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Farewell and thanks to two non-phonies: J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn

January 29, 2010

In a fascinating twist of fate (aren’t they all?) two authors whose works play a primary role in my teaching career died in the past twenty-four hours.  Howard Zinn tells us, “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”  It is with these words my co-teacher and I have ended our American Studies course for the past eight years, as we’ve asked our students to think about their role, their actions, and what being an American means to them.  We get there by asking them to read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and think about how the seventeen year-old Holden comes to understand his world.  He wants to be a savior, to shield the innocent from the cruelties of the world, only to realize, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.”  Letting people fail in order to learn is one thing; standing idly by in the face of injustice is quite another. 

Elsewhere, Zinn writes, “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”  Did he attempt to re-write history from a radically leftist perspective?  Absolutely.  But in doing so does he force us to reconsider the role of individual acts of bravery and suffering, courage and heartbreak, determination and rejection, as the shaping forces of our national story?  Can we doubt the truth of this?  In President Obama’s State of the Union Address, he concluded with the words and actions of everyday Americans to give a note of hope, after an hour’s worth of a litany of despair about the lack of faith in our government.

So what can be done?  Salinger’s Holden Caulfield ends the book by saying, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” as he withdraws into his own mind.  Perhaps it’s an echo of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us” as Holden endlessly (ironically?) criticizes the emphasis on materialism in the world.  So instead of trying to stop a bad thing, he convinces himself its better to disengage, just like Mr. Salinger did.  For years my students would ask about his reclusive existence in Cornish, NH, and about what it means to consider a novel without information about the author.  Sure, everyone would think that Holden is actually a stand-in for ‘ol JD himself, but few could come to terms with what it means to slam the door on the fame and fortune that would surely await him if he ever re-entered the world.  I’ve always had a special admiration for that, for not giving in to the system that glorifies the next big thing only to move on one 24-hour news cycle later.  He let his fiction stand for itself, in a sense asking us to reconsider the idea that all writing is personal. 

Zinn did just the opposite, and his life resume stretched from WWII to SNCC to Spellman College to anti-war efforts to writing books and speaking to crowds, demonstrations, and classrooms.  His embrace of the world made sure to include all voices, and from the time I first started buying his books to the assignments my students continue to read from his work, I’ve never turned back.

So will these voices endure?  Years from now, will my students turn on their iPad (not the other, rejected name Stephen Colbert joked about on his show tonight, the TamPod) and flip through Holden’s three-day odyssey from Pencey Prep to New York city, then be just a click away from the People’s History and its fearless questioning of long-accepted power structures?  Perhaps – certainly if I can help it.  But I also wonder about who is left to fill those shoes?  Who embodies Zinn’s voice of dissent now?  Does anyone have the resume to lend historical weight to such positions?  And who is the writer whose words are the “voice of a generation,” and not just its temporary entertainment?  That these men lived full lives and left such powerful bodies of work behind is inspirational.  Who are the next non-phonies out there?

To be continued…

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