I AM SHOCKED TO DISCOVER!….RUMINATING ON OBSCENITY, THEN AND NOW (Adventures in Language: First Journey)

[WARNING: Since this category-inaugurating post is about current and historical uses of vulgar language, I’ll have to use words I don’t normally use either in my every day existence or on this blog. I know I have readers who prefer to avoid all that, so, if you’re one of them, you may want to either skip this or at least proceed with caution.]

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Hard to read, but if you peer closely enough, you’ll find a copy of a license to practice prostitution at a “House of Ill Fame” in the City of Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881, which is very close to the time period I’ll be discussing below.

So last week came the news that Madonna is offering high quality blow jobs to Clinton voters. While it’s unclear whether this is a promise or a threat, it’s definitely an attempt to stay relevant. These days, you have to run fast if you want to stay on the cutting edge Madonna used to navigate with ease. Even so, the belief that a woman’s freedom lies in wanting what her guy wants–already all the rage–doesn’t have much further to go before it reaches its inevitable conclusion. That’ s where the rape victim at last finds “freedom” by learning to want what the rapist wants.

You can see why even Madonna might be getting a little out of breath.

It can’t be easy being the Queen of Shock when a major party nominee for president–the Republican no less–has a tape out there where he’s bragging about pussy-grabbing and Howard Stern, of all people, is insisting he’s never heard that kind of talk!

If I seem a little skeptical of this latter claim, it might be because Trump would have been counted an amateur in my rural southern high school’s lunchroom. (Forget the “locker room.” In public school environments back then the only place that was relatively loose and unsupervised was the lunchroom.)

I’m not saying something along the lines of  “Damn it, I saw that white stuff spilling out of her pussy and I started thinking Jesus fuckin’ Christ I mighta’ just made a baby. Fuckin’ bitch was straight-up Italian, too. Little fucker’ll probably be born with a mustache.” was every day conversation, but nobody counted it any way unusual. Given my subsequent adult exposure to city types (i.e., “Who does he think I”m gonna hire John? I’m gonna hire the one I want to fuck!”), I doubt the level of enlightenment was much higher elsewhere.

And I doubt much has changed.

But here’s a question.

Was it ever thus?

I have a special interest in this for two reasons. The first is that I have a relationship to language that’s a lot like the relationship singers have to singing. Ask a singer when they started singing and it’s almost guaranteed the answer will be along the lines of “since before I can remember.” Same with me and the pursuit of words–spoken words, written words, overheard words, covert words, public words, whispered words, imaginary words, words to learn, words to live by, words to forget or else be nagged or haunted or vexed by.

Almost any child has a boundless interest in words, of course, but mine went far beyond  any version of normal. When it came to words (and almost nothing else), I had to know. I didn’t have to share what I learned. Sharing, in fact, is still a learning process (of which this blog is just the latest part). But I always had to know. And what I mostly had to know was just how much power words–or, if you like, language–could contain. How I could use them and how they could use me.

The second reason, likely the main reason I’ve taken a long time to find myself as a fiction writer–and I have, the world just hasn’t caught up yet–is that I never wanted to be pretty good. I never wanted to settle. I wanted to be as good as anyone can be in this time and place. I wanted to die unpublished (which could still happen), rather than live with being just okay, no matter how successful.

Whether I’ve gotten all the way there will be for others to judge once the stories I’ve learned to tell make their way into some public domain (self-publishing if all else fails–yes you pros out there, yearning to discover the next big thing, that’s a threat and a promise).

But the yammering around the “shock” that’s being expressed over vulgar, abusive language these days–language which always amounted to just words in our collapsed “modern” culture until Donald Trump, of all people, spoke them out loud–has put me in mind of a particular instance where I found myself playing Mark Twain’s old right word/almost right word (i.e., the difference between lightning and the lightning bug) game whilst trying to live inside the mind of a young woman in the Arizona Territory, circa the late 1870s, trying to find just the right words to say to a town marshal who has come to deliver her a considerable bounty earned by her husband for tracking down three stagecoach robbers.

Normally, the right words for that circumstance might be along the lines of a simple “Thank you.” But, this being a tale worthy of the telling and a telling worthy of the tale, the young woman’s relationships to the marshal, her husband and the bounty her husband has earned are…complicated.

Without giving away too much of the plot–you will want to read the book some day–let me just give the situational basics:

The young woman has come from a terribly hard, violent background in the Civil War South. The marshal is a classic Yankee carpetbagger who has an eye for her. They have collaborated on a scheme to send her husband after the bounty. They do not have the same ends in mind, however, as she simply wants the money while he wants a crack at her.

Her husband is lying (seriously, though not mortally, wounded–he may never walk again) in the tiny house where they live with their four-year-old daughter.

She has just learned that the gunfight where her husband was wounded, may have been a bushwhack set up by the marshal (his backup plan for turning her into a vulnerable, available widow in case the stage robbers weren’t up to killing her husband to begin with).

She is now standing just inside the front door of her house, staring out through a fly screen, watching the marshal walk up to her front porch.

She is not yet certain that the information just conveyed to her by a teenage girl who is her unofficial ward is reliable, but she has nonetheless picked up a shotgun.

As she waits for the marshal to step up on to her porch, she thinks: I will know by his eyes.

When he is close enough for her to see his reaction to the sight of the shotgun (on an occasion when he expects to be met with open arms), she knows the information is sound. The marshal is the reason her husband may never walk again…and why certain larger plans, of which the bounty is a necessary ingredient, may never go forward.

She pushes the screen door open with the barrel of the shotgun and steps onto the porch.

