Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Granter of Labels

"Neil Simon, one of America's most successful playwrights, has been chosen as this year's recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center announced yesterday. For the past half-century, Simon has been prolific and often produced. Everyone of a certain age probably can name numerous Simon works, as his plays -- including The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park and The Sunshine Boys -- have translated into film and television and into the national consciousness." Washington Post 06/15/06

I’m more impressed by the works of Neil Simon, than I ever was Mark Twain. Every place has a favorite son that is abused for purposes of tourism. Of everything I miss about Montana, I do not pine for memories of nearly every conversation mentioning the name “Charlie Russell” (obviously it wasn’t that bad, but it often times felt that way).

In the same manner, I grew-up in Missouri all the time hiding a secret… I don’t have an appreciation for the writings of Mark Twain. Now, I always liked “Tom Sawyer”, it was a great piece of children’s literature; but everything else pretty much was lost on me. I realize that “Huck Finn” was a literary masterpiece, but can’t it be argued that because of that book we can blame Mr. Clemens for the unfortunate American tradition of sequels? Missouri-born and bred, throughout my youth I was drilled on the requisite information about his life including such trivia as: Twain was born and died in years in which Halley's Comet appeared. Ironically, I was required to teach similar material regarding “Charlie Russell” in Montana. Including more questionable “facts” such as: Charlie Russell was a better “cowboy artist” than Fredrick Remington, because Russell was a real cowhand and Russell was a typical Easterner; my conscience always made me add a footnote that mentioned the fact that Charlie Russell was not nearly as famous (or important) anywhere else in the world.

Mark Twain’s legendary wit and humor was best displayed in his compilations of numerous short stories… which I also never liked. I suppose my dislike for his work is grounded in the negative light I always felt it displayed my Missouri birth. I was always told that he loved Missouri so much that he immortalized it in his writings; but if he loved it so much… why did he present most of its resident as ignorant backwoods peasants? I dare say that most of the country’s opinion of unsophisticated Midwesterners comes from an ounce of truth and ten pounds of literary backing by Mark Twain. I don’t believe I am alone in these feelings toward Twain. I have mentioned my objections to him to numerous friends from my youth and we all pretty much feel the same - resentment. Granted I knew more than my share of hometown hoosiers, in my youth, but every time, I left the state for somewhere like Florida or the upper East Coast – everyone I met expected that I knew how to milk a cow, because I came from Missouri. That man dropped a major cultural label on his fellow citizens, then set-up residence in another state as soon as he became famous. If he was so “good” for Missouri because of his love for it… why is the “Mark Twain House” in Connecticut? Was it simply that he was bad with finances and his wife’s family was wealthy, so he followed the money? Or could it have been that he “created” this negative image of Missourians and he wanted to distance himself from his creation that had overnight became a standard of American understanding more believable than the truth? This is a fairly popular approach. Is it because it is the “easy way out” creatively? While I was still in high school, my hometown of Poplar Bluff was made famous by television writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (and PB native) in her sitcom “Designing Women”. The show featured a group of smart southern business women making their way in Atlanta. Smart of course with the exception of the not-so-bright character of Charlene who was supposedly from Poplar Bluff, Missouri and written as a classic example of its residents. The show did little to improve the town’s image or the expectations of its resident’s children.

Truth – with a specific interest in the truth of place and the people who inhabit it. Maybe that’s what I like about good travel writing and what I search for in the themes of my own paintings. If we can drop the stereotypes and view each culture from a perspective of immersion, maybe then we can reveal ourselves, as well as others, in a more natural light. Most importantly, though, I believe immersion is the key to understanding. Maybe this higher level of engagement, bred from the actual residence in a place, will eventually transform contemporary travel writing and ultimately the action of stereotyping locations and societies. – DN

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My question was: why was "Great American Literature" always about black versus white racism? It seems to always end up in the south, with stories of plight of black Americans. What about the west? Oh! that is "regional literature", I have always been told. I guess to me, great American literature does not really exist. Twain, Faulkner, et al are no more than regional writers from regions of the world that I as an "American" do not even view as American, but some distant land as distant as Iraq.