From the first moments when we meet Douglas Spaulding, we know his life is one of imagination and adventure. In Dandelion Wine, Doug is tantalized by the summer season, and his full-bodied experiences entice the most reticent reader to enter again into a season of discovery. One of the most notable elements of Bradbury’s fiction is this ability to depict the wonder and sometimes the harsh reality of childhood through experience and imagery.
We can relive our own childhood awakening through Douglas’s first summer moments. Riding in his Dad’s car through the countryside, Doug declares that Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once. This was that day for Doug where he literally became aware of every sight, sound, and taste about him in the woods.
I, too, have shared in some of those childhood experiences. I remember going on fishing trips with my father and big sister in the early Mississippi morning hours to a local pond or practically anywhere we could drive his 1971 Chevy truck under an hour’s time. Even at five or six years of age, I could bait my own hooks with crickets and worms. The problem was that I was easily distracted by the wonder of where we were. I could sit on a bank and doodle my bobber in the water for a time, but almost always, I would leave my pole and wander a dirt path or two, investigating for critters or anything I couldn’t catch in my own backyard.
Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once.
For me, the freedom to explore my little unknown habitat, even for a morning, was a treasure. I could sit still and listen to the wind in the pines, the jays and their squabbles, the plunk of bullfrogs for what seemed an infinitesimal day. I could close my eyes and just feel the aliveness around me, the breeze, the humid liquid air, the sense of a twig in my hand as I dug in the dirt. Like Doug, I could then open my eyes and know that absolutely everything was there. The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him. It’s the utter sense of being fully awake and being wholly part of a place and moment in time.
Though Doug begins his summer declaring I want to feel all there is to feel, he soon discerns that time is slipping quickly by: The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing. Through the experience of life and death in the town and their family, Doug and his brother realize that happy endings don’t always go with summer, but it is a part of awakening to life.
On one of those same summer fishing days, I remember my first experience with death, and it too, startled me. I had been fishing with a juicy worm in the hot sun without luck when I suddenly felt my bobber jerk deep. I hollered for my dad who ran to help me pull the fish in. It was a red snapping turtle instead, and it was huge to my small eyes. As fascinating as it was, it wouldn’t let go of my big worm even though my dad tried to get it to bite a stick instead. That was one aggressive turtle, and it wouldn’t let go of that line. My dad later said that the turtle had never swallowed the bait nor hook but was just plain ornery. Though I was fascinated by their tussle, my dad shouted at me to get back, then he tried again to get that turtle to grab the stick, and it did. As soon as it crunched, my dad whipped out his Bowie knife from his boot and cut off its head right where it had extended its neck. I was mortified and sickened, for I had caught many a tiny box turtle in our yard as a pet kept for weeks at a time, and I sure didn’t understand my dad’s reaction. I just sat down in the dirt and cried out of pure shock as my dad flung the parts in the lake.
Like Tom who saw a different part of his mother’s character one night at the ravine or like Doug who loses a friend to a move or as both as they lose neighbors and their own great-grandma to death, so many changes come at unexpected times, and something as pleasant as a summer day can devolve into horror and grief. The wonder and simple pleasures of summer then can not only be contagious at times as we revel in creation and experience, but also tempered by the realities of life and death.
originally posted 3/31/17
Like the beginning of a new year, the shift into summer can spur romantic notions and resolutions. There is something to the season change that causes reverie. Could it be that God has designed us this way?
During the sixth century, Gregory the Great of Italy writes that our conscious contemplation is critical to our Christian lifestyle. The contemplative life, according to Gregory, is to “hold fast with the whole mind” to our relationship with God, eagerly and even passionately to feel His presence. The contemplative is eternal because it continues after death and is “perfected” in heaven. To develop the contemplative then, we must begin by focusing on God, and not actions, as Mary did with Christ. Once we are centered on God, then we are able “to bear the weight of corruptible flesh with grief.” This implies a change in our mindset once we’ve begun the process. In a way, we grieve for heaven since we are not there because our fleshly nature weighs upon our spirits. Gregory terms it a “mental struggle” because “He [God] withers every carnal desire in us.” This step is a striving, a good and eager striving, to understand God. Yet Gregory does stipulate that the contemplative element follows the active portion. It must happen in that order.
Contemplation follows action.
