Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Read it all -- you might be a winner on Jeopardy

The history teacher from Texas won the $100,000 Teachers' Challenge on Jeopardy last week. He clinched the championship because he knew that New Orleans was the U.S. city that dropped off the top-50 cities list but reappeared 10 years later. He permanently moved into first place the day before because he because he knew the author of a very famous book. This very famous book, written in 1936, is 1,037 pages long and the only novel published by the author in her lifetime. You won't find it on any literary lists, mainly because it is basically a southern romance. Not only that. If it doesn't exactly glorify the southern cause in The Civil War, it does portray members of the KKK as brave protectors of southern womanhood.

You know the answer: "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta. A big potboiler of a book that was transformed into a big potboiler of a movie in 1939. The book sold well in its time, but it really took off when the star-studded movie came out. The movie is considered a classic. The book, not so much. That's probably why the two English teachers in the Jeopardy semifinals did not know the answer. They guessed Edith Wharton and Jane Austen. Very smart modern women who knew two members of the American Literary Canon. But didn't know a best-selling author who died too young when run over by a car in downtown Atlanta in 1949.

These two English teachers didn't know GWTW because schoolkids don't read it. I know why (see reasons above) but still, they are all missing out on something good. Have you ever read a big, fat, bloated novel? Of course you have. James Michener excelled at these. In "Hawaii," it takes the reader a 100 pages to get to the spot where human beings actually appear on ancient Hawaii. In "Centennial," set in my part of the country, the author takes his time reaching the arrival of Native Americans to pre-state Colorado and Wyoming. Neither of these books are part of the canon, although you might find both in history classes or, worse, in multicultural studies classes that exhibit books of "cultural appropriation."

Political correctness rears its ugly head.

My liberal self knows that the whole anti-PC movement is an excuse by racists to be racists, misogynists to be misogynists, Trump to be Trump, etc. Still, we are caught up in a ridiculous fight over who has the right to speak for who. Is it valid for a white writer such as myself to speak in the voice of a black woman or a Native American? Yes, because writers have the freedom to write from any POV, including non-human and intergalactic ones. What's that Harlan Ellison story told from the POV of a planet-exploring dog? Fantasy and sci-fi are filled with mythical characters who come alive in the hands of skilled writers. We live in an era of fantastic beasts and superheroes. Not enough of these writers are women or people of color. But that is changing, albeit slowly. The push is on for a balanced perspective, pushed by the country's changing demographics and tastes

But back to "Gone with the Wind." My grandfather Shay boasted that he read GWTW once a year. He was not  a Southerner but an Iowa farm boy who served in the Great War and came home to be a Denver insurance salesman for 60 years. My father was a GWTW fan, which is probably how I came upon the book, sitting forlornly in Dad's library after he and my mother finished with it. I was thrilled by the war narrative but rushed through the mushy stuff, hoping to find sex scenes, but in vain. Meanwhile, I was trying to get my hands on Terry Southern's "Candy." A copy was circulating through Sister Theresa's eighth grade class at Our Lady of Perpetual Chastity Grade School. The girls bogarted the book, which led to the ringleaders being discovered and forbidden from graduating with the class. Some of the boys read it too, although only the girls were punished. Catholic school was instructive in so many ways.

I knew that GWTW was the answer to the Jeopardy question.

"The English teachers will know that," said Chris.

"No they won't."

She seemed shocked when I was right. I told her about the status of GWTW on college campuses and in high school classrooms. At the same time, Mayor Mitch Landrieu had crews dismantling Confederate symbols around New Orleans. A week ago, alt-right demonstrators carrying torches (really guys, torches?) showed up to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some guy drives around Cheyenne in a white pick-up flying a large confederate flag.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

So wrote William Faulkner in "Requiem for a Nun."

In the South -- and in some parts of Wyoming -- the past is present.

So public school teachers in California don't read and don't teach GWTW. So, the Cali school teacher on Jeopardy was an also-ran in the big Teachers' Challenge prize.

While all of the Cali population was not alive in 1865, about half of the state's population is now non-white. GWTW would hurt their feelings. But they will always miss out on a compelling story. They might know the movie but not Mitchell's language and style, which is a damn shame, my dear. They may be an English major at UW or Stanford. They will get to know Austen and Wharton, Toni Morrison and and Jame Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros and Flannery O'Connor.

I've read Michener and Michael Crichton and tons of thrillers and detective novels. I've read treacly romances and predictable Zane Grey westerns.

Read it all.

Don't limit your world. That's how we got into this mess.


Lynn said...

Love it, Mike. Spot on. When we inhabit other worlds and characters, we don't learn about them, we become them. That's how empathy is sown. I'll never be a Southern belle, but for a little while I wore Scarlett's hoop skirts and felt her desperation (so desperate she wore curtains).

If we edit out too many worlds and characters because they are, ahem, unseemly, we miss out on so much. Growth, especially.

Thanks for bringing up the topic--very timely.

RobertP said...


GWTW was required reading in my Sophomore English class at Morgan Park HS on the South Side of Chicago. Long but good.


Anonymous said...

II am surprised that you read GWTW in high school. I went to high school in the South but had to read it on my own.