Category Archives: Opinion

Reluctantly

frustratedI momentarily lost it last fall when another senior complained about reading 22 pages assigned over two nights—in 14-point font, with sections interrupted and the rest of the page blank. In I983, my first year of teaching, I asked my department chair what homework reading load was reasonable. I operated on her standard for nearly a decade, 30 pages, but since then…

People outside my profession ask me, “How do your current students compare to the first students you taught?”

Honestly, I fear the question, as who wants to be a prune-faced back-in-my-day-er howling about change most label progress? I’ve rehearsed my answer, picturing the students I teach lugging their stretched-to-bursting backpacks into class. I like them. They smile at me. They thank me. They wave hello, goodbye.

The invention of averages hasn’t done much for subtlety. If I say, on average, my students are not as good at reading and writing, then one of the sharpest of my current students appears at an imagined door. I do teach some powerful thinkers, idealists, imaginative innovators. Some revere books and commit themselves to absorbing, testing, and exploiting ideas. The rest are, as a whole, good people. I respect them and would hate offending them.

But you hear me winding up. Whether I want an answer, I have one.

Unsurprisingly, reading challenges my students most. They seem unpracticed because few circumstances in the rest of their lives expects reading, and it’s a trial to convince them patience matters, that, the more they notice and retain, the more discerning their understanding and interpretation will be. For them, nuance matters less and less. They make dramatic links between disparate ideas but aim for fireworks, not gentle brushstrokes. Skilled at the broadest thinking, they sometimes resemble bots devoted to cursory recognition. Complications, exceptions, paradoxes, and mysteries don’t interest them as much. Instructions falling between extremes tax them. They want to know what’s required.

Impatience, I think, makes a bigger difference. The issue isn’t the number of pages but the page number where they become frustrated. The particular assignment my seniors objected to was Eula Biss’ “Pain Scale,” a roaming lyric essay about Biss’ back pain that included allusions to Dante’s Inferno and the history of numbers. Quixotically, I believed they might take to its strange and dramatic leaps between different arenas of thought, but some barely reached the bottom of the first page before deciding, and later letting me know, “This is bullshit.”

Every good student is a good critic, but judgment can be peremptory, skipping knowing, understanding, interpreting, detecting authors’ aims, and formulating thoughtful responses. Obviously, I’m heavy on judgment myself—it’s in the RNA of our times—but I’d love more than a “I didn’t like it.”

Maybe pragmatism explains their perspective. They’ve been conditioned not to deviate from straight paths. Their parents urge them to fix on destinations with less help getting there. Many parents forget about encouraging joy. To recognize how limitless they might be, students need to struggle and overcome, yet, because minor dents are too costly to their reputations, every accident or setback needs immediate remediation. They hardly have time to stumble or to distinguish between stumbling and failing. They’re told they must not fail and seldom come close. Few experiences lead to the redefinition—refinement—arising from discovering where strengths and weaknesses lie.

They’re an anxious generation—of course and understandably. Yet sometimes I wonder why. Granted, we’ve given them a terrible world, but they’re also ready to tell you how much harder they have it, and each challenge can feel to them like too much on top of too much. I long for the student who asks me to be hard, who accepts struggle as fundamental to education.

None of what I’ve said diminishes my affection, but it doesn’t lessen my concern either. I generally don’t compare current students to historical ones. I know it could be my problem, my nostalgia for a past that never was. Maybe I shouldn’t speak at all, but there they are, right in front of me, every day.

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The Stupor Bowl

Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, New JerseyI’m drawn to the Super Bowl the way junebugs in my Texas youth were drawn to our porchlight. Though the bulb sat inside four secure panes of glass with seemingly no junebug-sized access, every fall we opened the lamp to clear out remnants of another summer’s massacre.

There are so many reasons not to watch: seventeeen minutes of actual sports action in three-plus hours, the crass commercialization that preys on fans’ affection and loyalty, the exploitation of players asked to sacrifice healthy futures for their profession, the American-ness of American Football complete with faux patriotism and resistance to first amendment rights to protest, the gladiatorial, bread and circus nature of the contest itself, and the not-so-vaguely militaristic celebration of barely controlled violence.

