Burt Lancaster as one of Donald Trump’s literary forebears in the movie adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. I think if Lancaster could be brought back to life at any age between 40 and 70 he’d be perfect casting as Trump and I’ll bet he’d get a real kick out of playing the hell out of the part.
Being blissed out on on Percocet and Valium has taken some of the fun out of watching Donald Trump and the GOP’s collective meltdown. It’s left me feeling too detached. Instead of reveling in the malicious glee I would normally be enjoying, the most intense reaction I can manage is a Spock-like “Fascinating.”
And it is fascinating. Trump is fascinating. As a story as much as anything. His is an American tale, practically a folk tale, and I look forward to the day when some great storyteller---biographer, historian, novelist, or filmmaker---is able to tell it in full. In whatever form it’s told---as a biography as riveting as T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long, as a movie both epic and intimate like Citizen Kane, as a dramatic sociological study of a time and place like David Simon’s TV miniseries Show Me a Hero, or as a documentary as comprehensive and devastating as ESPN's O.J.:Made in America---it will be one of those stories that tell us not just what happened to us as a nation at a given moment in history, that doesn’t only relate the events, culture, and temper of a particular moment in time, but helps explain who and what we are as a people. Trump is decidedly in the American grain, a type who exemplifies something essential about our national character.
We need to hear the stories of our heroes and saints in order to inspire us and give us hope, but I believe we can better understand ourselves through the stories of our failures, scoundrels, and villains, because we are all always in danger of becoming one of them. Theirs are cautionary tales with a similar theme: we are all more like him or her than we’d like to admit. Richard Nixon’s story is more morally instructive than Bobby Kennedy’s or Martin Luther King’s because he, far more than either of them, was in a lifelong revolt against his own ordinary Americanness. In short, what he hated most about himself was his likeness to the rest of us, so an important part of Nixon’s story is that likeness.
Same deal with Trump, I think. Maybe even more than Nixon was, he seems driven by virulent self-loathing. He’s a populist who despises that part of himself that’s most like the people whose champion he’s pretending to be---that is, his ordinary Americanness. So,again, as with Nixon, the hero/anti-hero/villain’s ordinariness---his likeness to the rest of us---is a major theme of the drama/comedy/tragedy. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are the types of do-gooding high achievers we’d like to be and teach our children to strive to be. Donald Trump is who we’re all in danger of becoming if we don't watch it.
I didn’t include a novel on that list of story forms because offhand I can’t think of one comparable to what I’m hoping for. American literary novelists haven’t shown much interest in politics or money or, when it comes down to it, social observation on a scale large enough to accommodate the cast of characters and the various plots and subplots it would take to tell even a quarter of the story.
Time for one of my patented sweeping generalizations.
Just about all all American fiction considered “serious literature”, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James to Scott Fitzgerald to John Updike and Toni Morrison and on up to Jonathan Franzen is genre fiction. The genre is domestic drama and it’s as self-confined and convention bound as any of the other supposedly lesser genres like mysteries, romances, science fiction, fantasy, and westerns. Do high school English classes still teach that there are four basic narrative conflicts: Man against Man, Man against Society, Man against Nature, and Man Against Himself? There’s a fifth. Man/Woman/Child against Family. And that’s the one that one that drives the plots of the great majority of the novels on high school and college reading lists and that fill the shelves in the Fiction and Literature section at Barnes & Noble.
Whatever the “story” summarized in the Cliff Notes or on the inside flap of the dust jacket, the real story is usually about the intimate strife and turmoil among a small group of people related by blood, sex, or friendship trying to work out their mutual dysfunctions and dissatisfactions with the personal happiness of the main character being the outcome most at stake.
