Friday, January 29, 2010

If There is an Afterlife, I Hope They Join Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Anton Wilson for a Breakfast of Champions

This week, two of my favorite literary figures died.

As a freshman in college, I took US History. The assigned text book was A People's History of the United States by Dr. Howard Zinn. Dr. Zinn, a historian, professor, and political/social activist, approached the historical record of this country not from the perspective of the "important" historical figures, but from the perspective of women, minorities, and the working class. Rather than telling the story of the United States as a sawdust dry regurgitation of facts, names, and dates of white men, he incorporated stories of the average - or not so average - American citizen.

This book woke me up. It was the beginning of a passion for activism, for sociological study, for stories from the trenches, for socialism. I discovered his collection of essays Artists in Times of War which also touched me in a way I could not describe. I recommended him to anyone who would listen and purchased more copies of A People's History to give as gifts more times than I can count.

Dr. Zinn died on Wednesday, January 27. He was 87 years old.

Yesterday, Thursday, I received a breaking news update from NPR. J.D. Salinger had also died on Wednesday at the age of 91.

I read all his books while I was in high school. Of course, like many American teens who felt alienated, I identified strongly with Holden Caulfield and The Catcher in the Rye. I didn't carry it around with me or anything like Mark David Chapman or anything. But I did read it more than once.

I performed a duet interpretation cutting from Franny and Zooey for the speech and debate team in high school with David Wilcox. We got to say "dammit" a lot. We didn't win any competitions - I think we came in 2nd place once at the tournament in Worland - and I can't say I enjoyed the cutting much...mostly because Wilcox drove me nuts...but I loved the book.

As I grew older, The Catcher in the Rye was replaced as my favorite of his works by Nine Stories - a collection of his short stories - most originally published in The New Yorker1. Which one is my favorite? I can't pick one. They are all oddly wonderful and yet grotesque, disturbing. A Perfect Day for Banana Fish and For Esmé - with Love & Squalor in particular never sit particularly well with me. I love them regardless.

This summer, after a 15-year hiatus from Salinger, I picked up all his books again and reread them from cover to cover in chronological order2. Again, I was struck by his brilliance. His incredible voice and rich, flawed characters. His reclusion and unwillingness to publish or speak publically over the last 50 years was a shame.

Still...we are richer for his powerful literary contribution...regardless of the fact that there could have been more.

RIP, Dr. Zinn and Mr. Salinger. May you meet Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Anton Wilson and go banana fishing together.

1: Gawd I love that magazine.
2: Because that's just how I roll.

1 comment:

kk said...

Hey, can I take a look at "A People's History..." sometime? I've been looking for a good, engaging history book so I can better answer kiddo questions. History is one of my blindspots that I should fill in for them and for me.