Then she raises the shotgun’s muzzle to the very surprised marshal’s eye.

…There I had to decide what she was going to say, and, this still being a telling worthy of the tale, I shifted to a memory scene, wherein the teenage girl who gave the woman the information (and who stuck around to watch the four-year-old and sneak a peek at what she suspected were going to be fireworks) is recalling her time on the witness stand during the trial that inevitably ensued.

She’s been admonished to say exactly what happened and, having been assured by the court that this is what she must do, she begins by repeating the woman’s exact words–the words I had to come up with to convey the quality of the woman’s rage.

“Damn” and “hell” didn’t seem to get there and I knew “mother fucker”–which is kind of dull and listless anyway–was not a thing then.

So I had the woman say (and the girl remember) this:

You back up off of my porch cocksucker!

I thought this was strong. The woman in question is a devout Christian, but has been formed by an extremely violent and harsh set of experiences. She is drawing on deep memories of that previous violence (much of it done to her, some of it done by her). She  also well knows the power of shock language coming from her, especially when it is directed at a man who is infatuated with her and has an inkling, but no specific knowledge, of her background. Having had women point guns at him before–he’s that type–he only becomes alarmed when he notices that her hands don’t shake.

Perfect then, or at least perfectly acceptable.

I was satisfied with it.

The only question was, did anybody, Christian woman or otherwise, say “cocksucker” in Arizona in 1878?

Language, you see. My thing. Should I leave it alone just this once?

It bugged me a little. Surely, I thought. Surely by 1878!

I spent another year finishing the book from that scene forward (it’s about a third of the way in), then some months editing and polishing.

I left in “cocksucker.”

It still felt strong. I just still didn’t know if she would actually say it in 1878.

I liked it well enough that I considered not researching it, because, if the book were ever published, not one in a thousand readers would know if the word was historically anachronistic and even fewer would care.

Still, it bugged me, not knowing. It bugged me long after I had satisfied the thousand other issues–language related or otherwise–bound to come up in a seven hundred page novel set well before the memory of anyone currently living.

I admit it. I didn’t want to find out that “cocksucker” wasn’t a valid word for the time, place and/or character, because, if it wasn’t, then it was unlikely I would find another word or phrase as good.

If that happened, then I would be caught in the Deadwood dilemma. Though I had never seen an episode of Deadwood at the time (I wrote about my subsequent, rather disappointing experience with the first season here), I had come across interviews with the show’s creator David Milch and some of the other writers. They freely admitted their use of “cocksucker” and the various forms of “fuck” were anachronistic (in the sense that they were almost certainly not part of every day speech, even in brothels or criminal gangs) in the show’s time period (very close to mine).

I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd. Even before I watched it I was sure of that. I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd because not being part of any crowd is my identity.

Knowing that, I also knew that, finally, I had to do my research.

It didn’t take long to confirm one expectation and discover another thing I hadn’t know.

The expectation was that the specific origin and use of blue language as it related to common speech in an era when many words were unprintable is often murky at best. By the best information I could find, “cocksucker” wasn’t referred to in print anywhere until the 1890s. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t have been in use in 1878. Words are rarely invented for the purpose of publication and, if they are, they rarely outlast their specific usage. (Think supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which my generation of school children used to insist was the longest word in the English language no matter how often our teachers kept insisting it was not a word!)

“Cocksucker” seemed like the kind of practical word that might have been in common usage by 1878, found its way into print a decade or two later, and survived to even more common usage in later days, to be re-inserted into “history” by modern fiction writers invested in making the language of history seem real.

Its historical usage–the likelihood, or at least possibility, of it showing up in my character’s speech on that porch in the Arizona Territory in 1878–couldn’t be confirmed.

But it couldn’t be absolutely denied either.

I was safe….Kind of….Sort of.

Not safe enough, in other words, to keep the issue from bugging me.

Still, I might have let it go, had I not come across the thing I did not expect.

I did not expect it because, what with those thousand other things on on my mind, I had gotten hung up on the origin of this certain word and simply neglected to consider something which should always be first and foremost among anyone trying to write convincing historical fiction, which is the evolution of words.

It was one thing to suggest–without proof one way or the other–that my character, under extreme duress, could have used “cocksucker” on a porch in Arizona in 1878.

But what about how she used it?

Not how she said it. That’s a matter of tone, and the tone being perfectly matched to the word–along with the fear of never finding another quite so good–was the whole reason I was fighting to keep it to begin with.

Usage is something else, though. And that was where the real problem began.

At a stretch “cocksucker” might have been available to my character. At only a slightly longer stretch she might have even used it.

But, in Arizona, in 1878, she would never have used it the way I was having her use it.

Being a very literal-minded character, she would never have used it at all unless she was referring to someone she knew for a certainty sucked cocks…and would never have used it at all in the circumstance I had her using it.

She would not have used it as a euphemism for “bastard” or “son of a bitch” or “hell spawn” because, even though those insults already carry a certain euphemistic quality, the one thing all my research confirmed–the one thing everybody agreed on–was that it was well into the twentieth century before “cocksucker” was used the way those other words were used.

To be called a “son of a bitch” did not mean someone literally thought your mother was a bitch (then regarded as a further euphemism for a “loose women” which was the polite phrase for “whore,” now more likely to be applied to someone merely being cranky). But to be called a cocksucker just meant you were known to suck cocks.

In other words, before it became a euphemism itself, “cocksucker” was, by every account I could find, universally literal.

My character might have said (even as far back as the 1870s, well before its first officially recognized use, if we accept that much obscenity was then kept in the shadows) “Well he is known to be a cocksucker.” But neither she, nor anyone else, would have said: “He’s a goddamned cocksucker!”