That, and I loathe the Patriots.

Yet, at around 5:30 CST, I’ll probably be watching. Why? I’ve arrived at four answers:

Nostalgia: I played a lot of football growing up in Texas. Though I didn’t attain the height or weight to play for my high school, junior high, or even the peewee league, every fall weekend found me behind La Marque Intermediate School playing sandlot with my bigger and badder neighbors. If I could get tangled in their legs or bull-ride them down, I could gain some stature among them. And, yes, I enjoyed playing. For a long time, when I watched football on television I could imagine—fantasize, really—running routes or dropping back to snatch an interception from a sure-armed quarterback. My love of the Cowboys (sorry) made football my every third thought, and I still regard that era with some warmth. Of course, those were really times of ignorance not innocence, but football seemed purer when straight-arrow Roger Staubach led the team and strong and silent Tom Landry strode the sidelines.

FOMO: I might elude my nostalgia—I’m well over other youthful devotions—except that everyone else is watching the game. At work tomorrow, the first or second question from colleagues will be whether I saw some play or, just as likely, some commercial. It takes a person proud of splitting from the herd to leave the TV off. A strange and rare solidarity surrounds the event. We live in a Chicago neighborhood with multiple bars within earshot. Most nights we don’t hear them. Tonight, though, shouts will alert me to some highlight or turn in momentum I’m missing. Having spent 17 years in Delaware, well within the Eagles’ orbit, I’m not sure I’ll have the fight to resist tuning in.

Any excuse to celebrate: The game appears when my will is weakest. It’s a terrible gray day in Chicago with spitting snow and dropping temperatures. The holidays are long forgotten, and don’t I deserve a break, some excuse to eat poorly and let my resolve go for one night? Don’t I deserve some relief from bleak national news reports?

Cognitive Dissonance: Please don’t answer. The Super Bowl brings out all my greatest powers of denial. Watching or not watching is more than a contest between head and heart, knowing and feeling. It’s the same struggle of our time writ large. We live in a nation that isn’t what it once was, certainly not all it presents itself as. Football is just one example of clinging to what it is supposed to be instead of really scrutinizing what it is. Ultimately, I’ll be watching for the worst reason, to fill a deficit I feel in the rest of my life these days, a stubborn wish that, though this nation and its national sport don’t truly match what people want to believe, there may be a little dream left.

Fly, Eagles, fly.

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Dear World…

grandpa-simpsonLet me tell you about my embarrassing grandpa—not my actual grandfather because both real ones died before I remember, but the metaphoric grandpa you may recognize.

Grandpa expresses himself less nimbly than he once did. He isn’t the silver-tongued devil who swept my grandmother away, though in his imagination he remains vital and even sexy. In fact, as my grandpa’s store of words empties year by year, he has more to say. He has little governor—his brake pads malfunction regularly. A mind that once listened now bulls in, crowding every room with ambling and clichéd speeches about hard-tested wisdom, a right way of seeing and thinking born of ossified and unassailable memory and experience.

Listeners easily place his perspectives in more ignorant—he says “innocent”—times when consciousness-raising didn’t merit a name. The closest he comes to apologizing for diminishing others is excusing himself for coming up in another era. He loves to point out how much better we got along when we didn’t question the way things are. He pines for those days and wonders out loud why they can’t come back.

Don’t try to talk to my grandpa about how bad the good old days were. He may wait his turn to speak, but he will respond to the last thing you said as if it were the only thing you said. More likely, he will dismiss you as naïve. Grandpa’s learning years are over. He knows it’s easier to reinforce his ideas than to build new ones, and he can easily find all the information (or misinformation) he needs to support his beliefs. He only has to face the world in aggregate. The minute and intimate and human effect of any action is moot.

