Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"Tied Tightly with Hope"
Pages 342-344

            Substituting for William Munroe -- a man with a deformed leg could still mix and tally drinks if he could sit awhile -- forty-three year old John Raymond hadn’t worried much about the soldiers returning. Hearing the redcoats were just about done in, being chased by a thousand militiamen, being shot at from every direction, what lobsterback would want to be stopping by for a tankard of ale? Dozens of militiamen would be doing just that, after the redcoats had been sent bleating and bawling back to Menotomy!
     He’d been wrong!
     Who would have predicted that an army straight from Boston, not the regulars leaving Concord, would arrive first?! Who could have imagined its commander making this tavern his headquarters?! Who would have thought these drinks he was mixing would be for the gratification of hordes of cutthroats?!
     It was their look much more than their hard words that frightened him. He knew what they had in store for him once they had had their fill of ale, flip, and hot toddies!
     That wasn’t going to happen! The first chance he had he would bolt out the back door. Get to the birch trees by the creek. He would have to cover a hundred feet of open ground, maybe too far! But then, because they were bone-weary and damn thirsty, and he was just one man, a cripple, having done them a service, they might just say, being he was already gone, “T’hell with the bugger!”
     Reaching the trees would be the first part. He’d have to get well past them. If he didn’t, it would be just his run of luck that some bloody redcoat, done emptying his bladder, would come pushing his way through bramble and discover him!
     Hope. Getting to the trees, finding a hiding place, getting rescued: all of it was wrapped all around and tied tightly with hope!
     When the time is right, you must do it!
     Ten minutes passed.
      Four regulars entered the tap room half-carrying two bloodied soldiers.
     “Lay ‘em down here,” Raymond said, pointing to that part of the room closest to the back exit. “I’ll just go push away these two tables.”
     “Shut yer flamin’ butt hole!” one of the soldiers assisting the two shouted.
     “Piss-mouthed gammer!” a second one snarled. “Y’naught be tellin’ us what t’do!”
     “Get o’r here!” yelled a red-faced lieutenant from the far end of the counter. “You’ll be fixin’ us drinks! Nothing more!”
     Every bloodyback villain was staring at him!
     He pointed toward the front door. “Look! More of your wounded! A major!”
     They turned. Raymond shoved open the back door.
     He was cut down twenty feet short of the trees. No one knew whose ball had been true. The burliest of the three, bothering to walk the distance, speared the writhing bartender with his bayonet.
     “It's gone through the bone. It’s lodged inside the skin.” The 43rd Regiment surgeon's mate, Mr. Simes, withdrew his bloodstained hands from Jeremy Lister's right arm. “Good time t’remove it, before we get t’ Menotomy.”
     Lister thought about it.
     “You'll be more ‘n’ some weak, but better t‘ave it out.”
     “How much will it hurt?” Feeling faint, the young ensign reached back with his left hand to locate the closest table.
     “Bloody ‘ell fire. Be less after it's out.”
     Finding the table, Lister sat. Staring at his dangling arm, he expelled air. “How deep will y’ave t’cut?”
     Simes shook his head, revealed a gap-toothed mouth. “I'll be getting’ the ball out easy enough. The arm won't be much good t’you though. Learn t’eat left ‘anded.”
     “Could have been worse,” Lister muttered. No, if he hadn’t been so bloody curious about seeing what the river crossing was about, this wouldn’t have happened!
     “I've got others t’tend. Make up yer mind.”
     Lister sighed. Tightening his lips, he nodded.
     Simes looked through the doorway into one of the tavern’s back rooms. “I'll do it on that table,” he said, gesturing.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Teaching -- A Disciple of the Devil Teaches Literature
I look back upon my years as a public school teacher with gratitude.  They were fulfilling years.  I was dedicated.  I was permitted to excel.  Today, if I were teaching, I would probably leave the profession. 
I would resent being handicapped by lack of funding.  I would abhor being told what and how to teach.  I would excoriate the corporate and political toadies who attack school teachers, claiming they are the primary cause of mediocre-to-poor student achievement, hiding their real purpose, the privatization of public education. 
These critics maintain that teachers must be “held accountable,” as if in the past they weren’t.  Standardized test scores determine best a teacher’s effectiveness, they declare.  (Never mind the deleterious effects of poverty and parental disengagement)  If your students do poorly, you’re a bad teacher and should be fired  It doesn’t matter to them that experienced English teachers, for instance, can simultaneously activate thought processes and engage souls – essential accomplishments that standardized tests cannot measure. Why should a teacher have to waste valuable instructional time teaching to a standardized test so that he/she can survive?
I was extremely fortunate to have been employed 31 years by the Orinda Union School District.  I was a middle school English and occasional history teacher, mostly of eighth grade students.  Posted on the district’s current website is its 2013 California ranking: “On a 1 to 10 scale, all five Orinda schools received a statewide ranking of 10. This is the fifth consecutive year for all five schools to receive a ‘10.’” You would be correct in guessing that Orinda is an upper middle class suburban community.  It is located approximately two and a half miles east of Berkeley.  Parents expect their children to attend college.  Approximately 90% of them do.  Good inherited genes and high parental expectation contribute greatly to high public school district ratings. 
