What good is literature? What’s it for? Why do we study it?
High school English students used to ask me that all the time.
I told them that reading novels and short stories, especially classics, would give them an edge on Jeopardy.
Today I’m going to tell the truth.
Once upon a time, the library I directed sponsored a scholarship contest for seniors going on to post-high school education—$100 for the best essay on the subject, “A Book That Changed My Life.”
One student wrote about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about a young woman’s descent into depression. At her lowest point, she attempts suicide and is hospitalized. With treatment, her condition improves. The book ends with her preparing to have an interview to determine whether she can leave the hospital. It’s suggested that she will go on to live a normal life.
About The Bell Jar, the girl wrote that she had once seriously contemplated suicide. After reading the novel, however, she abandoned the thought and had hope for her future.
Another student wrote about Judy Blume’s Forever. Katherine, who is preparing for college, falls in love with Michael and begins a sexual relationship with him. They’re sure they’ll be together forever. Later, Katherine becomes attracted to another boy. She sees that her relationship with Michael is limiting. She breaks up with him. She realizes that she can get over the break-up and knows she will go on to have other relationships in the future.
Disclaimer: I believe that teenagers should be allowed to read widely. I believe teens are capable of reading at a deeper level than many adults give them credit for. But when I read Forever in a graduate course in library school, I was horrified. The sex scenes are graphic, and the protagonist’s main concern is her sex life. No, no, absolutely not.
Then I read the girl’s essay. What she took from the novel: “I love my boyfriend, but I learned I have to be responsible for myself, and not depend on somebody else to take care of me. I carry the book in my purse all the time,” she wrote.
One novel convinces a teenage girl not to commit suicide; another shows a girl that she must be responsible for herself.
So what is literature for?
I apologize for being flippant. The next time I’m asked what literature is for, I’m going to be serious.
A long time ago, when I was young and brave,* I herded about forty ninth-grade students onto a school bus and took them to San Antonio, thirty miles away, to a matinée performance of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.
The day before the event, I learned that two girls planned to skip the trip. They were going to attend school but to sit in the library while the rest of the English class sat in a theater.
I consulted the principal. He consulted the girls. The girls decided they would go to see Romeo and Juliet with the rest of us.
I hadn’t seen the movie and was surprised to learn that at least one major event–the sword fight between Romeo and Paris outside the Capulet tomb–had been omitted. Shakespeare’s plays are long, movies move more slowly than dramas at the Globe did, so something had to go.
Still, of all the deaths in the play–Mercutio’s, Tybalt’s, Paris’, Romeo’s, Juliet’s–Paris’ seems to me the saddest. Paris is the one innocent character: neither Montague nor Capulet, he has no enemies, seeks no revenge, but simply loves Juliet, and dies trying to prevent Romeo from (as he thinks) desecrating her tomb. Friar Laurence describes what he found in the churchyard when he came to wake Juliet:
But when I came, some minute ere the time Of her awaking, here untimely lay The noble Paris and true Romeo dead. She wakes; and I entreated her come forth, And bear this work of heaven with patience: But then a noise did scare me from the tomb; And she, too desperate, would not go with me, But, as it seems, did violence on herself.
Three deaths in the last minutes of the play. Omitting one lessens the impact of the other two. But only for viewers already familiar with the play, I suppose. If you don’t know that much about Paris, you probably don’t miss him.
Something else surprised me, too: the unobstructed view of Romeo’s bare backside we got when he heard the lark and hopped out of bed. But in a theater packed with fourteen-year-olds, I heard not one giggle. That is my definition of success.**
And the day got even better. On our return to school, the principal came out to meet the bus. He and I were standing together, making sure students headed toward the building and not away from it, when the girls who’d threatened to boycott the play walked by.
“Well,” he said, “what did you think of it?”
One of them tossed her head and said over her shoulder, in the tone of bored superiority only a fourteen-year-old can produce, “They didn’t even show the scene where Paris died.”
That, dear reader, is my other definition of success.
Why do I write about R&J tonight? Because the Zeffirelli version is on the late movie, and I’m watching as I remember.
But now I’m going to turn off the television and make my way to bed.