History, politics, current events, economics, and the way a society or a community organizes itself and enforces its conventions and imposes its traditions and culture are background to the domestic drama. Even Robert Penn Warren’s classic All the King’s Men is less a political drama than it is a family tragedy. To the degree Willie Stark is a villain, his villainy seems to lie mainly in his being an unreliable friend and a bad husband and only incidentally in his ambition to make himself a populist dictator. It’s still a great novel. There are many great novels among the type I seem to be treating dismissively. What I’m getting at isn’t that there are no great American novels but that there aren’t many novels around that tell the kind of a story I’d like to see told in the way I think it needs telling. Politics, current events, money, and social conflict tend to be subjects writers of mysteries and thrillers are more drawn to and in their stories those issues are naturally treated as provocations of criminal activity, psychology is reduced to motive, and everything plays itself out to neat, melodramatically satisfying conclusions. A Donald Trump type might be an important character but he’s more likely to show up either as a stock villain or a deservedly dead body than as a protagonist whose story tells us more than just why he committed his crime or deserved to be murdered. In a “literary” novel, however, a “Donald Trump’s” story is likely to be about what’s “really” going on between him and Ivanka and/or why his sons are compelled to go out and kill elephants.
Like I said, I’m making a sweeping generalization. There are plenty of exceptions. It’s just that offhand I can’t think of a single, exceptional novel that would fit in with my list of movies, biographies, TV series, and documentaries that provide models for the telling of the story of Donald Trump. William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Edith Wharton have probably come closest, with an honorable mention to Bud Schulberg. Flem Snopes, Elmer Gantry, Undine Spragg, and Sammy Glick are literary cousins to the character I’m imagining based on Trump, self-aggrandizing opportunists exploiting the weaknesses and vices of everyone they come in contact with, using and allowing themselves to be used as it fits in with their scheming, ruthlessly on the make, taking swift advantage of every opportunity opened up to them by a social order that seems geared to reward hypocrisy, double-dealing, cynicism, and amoral intelligence and to actively and by design punish virtue and common decency, on their apparently unstoppable way to wealth, status, power, and apparent happiness. But The Hamlet,Elmer Gantry,The Custom of the Country, andWhat Makes Sammy Run? are local stories and fairly apolitical. And because they’re local, that is, they play out on small stages, their protagonists just don’t have the grand opportunities for mischief and villainy that Trump has had. Frenchman’s Bend isn’t as wide-open a town as New York City by a longshot and contains a much more greatly limited number of suckers, victims, marks, and foils. There isn’t enough money to steal or power to acquire to satisfy a Trump. Flem Snopes and the others are monsters of ego, vanity, greed, and ambition, but they aren’t close to being as monstrous as the Donald.
(It’s interesting to note that in It Can’t Happen Here Sinclair Lewis wound up treating the coming of fascism to America as pretty much a local story and Philip Roth did the same in The Plot Against America. I’m not sure what to make of that.)
For a while I considered Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full as a possible model for what I’m looking for. But fiction writing brings out the worst in Wolfe. Not only does his prose suffer but so does his insight into what makes people tick. His characters turn into stock figures and clichés. Worst of all, his own politics, a bland and misanthropic conservatism which is mostly an expression of a parvenu’s self-serving snobbery, takes over. In A Man in Full, his worship of power and money casuses him to make a hero out of someone whose real life counterparts tend to be dangerous and destructive villains.
Gore Vidal would be chortling in his joy at the prospect of writing about Trump, although I think he’d be laughing more at us than at Trump himself, enjoying watching us getting just what he was always sure we deserve and secretly want. Vidal wrote one of the best political novels of the 20th Century, Washington D.C., but its actual insight is limited by its being mainly an extended piece of family gossip. Lincoln is a pretty good book, but all but one of the other novels in the mordantly and a little too patly titled Narratives of Empire series are fairly mundane and melodramatic period pieces, distinguished only by Vidal’s increasingly desperate need to prove that American history since Lincoln has been a drawing room comedy version of the Wars of the Rose, a saga of a few aristocratic families playing with the destinies of an unseen and practically irrelevant common citizenry with no heroes and no heroic villains only cynical schemers motivated by vanity and a petty lust for power and that includes Franklin Roosevelt. The exception is Burr, one of the great satirical novels and it might be funny, assuming he never gets close to the presidency, to read Trump’s story told from Trump’s point of view, although I’m not sure even the most talented parodist could sustain a three or four hundred page novel made up entirely of a madman’s obsessive tweeting.