Ample financial resources are also a major contributor.  My colleagues and I used reams and reams of copy machine paper.  I created three-hole folder reading material booklets of short stories, poetry, plays, and excerpts of novels.  Standard usage drill, adjective and adverbial modifier placement, capitalization and punctuation exercises, student writing, spelling lists and vocabulary definitions, all sorts of subject matter tests: all of it I printed on copy machine paper.
I was able to order the purchase of class sets of hard-cover paperback books.  Imagine any financially strapped school district consenting to do that today!  The district trusted us.  It provided us ample resources that enabled us to excel.
I am extremely grateful that my administrators trusted my judgment.  Early in the 1960s, my colleague next door to me (Joan) and I requested that our school subscribe to “Literary Cavalcade,” a monthly publication printed then, I believe, by Scholastic Magazine.  The publication, geared for high school students, provided high quality short stories, plays, and poetry.  Our students read, along with other titles, Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men,” Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon,” and William Peden’s “Night in Funland,” each a depiction of life that inspires insightful thinking and empathetic realization!
“Night in Funland” is an exceptional short story.  (  I didn’t think so at first.  Its two characters did not interest me very much and the story’s ending seemed pointless.  A father and his preteen daughter go to a carnival.  He is concerned about her health.  She persuades him to allow her to ride the Ferris wheel unaccompanied.  He watches her several times swing by and disappear into the night sky.  Greatly concerned, he tells the wheel operator to stop the ride.  He does.  She has disappeared.  Because the story had been printed in “Literary Cavalcade,” I suspected that there had to be much more to the story than I had recognized.  Reading it a second time, I discovered a number of clues that suggested an intriguing explanation for the girl’s disappearance. 
Each year thereafter every English class I taught read the story.  Beforehand, I told my students about my initial reaction and warned them that they, too, might respond similarly but that they should trust my reason for requiring them to read it.  After they had done so, I asked them to explain the girl’s disappearance.  I received answers that ranged from “she fell off” to “he was dreaming.”  The following day I had them follow along as I read the story aloud.  I encouraged them to speak up when I read something that they thought might be helpful in interpreting the story.  Throughout, I kept my interpretation to myself.  Student responses were such that I usually needed three class periods to complete the second and sometimes a third reading.
By the end of the second reading it was clear to most of them that there was more to the daughter’s disappearance than that the father was having a bad dream.  Illness was clearly an important factor.  His extreme concern for her health was repeatedly demonstrated.  Early in the story we were told that he had promised to take her to the carnival after she had recovered from her illness.  Eventually, a student would venture that her disappearance represented her death.  That produced a new direction of thinking.  He had promised to take her to Funland when she was well, but she had become worse.  The Ferris wheel was the wheel of life.  Her rotations between being seen and disappearing represented her final moments of life.  Assuming this to be true, what then was real, and what was imagined?  The trip to Funland, delusional?  Beneath the carnival story, pushing its way through the father’s denial, in distorted forms, the real story?  At the end of the story -- the father’s anguish – recognition at last that his daughter had died?
Besides subscribing to “Literary Cavalcade,” the district purchased specific works of fiction that Joan and I wanted.  In the 1960s our classes read Marjorie Rawlings’s “The Yearling,” John Steinbeck”s “The Pearl,” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”  Later, our best classes read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  I had the district buy a class set of “Three Plays by Horton Foote” (published in 1962) to use Foote’s adaptation (which I had seen on television) of William Faulkner’s short story “Tomorrow.”  (The adaptation would be made into a motion picture starring Robert Duvall)   Having my students develop an understanding of and empathy for people less fortunate than and far different from their parents and themselves was a primary objective.  Years later, for that reason, my top classes read Richard Wright’s autobiography “Black Boy.” 
Additionally, upon my recommendations, the district purchased class sets of quality juvenile fiction including Robert Lipsyte’s “The Contender,” Glendon Swarthout’s “Bless the Beasts and Children,” and Cynthia Voigt’s “Dicey’s Song.”
One book that I have not mentioned is Dick Gregory’s autobiography “Nigger.”  I assigned two of my classes to read most of it in December 1972.  A father of one of my students interfered.  I was called into the principal’s office to meet the man and hear his objections.  The first question he asked me was “Are you a Christian?”  He was a strict fundamentalist.  Not only did he not want his daughter reading Gregory’s book.  He didn’t want anybody else reading it.  I told him I would be happy to substitute another book for his daughter to read but everybody else would read the autobiography.  He demanded that the school board stop me.  He submitted examples in the book of what he considered to be inappropriate language and behavior.  I was provided the opportunity to respond. 
