An American Editor

May 17, 2010

On Books: The Most Important Novel in Your Life

As I was reading yet another book — seems as if that is all I ever do — a stray thought occurred to me: What was the most important novel I had ever read? By important, I mean that changed my perspective and influenced future decisions I made.

I started thinking about the thousands of books I have read; some I misremembered as fiction when they were really nonfiction. Who knows how many I have completely forgotten, which, I suppose, means they weren’t all that important to me. And my list began to grow.

First, there were all the Tom Swift (made me think I wanted to be an scientist) and the Hardy Boys (nothing cooler than being a detective, or so a 10-year-old once thought) books. Then came the standard books that most of us read or tried to read, such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and hundreds more. It rapidly became a mountain of a task, when I originally thought it would be just a molehill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I realized that I had at least limited the question to novels. I’d be in great distress if I had included nonfiction, although perhaps I’ll ask that question in the not-so-distant future.

Well, it was quite a struggle. I had to pass through many doors, and even had to double-check a couple; for example, I remembered Black Like Me by John Griffin as a novel when it is a true story. I shut the door on 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and myriad other novels. I eventually narrowed it down to 4:

  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer

Now I was stymied. I just couldn’t decide (and really can’t decide) which among the 4 was the most important or influential. Each influenced me in a different era of my life, and each had major consequences for me.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s story of a future America when books were burned and critical thinking was discouraged, made me question my schooling. I began challenging teachers; I was taught in an era when memorization was key, not critical thinking. There were a few teachers — the good teachers whom I still remember 50+ years later — who encouraged critical thinking, encouraged discussion, encouraged debate, but who, alas, were so few and far between and often forced to leave the school system, as to turn me away from becoming an educator. I simply could not picture myself being a typical, uncritical, nonthinking teacher. I also had difficulty with the publish-or-perish aspects of education that predominated in those days.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me aware of the racial tensions in my surroundings. I grew up in a small city along the Hudson River in New York. My playmates were of all creeds and color; I had never given a second thought to the issue of race. But after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I began to look around me. I realized that prejudices of all kinds existed even in my little world. I began to see that my friend and coworker, who was black, never was allowed to wait on customers in the store in which we worked. I began to recognize the subtle covert segregation and discrimination — even in school. And so I joined my first protest movements in support of civil rights — and I never looked back. Harper Lee awakened me to the real world of race relations around me.

Outside of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t involved in political matters. Yes, I did protest the Vietnam War, as did many of us in our teens and early twenties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I wasn’t politically involved. Whether it was Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon who was elected president didn’t really matter to me. Then I came across It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935.

It Can’t Happen Here is the story of a U.S. senator’s bid to duplicate in America what had happened in Nazi Germany and how he began by creating a private military force that through fear and violence began suppressing voices opposed to his coup. This book started me thinking and suddenly Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the headlines, and I realized that it can happen here if we aren’t diligent about keeping our political processes and (especially) our politicians honest. The confluence of reading Lewis’ book and the political events brought about by Nixon’s paranoia made me change from apolitical to political. Whereas before newspapers were mainly for sports and comics, they now became important for keeping me abreast of current affairs. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis’ “hero” is a newspaper reporter.) This is why I worry about what will happen to high-quality news reporting in the Internet Age (see, e.g., Judging Quality in the Internet Age, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall) and the age of sound-bite reporting that is seen too often on programs like Fox News..

The final book, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, changed my career path. The book appeared a year after I had graduated law school. Throughout law school and in the beginning of my career, I had wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I thought I loved the dull, dry world of commerce. But Rumpole opened my eyes to the world of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, the criminal, and I began to take on fewer commercial cases and more “human” cases. I found that the lawyer I wanted to be was the lawyer that Rumpole was. If you have never read the Rumpole books or seen the television series (available on DVD), you should. Rumpole is, at least in my estimation, what every lawyer should be and few are.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a game changer for me; unfortunately, my career as a lawyer was short-lived as personal circumstances lead me to yet a new career and one that I have enjoyed for more than 25 years, that of publishing and editing.

So, although I asked the question and asked for the single most important novel in your life, I couldn’t/can’t answer the question myself. The best I could do is narrow it down to 4. But it does prove, at least to me, one thing: great authors can have a great impact on our lives, whether we consciously know it or not.