Nor, as Deadwood might have it, would one have said “He’s a mother fucking cocksucker!”.

Not unless maybe you knew for a fact that the man in question had both consorted with his mother and sucked at least one man’s member.

Evolving sex words into general insults–ultimately the worst insults–seems to have been a curious side effect of the twentieth century’s waves of sexual revolution.

That might be another post for another time.

For now, let’s get back to me and my dilemma.

Cocksucker was a word my character simply would not have used.

Granted, historical language is unlikely to be anywhere near perfect.. One of the things I came across in my research was how many of the “folksy” frontier words Hollywood was using in westerns or historical dramas in the 1930s were completely anachronistic or even ahistorical, despite many of the people involved as writers, directors and actors, having grown up around a generation who lived through the period in question. But I still couldn’t live with something I knew didn’t cut it.

I’d already told myself every comforting lie I could think of, and I still had to go and poke the anthill. Once the anthill was good and poked–no longer hibernating but alive with confusion–I had no choice but to set out on a new quest for the “lightning.”

“Cocksucker” had officially been turned into a lightning bug.

For the moment I was stuck with going back to “son of a bitch,” which I had rejected to begin with because it was too common an epithet (in that time or this) to carry the full weight of the situation. The man arranged to have her husband shot for God’s sake!

In those rare moments when my character could forget that she was on her way to becoming a lady, she would have thrown son of a bitch around as casually as she drew a breath.

For this moment, when she was pointing a shotgun in the face of a law officer who she had just discovered had her husband shot and nearly killed, I thought she would reach a little deeper….that something stronger would flow through her mind.

It was my job, finally, to discover what she already knew…which was what she would really say.

“Son of a bitch?”

I meant more to her than it does to anyone now living.

But it still didn’t feel like it meant quite enough.

Back to the Deadwood dilemma.

How to bridge the distance between the modern mind’s expectations and what a historical character would actually say at one of the novel’s crucial moments.

There was nothing to do but keep living in her mind–especially her mind at that moment–and hope for the best.

i did that for a few weeks and then, unbidden, she walked through mind mind’s eye and confronted the Marshal as she had a thousand times before. She raised the shotgun to his eye, saw his shocked expression, just like always.

Then she said:

You back up off of my porch you sheep shit son of a bitch.

And that was that.

Son of a bitch hadn’t done it.

Adding “sheep shit”—the beautiful, natural alliteration, the organic association with the eternal images of the sheep-vs-cattle wars that take up so much space in western history and mythology, the combination of the long assimilated directness of judging a man’s character by his whore of a mother and being no better than sheep dung as a result–gave it the just right touch.

Once I heard the unbidden phrase in my ear, I knew that, unlike “cocksucker” or “son of a bitch” on its own, it came from her and nobody else.

I knew those words satisfied her and, the way only she could deliver it, they stung the Marshal far deeper than “cocksucker,” which he would have already had flung at him a hundred times over if the word, and the concept of applying it non-literally, had been available to the average “dove” (the time and place’s euphemism for a prostitute, especially one working in “a house of ill fame”).

My character is a woman who will abide by, even insist upon, the strictest observance of the social niceties, unless and until her back is to the wall. At which point she will make the meanest man in the world wish he had just walked on by. The combination of steady hand on the shotgun trigger and “sheep shit son of a bitch” conveyed all of that.

Just where she decided to shoot him, you’ll have to read the book some day to find out.

Just as a coda: Madonna and Trump, in the recent instances cited above, both deployed direct, frontier usage, calling a thing what it is. However, one of Trump’s earlier headline-grabbing “transgressions” was a game of cat and mouse with a female in the audience at one of his early rallies, which ended with first her, then him (quoting her), calling Ted Cruz “a pussy.”

That was pure modernism, no matter how much you think Ted Cruz resembles a vagina.

THE RISING….1975, WHAT A CONCEPT (Sixth Memo: Mixed Race Edition)

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As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.

Then again, there’s the music.

That’s trickier.

The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.

What a happy journey that’s been!

I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.

Or maybe politics.

I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?

I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.

I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?

Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?

I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.

And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.

Yeah. That’s always fun.

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(Linda Ronstadt and band, on the road in ’75)

Track 1: “You’re No Good” Linda Ronstadt

The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.

All very typical.

Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of  the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.

All still pretty typical.

Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.

It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.

Good start.

Leg up to ’75.

Track 2: “Jackie Blue” Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

By 1975, “Southern Rock” was a sufficiently big deal for some marketing genius to decide the form needed its own version of the Eagles.

Perverse genius? Or merely perverse?

Like so much else back then, and so little now, that’s for each person to decide.

Track 3: “That’s the Way (I Like It)” KC and the Sunshine Band

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Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.

[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]

Track 4: “Must of Got Lost” J. Geils Band

From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”

And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.

Track 5: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War

Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.

Track 6: “Sister Golden Hair” America

What’s that you say? 1975 deserves every kick you can give it?

“Too, too hard to find?” you say?

Okay. Maybe.

But you know, I just say, “You’re no good, Jackie Blue, and that’s the way I like it, so I must of got lost and just why can’t we be friends sister golden hair?”

I also sing along every single damn time it comes on the radio.

Track 7: “Philadelphia Freedom” Elton John

Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?

Of course it was.

But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.

Track 8: “Black Water”The Doobie Brothers

Slick West Coasters channeling Mark Twain. Literally. We’re riding along easily now. The spirit of AM Gold is achieving a touch of somnolence. Maybe the world really did need a wake up call?