Gregory defines the active life as literal—doing good works. He lists what believers should do such as “to give bread to the hungry, to teach the ignorant with the word of wisdom, to set aright the lost, to recall a proud neighbor” and others. It is more than productivity and more than influencing others—it is caring for those God has placed around us. This life is “laborious” and “fatiguing” yet the work must come before we can rest in His presence. He cites Jacob’s wife Leah as an example of labor and the active life because Jacob always returned to her, and she bore him sons. If we have labored well then, the active life continues by reproducing “many sons in the good work.”
This developing process, attaining the contemplative and active life, is also circular according to Gregory, for “the spirit frequently reverts from the contemplative to the active, so that the active life may be lived the more perfectly because the contemplative has kindled the mind.” One is dependent upon the other, and at the same time, holds great influence.
The active life and the contemplative life are intertwined . . .
Stewarding our relationship with God will show itself in our physical actions as our “inward love increases” and the “strength of the flesh undoubtedly declines.” If we are fully committed to living this intertwined life, then “when the quiet of the contemplative life prevails in the mind there is silence in Heaven because the noise of actions dies away from thought so that the spirit inclines to the secret inner ear,” a benefit that our souls should not forget (Psalm 103:2).
from Homilies on the Book of Ezekiel
When I first wrote about how to understand poetry in the fall, I heard from so many of you. Some shared suggestions and many more requested ideas. If you missed my first article, see On Teaching My Husband Poetry. Appreciating poetry begins with finding poetry you like, poems that resonate and delight. Though he unarguably had a tumultuous life, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes in an enjoyable and, I feel, understandable way. Don’t dismiss his work because of a few “thees” and “thys.” Read through it once, then twice, to get a feel.
One of the things I enjoy about Shelley’s descriptive poetry is that it is leading—he leads you to his thoughts. Poet notes. Unlike other Romantics who might get a bit lost in their creation and idealistic philosophy, Shelley is quite clear. The story goes that as he and his wife Mary, yes Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, were on an evening stroll in Italy in 1820, Mary commented on the evensong of the skylark, prompting Shelley’s ode.
In celebration of spring, let’s look at this popular poem together.
To a Skylark
So easy to hear and see and experience, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest. This simple songbird is so like the Heavens he comes from that his notes are like arrows, sharp and pointed at our hearts. This expression of beauty, this skylark, is so unearthly that Shelley asks how we can know it is of the earth. What can we compare it to? He employs simple similes: a poet (himself?), a maiden, a glow-worm, a rose. Each appeals to a different perspective and physical sense.
I think Shelley aspired to be as skilled with words as the skylark was with song, an experiential song of pure beauty.
Shelley then returns to a direct tone of command. He wants to know from the skylark itself, Teach us, Sprite or Bird, What sweet thoughts are thine. What are you singing of? Shelley then imagines what the bird might see before he realizes that it cannot love like a human can. That—that is something it cannot sing of, the pain or annoyance of love gone wrong. Yet maybe that is why its song is so pure.
Shelley maintains our love on earth is all the more joyful, more deep even, than what the skylark sings of because we can experience sorrow and pain. Perhaps it is the job of the poet to reveal. Consider two parts: Like a Poet hidden / In the light of thought, / Singing hymns unbidden, / Till the world is wrought / To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not. And Thy skill to poet were. I think Shelley aspired to be as skilled with words as the skylark was with song, a song of pure beauty.
The British Library also features historical commentary on "To a Skylark."
I surprised myself today. As I was teaching my high school juniors and we were discussing the end of A Tale of Two Cities, we reviewed how Sydney Carton managed to switch places with Darnay. We had been discussing what he could represent, noting that Dickens himself calls Carton “Advocate” rather than lawyer or defender in the final chapters. I reread two scenes related to Sydney Carton.
Here I was reading aloud, reading a most poignant moment where the young unnamed seamstress asks to hold Carton’s hand before they journey to the tumbrils and then La Guillotine. She was sure she was addressing Darnay, the prisoner she knew the year before in the cruelest of prisons, La Force—until the critical moment when she gazes up into his face. It was then she saw it was Carton, a complete stranger. But she knew. She knew he was there to save the lives of Darnay, Lucie, and little Lucie, who were escaping brutal Paris at that very moment.
After we hear of the swift demise of our villainess, Charles Dickens returns to the hapless pair. Carton and the little seamstress are now traveling in the last tumbril, he the supposed celebrity execution of the day. But they are oblivious. He holds her hand, looking at her and she at him. In their final moments ascending the scaffold, she thanks him, saying--
But for you dear stranger, I should not be so composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart, nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here today. I think you were sent to me by Heaven.'
