Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Classics Club Question: Classics and Isms

Think of an example of a classic you’ve read that presents issues like racism/sexism as acceptable within society. Do you think the reception of this classic work would be the same if it were newly published today? What can we get out of this work despite its weaknesses? Or, why would you say this work is still respected/treasured/remembered in 2014?

Another Classics Club member (I wish I could remember which one! Please comment if it was you or you know who it was) mentioned Last of the Mohicans and went on to cite Cooper's weird romanticizing/fetishization of the American Indians*. I'm not saying it isn't there, and I'm not saying Twain's harsh criticism of Cooper isn't warranted (though that's style issues, not social justice), but it never took me out of the story. It was a product of its time, and in a lot of ways Cooper's treatment of American Indians is fairly progressive for its time (1826). I don't know what it is about Last of the Mohicans and Natty Bumppo but this might well be one of my favorite classics of all time. Even if it gets kind of secondhand embarrassing as time and tastes change.

The first book I thought of for this question, however, wasn't Last of the Mohicans. Like I said, Cooper's romanticization of the Delaware and 19th century views on gender relations never took me out of the story. What really made me uncomfortable was the anti-Semitism in John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra. 

The novel was not without controversy when it was first published; critics considered it vulgar and infantile. Many were put off by O'Hara's frank discussion of sexuality. Time has been kind to Appointment in Samarra in that regard, as those early concerns about its vulgarity vanished and the only thing that remains is its inclusion in the modern Western/English canon. Not without good reason: the book is otherwise masterfully plotted and written and O'Hara has some brilliant observations about the indeterminate nature of social relationships.

But in a novel that follows the inner life of everyone mentioned, including even the lone black character, the silence from the new Jewish residents  of Gibbsville (small town USA based on the anthracite coal towns of northeastern Pennsylvania) is painful and conspicuous. It's one thing to write a book dealing with race and racism, or to have a racist character within a book that is not racist, but it's quite another to have contempt for a particular group of people go completely and totally unchecked in a book where every other prejudice and preconceived notion is examined and dismantled as necessary. The Jewish family doesn't figure much in the story—like I said, they don't get their own chapter or the same close third person narration that so many others do—and only a handful of characters even think about them at all. But every time they're mentioned, the revulsion is barely-contained and spans a variety of characters, even those we're supposed to like.

Such an attitude was probably okay in 1934. No one seemed to mention it in any of Appointment in Samarra's damning reviews. But I think if O'Hara were writing to day, those lines would meet with some heavy criticism—assuming they even made it to press. It's more likely that they would have been edited out of the manuscript very early on and never brought to the light of day.

Still, Appointment in Samarra is hardly an anti-Semitic propaganda piece. It is otherwise an enjoyable and insightful read, despite the introduction by one of my more loathed authors on the TIME Top 100 List, John Updike. The foibles of human interaction are something that will never change, even as customs and technology do, and that's what makes Appointment in Samarra universal.

*There are a whole host of names to refer to the civilizations that were already present in America when the Europeans started colonizing. I use the term "American Indian" to refer to them, at least in the United States, as it is the term a great majority of the peoples in question prefer for themselves. But if I'm wrong, let me know.

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