Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bob Denver, Little Humanities-Type Buddy

I spent the evening with a friend who is very smart and very kind but does not comprehend what "you humanities types" do. We read a couple of my favorite short stories (Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and Stephen Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky") and discussed them over dinner. An extremely delicious dinner she cooked in exchange for me sharing my literary expertise. Eleven years of higher education — a Bachelor's degree magna cum laude, two Master's degrees, and a Ph.D. — you can damn well bet I had seconds on the eggplant dish.

The crux of it was that she wanted to know what the stories meant. I tried to tell her it's not like 8x7=56. There isn't an instructor's copy with the One True Answer in the back. She looked at me with the suspicious eyes of the social scientist. "But what did Hawthorne think the story was about?" she asked. "Who cares?" I answered, "he's dead."

We laughed. We sipped more wine. I took what I thought to be a rather delicate portion of thirds on the eggplant. And then my friend said, "Really? I mean, you really mean it? You DON'T CARE what he thought?"

So let me just say it right out. Hawthorne was a good writer. I mean, if you are looking for some overdetermined symbolism, just put down that cigar Dr. Freud and cast your eyes upon Young Goodman Brown as he cries out for his beloved Faith. Hawthorne's ability to churn out a good story is why I read him. And it's not like I am completely uninterested in what concerns an author brings to the work, or in the historical contexts for understanding literary production. But whether what turns Young Goodman Brown into a maudlin and miserable old man is that he loses his faith or that he retains it, whether the story is an attack on religious fundamentalist dependence on pure faith or on the Enlightenment belief in the truth of observable phenomena ... I'm not asking Hawthorne to answer that one for me. Seeking out an interpretation for yourself, that's the point. That, ultimately, is the true joy of literature.

That and the fact that you can sing most Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of "The Gilligan's Island Theme Song."

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