As I read aloud today, I began to tear up and my voice wavered. My class noticed of course. I promptly apologized for my emotion, stating that this scene simply undoes me. I have read this novel at least seven times now. Each time. Yes, each time, I cry. Each time, I think to myself, “I know what’s coming. I won’t cry today.” My classes laugh it off, I dab at my eyes, and a few brave souls admit to being overcome when they read it alone at home the night before.
At the end of the school day, however, I began to ponder why Dickens’ writing has that effect on me. He’s quite guilty of sentimentality at times. Think of when Lucie faints after her husband is taken away and Carton carries her to the carriage while young Lucie whispers, “I think you will do something to help mamma, something to save papa! O, look at her, dear Carton! Can you, of all the people who love her, bear to see her so?” Oh yes, drops of sappiness ooze through hyperbolic drama.
Perhaps I cry because of the pathos of the moment. Maybe it’s because Dickens has elevated this lowliest of sinners to a place of sacrifice from the greatest fidelity of an unselfish love. Yet, I’m hesitant. Dare I say, I think it’s the beauty of the scene captured in the beauty of words. Not overdone in this instant, but perfectly balanced with the image of a formerly wicked man being the redemption, the “prophetic” coming to life before our eyes, saving the generations of every Darnay and Manette to come. It took a full novel to come to this scene of import, and I think that—yes, that is the moment the heart, my heart, recognizes the beauty in the depth of this storyteller’s words.
What if love notes or poems or sonnets weren't simply about a person? Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul.
When we think of love sonnets, most of us think of the sappy ooze of lyricists or the flavorless mush in greeting cards. But when they were first written in the 14th century, their intent was much different.
It all began with Francesco Petrarch in 1304. Like his predecessor Dante, Petrarch was a devout Catholic. He too was exiled from Italy with his family due to civil unrest. Once in France, Petrarch’s father had a successful law practice, and the family prospered, so much so that he arranged the best education money could buy at the time—private tutors. By age 16, Petrarch dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law first at Montpelier then at Bologna.
Legend tells that since his father was supplying an allowance to Petrarch, he often made surprise visits at university. One such afternoon, Petrarch was quietly reading a book in his rented room when his father suddenly arrived. Enraged at the number of books Petrarch had purchased with his allowance, he promptly threw them out of the window and into the street below.
Now throwing around books at this time was no light matter. Before the printing press, many books were hand-copied and sewn together at great cost. If the story is indeed true, Petrarch likely spent a month’s allowance on one book alone. His personal library held copies of Homer’s Iliad, Cicero's Rhetoric, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, all of which he loved dearly.
FORGET THE LAW
Meanwhile, his father set fire to the small stash in the middle of the street. Any passerby would know the value of that fire, and naturally disheartened, within a few months Petrarch quit law school and promptly announced he was going to be a writer and poet and take his ecclesiastical orders. Some biographers say that his father died before he could quit; others that Petrarch was simply dissatisfied with the untruthfulness of the law as a whole.
From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good
Petrarch did pursue his minor orders and began to write, and this is where the sonnet as a form was born. The story he tells lies in Sonnet 3. He was in Avignon at service on Good Friday in 1327, "the day the sun's ray had turned pale," a day of “universal woe,” when a light from the cathedral window shone on a woman rows in front of him. It was Laura de Sade, who was already wed or soon to be by most accounts. She was illumined, and a Muse was born. They likely never met or spoke from that moment, but Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets about her and to her.
NO STALKING HERE
The thing is Petrarch was not some obsessive stalker, but a man instead who knew love in a different way. That God revealed her to him on Good Friday was everything. For him, Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul, "From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good . . ." (Sonnet 13).
I FIRST READ Up from Slavery ten years ago and was quickly surprised that it wasn’t required reading for every educator. In his autobiography, Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915) leaves us an equal bounty of moral wisdom and caution that all began with his dream to learn. Education is central to his story. He writes, There was never a time in my youth, no matter how dark and discouraging the days might be, when one resolve did not continually remain with me, and that was a determination to secure an education at any cost.
