Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Michael Drout: Making Sense of Fantasy Literature.

Charles Gramlich, a Louisiana-based writer of fantasy literature, has wriiten two posts about the exotic in literature, in his blog, Razored Zen. His posts, and the the comments they prompted, have helped me in thinking out a fantasy story which is just in the beginning stages.

Fantasy as a genre has not received a great deal of attention from academics. With the exception of the Center for Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, literary scholars have too often seen popular fiction as beneath them. One major exception is Michael D. C. Drout, professor of English at Wheaton (that's Wheaton in Norton, MA, not the Christian fundamentalist school in Wheaton, IL) College. While Drout's academic specialty is Anglo-Saxon language and literature, he also teaches a class on Tolkien every two years.

Luckily, we don't have to enroll in that elite school to experience Drout's wisdom. He has a course on CD for Recorded Books' Modern Scholar Series, called "Rings, Swords, and Monsters." I was lucky enough to check it out from the public library. While it's available through Recorded Books for about $100, Barnes and Noble has it, titled, "Of Sorcerers and Men," in the Portable Professor series for less than $30.

Drout begins by trying to define fantasy literature, though his initial definition is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it." He then looks at some of th Victorian precursors of fantasy: Lewis Carroll, H. Rider Haggard, George MacDonald, and others.

About half the course is on J.R.R. Tolkien, with a brief biography and lectures on The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. The Tolkien sectin concludes with a fascinating lecture on Tolkien's scholarly writings and how they affected his fantasy works.

Drout then looks at Tolkien's imitatators: the Sword of Shanara series by Terry Brooks and Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever novels. Donaldson's work is especally interesting, as his work is a sort of anti-Tolkien. Thomas Covenant is a modern-day leper, who finds himself in "The Land," a world in which he is welcomed as a liberator and where he no longer suffers from leprosy. Yet he refuses to believe in The Land. He is also very much an antihero. In the madness which overcomes him in his transition from one world to another, he rapes a woman who has taken an interest in him. Even though he's far less appealing than Tolkien's Frodo, Thomas Covenant is still derivative of Tolkien, as the maps in the book and the description of The Land show.

A lecture on "worthy successors" follows, focusing on Ursula La Guin and Robert Holdstock. Drout goes on to discuss children's fantsy, including the Harry Potter books, Arthurian fantasy, and magical realism.

For anyone trying to write fantasy, or just to make sense of the genre, Drout's lectures are well worth the investment.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Salinger kept his promise

"Or I might just take up an offer from Pierre Salinger to draft press releases for Senator John Kennedy, who‘d be running for President next year."

-From the last paragraph of "A Bath in the Gas House," which I'm about ready to send off to a magazine.

I've been working on a mystery story set in Beat Generation Venice, California. If I'm lucky enough to get it published, it would be fun (and a lot of work) to have my reporter-protagonist go to work for JFK in a sequel. I did a little research on Salinger, just to make sure he was working for Kennedy in October, 1959 (he was), and also learned he was one of the few people who kept a promise to leave the country if George W. Bush became president.

Right-wingers have had a field day with actor Alec Baldwin, who made the same threat, but has yet to carry it through.

But Salinger, who said, "If Bush wins, I'm going to leave the country and spend the rest of my life in France," did exactly that. He died in France October 16, 2004.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle, R.I.P.

C.S. Lewis, who fought in the Great War and lived through the Battle of Britain, likened the Christian life to a battle. While I love his writing, especially The Great Divorce and Out of the Silent Planet, I've always been troubled by his consistent use of the battle metaphor in both his fiction and his Christian apologetics. I wished there were a Christian writer whose heroes would triumph over evil without violence. While we have the examples of Martin Luther King, jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I was unable to find Christian fiction which reflected their spirit of Christianity.

That is, until I read A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle . Here the heroes and heroines fight evil with love. And her characters are complex, flawed human beings, who had real emotions. They were modern-day American children who had to deal with bullies, gossip, and the stigma of being different. While Wrinkle is a children's, or young-adult book, I first read it as an adult. In fact, I read it aloud to my daughters.

After Wrinkle, I had to read the sequel, A Wind in the Door. While I love all of her Kairos (appointed time) books, for me, Wind was special. Proginoskes, the "singular cherubim," Blajeny, the tall, black, humanlike being, who is a Teacher, and the microscopic world of the mitochondrion are simply unforgettable. Meg Murry, who is also the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, must find something lovable in Mr. Jenkins, the unlovable school principal. And the Echthroi (from the Greek word for enemy) come as close to pure evil as anything I've read in fiction.