MERCUTIO then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes In shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the fore-finger of an alderman, Drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep; Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs, The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, The traces of the smallest spider’s web, The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film, Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat, Not so big as a round little worm Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid; Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub, Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers. And in this state she gallops night by night Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight, O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees, O’er ladies o’ lips, who straight on kisses dream, Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues, Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are: Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose, And then dreams he of smelling out a suit; And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep, Then dreams, he of another benefice: Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck, And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats, Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades, Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes, And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two And sleeps again. This is that very Mab That plats the manes of horses in the night, And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs, Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes: This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, That presses them and learns them first to bear, Making them women of good carriage: This is she—
ROMEO Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.
MERCUTIO True, I talk of dreams…
And I already know what happens later. They don’t even show the scene where Paris died.
* … and naive and amazingly stupid.
** On network TV, Romeo’s bare backside is blurry. That is my definition of turning tragedy into comedy.
Many years from now Will you still be sending me a valentine Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three Would you lock the door? Will you still need me Will you still feed me When I’m sixty-four?
~Lennon & McCartney, “When I’m Sixty-Four”
My cousin Mary Veazey (the cousin who used to boss me around) told me that while preparing to attend her high school reunion, she wondered how many years it’s been since she graduated. She did a little subtracting and came up with the number 60.
She subtracted again, several times in fact, but kept getting the same number.
Sixty years since high school graduation.
She’s the oldest of the cousins, and I’m the baby, about fifteen years younger. That used to mean she was practically a generation ahead of me. She says I was more like her niece than her cousin. Lately, though, she’s suggested I might be catching up with her. For instance, she’s been saying things like, “When did you get so old?”
But I’m kind, so when she said she graduated sixty years ago, I agreed the number is impressive but refrained from saying, “Wow.” Wouldn’t have been prudent. She might have asked how long ago I graduated.
I’ve been sitting here playing a game on my laptop–Scary Halloween Match, which is a silly because there’s nothing scary about it except how many hours I’ve invested in playing it–and letting my mind wander. It’s funny the things that floated by on my stream of consciousness. James Joyce would be impressed.
One of the floaters took me back to high school. My friend and I played guitars and sang here and there whenever an invitation arose. Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, Mary; a lot of our material came from their recordings: “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” songs like that.
At one program we sang Lennon and McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four.” I don’t know whether our contemporaries approved, but several retirees told me they got a real kick out of it.
I got a kick out of it a year later when Mary Veazey’s seven-year-old son asked me to sing, “Blow Your Hair Off.” It took a while, but finally I realized that’s how he remembered, “When I get older / losing my hair.”
One thought, however, stopped my stream of consciousness, just dammed it up and let nothing else through:
When did that happen?
I don’t feel sixty-four. I don’t look sixty-four. Or didn’t. After six rounds of chemotherapy, I really look a hundred and twenty-four. Tonight at dinner I remarked that chemo has brought out every wrinkle I never expected to have. David said I don’t have any wrinkles at all. He’s kind.
He’s something else as well. He’s sixty-three. And at fourteen months my junior, he’ll never catch up with me.
Which means I married a younger man.
Which means I’m a cougar.
Sixty-four, you can go jump in the lake.
I searched for a recording of “When I’m Sixty-four,” but they’ve all been blocked because of copyright. As a writer, I support the right of artists of all kinds to be paid for their creative efforts and their labor. As a former librarian and as a blogger, I wish the people responsible for the blocks would loosen up and give me what I want.
Does anyone remember The American Girl magazine? The old one that was published by the Girl Scouts of America?
My mother surprised me with a subscription the year I was nine. I was in my second year as a Brownie, but I didn’t know the magazine existed until it landed in the mailbox with my name on it.
I loved The American Girl.
It provided access to information about movies, fashion, health, etiquette, and, most important, things I didn’t want to ask my mother or didn’t trust her to get right.
It also introduced me to fiction, as Nadine Bonner says, “about teen-aged girls trying to find their place in the world, just like me.”
Of the eighty-one issues I received over the next nine years, the first is the one I remember best. And I remember it because of a story: “Sincerely, Jonathan.”
I don’t know who wrote it–except that the writer was not Betty Cavanna. I’ve googled and come up empty-handed. Without further research (probably of the paper kind) I can’t offer a citation. But I can tell what I remember:
Rosemary belongs to the “crowd” at her high school. They hang out at Ford’s, the malt shop. They burn up the roads in hotrods on Saturday night. They don’t study. They don’t make good grades. They manage to just slide by. They show no sense of responsibility or compassion. They’re cool.