Once the slaves were freed after the Civil War, Washington, his mom, and siblings walked from Franklin County, Virginia, to the salt mines of Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepdad who had found work there. In a rough shanty town of whites and blacks, Washington envied the one young colored boy who read the evening papers aloud to his neighbors. Within a few weeks, Washington taught himself to read the alphabet. Within a few months, the colored people had found their first teacher, a Negro boy from Ohio who was a Civil War veteran. The families all agreed to board him as pay, and he taught children and adults alike. Washington relates, it was a whole race trying to go to school. The oldest Negroes were determined to read the Bible before they died, and every class, even Sunday school, was full of eager learners of every age. Unfortunately, Washington was not one of them.
Washington leaves us an equal bounty of moral wisdom and caution that all began with his dream to learn.
Washington’s stepdad found him to be more valuable as a worker and would not release him from his shifts. For months, while he worked at the head of the mine, Washington watched the Negro children walk to and from school. Eventually, he was able to secure lessons at night and eagerly devoured all he could. As time passed and he continued to press his stepfather, Washington finally won. He was allowed to work early, go to day school, work two more hours late afternoon before returning home—all at the age of eleven.
Washington worked as a salt packer, coal miner, and house servant, always attending school in the off hours. By 1872 at the age of sixteen, he traveled for a month to reach Hampton, Virginia, to attend a teacher school for African Americans. He served as the school janitor to support himself and graduated in three years with a certificate to teach in a trade school. The desire to learn was his work ethic. His work ethic was his desire to learn.
As Washington saw his dream to educate others come to fruition, he taught at a local school in Hampton then in a program for Native Americans before agreeing to train Negroes at an agricultural and mechanical school in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute. He writes humbly and fluently of his years there in leadership, even as his national influence grew.
Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.
Slave or free, shallow or deep, useless or useful. The distractions of life, the shiny things, are superficial. Yes, we agree. Our country, our people, this humanity, cannot grow until we see past them and move toward seeing each other in every skill or occupation or gifting as God designed us.
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway portrays the character of Frederic Henry as a hedonist, a young man who has always been indulged but is trapped by the circumstances of war. He lives each day completing his work and pursuing his pleasures, likely aware that he could be killed at any moment. Henry is surrounded with other characters who act as he does, yet he searches for a greater meaning for his life, almost as if mining for that singular thing of value, hoping for better and fumbling through.
At the beginning of the novel, Hemingway likens Henry to his immoral peers, claiming like Rinaldi that they are “all fire and smoke and nothing inside.” Henry drinks wine with his companions and goes to the whorehouse with the captain. He drinks regularly with his roommate Rinaldi at any time of day and womanizes both at the officer’s whorehouse and in town with the new nurses. Being with women is just a game for him, and he claims that he “did not care what he was getting into.”
Henry is much like Aristotle’s incontinent man who pursues pleasure and does experience momentary regret, but not enough to elicit change. Henry even says to the priest, “we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.” Though meager, Henry’s sense of morality, or at the least, his awareness of moral choice, does exist.
A life without faith breeds hopelessness.
Once Henry is wounded though, Hemingway clarifies Henry’s budding perspective. Henry agrees with the priest that the “war disgust” is depressing and acknowledges that he does not know God, only fears Him. So though he admits that God exists and that man is in need, Henry chooses not to rely upon God, but rather upon himself.
Henry’s disposition toward Catherine also changes and matures. Once in the Milan hospital, Henry sees Catherine and knows that he is in love with her. At first in Book I, he had lied to placate her, and she was fully aware of and complicit in his game. But now, it’s as if he accidentally stumbles upon the greater meaning he unconsciously desires—love. Hemingway describes it as being “never lonely and never afraid when we were [are] together.” As Henry recuperates, Catherine continues to visit him, and they spend their nights together. In fact, they live almost exclusive of others and find meaning only in themselves and their relationship. Hemingway’s humanistic view relies solely on their choices, their mutual self-reliance.
What kind of love is this?
At the end of his escape, Henry reasons that all he wants to do in life is “eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.” This sentiment, this declaration of need, dominates Henry’s reasoning through the remaining chapters. Henry later states to Count Greffi that the thing he values most is “Someone I love,” and the Count replies that “that is a religious feeling.”
For Henry, being with Catherine is almost transcendental; it becomes his purpose for living, particularly because he deserted the Italian army not only for his survival, but also for hers and the baby’s. In spite of the fact that Henry becomes entirely dependent upon Catherine for his happiness, Hemingway ironically portrays Catherine as a shallow automaton who tirelessly asks Henry how she can please him or make him happy. Even in her final throes of labor she doesn’t want to make trouble. Her character shows no depth, yet Henry remains fervently devoted. Perhaps this obsession is one reason Henry’s path to happiness fails upon Catherine’s death and that of their son.