It’s been too long since I read Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold, but that might be a something like what I have in mind. And Bellow and Vonnegut could have handled it, although they’d have come at it in very different ways. Thomas Pynchon might already be on it. And I’d love to see what T.C. Boyle would make of it, although I’d expect him, being something of a regionalist, to tell a more localized version of the story. Anyone else you can think of who could handle the story? I’m leaning towards Don Delillo, although Underworld is missing a central villain so I’m having a hard time imagining what he’d do with Trump.
Human beings have more vices than virtues, and so people tend to have have more sins, failures, and weaknesses in common than they do acts of nobility, decency, and heroism. And times, circumstances, and cultural pressures and trends increase certain temptations. It’s long been a flaw in the American character---sometimes a comic flaw but usually a tragic one---that we think the purpose of life is not to be good or even to be happy but to be “successful,” and it’s how people define success that gets them into trouble. Too often it just means being better than everyone else is some less than admirable way and then lording it over people. And that appears to be the driving theme of Trump’s life.
I’m sure someone will get to it sooner or later. It’s not really important to me who or when. My point here is that Trump is a fascinating story but he himself is not the story.
Of course he’s one of the leading characters in the news story of the day. But who he is, what made him, how he’s gotten to where her is and whose fault that is are academic questions. Trump is a type. There have been many versions of him before and there will be many more to come. There are many varieties of Trumps out there being Trumps at this very moment. Where does a Trump come from? Anywhere and everywhere. There’s some version of him in every town and city, in every office and college dorm. In churches and classrooms and on playgrounds. Aboard ships at sea and in army barracks and high school locker rooms. The country is full of spiteful, malicious, rapacious bullies and con artists on the lookout for the main chance. They just need the opportunity to open up at the right moment. And that’s the story. How did this opportunity open up for Trump? And a good working title for that story is The Decline and Fall of the Republican Party.
I’m not sure where that story begins? With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? With the assassination of James Garfield? With Rutherford B. Hayes’ corrupt deal with Southern Democrats to get himself installed as President by the Electoral College despite having lost the popular vote in exchange for ending Reconstruction? With the decision by some short-sighted Republican party bosses who looked at the waves of immigrants arriving in the Northeast and said, What do we need them for? And so left the way open for the Tammany Hall ward heelers to go down to the docks and greet the new arrivals with offers of jobs and meals and places to live, asking only in return the small favor of voting early and often for the Democrats in the next election? With takeover of the party by the business interests who drove Theodore Roosevelt from the scene and allowed Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats to claim the mantle of Progressivism? With FDR driving those same interests so crazy with rage and frustration that they decided to devote the next eighty years to undoing the New Deal? With their welcoming into their ranks the likes of Strom Thurmond and other segregationists? With William F. Buckley’s intellectual justification for opposing Civil Rights? With Nixon and his Southern Strategy? With Ronald Reagan’s making common cause with the Religious Right with its zealots’ ambition to impose their perverted form of Christianity on the rest of the us? With Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America that was essentially a promise to restore straight white male supremacy to a country that had for almost its whole history prided itself on being the melting pot?
Wherever you choose to start it, that’s the story. That’s been the story. It will be told---it’s starting to be told---by historians, biographers, and documentarians. I’m sure novelists will get around to it. But the thing is, it’s a story that should have been the bread and butter of political journalists for at least the last twenty years. They should have started telling it the day it became clear the Republicans were willing to impeach a Democratic president for no good reason other than to overturn an election.
Longtime blogging comrade, Twitter and Facebook friend, and fellow upstate New Yorker Andrew Haggerty has taken clan way upstate for a vacation in the Adirondacks. Long Pond, Willsboro, New York. Around quarter after eight, Saturday evening, August 6, 2016.
That stalwart defender of truth in political journalism, Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert, taking a well-earned break from correcting the idiocies of the political pundits and analysts, sent along this post card from his week-long haven of bliss on the Jersey Shore. Island Beach State Park, Seaside Park, New Jersey. Mid-afternoon. Friday, August 5, 2016. 80 degrees.