So please don’t bring up Grandpa’s neighbors. Too many of them have moved in, he carps, and ruined his nostalgic notion of unity and solidarity. Never mind that these new neighbors retrieve his grill cover when the wind carries it away or that they shovel snow from his walk along with their own. Never mind that they listen politely as he spews vitriol on the block party. He won’t acknowledge how grateful they are or how they’d rather leave him alone than impose. Their presence, he figures, will only attract more like them. Just to discourage new arrivals, he’d happily evict them.

My grandpa has revised his past to flatter his self-image. He remembers hard work and not luck, gumption and not circumstance, shrewdness and not his head start. He can’t fathom why everyone can’t be (and shouldn’t be) like him, and he never apologizes for his good fortune. Or shares. He won’t hand out what hasn’t been earned, and everything he and friends possess has been earned. The rest, apparently, are takers.

Apologies in general are not my grandpa’s thing. He is past considering other people’s feelings. He will tell you it’s natural he comes first and has reached an age and stature when regret is superfluous. He is exceptional, exempt from regret.

The appalling stuff Grandpa says—the foul words, the hate-filled language, the crude descriptions, the epithets—sometimes make people titter. Because basic social decency demands you respect him, his vile attitudes at times sound humorous, almost like a five-year-old stringing curse words together. He can’t really mean it, you tell yourself, and, as long as he doesn’t enact his pronouncements, he’s a harmless coot. He won’t be around too much more time, you repeat. That faith becomes consolation and excuse.

Occasionally my grandpa rouses the will to play nice, showing glimpses of his former civility. I’m told those moments should make me happy, make me accept him as my elder. But the worst aspect of my grandpa is that I must accept him. The first-person possessive pronoun “my” unites us. What I hate in him comes from our common stock. The same nation made us, and his blood is mine. Yet World, you need to know—by “embarrassing,” I mean “shameful.” I cannot unmake my grandpa or deny him. I can, however, do what he can’t. I’m sorry and determined not to become him.

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Drive Time

retirement-age-pension-fund-savings-886939Every day, almost every hour, I imagine being a sought-after editor, a teacher’s teacher, a designer for Crate and Barrel pillows and tablecloths, a podcaster, a muralist, an educational theorist and consultant, a freelance writer specializing in personal essays, a highly-paid fine artist. I could add masters athlete, but my body says, “no.”

My circumstances fuel these fantasies. When you reach a certain age, people ask, “When will you retire?” Then they ask, “What will you do then?”

I don’t know and blame our society’s new understanding of the word “retirement.” The dictionary says retirement is “leaving one’s job and ceasing to work,” but we’ve revised the concept. Where it used to entail traveling, gardening, doing crosswords, and just bemusedly (and charmingly) puttering about, now it means “second acts,” “rewiring,” and “side hustles.”

The impulse to stay vital makes sense. “The best way to stay on a bicycle,” a friend reminds me over and over, “is to keep peddling.” And I like completing tasks, helping out, creating what did not exist before I conceived it. I love being productive. What seems different now, however, is the vision of a post-work life I’ve absorbed, that, if I’m ready to cease teaching, I need to find something essential to my being and remunerative, preferably something I always dreamed of doing yet never did. I so easily confuse what I might do and what I should have done before now.

Like that other life-redefining moment—college—retirement isn’t cheap, but, unlike college, you can’t borrow for it, which may be what motivates people to remain in their jobs as long as they can. The pension era has passed. In 2002, the average age at which Americans expected to retire was 63. Now it’s 66. If Medicare fades away, we may end up working until we can work no longer, but, even now, if you haven’t saved for idleness, you can’t afford it.

If you have saved, you might still feel compelled to work. Books and articles claim savings justify bold ventures and alternative identities you’ve had to abandon. Like a professional athlete whose playing days are over, your situation is a golden opportunity to remake yourself. You can go back to school or start working in another industry or throw yourself into entrepreneurship… never mind that few places want to admit or to hire or to finance someone of your “experience.”

