Thursday, December 01, 2016

`We Met on a Basis Completely Friendly'

“And it is wonderful to be a member of no party! I pick my own way among the landmarks. No Baedeker distracts me from the scenery.”

The subject at hand concerns neither politics nor travel but rather one reader’s errant taste in books. Modern readers generally fancy themselves freethinkers, beholden to no creed or fashion, but the facts suggest otherwise. Prejudices are common, most obviously in the preference for new or recently published books over those from years or centuries ago. It’s a peculiar bias. Most books published in any era are rubbish. To limit one’s potential reading matter to a single year, or decade or century is punishingly narrow-minded. Who wouldn’t rather read Tennyson than Robert Bly, or Gogol rather than Jonathan Franzen? Other stridently partisan tastes include fiction over non-fiction (and vice versa), loyalty to or rejection of particular genres or forms, and any sort of demographic preference or repugnance.

The author of the declaration of independence at the top is Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), an American poet thoroughly erased from cultural memory. (Being a member of no party carries its risks.) Her Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades, with Seventy New Poems (1960) was published with a foreword by W.H. Auden and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1961. A self-described “housewife poet,” McGinley dedicated Times Three to her husband and two daughters, “my critics, my champions, my copy.” Her poetry is better crafted and more enjoyable than Sylvia Plath’s, Anne Sexton’s or Sharon Olds’. McGinley also published a collection of essays, The Province of the Heart (Viking Press, 1959). Its contents originally appeared in such magazines as Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s and Vogue. The passage above is from “The Consolations of Illiteracy”:

“There is such a thing as a literary landscape; to that, to nearly the whole length and breadth of classic English writing, I came as an astonished stranger. No one who first enters that country on a conducted tour can have any notion what it is like to travel it alone, on foot, and at his own pace.”

Already, I’m sympathetic to McGinley, as I am to any autodidact, because that’s how I started as a reader. I had no mentors, no book clubs, no critical standards, only omnivorous hunger for books. Reading bad books when young is essential. It builds a strong stomach and, with time, enables us to formulate what we will accept or reject from a writer – a fledgling critical stance. The house I grew up in was almost bookless, so I relied on bookstores and the public library. McGinley says her father’s library consisted mostly of history, law and Bulwer-Lytton: “I wolfed down what I could but found a good deal of it indigestible.” Her reading history is amusingly different from mine. She says “it was at college I seriously managed to learn nothing,” whereas access for the first time to a university library was for me an act of divine favor. Without exaggeration, the ability to locate any book I wanted changed my life. McGinley’s total lack of pretentiousness is refreshing:

“Almost none of the alleged classics, under whose burden the student is supposed to bow, had I peered into either for pleasure or for credit. As a consequence, although I came to them late, I came to them without prejudice. We met on a basis completely friendly; and I do not think the well-educated can always claim as much.”

I know few formally well-educated people who are enthusiastic readers of long standing. Unlike McGinley, most would have to work hard to recount their reading histories, and are seldom amusing about it. They could never say, “We met on a basis completely friendly." Among the poems collected in Times Three is “Publisher’s Party.” The final rhyme in the second of these two stanzas always makes me laugh:

“And Honor Guest must cower
When they, descending rather
Like bees upon a flower,
Demand his views on Cather—

“On Wharton, James, or Cather,
Or Eliot or Luther,
Or Joyce or Cotton Mather,
Or even Walter Reuther.”

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