The interns were at work re-organizing the archives again and they turned up my 2010 review of Me and Orson Welles, a little gem of a film directed by Richard Linklater. If you’ve never seen it, I heartily recommend it, if only for Christian McKay’s brilliant turn as Welles. I plan to watch it again soon myself.
Seems like a cranky thing to say, coming from a director whose new movie is about Orson Welles’ 1937 staging of Julius Caesar:
There are enough of those movies made as it is: sequels, remakes, franchises. It depresses me. It's the way the industry is going. They figure they can make these huge-ass Harry Potters, Batmans and Transformers, spend $200m on a surefire hit, and who cares about the quality? They've basically stopped making my kind of movies altogether.
That’s Richard Linklater, whose Me and Orson Welles you’d think wouldn’t have gotten made if all the movie industry cared about were guaranteed blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Me and Orson Welles has two target audiences, die-hard Zac Efron fans and people who’ve seen and loved Citizen Kane, which is not a miniscule demographic, but nobody will get rich selling action figures to us. Well, maybe to the Zac Efron fans. At any rate, it’s not a small group but it tends to be concentrated in places where I’m not living, which explains why I had to wait for it to come out on DVD to see it.
But in that quote Linklater is actually explaining why he’s not in a rush to make a follow-up to hisBefore Sunriseand Before Sunset set of films.
He doesn’t want to make a movie just for the sake of cashing in.
Which is all he thinks the industry does anymore.
An old, old story, complicated in this re-telling by the collapse of the independent film distribution market.
"I caught a groove where the whole process of making movies didn't feel stressful," he says. "I had a good run of eight or 10 films. And then all it took was two films: Fast Food Nation [his fumbled 2005 adaptation of the Eric Schlosser book] and this one, where I thought: 'Wow, this is a really tough business.' This one especially almost pushed the bounds of possibility."
Me and Orson Welles was largely shot in the Isle of Man, way back in the early months of 2008. It was hoped that the movie would find a distributor at that year's Cannes film festival, and then again at the Toronto film festival. But by that point the recession was biting and cash offers proved thin on the ground. Ultimately the film's producers cut a deal in which they effectively released the film themselves, splitting marketing costs with the Vue cinema chain. All of which caught the director by surprise.
"I'd always seen the film industry as a constant," he says. "And then all of a sudden the bottom fell out." He now finds himself in an alien terrain; indie distributors have gone to the wall and the directors have become self-publishers, streaming their films for an online audience. He's not sure he likes it. "I still hold on to the romantic vision of people watching my movie in a cinema," he admits. "I don't want to watch Bright Star on a fucking iPhone."
Linklater, by contrast, strikes me as an altogether more gentle and collegiate soul. I'm expecting him to shake his head at such antics. If anything he seems to applaud them. "Hey, if you want to work on stage or in a film, then that's how it is. There's only one director. Ships have only one captain. If you have a problem with the way he's doing things, I wouldn't suggest challenging him in front of the whole cast and crew. That's a lesson in integrity."
Me and Orson Welles tells the story of a precocious high school senior named Richard (played by Zac Efron doing a decent job of acting and making the case that he shouldn’t be blamed for having started out his career on the Disney Channel as a tweenage heartthrob) who dreams of being an artist someday. He’s not sure what sort of artist. He loves music, loves the theatre, loves writing and poetry. As he says of himself late in the film, “I just want to be part of it.” At the moment theatre is uppermost in his affections and he’s adopting the persona of an aspiring actor. One day he plays hooky to wander about New York City and two wonderful to the point of being magical things happen.
First, at the public library, he meets a nice girl named Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) who is struggling to become a writer.
Then he lucks into a small part in the Mercury Theatre’s now-legendary production of Julius Caesar. It’s legendary because its success begot the legend of the genius of Orson Welles.
Richard’s life is immediately swallowed up by the play, which is the same thing as being immediately swallowed up by Welles’ ego. Welles appears to take a real liking to Richard, but it’s like the liking a child takes to new favorite toy. Welles sees all his players as his to play with. They are instruments in his one-man orchestra. Richard is a new violin Welles looks forward to teaching himself how to play and he expects that he will play it beautifully.