Track 9: “Love is a Rose” Linda Ronstadt

Maybe. And perfectly fine. But it’s no “You’re No Good.”

Track 10: “How Long” Ace

Yes, I feel myself fading. Bobby Womack and Rod Stewart were among the many who later tried to kick this to life. They, too, were defeated.

Track 11: “Dance With Me” Orleans

And if I’m asleep, this isn’t likely to wake me.

Not that sleep is a bad thing. Necessarily.

Track 12: “Freebird” Lynyrd Skynyrd

A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.

Track 13: “You Are So Beautiful” Joe Cocker

Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.

Wish they had gone with Tanya Tucker’s version.

Track 14: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” Bad Company

A true taste divider. To some, meh. To others, the incarnation of every-wrong-mid-seventies-thing.

What I hear is a great white blues and a natural answer record to Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” which had gone top ten R&B in the fall of ’73.

Track 15: “Lady Marmalade” LaBelle

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And while we’re at it, why not a natural #1 (Pop and R&B) about a hooker suckering a chump down in old New Orleans? (And if you only link one video here…)

Track 16: “Pick Up the Pieces” Average White Band

Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?

The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing  was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.

Track 17: “Island Girl” Elton John

A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.

Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.

Of course it was.

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Track 18: “Some Kind of Wonderful” Grand Funk

Yes, they had dropped the “Railroad.”

A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.

Get away from me ’75!

Track 19: “The Hustle” Van McCoy

Okay. Come back ’75. Let Van McCoy celebrate his career by naming an era-defining dance after it and tripping the light fantastic.

Track 20: “Let’s Do It Again” The Staple Singers

Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.

By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.

Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.

Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.

Speak to me ’75!

And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.

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(The Staple Singers…reaching for higher ground)

MEET THE NEW ATTICUS, ALMOST THE SAME AS THE OLD ATTICUS…UNLESS IT’S THE OTHER WAY AROUND (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS BUT WILL NEVER GET, DUTIFULLY UPDATED)

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The initial cycle of anticipation-publication-reaction to Harper Lee’s long lost first novel Go Set a Watchman now being effectively completed, we can safely take stock of what we know about the three nagging questions surrounding its release.

The first is whether Lee, now in her late eighties, more or less inaccessible to the public for half a century, long ensconced in an assisted living facility and, for the first time in her career, without the oversight of her longtime literary executor and recently deceased older sister, was in any position to properly approve the book’s release.

The answer to that one is likely to remain elusive, in part because the other two questions–is the book worth reading and is it any good (given the unique circumstances, these two questions are, for once, not the same)–don’t have clear answers either.

Despite the awkward patches one would expect from an unedited draft by a young, first-time novelist with no previous publishing history (having now read the book, I don’t find any reason to question the public story of its provenance, though mysteries will likely remain about the separate legal and ethical questions surrounding its sudden “rediscovery”), it is also what one would expect from Harper Lee, even as she seems, more than ever, to exist separate and apart from Atticus and Scout Finch.

And what should we expect?

Well, a skilled, though yet unpolished, popular novelist, who had rejected modernism but was quite aware she couldn’t write like her pre-modern heroes (Austen, Twain and Hawthorne, whose “Young Goodman Brown” Lee likely plumbed for Watchman‘s structure and overall tone, though how consciously we’ll never know) and expect to be published in the 1950s.

To wit (and purely at open-to-a-page-and-point random):

Alexandra’s voice cut through her ruminations: “Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?”

Caught offside, it took a moment for her to ascertain what her aunt meant by Like That.

Bang, bang. Crisp as you please. Maybe not so original now, when we have seven thousand young-woman-goes-home-and-deals-with-the-changes-in-herself-and-others novels and scripts floating around. But not bad for the fifties.

And, besides, that’s four sentences and two jokes in Twain, a full paragraph in Austen and half-a-page in Hawthorne, with a strong likelihood that nothing would be as nicely judged as that “offside” for a girl brought up in the region where football is a religion.

It’s also everything you need to know about Aunt Alexandra and her relationship to Jean Louise Finch.

There’s plenty of that throughout the book. Certainly enough to keep the pages nicely turning if the pleasures of literary economy are on your smile list.

Not surprisingly, there are also a fair share of passages that are nowhere near as succinct or as good, especially toward the end, when the homilies Lee would later be criticized for in TKAM itself, fall thick and heavy, more like bludgeons than To Kill a Mockingbird‘s gentle life lessons.

That said, there’s nothing standing between this and a really first rate novel that a good editor couldn’t have fixed.

Even as it stands, it’s perfectly respectable.

It’s as good or better than, for instance, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Watch and Ward or This Side of Paradise, to name the first published novels of three men, Twain, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rightly considered masters of English prose, all of whom presumably had the benefit of an editor (and all of whom, like Lee herself, lest we forget, went on to much greater things).

I haven’t read Hawthorne’s first novel, Fanshawe, but since he later made a serious effort to have every existing copy burned (he missed one, which is why we still have it), it’s probably safe to assume it wasn’t a masterwork either.

There are also plenty of first novels that are better than Watchman, some considerably better. But, on the whole, taken even as a rough draft, it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Which leads to the one question I’ve found really interesting in all this.

What does Watchman tell us about the career Lee might have had, if Mockingbird‘s other-worldly success hadn’t set off a chain reaction so fierce it finally burned off her previously considerable ambition?

It’s all speculation, but I think we can make some logical assumptions:

Assume TKAM had been a strong but not iconic bestseller.

Assume that a movie was made but managed to cut no deeper than the perfectly fine version of All the King’s Men based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel (which won an Oscar for Broderick Crawford as Mockingbird did for Gregory Peck but otherwise left no mark).

