Sunday, May 17, 2009

No Sense of Place

Another famous book about California: The Human Comedy by William Saroyan, 1943. On the densely-populated shelves of our condo, I found a first edition, with its slightly tattered dust jacket in place. (I set the jacket aside for safe keeping while I read the book.)

Ithaca, California, home to the Macauley family, isn't really in California. It's universal. The locale is everywhere -- and nowhere.

The Macauley family and their friends, employers, neighbors, teachers, librarians, and fellow humans are all meant to be universal types. It reminds me of another universal literary work: Our Town by Thornton Wilder, first performed 1938. Maybe this style was a fad back then.

Homer Macauley is fourteen; his little brother Ulysses is four. Homer is learning his new job delivering telegrams, suffering whenever the War Department sends tragic news to a family in Ithaca. Ulysses does cute little-boy curious things like get caught in an animal trap while it's being demonstrated in a store. Their older brother is off in training to be in World War II. Their sister is beautiful, and best friends with the brother's next-door girl friend. The inevitable is obvious.

Homer's mother, a widow, talks to her late husband. She knows why Homer in the night is sobbing. She says:
"I have heard it before. It is not yours. It is not any man's. It is the whole world's. Having known the world's grief, you are now on your way, so of course all the mistakes are ahead -- all the wonderful mistakes that you must and will make. I will tell you at breakfast in broad daylight what any of us might hesitate to say in the comforting darkness of night... . No matter what the mistakes are that you must make, do not be afraid of having made them or of making more of them. Trust your heart...." (p. 195-196)
Does any human talk like this?

Every event, even little Ulysses' cute antics, is made ponderous by the over-drawn insistence that it points to the universal. The language of the book is pointedly simple. (Not a word like those obscure examples that I failed to look up in Riven Rock!) Alas, I find this eerie overgeneralized pose out-of-date. I read the whole book, but it was painful.

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