Thursday, September 30, 2010

states of becoming

What kind of insights did I get from the literary fiction I recall, or the movies or plays I saw, in those early formative years, the years I spent urgently trying to become who I am now--for better or worse?  Some stories that jump to mind  might simply have been good, escapist fare transporting me to another place or time, or featuring especially interesting characters.  I might have thought those characters' exploits seemed exciting, or fun-laden, or sad; however, perhaps in only a few cases, did a character really touch something deeply profound in the ongoing search for who I was, or was trying to be.

Some of the books I remember from those formative years included most of the works of Charles Dickens, Robt. Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, and an assortment of other individual classics.  But this is not meant to be an exhaustive reading list, just a takeoff point for reflections on a few, perhaps lesser known, but personal choices.

I read "Tom Brown's School Days," by Thomas Hughes at a time when I was thinking about what high school I might go to.  Certainly the choices available bore no resemblance to the nineteenth century English public school that Tom was sent off to board at.  I admired his sense of honor and bravery while there, and the hardships he came through in that difficult, sometimes brutal environment, to become a leader among his school peers.  When I peruse those pages today, it's a wonder to me how I got through Hughes' Victorian style of 'Rule, Brittania!' literary expression, but the story was somehow deeply satisfying to the boy I was at the time.

An odd one next, "The Amboy Dukes," by Irving Shulman, which I read when I was at a NYC public high school in the late Forties.  The old neighborhoods in south Queens where I lived were changing, with more of the inner city gang culture beginning to appear in our far out reaches of the city.  Initially I thought it was a bit exciting, and of course girls were becoming a major related attraction.  "The Amboy Dukes" story dramatized such developments; I knew the neighborhoods, and in a way, the characters of that story.  But ultimately, I judged the story so disheartening.  Luckily for me, I guess.

 I'll close the chat with "How Green Was My Valley," by Richard Llewellyn.  By this time I had started college, commuting daily from my home in Queens to CCNY, up in the Bronx.  Being one of a large family of boys and one sister, I was taken with the closeness of the large family of young men and their sister, and loving parents, living in a coal mining community in Wales around the turn of the century.  The narrator was the youngest son of the family, and described his coming of age trials in the harsh school system of that time and place, and the rough-and-tumble world of the youths his age.  His father and all his brothers were miners, and if they did have a cheerful, song-filled approach to life, living was nonetheless hard with the wages and labor unrest of the time.  The father had hoped his youngest son, a bright lad, would go on to a higher education than any of the rest had had.  It was not to be, because as his brothers left one-by-one for a better life in America, the young boy passes up his chance for higher schooling and goes down into the mines to work alongside his beloved father.  I think I was so overcome by the sentiment of it that, along with other factors, I decided to leave college and go to work as an apprentice in an uncle's construction union.  That ill-advised foray didn't last too long--the work was too irregular, and I went back to school the next semester.

The formative power of books might often be a great thing.
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