By Hemingway’s closing commentary, we now know that Frederic Henry is not only a pleasure-seeking humanist, but also a fatalist. Henry blames the world, or vaguely God, for his tragedy: “You never got away with anything.” He’s convinced that the immorality of his nights in Milan led to this negative end. Henry acknowledges what most would term “sin” and attributes these happenings as direct consequences, of reaping what was sown, without a hope of eternity: “You died. You did not know what it was about,” and Catherine too terms her imminent death “a dirty trick.”
This hopelessness is a just denouement for a character who lived a life without faith from the beginning, but the bigger question just might be what Hemingway was illustrating about the generation he lived in.
ARISTOTLE MAY HAVE GOT IT RIGHT. His emphasis on logic allowed him to view slaves and slavery, men and property owners, more rationally and compassionately than any other leader. This single topic of his time shows us a broad yet thorough picture of how true reasoning works and works fairly.
The concept and practice of enslaving other peoples has existed for centuries. In most ancient societies, slavery was not only custom but also necessity. Without this foundation of labor, the very structure of early societies could fail. In ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that slavery was a necessity, and it could be either just or unjust in practice; yet he also acknowledged that rational slaves could have souls (which begs another question of course) and deserved to be freemen. This seeming discrepancy points to his growing awareness of slavery’s issues and perhaps his perspective of man. In Politics, Aristotle himself questions whether a man can be destined to be a slave at birth: But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave . . . or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? (1.1254a). I appreciate this last question the most. Aristotle is not a man set in his ways nor is he firmly cemented in popular thought.
Aristotle felt that a man’s natural tendencies, even inherited ones, could lead him to be ruled, one who naturally was subjected. However, he did see an exception to this “natural” slavery; essentially, he qualified his own proposition because subjection might have been true for some, but not for an entire peoples and not for those who didn’t choose it. Aristotle conceded, for example, that it was unjust to enslave through war those who were not slaves by nature (1.1255a). He even termed the conquering of others for this purpose a “great evil” (7.1333b) because conquered peoples were being forced into something they weren’t born to. Aristotle did see the injustice of this single form of slavery.
Could it be true? If slaves had rational minds, then they would not be natural slaves and thus, using Aristotle’s reasoning, should not be enslaved.
Yet Aristotle also insisted that slavery was a natural, expected, and just foundation for a living society, for some should rule and others [should] be ruled (1.1254a). Typically, this same community required slaves, ministers of action, to function. Since they were his property, his possession, slaves were the means by which a master secured his livelihood (1.1253b). Aristotle saw slavery as just when the rule of master over slave was beneficial to both parties. He even allowed that they could share in friendship (1.1255b). Here, then, is where Aristotle concedes again that a slave might not truly be a slave by nature. They could have souls like rational men, unlike beasts of burden, since they were capable of friendship and considered part of the master (Ibid). The discrepancy lies in that they had to be rational in order to obey their masters. But if slaves had rational minds, then they would not be natural slaves and thus, using Aristotle’s reasoning, should not be enslaved.
Though Aristotle clearly advocated slavery in his time, he acknowledged his opponents’ arguments, too. If slavery was a violation of nature as others had proposed, then the distinction between slave and freeman exist[ed] by law only, and not by nature and was also declared unjust (1.1253b).
Since Aristotle allowed for such considerations, maybe by his generalization there couldn’t be one applicable definition for all slaves nor could there be an absolutist view of the issue. Aristotle could see that some slaves, a portion, were rational men, but he couldn’t apply that reasoning to all as a group. He could not allow for all slaves to be men, for that would destroy the infrastructure of his ideal community, the polis.
No, there's no such thing as husband poetry. I mean my husband asked me to teach him more about poetry. My husband felt there were decided holes in his education, but I thought surely somewhere in junior high or high school a dedicated teacher must have taught him some famous verse. He swears he remembers nothing of the sort. Thus, three months ago, my husband picked up a volume of Emily Bronte poetry and determined to understand what he read.
He was already a decided Bronte sisters' admirer, so likability wasn't an issue. What did become an issue was rhyme scheme and syllable structure. So what to do? Consult with your English teacher wife of course. As he read poetry before bed each evening, he began to ask me questions like Why does this line have eight syllables and this one has ten?