Assume that Harper Lee’s spirit survived the visits to Death Row at the Kansas State Penitentiary. (That’s my own best, entirely unproveable theory for why both Lee and Truman Capote shut down for good. If you think it’s far-fetched, try imagining Jane Austen, just after she wrote Sense and Sensibility, deciding to spend long hours in gaol, confronting the perpetrators of a shocking, grisly murder. Then ask yourself if we’d have all those other fine novels had she done so? Food for thought, perhaps. Especially if, like me, you spent a few minutes here and there in the politest part of some prison yards with your missionary father and so know just a tiny bit about what the air is like in there.)

Assume Harper Lee could then have gone on writing and publishing, having some sort of normal career.

Then what?

I think it’s likely she would have fallen in with the Sane Southerners (Eudora Welty, her friend Horton Foote, perhaps the Agrarians) and been at literary, if not personal, odds with the Crazies (Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Capote himself, with whom she did eventaully fall out ….If you’re wondering about Faulkner, he straddled both camps, which is one of the reasons he’s Faulkner).

Given that Lee’s wit was as sharp and caustic as any of the rest, we’d have certainly had more gossip and an additional literary feud or two.

We probably would have had a series of well-written novels that gave us some nice insight into the life and times of Southern Alabama mid-century and later.

We would also have been certainly quite a different country, one that didn’t need To Kill a Mockingbird quite the way we do.

Since we’re the country we are, as opposed to the one most sane people wish we were, I’m just as glad things worked out the way they did.

The one thing that would have been missing from Go Set a Watchman if it had been published in its own time in anything like its present form, is a sense of why Jean Louise Finch, so cruelly betrayed here, felt as strongly about her past and her home–not just Atticus–as she did.

When Harper Lee’s editor suggested she explore Jean Louise’s autobiographical childhood flashbacks, I suspect that was really the question she was after answering.

If it wasn’t her question, it pretty obviously became Lee’s by some other means during the writing of TKAM.

Because for all the scant attention paid it in the current sturm und drang, the salient fact is that Watchman was written first.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an attempt to reconcile the Atticus and the Maycomb that Scout Finch/Harper Lee remembered from  her childhood with the air of fear and loathing that dominated the 1950s. Not the other way around.

I’m sure at least some reviewers have made this point. I’ve only read twenty or so and that’s a drop in the bucket. But I think I’ve read enough to say it hasn’t exactly been a common theme. Even those who insist, fairly enough, that the Atticus of Watchman is a logical extension of the Atticus of Mockingbird, don’t seem to quite grasp that the Atticus of Watchman is the one Harper Lee wrote about first.

For the shock Jean Louise feels at being Young Goodman Brown-ed in her own Alabama town to really register, you have to know that other, earlier Atticus.

Whatever its literary merits or lack thereof, Watchman is valuable at least this far: It clarifies that Atticus was/is a man of conscience. Not a saint or a Christ figure.

That, oddly enough, was the kind of English Major symbolism Lee left to the Crazies who are now beloved by the people they set out to please.

Yes, the Atticus Finch of Watchman is a segregationist. The scenes where Jean Louise actually confronts him on this aren’t handled particularly well, either as to placement in the plot (too late in the action) or exposition (way too talky and, dare I say, legalistic, even for a lawyer and his daughter). But, as the foundation, not extension, of Atticus Finch’s character, they’re neither contradictory, as some have claimed, nor perfectly consistent, as the usual suspects among the Sub-Texters insist.

As drama, the scenes don’t work very well. As exposition, they’re overwrought.

As an insight into how polite white southern families attempted to deal with the issue of the century among themselves and the impact such attempts were likely to have in the communities they were trying to preserve at all costs, they’re right enough.

There is nothing about the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird that says he would have let go of his world easily. Whatever else Harper Lee made of that fictional character based on her father, and the town where he raised both her fictional stand-in and herself, she didn’t play them false.

And, despite a hundred crit-illuminati claims to the contrary, she didn’t take the easy way out.

If Watchman does nothing else, it at least makes what should have been obvious all along, clearer still.

Not that I expect everyone to finally get it.

Too much of a leap after all. Atticus Finch has been an Official Liberal Hero for half a century. Gregory Peck played him in a movie for God’s Sake.

Let’s just all hope that the rumored third manuscript doesn’t contain the scenes where Atticus, who, in Watchman, holds the exact position on segregation in the mid-fifties that Lyndon Johnson did, explains to Scout why he’s changed his mind ten years later.

You know.

Like that too cussedly inconsistent and imperfect for fiction character Lyndon Johnson actually did.

Damn Southerners.

You can’t tell what they’ll do.

HARPERLEE3

 

WHY IT MATTERS…THE CASE OF TARANTINO V. FORD

Okay…Why I think it matters. Let’s stay classy here (also introducing a new category which I’m calling John Ford, John Ford and John Ford):

First, two images:

NVE00085

From Pulp Fiction (1994) (Director, Quentin Tarantino)

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From Wagonmaster (1950) (Director, John Ford)

Obvious similarities, of course:

In each case a man is casually shooting another man, who is helpless, prone and unarmed.

Enough similarities that it might be a visual quote but I don’t think that’s provable or even germane. John Ford gets “visually quoted” so much it could be a visual quote that arrived in Quentin Tarantino’s brain seven times removed or just by osmosis.

And, in any case, the similarities don’t matter nearly as much as the differences.

In the first picture the man doing the shooting is loquacious to a fault, in the second the shooter hasn’t said a word in the entire film.