The “tired” part of “retired” no longer carries much weight. I confess, sometimes every fantasy appears more interesting than continuing down the same road, yet the prospect of starting over terrifies me enough to keep me on the job. My own father received his last paycheck the day after he died. Part of me hungers for an old-fashioned, more traditional retirement, the one where I see a lot of movies and feed the ducks in the park. What if I relearn the sidestroke or take up painting bad watercolors that don’t yield a dime? I’m not talking about idleness, I promise. Can’t my post-work life be busy without being stressful? Is that acceptable?

My school contracts with a service providing substitutes on short notice, and we see a parade of retired teachers pass through. A few don’t have laptops, don’t know how to attach or un-attach documents, and absent-mindedly forget to collect what we ask, but many are vibrant and capable, enjoying students as much as they ever did but going home without papers or parent phone calls to return. They earn nearly nothing—I’ve looked into it—except the satisfaction of putting in a decent day’s work.

There’s plenty of productivity left in me, and I could be someone’s new model employee, but is it so terrible to rest my drive and contribute what I can?

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And?

ambition__media_cycleAnyone who has run competitively knows what it means to press. Exertion edges past comfort, and you pray for some pleasure in punishment, or at least you hope for an outcome erasing the torture whispering in your brain. When the voice grows loud and insistent, you tell yourself you’re a better person for enduring it, embracing it.

But you don’t need to run to know what pressing is. Some of the things you’re sure you want, you don’t want… and vice versa. You know—because you’ve been told—choosing to travel downstream means never seeing the mountains. If you do more than you think possible, you’ll redefine what possible is.

What does not destroy you… oh, you know the rest.

Yet my most rare pleasure is doing what occurs to me. I’m surprised when I find myself enjoying, without guilt or self-recrimination, some activity I wandered into. I’m happy for each break from thought and action. As a child I occupied time, and not in the way I use that expression now—as expending or wasting time before important events—but in the gentler sense of dwelling in and on the present’s comforts.

The line between relentless determination and masochism grows fuzzy. In the marshmallow test, the contest goes to the child who leaves the first sweet alone in anticipation of two later. The children who only want one, we’re told, go on to lives of mediocrity. Yet, the test seems biased. What if there truly is no time like the present? By what measure of success are the satisfied unsuccessful? What if contentedness is the ultimate success?

Today, like every day, I’ve jotted a list of what must be done. The day’s value comes from the number of check marks added to that list. Anything else distracts. Three phone calls, emails to answer, and every variety of follow-ups await me. Even this post makes the list—creativity becomes production. Because moving is crucial, every minute demands gripping the road, making progress on projects… whatever “progress” and “project” mean.

Though I recognize forces of instant gratification working in the world too, I’m of the bigger-better-faster generation. We’ve been conditioned to distrust comfort and complacency. We’ve been led to believe we’re useful only when we expend breakneck effort. Anything easy, my parents taught me, is not worth having, and, hence, I’ve come to believe less (and less) in accomplishments. Once attained, they tell me I’ve aimed too low.

Having makes me wonder about something more, harder, more worthy.

I’m not alone. We’ve forgotten how to rest. We want to devise, institute, adjust, amend, alter, generate, or overturn. Our phones are out and we’re doing and doing. We nurture hope the next moment will be better (or at least different). The present is perpetually incomplete. No subject or object can be left alone. Because we’re a half-turn from bringing everything into a more fulfilling alignment, we spin and spin.

I worry our addictions to novelty and progress will disqualify the value of the past. We seldom, if ever, consider what we give up. We miss the repeated lesson that heedless innovation produces unanticipated, often complicated and ambiguous, results. Despite our technology and sophistication, we remain animals who so fear being prey they don’t dare pause. We exhaust ourselves to attain some safe state of relaxation that never arrives.

Herds of lemmings, I understand, don’t really rush off cliffs… but we may if we whip ourselves into a dead run where we’re frantic, exhausted, and addled. Satisfaction and consummation obsesses us, but when do we have enough?

Some ambition is necessary—we have problems to solve, and that takes dedication. And I’m not against a runner’s type of pressing if your motive is to test your capacities, exercise your talents, generally revel in the blessings of being alive and strong. I’m all for the glory of that sort of effort. Yet, past a point I wish I could better define, ambition begins to look like compulsion, the twitching of a rabid mammal.