I know, I know. Nerd alert. How many married couples talk like this before falling asleep? Anyway, I began by asking him not only to count syllables in every line, but to also determine if there was a pattern. How many lines are in the overall poem, sweetie? Did you say 14? So what type of poem is that? What was Bronte imitating? Pretty soon I realized we needed to start at the beginning. All the intelligent Rush lyrics of his youth bred a natural appreciation for poetry and the lyrical art, but that didn't mean he understood the required skills or genius of the poet's work.
This is what we've learned so far in the poetry journey:
STEP ONE: Read poetry you like, poetry you're drawn to. Each person has their own taste of course. Bronte did that for him as did Frost and Seamus Heaney.
STEP TWO: Break apart the poem skeleton. This is tricky because if you spend too much time identifying parts you can also remove the pleasure of reading for the beauty of the thing. At the same time without the knowledge of parts it's hard to appreciate the whole. Think of the human skeleton. Knowing the parts of the body that frame it and allow it to stand and move increases our appreciation of its overall appearance.
STEP THREE: Find a teaching text that's written at your level. Perhaps the most difficult creature to find, an instructional book is a necessary thing unless you already have an English teacher spouse at your side. From homeschooling curricula to college-level texts, there are too many choices. I've read quite a few that make poetry more difficult and even more that make it too simple. The trick is to find the one that fits you. As an adult learner, my husband didn't want a middle school beginner though he was willing. Instead we went entirely old school. Why not learn from two distinguished Yale professors?
MY TOP RECOMMENDATION
Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. It's no longer in print but is a valuable text if you find one. You can learn so much from reading just two chapters on narrative and descriptive poems. Brooks and Warren include plenty of examples AND include their commentary on how the poem works and what it means. So, so helpful to learn from their wealth of experience. Brooks also has his own poetry textbook titled The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. Though I haven't read it yet, it comes with high reviews.
And as a bonus, read Dwight Longenecker's essay "Why You Need Poetry." He provides much needed motivation for why poetry benefits our minds, ourselves, as a creative outlet.
OR WHY WE SHOULD SEE LIVE PERFORMANCES. Yesterday our entire high school of 125 students and a handful of teachers saw Thornton Wilder's play Our Town at a local university, free I might add. For a play written in 1938, it is indeed a snapshot of its time approaching mid-century America post World War I and the Great Depression. After a country had seen so much loss of life and the loss of quality of life, it was no wonder that a certain hopelessness invaded the story. In essence, Wilder simplistically depicted the passing of time in the place and people of Grover's Corner, Americana.
Yes, Americana. It is predictable and normal and mundane, and the characters are every bit flat and stereotypical. But that's intentional. Surely all of us can identify with the bright student, the champion baseball player, the town drunk, the mom who makes thousands of meals in her lifetime.
When I asked some of my students about the performance and story, I heard some unexpected things. "Mrs. Norvell, I didn't like it. There wasn't any real hope, not in a spiritual way at least. I mean, I get the message from the cemetery people, like appreciate the present and the details in life, but it felt so hopeless. Like, do the dead people just forget everything, and that's it?"
And that is why such a performance is critical. Here this young man observed, not read, that a REAL hope was absent. Here he discerned the apathy of an atheist or the absence of eternity. And I think he fairly questioned the wisdom of such lives, living without hope in God.
This live performance did more than just bring life to the imagination. The experience itself brought a reality to bear because it cemented his personal belief that his choice of Christ was indeed the way, the truth, the life, not some vague hope that things would just work out.
Yes, I realize that Wilder was both praising the simple life and criticizing America. I know he hoped to turn his audience to living an appreciated life, but he missed something. In 1956, the Paris Review published an interview with the Pulitzer prize winner. Wilder admitted that most of his plays and novels dealt with one or two ideas. The most dominant one was his
unresting preoccupation with the surprise of the gulf between each tiny occasion of the daily life and the vast stretches of time and place in which every individual plays his role. By that I mean the absurdity of any single person’s claim to the importance of his saying, “I love!” “I suffer!” when one thinks of the background of the billions who have lived and died, who are living and dying, and presumably will live and die.
Wilder was and is right. Perspective is necessary. Unselfishness is a virtue. But maybe he lost sight of the individual, the one created in God's image and the one created for eternal life, in the midst of the crowd of common men.