In the first picture we’re supposed to identify with the shooter because he’s cool, hip, post-modern and clearly a figment of the imagination–also because we have nothing invested in his victim. And just oh-by-the-way, we’re supposed to keep identifying with him, no matter how many other unarmed men he shoots…or how many moronic psychopaths he lets go free.

In the second picture, we’re supposed to identify with the victim, who is paying for the “crime” of having–on orders–delivered lashes to the bare back of the shooter’s brother (or cousin, it’s never made entirely clear, but in any case he’s family) for assaulting a Navajo woman. And we’re supposed to identify with him even though he’s a minor character who hasn’t been particularly likable and would have been unlikely to become any more so had he lived. Beyond that, we’re also supposed to identify with him because he’s a fictional character–one rooted in the possibilities of human history and behavior–as opposed to a philosophical construct (i.e., the hit man as the thing he never is in life–the coolest cat in the room).

That is, unlike the “character” (i.e., construct) we’re supposed to identify with in the first picture, the man on the ground in the second picture–who we identify with only in this very brief instant–is someone who might have actually existed in something like real time and space and someone we might have known–and quite probably disliked despite his having never done anyone any particular harm–somewhere along the way in the journey through our own  time and space.

There are plenty of other differences–like the scene from Wagonmaster taking place among realistically portrayed hard men (some good, some bad, all recognizable) who barely bat an eye at the sight of a cold-blooded murder while the scene from Pulp Fiction features one highly unrealistic hard man terrorizing boys made, miraculously, out of screaming cardboard–but those will do for now.

*  *  *  *

To be blunt, I’ve never cared much what artists are “really” like.

In the first place, outside of being on intimate terms with them personally, what they are really like is generally unknowable.

And the first place pales next to the significance of the second place, which is that the thing which is most unknowable about any artist is their precise relationship to their art–that is, the extent to which what they are “really like” has any bearing on what we find in their finished products.

Oh, we can know a few things in a vague and generalizing way, and it’s sometimes pleasing or even instructive to know those things. And, yes, the “real” person might even be showing through sometimes.

It’s just that we’re extremely unlikely to know precisely when or how and not knowing precisely means we really don’t know at all.

The only thing more unlikely–if we ever got that that far and still somehow found ourselves standing on solid ground–would be knowing what the when and the how “really” mean.

I mean, the real person we think we’ve just glimpsed could be fooling us. He is an artist after all.

So we might be able to judge whether something is bearing down on him. What effect war or displacement or drug addiction or a nasty divorce or a happy childhood or a too close association with the Angel of Death might have had. Something along those lines might even become obvious.

But that’s not the same as reading the soul–or the soul’s intent when it’s dipped in the process of creating artifice.

For that, I think it’s best to start with the art–if we’re going to start at all–and work backwards to the point that interests us.

Bearing in mind that this point will be different for each person who does make the effort. And that the relationship between the soul and the soul’s intent will still be best measured by what we know of the art, not what we know of the artist.

*  *  *  *

Which is to say I don’t care much about what Quentin Tarantino or John Ford are/were really like.

I know I wouldn’t care to have lunch with QT and I doubt I would have wanted to spend much time with Ford either. (I called Tarantino a liar the other day and that was only based on his tendency to lie, but, being fair I should have mentioned Ford was no better. There are distinctions I could make–the propriety of lying about oneself versus lying about someone else, for instance–but for the purposes of the argument at hand they don’t really matter. For the purposes of this argument, call them two SOB’s of decidedly different stripes…and then call them, for the moment, equal.)

Either way, I do not pine for their company.

I do get suspicious, though, whenever an artist, posing as critic, goes after another artist’s character when it would presumably be at least as easy to go after their art.

In such cases, I tend to suspect–without knowing of course (I’m not that much of a hypocrite!)–that the attacker might be covering for something. It doesn’t matter what that something is. What matters is that the attacker has called both his own trustworthiness and the value of his motives into question.

Maybe in this case it doesn’t really matter. Maybe Ford is secure enough in the pantheon that what Quentin Tarantino has to say about him makes no difference.

Maybe we don’t need to do any more than what a number of bloggers and their commenters have done in spades on other sites–that is, throwing up some variation of the “Quentin Tarantino is a pimple on Ford’s ass!” defense.

Maybe that’s all that’s required.

I think we should be careful, though.

It’s not like we haven’t seen this kind of thing engaged in before.

*  *  *  *

The most famous case of one important American artist attacking another is almost certainly Mark Twain’s 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” which Twain wrote as a combination literary critique and character assassination.

The essay had no more justification than Tarantino’s recent attacks on Ford, and was just about as ham-handed.

And–in keeping with the main theme here–who knows what Twain’s real motivations were? We can speculate that he was writing out of jealousy of Cooper’s fame or reputation. That he really did hate Cooper’s books to such a degree that he lost his own hold on rationality. (Lost it entirely, incidentally, as his opinions were his opinions, but not a single one of his numerous factual assertions about Cooper’s “offenses” was true). That his own considerable debt to Cooper was stuck in his subconscious, lying uneasy in the very place that was bound to raise the most terrible bile, unreleasable by any means but public vitriol.

Or that he was just having a bad day.

It could have been any or all of these things or something else entirely.

But the “why” of it is neither here nor there.

What should trouble us about Twain’s essay is not its fundamental silliness or dishonesty (or his similar, but less famous, opinions regarding Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James or pretty much anyone whose reputation threatened to eclipse his own), or the emotions that may have driven him to write it.

No, what’s troubling about the essay is its effect.

I wouldn’t personally rate Cooper as highly as Ford but that his reputation has suffered severely–and unfairly–at the hands of a fellow artist’s petty assault, delivered long after he himself was beyond offering up a defense, is almost undeniable.