Of course, any instrument that fails to respond to Welles’ liking takes the blame and gets quickly smashed.
Most of the movie is spent at the Mercury Theatre, but Richard does get back to the library to see the nice girl now and then. She’s easy to find since she spends most of her time sitting in front of a large Grecian urn that reminds her of Keats’ Ode and from which she takes both inspiration and heart.
Richard is presented with two contrasting---although as it turns out not necessarily conflicting---approaches to art. One is Gretta’s, in which ego is sublimated to serving art. The other is Welles’.
Sounds like a fable.
And there is a folkloric feel to the story. Young Simple leaves his home to go to the fair and learns that the great wide world is a more complicated, corrupt, and corrupting place than he imagined.
If Richard is Simple, then among the rogues he encounters at the fair, Welles is the chief rogue, the prince of thieves, the king of the gypsies.
But Linklater doesn’t play this as a fable. There’s no Wes Anderson-style whimsicality or borderline magic realism gently warning us not to take this at face value. Me and Orson Welles is shot as a realistic period piece, with those Isle of Man locations standing in convincingly for a few blocks of Manhattan circa 1937. The most fantastic thing in Me and Orson Welles is the Fantastic Mr Welles, a character who seems to have had to come out of a folk tale, because no real human being like this could possibly have existed.
Of course, Orson Welles was a literary creation. Created by…Orson Welles. In the movie we see the ingenious young Welles fashioning the legend of the Boy Genius Orson Welles on the fly, grabbing at everything he thinks he can use to help build that legend, and mostly what he grabs is other people.
As Linklater has it, Welles was a prince of thieves. What he stole, though, was ideas, credit, friends’ girlfriends and wives, time and attention, and other people’s energy, spirit, affection, and, in a very real way, their bodies and talents---when you went to work for Orson Welles he owned you. Like I said, people, actors, mainly, were his instruments, and you had no more right to object to how he decided to put you to use than that violin has to how it is played.
“I am Orson Welles! And each and every one of you stands here as an adjunct to my genius!”
There are only two people in his company who can resist him. One is Richard, whose heart and soul aren’t up for grabs because he’s already given them to Art. The other is Sonja, the company’s chief administrative assistant and Jill of All Trades, who is safe because she has boxed up her heart and soul and stored them away to be called for later. Sonja is played by a wry and no-nonsense Claire Danes with a constant somewhat sinister smile that, like the Cheshire Cat’s, implies she doesn’t have to take any of Welles’ or the other company members’ nonsense seriously because she knows she’s on her way out of here. She’s talented, hardworking, ambitious, and cannily opportunistic, and at any moment she’s going to disappear to move on to bigger and better things outside the theatre, leaving nothing behind but the memory of her smile.
She has to take a certain amount of abuse from Welles, now, because it serves her ambitions, at the moment. But except for Richard, all the other members of the company accept Welles’ abuse because he is their only hope of serving their ambitions.
Welles knows this and takes egregious and unconscionable advantage of it.
Welles is a monster of ego. There is nothing he can’t or won’t do that he decides needs doing to serve his ambitions and his vanity and the only reason that doesn’t include bank robbery and murder is that either would be beneath his genius. He is too smart, too charming, and too blessed by the gods to need to resort to vulgar criminality.
Charm, guile, and sheer force of will see him through.
Welles is the villain of Richard’s story. What’s intriguing about the movie is that it allows us to see that Welles is not just the hero of his own story but the hero of the stories of most of the Mercury Theatre’s players stories.
Welles is appalling. And there are points in the movie when you want to take satisfaction in what is going to happen to him, not in 1937, but by 1985 when he died at the surprisingly young age of 70. Surprising because by then it seemed that the once upon a time boy genius had been old for a very, very long time.
