in that field? Or the rhythm of the rural architecture, the beauty in small things that is celebrated here? The images on these pages reward contemplation. They are visual meditations on the rural places of western Missouri, and I find myself looking at them again and again.
Missouri Squarely Seen (114 pp.) ranges more widely and narrowly at the same time. It covers the entire state – landscape, people, buildings – but all images were taken with a square-format camera and retain that shape. Like the form of a poem, the square format of the image both constrains and challenges the photographer, demanding and rewarding a fresh compositional approach. The photographs in this book are rarely conventionally beautiful; in fact, the traditionally “photogenic” subjects are often treated ironically. In the square format, the Kansas City skyline, ripe for panorama, occupies only the middle fifth of the frame, with a street in the lower two-fifths, a kid climbing a weedy embankment beyond the street, and a Fifties-postcard-blue sky stretching much too far above the buildings for a conventional composition. The result is a somewhat comic distancing and diminishment of the classic landscape view. In some cases, though, the square image does not distance us, but rather focuses our attention on some person or object placed at a strategic spot within the frame.
Payton has a remarkable eye for color, and both these books are filled with richly saturated images in which the colors collide, harmonize, joust, or disappear into unexpected darkness. Both books are rich, rewarding, and beautifully produced. If you love photography, or Missouri, or both, you should get yourself copies. They’re available from Lens & Pen Press.
Davis Baskets is the real deal — an old-fashioned “roadside attraction” on U.S. 54 south of Camdenton. Anybody who’s ever driven from the Lake of the Ozarks to Springfield has noticed it, no doubt. You might even have stopped in to use the restroom, and to browse the stacks of comical signs, postcards, hats, plaques, toys, souvenirs, and God-knows-what. And of course baskets.
I’m told that it was founded in 1949 by Delmar Davis, who still runs the place today at 88. I was told all this because if you do stop in, as I did earlier this year (I needed a new hat for float trips), Delmar Davis will start talking to you and will not stop till you are out the door. He’s an immensely friendly gentleman with a million stories and opinions, a World War II veteran with a zest for history. In an era when people just want to reach their destination with as little deviation or delay as possible, Davis Baskets is a reminder that stopping along the way can be as rewarding as getting there.
And just south of Davis Baskets is Macks Creek, where unexpected stops on the highway used to be the town’s primary industry . . . but that’s another story, as they say.
I have avoided discussion of the word “hillbilly,” for the most part, on this blog because I think it’s an endless distraction. But I have to thank my good friend Bill Hopkins for this amazing disquisition on “hillbilly,” from a 1960 court decision in a divorce case, in which one of the “general indignities” that the plaintiff (husband) accused the defendant (wife) of was that she referred to his family as “hillbillies”:
“In respect to plaintiff’s evidence that Minnie once referred to relatives of the plaintiff as hillbillies: We suggest that to refer to a person as a “hillbilly,” or any other name, for that matter, might or might not be an insult, depending upon the meaning intended to be conveyed, the manner of utterance, and the place where the words are spoken. Webster’s New International Dictionary says that a hillbilly is “a backwoodsman or mountaineer of the southern United States;—often used contemptuously.” But without the added implication or inflection which indicates an intention to belittle, we would say that, here in Southern Missouri, the term is often given and accepted as a complimentary expression. An Ozark hillbilly is an individual who has learned the real luxury of doing without the entangling complications of things which the dependent and over-pressured city dweller is required to consider as necessities. The hillbilly foregoes the hard grandeur of high buildings and canyon streets in exchange for wooded hills and verdant valleys. In place of creeping traffic he accepts the rippling flow of the wandering stream. He does not hear the snarl of exhaust, the raucous braying of horns, and the sharp, strident babble of many tense voices. For him instead is the measured beat of the katydid, the lonesome, far-off complaining of the whippoorwill, perhaps even the sound of a falling acorn in the infinite peace of the quiet woods. The hillbilly is often not familiar with new models, soirees, and office politics. But he does have the time and surroundings conducive to sober reflection and honest thought, the opportunity to get closer to his God. No, in Southern Missouri the appellation “hillbilly” is not generally an insult or an indignity; it is an expression of envy.”
Here’s a link to my recent interview on It Matters Radio. My portion of the show starts at about the 38-minute mark, but the guest before me is a record producer with several really good acts. So if you have the time, listen to the whole show! Some nice musicians on there. Thanks again to Monica and Ken.
I pride myself on knowing most of the flowers, trees, and shrubs of the Ozarks. So I was caught aback when this plant caught my eye while I was on a walk:
At first I thought it was poison ivy, but the red berries threw me off. I wondered if there was a variety of poison ivy that had red berries, or perhaps that it was poison oak, but a little research disproved both those theories.
After searching and searching both in my reference books and online, I finally spotted it — it’s fragrant sumac! No wonder I mistook it; it’s in the same genus (Rhus) as poison ivy and oak. Turns out that fragrant sumac is used as a native ornamental as well, although these plants were growing wild. I don’t know why I never noticed it before. My guess is that I have seen it many times, but only registered the three-leaf clusters, thought “poison ivy — stay away!” and never looked any closer.
So something new learned. Always a wonderful moment, and I never tire of the joy of learning new things.