What was/is the most important novel(s) in your life?

April 9, 2010

On Words: Jim Crow

Last week I came across Jim Crow in two different magazines: the first was in the current issue of American Heritage and then in the current week’s The Economist. Jim Crow is not an unknown or rarely used term. It is commonly found in American history books dealing with slavery and segregation and is found in magazine articles discussing segregation, the civil rights movement, and the history of racism. I understand what it means (systematic discrimination against and segregation of blacks, especially as practiced in the southern United States after the Civil War and until the mid to late 20th century) and that it is an epithet reserved for the racial group being discriminated against. But I never knew its origins.

Jim Crow was the stage name of a black minstrel character in a popular song and dance act performed by Thomas Rice about 1835. Rice was known as the “father of American minstrelsy.” Following Rice, other performers performed the Jim Crow character.

The song on which Rice’s act was based first appeared in an 1828 play called Jim Crow. The play’s song had the refrain “My name’s Jim Crow, Weel about, and turn about, And do jis so.” Rice’s version used the refrain “Wheel about and turn about and jump Jim Crow.” The song was so popular that newspapers and reviews in the 19th century often referred to it; for example, the Boston Transcript (March 25, 1840) wrote: “Tell ’em to play Jim Crow!” In 1926, the New York Times (December 26) wrote: “From ‘Old Jim Crow’ to ‘Black Bottom,’ the negro dances come from the Cotton Belt, the levee, the Mississippi River, and are African in inspiration.” The 1849 Howe Glee Book stated: “Toe and heel and away we go. Ah, what a delight it is to know De fancy Jim Crow Polka.”

Perhaps the musical origins were not innocent, but they did not carry the malice of subsequent uses, particularly as Jim Crow was used following Reconstruction after the Civil War.

The first recorded use of the word crow in its derogatory sense was by James Fenimore Cooper in his 1823 book The Pioneers, in which he used crow as a derogatory term for a black man.

One of the earliest uses of Jim Crow as a derogatory term not associated with the song or the minstrel act, was in 1838, when “Uncle Sam” in Bentley’s Miscellany wrote: “Don’t be standing there like the wooden Jim Crow at the blacking maker’s store.” And one of the earliest direct, no mistake about, uses of Jim Crow as a racist term was in the Playfair Papers (1841): “A portmanteau and carpet bag…were snatched up by one of the hundreds of nigger-porters, or Jim Crows, who swarm at the many landing-places to help passengers.” In 1842, Jim Crow car meant a railroad car designated for blacks. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), wrote: “I thought she was rather a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line.”

But Jim Crow as a political term came into its own following Reconstruction. The Nation of March 17, 1904, reported that “Writing of the ‘Jim Crow’ bills now before the Maryland Legislature, the Cardinal expressed his strong opposition.” Two months later, the Richmond Times-Dispatch (May 25, 1904) reported: “The Norfolk and Southern Railroad was fined $300 to-day for violating the ‘Jim Crow’ law by allowing negroes to ride in the same car with whites.” The previous year, the New York Sun (November 29, 1903) reported that “The members of the committee have arranged with the parents of negro children to send them all to the Jim Crow school, thus entirely separating the white and negro pupils.”

The New World (1943) discussed Jim Crowism: “Negro soldiers had suffered all forms of Jim Crow, humiliation, discrimination, slander, and even violence at the hands of the white civilian population.” Time reported in 1948 (December 13) that “The Federal Council…went on record as opposing Jim Crow in any form.” And in what became a prescient statement, the Daily Ardmoreite of Ardmore, Oklahaoma, wrote on January 22, 1948: “What they call a ‘Jim Crow’ school cannot meet the federal court’s requirements for equality under the 14th amendment.” This was subsequently confirmed in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many more examples are available of Jim Crow and its morphing from a popular song to a derogatory term. No history of the word can take away the harm and the hurt Jim Crowism inflicted on innocent people. Even today Jim Crow remains a blight on the reputation of the South. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that Jim Crow began its death spiral. As each year passes, Jim Crow increasingly becomes a relic of history — where Jim Crowism belongs.

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