Archive for August 2009

On Being a Man

Part of the enjoyment of being a teacher of English is that you will read books you never would have considered picking up in the bookstore. I had to read a series of books for an American Experience class I’m teaching, and strangely, both dealt with the African-American experience: Kindred, by Octavia Butler and Passing, by Nella Larson. I’ve taught for fifteen years, and not only had I not read either of these books before, but I had never heard of these books before. Forget what it says about how much more I need to read. It makes an embarrassing statement about me as a so-called educated white person.Nella Larson (1891-1964) was a librarian-turned-writer from Chicago and wrote during the Harlem Renaissance, which coincided with, or most likely, helped to define, the Modernist movement in the United States.

As I ventured into the book, the comparisons to The Great Gatsby were coming to me vividly, complete with Nick Carroway’s counterpart in the book, Irene Redfield, and a conglomeration of Daisy and Gatsby named Clare Kendry. Both are Modernist fictions in the way each examines the problem with obsessing over identity, and I was a little suspicious of how Larsen seemed to borrow a lot from Gatsby (I checked to see which was written first and didn’t automatically assume Fitzgerald had done it first, which makes me a little better white person, no?)

As I got deeper into the book, though, the third-person, omniscient, psychological ruminations turned me toward comparisons to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, starring Irene as Clarissa Dalloway and Clare Kendry as an amalgamation of Sally Seton, Peter Walsh, and Septimus Smith, complete with the jumping out the window bit. That’s when I found out Larsen’s career was basically cut short because of accusations of plagiarism. None of the accusations had to do with Gatsby or Mrs. Dalloway, and nothing was ever really proved as far as I could tell from my brief research, but it was obvious to me that these major Modernist works set her on the path she took in Passing. Still, it’s an excellent book that only she could have written.

Being a librarian, though, I don’t blame her for mistakenly borrowing the plots, characters, and themes of these books. Librarians read the books they recommend constantly. They are always, always reading, so it’s natural for everything in those books to burn into her mind, only to spill into her own work later. I wrote a lot during my years as a middle school teacher, and I was very proud with what I had written. Then one day I was discussing The Pigman by Paul Zindel with my seventh graders and noticed that I had actually lifted a line from the book and wrote it, unknowingly, into one of my stories. It was horrifying. Lydia Davis once said that she never reads anything while she’s writing, and I can see why.

But I question whether my conclusion about Nella Larson’s borrowing had more to do with my familiarity with both of the texts I compared to her work. Maybe the characters line up so obviously to me because I wanted them to – that it could be done with thousands of literary characters, and that it might have more to do with the people of the time.

How great is my job that I can claim to have read and analyzed great books over and over again? Using my brothers as examples, Billy works with numbers – can claim a thorough familiarity with numerical figures and how they are applied to proper bookkeeping for a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical firm. Fun.

Jeffrey can claim to have thoroughly studied the mechanisms of cooling systems, small motors. He can set up and take down an Olympic-caliber ice-surface. He can also discuss what happens on the tarmac of a major airline, how to place occupied coffins into the baggage compartment of a jet, and how to set up a landscaping business.

I’m able to say that I’ve experienced worlds of fiction and in doing so, I’ve found out something different about myself and the literature every time I’ve read it, as long as it isn’t anything by Gary Paulsen, which is the absolute worst writing I have ever read by someone so successful – even worse than James Frey.

So what does it all mean? What kind of advantage can I say I have by being able to boast that my skill – the thing I do every day – is to be able to pull apart, analyze, and ostensibly reassemble the words of a writer – to be able to live in someone else’s world every single day and avoid my own. If all other things were equal, I might be able to say I had an advantage. But all things are not equal.

There are four major components, as far as I can tell, of being a man:

His Fatherhood

His Job

His Personal and Individual Identity

His Marriage

My brothers are great fathers. There’s no disputing this. I would like to think that I am, also, a great father, despite the fact that I am now living 800 miles away from them, and can kiss them only by puckering my lips on video chat, repeatedly, because “I didn’t get it, Daddy. Jack was blocking me…” Despite the fact that I have left my sons, I think I’m as good a father as my brothers.

To my brothers, again, as far as I can tell, the job is the means to support their families and barely anything more. My occupation is part of my lifestyle, or my personal identity, for better or worse. It means that after the work is done, my brothers go home to be husbands and fathers, and I am constantly wrapped up in my work because my work is my lifestyle. I have never separated my work from my personal life, and I have let my personal life and obsession over my own identity consume me. I think this is the definition of a self-centered person.

My brothers’ personal identities relate directly to their children and wives and nothing else. My brothers have no passions, as far as I can see, other than their wives and children. They have sacrificed their personal identities for their families, and they are seen as good men for it, while my obsession over my personal life has nearly destroyed my marriage and broken me into several jagged pieces.

I’ve come to Chicago to try and put myself back together.