Can’t resting be glorious too?

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What—Me Worry?

CL50915When the person likely to be the next U.S. Senate Environmental Committee chair wrote a book called The Great Hoax denying global climate change, maybe it’s time to address a new strain of anti-intellectualism… delusion.

American ambivalence about intellect isn’t new. From the beginning Americans have favored plain-speech and uncomplicated thinking. They’ve always believed in simple answers to every complex problem. Trusting in fresh perspectives, putting aside received truths to encounter issues anew, that produces answers. The utopian “City on the Hill” faith in the possibility of starting over created the constitution.

However, the founding fathers, for all their flaws, were no dummies. They were subtle men whose elegant (and inelegant) solutions arose from rumination, deliberation, persuasion, and resourcefulness. They embraced complexity and kept up with the political science and regular science of their day.

They did not, as some do now, solve problems by denying they exist and vilifying any “overthinker” or “alarmist” who looks too closely.

Social scientists can offer decades of research on interdependent causes of poverty, and still some Americans cut through “all the crap” with the real truth—that some people don’t take advantage of opportunity. Graphs depicting the imbalanced distribution of wealth inspire yet another rags-to-riches tale, and, if social scientists unfavorably compare economic mobility in America to almost everywhere else, someone will assert the possibility, no matter how remote, is all that’s important. And, because if you work hard you should get ahead, those left behind must not have worked hard enough. They ought to blame themselves, the thinking goes, so helping them, giving them “handouts,” only saps their will to try harder. Cite economists who explain the mechanisms of inherited wealth and the game of musical chairs everyone else plays, and you’ll be accused of fomenting class warfare, plotting to rob the deserving, being a socialist. The deserving believe in “the market,” as a counterbalance to (and not a manifestation of) human greed—no regulation or redress is necessary.

Americans untroubled by economic inequality are equally prepared to discount social inequality as a vestige of bad old days now gone. The mountain of statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating white privilege, they judge, only rationalizes indolence. Some go as far as to say the problem of race in America is solved, and any talk about persistent intolerance—surrounding class, creed, and sexual orientation—only reignites dead flames. It seems as long as you believe you are not personally (or at least not obviously) racist, sexist, and bigoted, these issues don’t exist. And expressing desire for equity elicits petulance. Pundits cry they’re not only blameless but also oppressed.

Though in scientific circles, human causes for climate change are rarely debated, some Americans choose to believe we know nothing and can know nothing about greenhouse gasses and the melting ice caps. They treat scientists with disdain, either correcting them (very slowly, as they would a child) with fundamentally flawed conceptions of the physical world or, alternately, declare, “I’m not a scientist” to turn ignorance to their advantage. Both responses share a view of science as evil and/or unintelligible—sorcery, not one of humanity’s best methods of seeking truth.

The catalog could go on: Gun control, environmental regulations, banking abuses, corporate tax loopholes, and healthcare divide along similar lines with some seeking to study problems and devise solutions and others carping there IS no problem. If anything needs to be done, the carpers say, it’s rolling back the meager amelioration managed so far.

To be fair, sanctimony exists on both ends of the political spectrum. The left dismisses opposition as much as the right. Neither listens to the other. Most Americans, left or right, read and watch only what echoes their viewpoint, facts be damned. Worse, Americans’ healthy appetite for drama has inspired the creation of loud and insistent megaphones to shout half-truths and whole lies. Subtlety and intellectual rigor aren’t, everyone knows, very sexy.

The conservatives’ position seems more dangerous, however. It’s much too easy for them to get away without persuasion or policy. In making ignorance and denial viable political stances, they’ve institutionalized distrust of scientists, economists, environmental experts, social scientists, and intellectuals devoted to study, discovery, and—let’s be direct—reality.

And, in the process, their delusion has infected the general electorate with a nearly nihilist sense of hopelessness. How do you argue with someone who believes there’s nothing to argue, who vows nothing is known conclusively, who says nothing can be done, and, moreover, should be done?

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Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

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