Welles spent the last third of his life not as a Prince of Thieves but as essentially a beggar, desperately trying to find financing to get his movies made, and his chief ploy---the “Crippled War Veteran” sign he wore around his neck while he begged---was to present himself as an outrageous self-parody. The Welles of the Dean Martin Roasts and the Tonight Show magic tricks and the “Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time" ads was, by his own design, a clown who fancies himself a fallen king but who believes in his own delusion so completely that his audience wants to believe along with him. It was a sad play to get people to reach for their wallets out of a mix of pity and wishful thinking and, while watching certain scenes in the movie you can’t help thinking “It must have been humiliating for him. Good!”
But remember. Linklater is on Welles’ side. At least in the struggle between director and actors.
While Welles treats them horribly, Linklater makes us see that his horribleness is necessary to their success. They are all too weak to survive in the theatre on their own. That doesn’t mean that they are all weak in the sense of having flawed characters, although most of them do, and several of them are as vain and egomaniacal as Welles’ himself, even more so, as they can’t see past their own vanities. Welles has a self-awareness that they all lack. But even the best of them are weak in the sense that ordinary mortals need Superman to break through brick walls and stop runaway locomotives for them.
You can’t be an actor unless somebody casts you in a play or a movie and then sees that the play gets produced or the movie gets made, and given all the obstacles---see Linklater on the movie industry above---that takes superhuman will, energy, drive, and confidence.
We can forgive Welles most of what he does to his players, even to Richard, if we keep in mind what is coming and realize that without Welles’ superhuman efforts of will, energy, drive, and confidence there would be no Citizen Kane.
We also need to keep in mind that even with that superhuman will, energy, drive, and confidence and the reputation he’d earned for Citizen Kane he couldn’t get The Magnificent Ambersons released as the movie he made or make another film to rival either of his first two.
Richard and Gretta believe in art for art’s sake. Welles knows that there is no art except for Welles’ sake. Linklater believes that Richard and Gretta’s point of view has an essential truth. His life and career have taught him that Welles’ point of view is what makes their point of view, even their lives as aspiring artists, possible.
In order for Me and Orson Welles to work---for it to make any sense---you not only have to know that there really was an egomaniacal bastard genius named Orson Welles, you have to believe he could have been a bastard in exactly the way the movie portrays him. You have to believe that the movie’s Welles is the Orson Welles.
Which is apparently why God created Christian McKay.
McKay’s performance is brilliant and magical. It’s not an impersonation so much as a recapitulation, the way a son can resemble his father to such an uncanny degree that it frightens people who knew the latter as a young man. McKay is so like Welles in expression, manner, and intonation that he has reason to ask his mother if she was by any chance near the set of Treasure Island or The Man Who Came Dinner nine or so months before he was born.
I think Me and Orson Welles is only comprehensible to people who have seenCitizen Kane. It’s more fun for people who not only have seen it but who are familiar enough with its history and the history of the Mercury Theatre to recognize some of the other names besides Welles’ and to see in Eddie Marsan’s and James Tuppen’s performances the resemblances to the real John Houseman and Joseph Cotton.
That may be a niche audience too small for the money people in the movie industry to see as worth chasing, but it’s not all that small a niche or demographically segregated.
A little while ago I was in our local video store and browsing the drama section nearby me was a group of kids, two guys and two girls, friends, it seemed, not a pair of couples. They were college-aged but things about the way they were dressed, the way they talked and treated each other made me think they weren’t college students. These were working class kids already out in the world on their own holding down the blue or pink collar jobs they would count themselves lucky to hold down for life. One of the guys was their leader in picking out the movie for the night and he was making suggestions based on his own quite clearly considerable movie-watching experience. He wasn’t reading the boxes. He was telling them off the top of his head the plots and who starred in the movies and what other movies they’d starred in and what other movies they’d all seen that were like the potential choices. They had narrowed it down to four or five DVDs until he spotted yet another title he recognized.
He snatched the box from the shelf. “Oh. Have you seen this one? You’ve got to see this one! It’s supposed to be one of the best movies ever made!”
On that recommendation the others agreed right away.