Rosemary also has a secret. Before she moved here, she belonged to “The Honor Roll and Uplift Society.” At her new school, she had a hard time fitting in, and somehow she found herself taken up by the popular kids. She was embarrassed at first to introduce her friends at home, and she knows her parents worry about the change they see in her. But she does everything she can to protect her new identity. Her friends mustn’t suspect she’s a fraud.
Then one rainy morning on the way to school, she slips up. She sees the new boy, Jonathan Hockersmith, standing in the middle of the street, stopping traffic. With one arm he holds a stack of books; with the other, he holds his cello case as high off the ground as he can. A big Boxer pup is playfully jumping at the cello, blocking Jonathan’s way. Rosemary’s friends stand on the sidewalk, laughing.
On impulse, Rosemary hands her books to a friend and dashes into the street. She takes Jonathan’s books, he lifts the cello above his head, and together they run to safety. Jonathan thanks her, but she gets away from him as soon as she can.
Now she’s worried. She has allowed the crowd to glimpse the real Rosemary.
“I had reverted,” she says, “to type.”
Later, in class, Jonathan passes her a note:
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
I’ll remember you as someone who’s lovely and good and true.–Sincerely, Jonathan.
Rosemary quickly tucks the note into a book, but at the malt shop it falls out and into the hands of her friends. She tries to brush off their teasing, but Jonathan won’t leave her alone. He stops her in the hallway, waits for her after class, offers to help her study.
Spoiler alert: Because the ending is so fine, I’m going to tell it.
One afternoon, caught between protecting her “popular” persona and wanting to defend Jonathan to her friends, she surprises them by announcing that she won’t join them at the malt shop. Walking home, preoccupied, she catches her heel in a crack in the sidewalk and falls, hard, spraining her ankle. As she lies on the concrete, wondering whether her ankle is broken and how she’ll get home, Jonathan appears, picks her up, and carries her to her house. While her mother calls the doctor, Jonathan takes the casserole out of the oven and keeps the baby occupied.
Rosemary’s friends visit, laugh and joke, borrow a sweater and some pearls, and say they’ll be back. On Saturday night, however, they’re absent. Jonathan comes, though, and every night for the next week he brings her assignments and helps her prepare her work. He predicts she’ll make good grades. By the end of the week, she’s tired but happy.
When her friends finally crowd into her bedroom to report on the fun they’ve been having, and to say the pearls and sweater she loaned them are now ruined, they meet Jonathan on his way out. In response to their squeals and jokes, Rosemary tells them she won’t be coming back to Ford’s at all.
“At my last school,” she says, “I belonged to the Honor Roll and Uplift Society. And I aim to make it here.”
That statement breaks up the party. Alone with her thoughts, Rosemary summarizes what has occurred: “I had reverted, permanently, to type.”
That’s a lame account–I’d rather link to the story so you could read it yourself. But I’m surprised, after fifty years, at how much I remember.
At the age of nine, I didn’t hotrod (I never hotrodded, in fact). I was too young for malt shops and jukeboxes and a “crowd.” I was too young for the “needle heels” that Rosemary was wearing when she fell.
And it was years before I figured out what “reverted to type” meant. I didn’t think it had anything to do with a typewriter, but I wasn’t sure.
Still, I knew what the story was about. I read it over and over. I loved it. I tore it out of the magazine and put it away with my treasures.
I have a pretty good idea that it’s in a box somewhere in storage, waiting for me to feel industrious enough to clear things out and read it again.
I wish I thought today’s teen magazines were publishing stories like “Sincerely, Jonathan.” But unless something has changed since I shelved my last batch of periodicals, I know current fiction doesn’t come close. Nor do the magazines come close to matching the quality of The American Girl.
That’s not age talking. It’s fact.
I don’t know when I’ll read that story again. I feel no hint that I’ll be deluged with industry any time soon. Until then, I’ll have to go on depending on memory.
I’ll remember you as someone who’s lovely and good and true. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
Image of Girl Scout in uniform by father of JGKlein, used with permission (Father of JGKlein, used with permission) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons