I woke up a little after nine this morning, emerging from dreams of various members of my family, set in a Nashville of my youth and in a Northern Kentucky that was both of my adolescence and the present, with the places and people both overlapping and distant in the way that dreams are. For example, I had to drive my grandmother home to Nashville — a five-hour trip from Northern Kentucky — but as I was getting ready, I was being harassed by the children who had lived across the street when I was eleven years old. Also, there were cousins, nieces, and nephews I didn’t recognize and a clogged bathtub that I “recognized” as being in another relative’s house, although I have no conscious memory of that room.
When I awoke, I hadn’t opened my eyes yet, and my brain was rebooting, I guess, but I knew I was awake. I had no idea where I was. Nashville? Union? A place in Kentucky that occasionally pops up in dreams, but of which I have no waking recollection? What passed for the reasonable portion of my mind eliminated each of those in turn. I asked myself where I live and work, and after a moment — a long moment — I remembered it was South Carolina. And only then did I open my eyes to my familiar bedroom here at the Mid-Century Mondohaus.
I wonder where I would be if I had opened my eyes before then.
I put my syllabi together this week, and did a fair amount of reading as well, some old and some new to me. I read the second edition of Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy, a history by Noel Perrin of expurgated books in Britain and the States. I found it fascinating and sometimes amusing, as Perrin notes that expurgators frequently saw their task as protecting the “weak” or sensitive (women, children, non-scholars) from dangerous or crude ideas. This played out in interesting ways: in The Canterbury Tales, for example, an expurgator might translate the innocuous pieces while leaving something like The Miller’s Tale (and the Reeve’s) in the original Middle English, on the grounds that only scholars who were above mere titillation would be able to get through them. (This seems to me to be an overestimate of the difficulty of Middle English, but my students might disagree.)
Perrin goes on to mention that generations of schoolchildren read even canonical texts in expurgated form in anthologies until really quite recently. And in my own experience, I’ve looked at early 20th-C. editions of the 15th-C. play Mankind (Possibly the 1904 E.E.T.S. version, but it could have been an edition of J.M. Manly’s Specimens of the Pre-Shakesperian [sic] Drama) with ellipses indicating the removal of “obscene” material (It’s the “Pope Pokett” section, if you’re wondering.)
Another point I found interesting was that expurgated texts were frequently called “castrated” editions — your witness, Dr. Freud. We also find out that while the Bowdler family was indeed the source of a great deal of expurgation, that the family’s primary culprit may have been a woman of the very sort one might have expected the expurgations to protect. And we learn that even Noah Webster was a keen expurgator, even to the point of eliminating words like stink.
Finally, as I said, I read the second edition of Perrin’s book. The original came out in the late 1960s, and the second edition in the late 80s/early 90s (I don’t have it in front of me at the moment). A trend Perrin noted in his new edition’s last chapter was that while expurgation continues to the time of his writing, the reasons for expurgation are now far more likely to be matters of racial sensitivity than issues of sexuality, blasphemy, or crudity. Think Huck Finn.
Mr. Perrin died in 2004, but I wonder what he’d think of the current situation, where sensitivity readers have become a sort of prior restraint in parts of the publishing world. Plus ca change…
I also read Harlan Coben’s Just One Look this week, the first of his novels I’ve discovered. It’s an intricately plotted story of . . . well, I’ll give you the blurb:
When Grace Lawson picks up a newly developed set of family photographs, there is a picture that doesn’t belong-a photo from at least twenty years ago with a man in it who looks strikingly like her husband, Jack. And though Jack denies it’s him, he disappears that night, taking the photo with him. Now, to save her family from a fierce, silent killer who will stop at nothing to get the photo, Grace must confront the dark corners of her own tragic past…
It’s a well crafted thriller, with the requisite twists and turns, and a couple of genuine surprises. Coben’s style is smooth reading, with both major and minor characters that stick in my mind a few days later. I’ll have to check out some more of his work.
I also revisited some old friends this week, in the form of Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp (1957) and JDM’s The Turquoise Lament, the 15th of the Travis McGee series. Russell’s book (considered his best by many) is a funny, exciting spy/saboteur yarn in some respects, and as some critics have noted, a creepy reflection of our current world in others. I read it for the first time when I was about ten, as I was raiding my dad’s shelves. I was probably drawn to the Op-Art lettering on the cover — a psychedelicist even then.
Of the McGee, there’s not much I need to say. The series was brilliant, and this was part of it. In retrospect, the book’s villain, Howie Brindle, is a chilling example of the charming, amiable psychopath, and I wonder if it may have helped me recognize the real thing. It seems to be a hip thing these days to dunk on the McGee series for its attitudes toward a 60s-ish sexual politics that is no longer our own. I say that’s spinach, and if it stops people from reading the books, they deserve to go without them. McGee and Meyer are two of the greatest characters in crime fiction, and MacDonald was past mastery of his craft. Now I want to re-read the entire series, and you should as well.
The new school year draws near — I have a two-day faculty inservice this week, and the term begins a week from Tuesday. I got my customary start-of-term haircut and beard trim yesterday, so the freshpeeps won’t think the classroom has been commandeered by a biker called “Preacher.” So there’s that.
This also means I’ll be relatively clean-cut at Bouchercon in St. Pete in a little less than a month. I’ll be doing a panel that Saturday, and if I do other stuff, I’ll tell you about that as well. I’d love to see you!
I’m ready for some lunch, so I think I’ll wrap things up for this installment, and as is my habit, I’ll share a bit of music. I was never a fan of the whole grunge scene of the early 90s — it just wasn’t my thing, and too much of it seemed indistinguishable from the rest of it. Consequently, when I found out that the late Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots had contributed vocals to a track from one of my favorite bands, I wasn’t thrilled.
But when I heard the song, I was. I’ve loved it since the first time I heard it, and it even made me think a bit more kindly of Mr. Weiland’s scene, although not enough to buy any of those albums. So here’s a live version the song in question, “Jindalee Jindalie” from the Masters of Reality. Hope you like it.
See you soon!