HOME! I’m home! Hospital kicked me out yesterday afternoon. And it’s all legal and everything. Nobody’s coming to drag me back. I still feel a little beat up, like somebody cut into my back with some sharp instruments, rooted around in there for three hours, scraped out some bone, drove in some screws, and stitched me up with little concern for how much it would smart afterwards, but otherwise my morale is ok and I can walk from the chair to the coffee maker in just a little under fifteen minutes. Blogging will continue in one form or another, but I’m having a little trouble focusing, thanks to the painkillers, so extended periods of coherent writing are probably not going to happen for a while yet, which means my review of Star Trek: Beyond, which we saw the weekend before I went under the knife, may have to wait a couple of days, but I’ll be back with a more detailed medical report tonight, I think. Meantime, thank you all for your concern, well-wishes, and support. It meant a lot to me and to Mrs M and Ken and Oliver.
If you’re curious about how I fared while in the hospital and want to read the daily testimony of my stoicism and heroic good nature, see my Facebook page.
Waiting for the Half-Blood Prince: then 12 year old Ken Mannion waiting to pick up his copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at Cabbages and Kings bookstore, Chatham, Massachusetts, just before midnight, Saturday, July 15, 2005.
Last night at midnight the book version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released and there were parties and celebrations at bookstores all around the world, just as there were in the good old days when Young Ken and Oliver Mannion were were among Harry’s avid fans and they looked forward to the arrival of each new installment in the original series. I guess we have to talk about it as “the original series” now. Does that make what Rowling’s begun with The Cursed Child---assuming she’s begun anything and The Cursed Child isn’t a one-off---the sequels? Or has she started a new series? We’ll find out. Meanwhile, the release of The Cursed Child parties reminded me of the one time we went to one---we being Ken and me. Oliver was too tuckered out from a day of Cape Cod fun and adventure to join us. Turns out Ken was too. But he stuck it out to pick up his copy of The Half-Blood Prince at the sadly now-gone Cabbages and Kings bookstore in Chatham when we were down there on vacation in July of 2005. Here’s my post from that night, Witching Hour.
Amazon accidentally delivered the kid's copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince on Friday instead of Saturday as they were supposed to. The box even said Do Not Deliver Before July 16. But the kid's father wouldn't let him open it when he came running in all excited from the mailbox.
The father said it wouldn't be fair to all the kids who wouldn't be getting their copies until midnight and were waiting patiently.
One of those kids waiting until midnight was our 12 year old. He and I went to the Harry Potter party at one of the bookstores in town. This was more my idea than his. He enjoys the books but he would have been content to wait till Christmas to read the new one. In fact, by 11:30 Friday night he was ready to give up his place in line, go home, go to bed, and put the book on his Christmas list in the morning. He'd had a long, busy day of biking and swimming and was exhausted.
Harry Potter is a phenomenon but he's not a requirement. Lots of children who love to read don't love to read Harry Potter and although J.K. Rowling has been credited with getting children to read she had nothing to do with our kids' love of reading. When he was in kindergarten the 12 year old taught himself to read with our Calvin and Hobbes books and while last year he read the second most books among the other kids in his age group in our library's summer reading program he prefers histories, books about mythology and science, and, sigh, comic books, to novels.
His brother likes mysteries. He likes Harry Potter, but he loves Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and if there's a midnight release of the so far nameless book the twelfth in October he'll be the first in line.
After Lemony Snicket his next favorite author is Roald Dahl, with Matilda being his favorite of Dahl's books.
As it turns out, I think I'm more interested in Harry Potter than they are. I'm not surprised or disappointed that they're not wild about Harry, though. When I was their age I didn't care much for fantasies. I preferred books about knights, realistic books about knights, not sword and sorcery books with knights in them. I liked histories and biographies and the Hardy Boys, of course. In junior high when I began picking up "grown-up" novels I loved Mark Twain and Jules Verne and---I'm not boasting---William Shakespeare. I also enjoyed spy novels and Agatha Christie mysteries, but no other detective stories except Sherlock Holmes. If something like Harry Potter had come out when I was a kid I'd probably have ignored it or even hated it on principle---the principle being that too many girls liked it. Harry Potter is very popular among girls, so popular that I've been wondering if in fact girls are really Rowling's main audience. There seemed to be an equal number of boys and girls under 12 at the Harry Potter party Friday night, but all of the older kids were girls, including three college students in line just ahead of us---Harry Potter has been around long enough now that many of his first fans have graduated from high school.
