Saturday, May 27, 2017

`There Is Only One Subject'

Years ago I regularly read Carl T. Rowan’s syndicated newspaper column, but he died in 2000 and his name hadn’t entered my head in years – a familiar fate for journalists. In memory I associate him with a sober, commonsensical understanding of the world. He was no grandstander or provocateur, nor was he a masterful stylist. You read Rowen for his slightly dull and reassuring sense of reasonableness. This week I unexpectedly came upon his name in Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002) by Richard Rodriguez, who tells us the first book by a black writer he read was Rowan’s Go South to Sorrow (1957). He found it shelved in his fifth-grade classroom.

“And as I read,” Rodriguez writes, “I became aware of warmth and comfort and optimism. I was made aware of my comfort by the knowledge that others were not, are not, comforted. Carl Rowan at my age was not comforted. The sensation was pleasurable.”

Rodriguez recalls the sensation of reading Rowan with a vividness some readers will recognize. He remembers the quality of sunlight on that Saturday morning in January, and the bond of understanding formed with a man he would never meet. In Brown, Rodriguez has recently learned of Rowan’s death, which prompts him to write:

“It is a kind of possession, reading. Willing the Other to abide in your present . . . I remember Carl T. Rowan, in other words, as myself, as I was. Perhaps that is what one mourns.”

Some readers are blessed with a remarkable capacity for imaginative projection. Most children have it but soon lose it. They can become the Other, briefly, and the lucky ones retain and cherish the experience. Another black writer, Ralph Ellison, performed a comparable sort of magic on me with Invisible Man, when I first read it at age seventeen. Slowly, less dramatically (probably due to age), I’m developing a similar respectful empathy for Rodriguez and his work. This marvelous passage, which gives us plenty to ponder, follows two pages after the one cited above:

“Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: `Ports have names they call the sea.’ Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use—high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.”

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