Madeleine L'Engle died last Thursday, at a nursing facility near her Connecticut home. May Proginoskes greet her at heaven's gate.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Al Lowenstein, Larry Craig, and Confused Sexuality

I met Allard Lowenstein only once, after he gave a talk at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1971. In the few minutes I had with him that afternoon, I came away with the feeling of being very special. Al made people feel that way. If I was ever in Brooklyn, he said, be sure to look him up. I never got the chance. I thought about him when I rolled through Brooklyn on the Long Island Rail Road in the summer of 1972, after I had driven Polish poet Artur Miedzyrzecki and his family from Iowa City to Stony Brook, and was taking the train back to Iowa. I didn’t have time to stop off in Brooklyn, but I told myself that Al would approve of what I’d be doing back in Iowa: working for liberal Democratic senatorial candidate Dick Clark.

Al Lowenstein was sometimes known as the Pied Piper for his ability to charm young people into following him. In the summer of 1964 he recruited idealistic Northern white students to go down to Mississippi to register black voters. In 1967 he organized the Dump Johnson movement, persuading Eugene McCarthy to challenge Lyndon Johnson, after failing to convince Robert Kennedy that he should run. The students who got “Clean for Gene” and went door-to-door in New Hampshire and Wisconsin were often Al’s recruits. The New Left people, including Tom Hayden, despised Lowenstein because he was telling people to work within the system. When I met him he was setting up the Dump Nixon movement.

If I was charmed by Al Lowenstein, I was in good company. Journalist Steve Roberts, Senator John Kerry, actor Warren Beatty, and singer-songwriter Harry Chapin are among the many people he inspired. Edward M. Kennedy said of him: "He was a person of impassioned political conviction, but personally he loved so many who so often disagreed with his politics. Who but Al Lowenstein could claim among his best friends both Bill Buckley and Robert Kennedy?"

And conservative writer William F. Buckley, who disagreed with Lowenstein on most matters, said: "Of all the partisans I have known, from the furthest steppes of the spectrum, his was the most undistracted concern, not for humanity-- though he was conversant with big-think idiom--but for human beings."

On March 14, 1980, I tuned in to National Public Radio and was shocked and saddened to hear that Al Lowenstein had been murdered in his Manhattan office. The killer was Dennis Sweeney, a onetime protégé of Lowenstein who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Sweeney believed Lowenstein was plotting against him. After killing Lowenstein, he waited in the office for the police.

Some years later I discovered the book, Dreams Die Hard: Three Men‘s Journey Through the Sixties, by David Harris (New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1982). Harris is best known for going to prison for draft resistance and for his brief marriage to folksinger Joan Baez. But he, too, was one of Lowenstein’s protégés. Harris and Sweeney were both students at Stanford University in 1963-64 when Lowenstein was assistant dean. Lowenstein persuaded both idealistic young men to join the Mississippi Summer Project, where they worked to register black voters in McComb, Mississippi. McComb was one of the most Klan-dominated towns in the state, and the two men literally risked their lives for the cause of civil rights.

But while Lowenstein was a great inspiration to so many of us, he was also deeply flawed. Harris writes of driving for Lowenstein on a long campaign trip. They stopped at a motel and Lowenstein went in to register. He came back out to the car and said that the motel was booked except for a room with only one bed. Under the circumstances, Harris agreed to share a bed. Later that night Harris awoke to find Lowenstein hugging him. Harris said he was uncomfortable and Lowenstein ceased. Harris spent the rest of the night on the floor. It was something Lowenstein did regularly. Sweeney had the same experience. While the episode did not trigger Sweeney’s schizophrenia, it may have been the cause of his delusions that Lowenstein was trying to control him.

I have wondered what I would have done in such circumstances. I suspect I would have done just what Harris did--spend the night on the floor, but otherwise keep quiet about the incident, except within the circle of Lowenstein protégés.

Idaho senator Larry Craig’s arrest for soliciting sex in the men’s room of the Minneapolis airport and his subsequent denial that he was gay made me think about the confused sexuality of both Craig and Lowenstein and the cultures that led them to such risky behaviors.

I’m no psychologist, but it seems clear to me that Craig is and Lowenstein was bisexual--attracted to both men and women. Lowenstein was married for several years and fathered three children. But he channeled his homosexual impulses into these hugging episodes with his protégés. From what Harris says, they didn’t go beyond hugging. When Lowenstein encountered a protégé who was gay, he said he was not homosexual--he just wanted the intimacy of hugging. (Later in his life he most likely did have gay sex.) To be bisexual in the 1960s, even for an East Coast liberal, would be devastating to a political career. Today the openly gay Barney Frank (himself a Lowenstein protégé) is able to be reelected regularly from a liberal Massachusetts district.

Craig, a conservative Republican from a Mormon-dominated state, is in the same position now as Lowenstein was in the 1960s. Yes, his anti-gay rhetoric makes him a hypocrite. But to remain in Idaho politics, he had to hide the gay side of his sexuality. He appears to have done so through anonymous encounters in men’s rooms.

It’s difficult for me, a heterosexual, to understand the homoerotic impulse. But I know impulses and attractions, and it’s hard for me not to sympathize with Craig’s predicament, hypocrite though he is. Perhaps it’s because I still admire Al Lowenstein, in spite of his shortcomings.