*  *  *  *

How undeniable?

Well, we can study a few bits of anecdotal evidence (the only kind that’s ever really available in these rather abstract debates, so I’m afraid it will have to do).

TAKE 1935.

That’s the year (forty years after Twain’s essay) when Ernest Hemingway published Green Hills of Africa, his account of a safari he and his wife took, where he somehow found the occasion to include this famous-ever-after aside:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Notice: Up Mark Twain

Notice: Down anything that preceded him (Cooper included)…or anything that happened along between him and, well, Hemingway.

Hold that thought….

Then…TAKE 1981:

I was taking an English class at Florida State titled something like “Popular Literature in American History.” The teacher was excellent at his profession and, so far as I know, a perfectly decent human being. The gist of the class was to study books which had been enormously popular in their own time, but which had no particular lasting literary merit. At one point during the course, he happened to mention how fortunate we were that he had decided to take a break from Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans that semester. (At which point the brown nosers which no English class can do without and who always–always!–pose as contrarians, spoke up long and loud. As such types are ever mindful of the value of getting on the teacher’s good side in any class where the memorization of mere facts is of next to no value, you can imagine the bashing old Fenimore received from their tender mercies. Twain’s essay, of course, had a prominent place among the name-dropping portion of the show–and was accepted as representing an unassailable truth somewhere along the order of the higher laws of mathematics.)

My response to this was rather strange.

I had been raised to the notion (mostly passed along by my father) that Cooper was a great, important writer, and I had read The Pathfinder in high school (on my own–it wasn’t the sort of thing that got assigned in the sort of high school I attended, which ran more to field trip movie versions of Shakespeare and dialogue-only abridgments of Dickens for “serious” literature assignments) and very much liked it.

I’m not sure I had ever actually heard Cooper’s name in any sort of English lit context since then.

But I knew how to act and what I should believe. I knew I wouldn’t have spoken up in his defense, even if I had been used to speaking up at all (which I wasn’t).

The feeling against him was strong enough and pervasive enough that I had grokked his fundamental uncoolness–his absence of pure “literary” value and, thus, any value at all–with no word having need been spoken.

So it was in English class in 1981.

Now…TAKE ANY NUMBER OF RECENT YEARS:

…Where I’ve come across several cases, right across the political spectrum, suggesting all you ever need to know about Cooper in general, and the Leatherstocking Tales in particular, can be found in….you guessed it, an essay by Mark Twain called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Then…TAKE 2012 (oh God, please do take it):

The Library of Congress publishes a list of 88 “Books that Shaped America.”

The fact that the list came out to “88”–rather than some round figure–strongly suggests that those responsible for its compilation meant to arrive at an exact idea of everything which could not be reasonably excluded (a risk if the round figure were too small–say fifty), but also without padding (a risk if the round figure were too large–say a hundred).

Cooper did not place a book on the list, leading to two important and obvious questions:

Is he someone who could be reasonably excluded from such a list?

If not, why was he?

The answer to the first one is simple.

No, he’s not.

Cooper wasn’t just the first really important American novelist–a distinction that should have earned him a place on any such list all by itself. He’s also a genuine titan. A flawed titan to be sure…but, when it comes to American literature, only Henry James even comes close to being any other kind.

Now James is not on the list either, but that actually makes some sense. He spent most of his adult life in England and most of his personal and professional time becoming the epitome of that old saw “more English than the English.” And even if he had not, you could make a fair claim–without resorting to reverse snobbery–that he did not write in such a way that his books, by the sheer inimitability of their brilliance, ever had much chance of “shaping” America.

But Cooper is a very different thing. The Library of Congress itself made a point of noting that the list was not based on literary merit (easy to see when you peruse the list itself) but was meant to be just what it said.

Namely, books that shaped us.

To be honest, when I heard the list had been published but hadn’t yet seen it, I assumed Cooper was the only writer (or at least the only fiction writer) who was guaranteed a spot!

Call me crazy, But I figured if we were going to have an official list from the national library celebrating not the “greatest” books but the most influential–the ones that helped make us who we are–then the man who, in the space of about five years in the early 1820’s, invented the spy novel, the sea novel, and the western (and not the “American” versions, which he eventually did for the novel of manners and the murder mystery, but the things themselves) might just have a place.

Especially if some number of his novels did indeed have substantial literary merit.

More especially if his shadow was hanging over nearly every novel that did make the list and hanging with particular heaviness on the most highly regarded of the “literary” entries.

Sometimes this shadow is obvious.

Herman Melville (on the list with Moby Dick) knew where the sea novel came from even if the Library of Congress doesn’t. We don’t have to guess, because he told us so and this is one case where we can probably take an artist at his word.

Twain himself is on the list with a novel we didn’t really need Leslie Fiedler–or even D.H. Lawrence–to tell us had taken its gestalt straight out of Cooper. (Though we evidently did need Ernest Hemingway to tell us it was the source of all modern literary good.)

Sometimes the shadow is not so obvious.

But that doesn’t mean it is any less present, or any less real.

Hemingway himself–the exalter of Twain–is on the list with For Whom the Bell Tolls,  his own last, mighty swing at greatness. The novel, that is, where he set out after Cooper (not Twain) and burned himself to figurative ashes trying to do once what Cooper had done repeatedly, all while getting no closer than shouting range–though he did get closer than Twain, who had set out after Cooper a time or two himself.

Hemingway’s great contemporaries are there, too.

There’s Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury (that’s the one where he copped Cooper’s ending from The Deerslayer for his revised edition).

