Thursday, January 17, 2013

`A Little More Populous With Visionary Shapes'

Our nine-year-old’s fourth-grade teacher confirmed what we already knew and hardly thought worth mentioning: David reads a lot of books and he reads them simultaneously, greedily and without confusion. “Just like his Dad,” my wife added during our parent-teacher conference. The teacher is young and more accustomed to cajoling students into picking up even one book. Day after day, she noticed David pulling stacks of them from his backpack. “How’d you do it?” she asked in genuine wonder. “How’d you get him to want to read?” There’s no mystery. “In a word,” I said, “read.” “Oh,” she said, a little disappointed with our low-tech strategy. 

I’m an exception to my own method, of course. Mine was not a reading family but neither did it actively discourage the consumption of books. Operating on the principle of contrariety, I did the opposite of my parents’ example and read like a fiend. Another Ohio native also started young. William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was born in Martins Ferry, across the Ohio River from Wheeling, W.V. The future novelist and friend to Henry James and Mark Twain was the son of a newspaper editor and printer. In one of his volumes of autobiography, Years of My Youth (1916), Howells writes: 

“[My father] was, as I have divined more and more, my guide in that early reading which widened with the years, though it kept itself preferably for a long time to history and real narratives. He was of such a liberal mind that he scarcely restricted my own forays into literature, and I think that sometimes he erred on that side; he may have thought no harm could come to me from the literary filth which I sometimes took into my mind [not pornography; more likely the nineteenth-century equivalent of so-called graphic novels], since it was in the nature of sewage to purify itself.” 

Among the books he read as a boy, Howells remembers Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque – all of which I read as a boy. In an earlier memoir, My Year in a Log Cabin (1893), Howells describes a boyhood epiphany I envy because I remember nothing comparable: 

“Our barrels of paper-covered books were stowed away in that loft, and overhauling them one day I found a paper copy of the poems of a certain Henry W. Longfellow, then wholly unknown to me; and while the old grist-mill, whistling a wheezing to itself, made a vague music in my ears, my soul was filled with this new, strange sweetness. I read the `Spanish Student’ there, and the `Coplas de Manrique,’ and the solemn and ever-beautiful `Voices of the Night.’” 

So much for the backwardness of rural Ohio some 170 years ago. Howells continues his account of self-education: 

“There were other books in those barrels which I must have read also, but I remember only these, that spirited me again to Spain, where I had already been with [Washington] Irving, and led me to attack seriously the old Spanish grammar which had been knocking about our house ever since my father bought it from a soldier of the Mexican War.” 

Boys (and probably girls) aren’t natural-born scholars or artists. They’re more like freelance explorers, and books and bicycles have equal claims on their attention. Howells continues: 

“But neither these nor any other books made me discontented with the small-boy’s world about me. They made it a little more populous with visionary shapes, but that was well, and there was room for them all. It was not darkened with cares, and the duties in it were not many.” 

[Think of the other worthy writers born in Ohio: Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Berger, Ambrose Bierce, Hart Crane, Ulysses S. Grant and Dawn Powell.]


D. G. Myers said...

How could you have forgotten that Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio? Or, for that matter, that Fredric Jameson was born in Cleveland? The state where I now live can claim modish overrated writers as well as the great and good.

Anonymous said...

Ohio can boast at least one worthy blogger.