My niece, Violet Mannion, who has become a regular commenter on the page, can speak to this. She is an enthusiastic Potter fan and I'm hoping she'll give us her review of the Half Blood Prince, which I suspect she's read through at least twice by now.
According to the Boston Globe, it's a much darker book than the ones that have come before, which, considering what happened in the Order of the Phoenix, makes me think JK Rowling is following even more closely in the footsteps of her major influence and only rival in the small club of authors who have become phenomenons, Charles Dickens.
Michael Berube, who at last report was a hundred and twenty pages into the Half Blood Prince, has had his mind boggle at the thought of how much pressure Rowling is under whenever she sits down to start a new book. In his post the other day he was musing on this and wondering what other writers had to meet the expectations that Rowling has had to.
I can't think of anyone else except Dickens. In the United States huge crowds used to gather at the docks when the news got out that the ship brining the latest installment of one of his novels was coming into port.
The legend is that in Boston the crowds learned that Little Nell had died when the captain of the ship bringing in the last chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop appeared on deck with tears streaming down his cheeks.
At any rate, the point of this post hasn't been to take anything away from Rowling or Harry Potter, even though I think the effect she's said to have had on children's reading is greatly exaggerated. I think her reputation on this score has benefited from timing---the Potter books hit the bookstores at about the time the bookstores had all turned into Barnes and Nobles and Borders.
Lovers of independent bookstores who loathe and despise the rise of the mega-stores should remember that in most of America before the mid 1990s the only bookstore in town would be a Waldenbooks stacked high with the latest Garfields and Tom Clancy, with the literature section tucked into an uncomfortable and badly lighted corner of the store where the only thing to sit on was the stack of remaindered coffee table books the clerks hadn't gotten around to shelving yet.
I think Rowling and the mega-stores have had a symbiotic relationship. Lemony Snicket too. But I don't think either Rowling or Snicket, or Philip Pullman or Garth Nix, have created a generation of readers who would not have come into being without them.
All of them should be credited with improving kids' reading skills and tastes. A hundred years ago children learned to read by reading Charles Dickens and the Brontes and Louisa May Alcott and Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. Adults marvel at the idea of children reading 652 page novels. (On our walk home from the Potter Party at 1 in the morning, the 12 year old told me he thought it would take him a few days to read the Half Blood Prince. He said it deliberatively, as if he saw a big job ahead and was planning the most efficient method for tackling it.) But long ago nobody thought anything of it. Children didn't read picture books because there weren't picture books.
Illustrations are another thing and I wish it was an art form that would be brought back.
The great good thing Rowling and her contemporaries have done, I think, is help create a community of young readers.
There have always been children who love to read, but they tended to do it all on their lonesomes, holed up in their rooms, and the joy they found in their books was a private joy.
But Harry Potter has opened the bedroom doors as wonderfully as he opened the Chamber of Secrets. All these young readers now talk to each other. They trade books, they get online and post in forums and on webpages, they build friendships around their mutual love of books, and they read more and they read faster. Reading isn't an escape from their lives and other kids. It's a part of their lives and a connection with other kids.
Intellectuals have always posited that the world would be a better place, full of smarter, more moral people if the love of books became universal. The argument against this idea has been that the readingest group of people on earth, college professors, are among the most miserable, both in their own feelings and in their characters.
But looking around at the Harry Potter party the other night all I saw were a lot of bright, articulate, polite, cheerful, and nice young men and women.
A store full of Harrys, Rons, and Hermiones, with not a Malfoy, Goyle, or Crabbe in sight.
Wednesday. July 27, 2016. New posts below, but before scrolling down. Please read:
Once again, thanks to everyone who donated to the medical bill fund. Your help and generosity really saved the day. Surgery's this morning. Should be over by noon. I'll check in to let you know how it went as soon as I'm able.
Again, thank you. And thanks to all for reading the blog.