There’s Fitzgerald, inevitably, with The Great Gatsby, which ends with what may be the most famous passage in American literature. You know, the one where his narrator imagines the Dutch sailors reaching the shores of Cooper’s wilderness (though Cooper was never glassy-eyed enough to pretend this arrival was “the last time man came face to face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” For that level of delusion, you needed a modernist).

I could keep going. What’s On the Road, but Cooper’s frontier refracted? What’s Red Harvest but Cooper’s spiritual wilderness made modern and urban? What’s The Grapes of Wrath but Cooper’s abiding concerns about the rape of the land turned scatological?

Okay, all of those books are about other things, too. But they–along with most of the others acknowledged by the L of C–each have Cooper’s DNA deeply embedded.

And that’s not even getting into Cooper’s wider influence, nowhere felt more deeply than the visual narrative arts–you know, film, television, whatever is coming next. (It’s not like John Ford or Quentin Tarantino themselves are untouched…and, given how much he likes to pair a white man with a dark-skinned blood brother, I’d say Tarantino more than Ford.)

So if Cooper’s all that…Well, why isn’t he on the list?

And why isn’t he on any number of other similar lists I’ve seen in recent years?

Is it a question of “literary merit?”

Well, sticking to this particular list, let’s just say that Zane Grey is on it. Not to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I happen to love Riders of the Purple Sage and Tarzan of the Apes for what they are.

But come on.

Is it a question of being too early–of being on the other side of some invisible wall built by time and progress?

Then how to account for Washington Irving? Not to mention Benjamin Franklin?

So it must be some version of political correctness then.

Right?

Isn’t that the last, worst explanation for every screwball thrown in screwball land, yea, verily these many years?

Well, that could be it.

But then how to explain the presence of Gone With the Wind (you know, the one where headstrong Judith and spiritually pure Hetty from The Deerslayer are re-imagined as Scarlett and Melanie–even down to their abiding fates as, respectively, jilted lover and corpse)?

Has all suddenly been forgiven?

Surely not.

So you can see where we might be running out of options here.

How there might only be one explanation left.

And how that explanation might well be summed up in the headline, “Mark Twain Once Wrote an Essay Called ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.’..and the World Listened.”

Yeah. That could be it.

Unprovable again. But in this case, it almost has to be the truth. Maybe Sherlock Holmes could think of some other explanation that accounts for all the available facts, but I sure can’t.

So now we go back to those two images at the top there (come on now, admit it…you thought I forgot!)

And we ask ourselves…does it really matter what Quentin Tarantino says about John Ford?

Let me first say what I think doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter–in the least–why QT said what he said.

It doesn’t matter if the real reason is the son’s need to kill the father, or the white boy’s need to bond with the Other, or the simple man’s confusion when confronted with complexity and ambivalence, or the amoral artist’s discomfort with the moral (as opposed to moralistic) one, or the straight-line jealousy of a deeply ambitious filmmaker who, for all his ducking and hiding and peeping out from behind his genre obsessions, desperately wants to be thought of as great, as auteurist even (and maybe has got far enough down his own road to glimpse just how hard it would be to ever begin that other journey, let alone finish it) lashing out at someone who made masterpieces the way most of us pour milk on cereal, routinely, calmly, not caring much if a little splashes over the side.

That’s what I think doesn’t matter. The undiscernible “why” of it.

What does matter–what matters a lot–is what we make of it.

If Ford is greater than Cooper (and he is), and Tarantino is nowhere near being Mark Twain (and he isn’t), that’s all the more reason to push back.

Because what matters–okay, staying classy here–what I think matters, is doing what we can to prevent a scenario whereby some future version of Hemingway writes something along the lines of, “All modern cinema comes from a single film by Quentin Tarantino called Pulp Fiction,” and has his twaddle taken seriously.

Lest we think this is far-fetched, we should probably note that Tarantino (and what he represents) are taken at least as seriously today as Twain (and what he represented) was in 1895. And while the present is always impressed with itself, it may never have been so impressed as it is today, in part because the past has never been caught receding quite so rapidly.

So history is moving Tarantino’s way–the way of homage over creation, of sensation over memory, of the feel-good cult of the individual over the prickly annoyances that attend the preservation of community–and will likely accelerate.

Throw in that Ford, even more than Cooper, was/is cantankerous in both his person and his art–and that ever-impressed-with-itself-modernity is ready to accept virtually anything in an artist except his being a threat to easy assumptions about its own validity–and I don’t think a version of Hemingway-exalting-Twain-all-out-of-proportion-to-reality popping up forty years or forty days from now is even a little far-fetched.

All that’s before we even get to the final problem.

Cooper and Twain (and Hemingway for that matter…though not so much my eighties-era English teacher or the present representatives of the Library of Congress) were part of the same universe. It was/is possible to love all three of those writers (as I do) without practicing some kind of cognitive dissonance.

The split between Ford and Tarantino (and what they each represent) is much deeper. That split is a new kind of challenge. The challenge of choosing.

Truly choosing.

When it comes to Tarantino v. Ford, there really is a good deal more at stake because it’s possible to care about one, the other, or neither…But I’ll submit (while staying as classy as I can) that it is not possible to truly care about both–at least not without.seriously misunderstanding (and thus distorting beyond any comprehension that is rooted in their “finished product”) one or the other.

And when, in what I suspect is a rather near future, it really does come time to choose, my ever-classy self thinks we should be very, very careful which fork in the road we decide to follow.

UPDATE: I meant to highlight this link somewhere above but forgot. It’s academic and therefore may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it should probably be required reading next to the Twain essay in question.