Dick Gregory was a comedian and civil rights activist in the 1960s.  Because he had appeared on television, white people like me knew about him.  He had grown up in East St. Louis in abject poverty and had managed to carve out a career as a comedian prior to 1963, the pivotal year of the civil rights movement.  Because he was a black celebrity, he had been asked by movement leaders to participate in demonstrations in the Deep South.  I wanted my students to experience vicariously the racism that he had endured growing up and appreciate the efforts of movement leaders to achieve for their race social advancement.
The father’s objections were mostly about specific language that Gregory used.  “Goddamn” especially offended him.  I opened my defense with this statement. 
Mr. … has objected to the use of ‘Nigger’ by Dick Gregory in our schools on religious grounds.  For this reason alone his demand should be rejected.  One’s own adherence to a religion and interpretation of scripture must never influence the curriculum of and material used in a public school.  The reasons are obvious and need not be stated here.  Since he may cause some people now to question my judgment in using this book, I will, however, comment on all of Mr. …’s exhibits, the merit of ‘Nigger,’ and the value of one of the two books he has suggested as substitute reading.”
The father had provided several “exhibits”: examples of what he believed were foul language.  I answered his exhibits first with questions.  Examples:
“Is this scene significant to your understanding of Richard’s condition of existence or is it included only to excite the reader with crude language?”
“Are the ‘bad’ words here used unrealistically?  Do they seem part of the natural expression of the people speaking?’
“Why is the father, at one time good-natured, then suddenly violent, then remorseful, and then proudly defensive of his wife?”
“Which more effectively makes the point – a textbook statement that American society places so many restrictions upon the black father’s attempts to fulfill his responsibilities that many abandon their families and their responsibilities, or this specific example of it and its effects upon the members of his family?”
I categorized the words that the father had cited.  The first category included words like “damn,” “hell,” “ass,” and “pee.”  49% of the words the father objected to I placed in this category.  The second category included “bitch,” “bastard,” goddamn,” and “bullshit” -- 35 % of the words the father listed.  The third category featured words identifying the sex act.  16% of the words the father objected to fell into this category.
I provided context. 
It was “too cold to study in the kitchen so I did my homework under the covers with a flashlight.  Then I fell asleep.  And one of the other five kids must have peed on it.”
After a joke that Gregory had told a white audience: “Wouldn’t it be a hell of a thing if all this was burnt cork and you people were being tolerant for nothing?”
Thinking of his fear while walking alone through a Southern town at night after a day’s demonstration, Gregory wrote: “And I thought about [what President Roosevelt said] that there was nothing to fear but fear itself, and I said: ‘Bullshit.’”
Afterward, I wrote these comments:
“Words like damn and hell used 25 times in 209 pages of reading matter seem harmless when I consider the experiences that Mr. Gregory speaks about and the reasons for their use.”
“Most of the words in class two are used because of strong provocation or by people who are intended to be looked upon unfavorably by the reader.  How can an author portray accurately a despicable person by withholding part of that which is despicable?  How can an author present an ugly but important condition of existence without presenting the people that make it so or are destroyed by it?”
“Class three words appear eight times in the book.  On seven of the eight occasions the people using this language had provocation.”
“I am … surprised that Mr. … finds more objectionable a word or expression than the action or condition which caused it or of which it is a part.  Example – p. 171.  Mr. Gregory is involved in a civil rights demonstration in Greenwood, Mississippi.
     “The police seemed disorganized.  They tried to break us up again and one of them shoved a woman pretty hard.  She stumbled and smashed her head against a brick wall and fell on the sidewalk.
     “One of the SNCC workers couldn’t stand that, and he turned on the cop.  They dragged him off into a police car, and five cops climbed in after him and started working on his head and stomach.  One of the cops was saying in a loud voice, mostly for the benefit of the other demonstrators; ‘George, gimme ma knife …  I’m gonna cut the balls right off this little nigger, he ain’t never gonna do nothin’ no more.’”
“Which deserves more censure – a particular condition of existence or action that is cruel and dehumanizing or a word or expression from a person involved?”
Concluding his written presentation, the father gave specific reasons for wanting the book banned.  I answered this way:
“Who is Mr. … to say that any person’s life must have at its highest purpose pleasing God?”
“Who is Mr. … to say that Dick Gregory’s words and actions indicate he is not following the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself”?  How can this be said of a man who in the contents of this book tried to help juvenile delinquents in Detroit, performed before convicts in prison, fought against discrimination in the North, co-sponsored the delivery of 14,000 pounds of food to poor blacks in Mississippi, initiated the release from prison of a black man whose crime was attempting to enroll in an all-white university in Mississippi, and risked his life many times in demonstrating his opposition to Southern racism?”
“Who is Mr. … to suggest that children be sheltered from what is wrong and unjust in society?  It is a cruel fact that many of our problems persist in large part because of the lack of awareness or apathy of a large segment of our population.  How can you correct much less want to correct problems when you don’t know what they really are?”
“It is clear to me that Mr. …’s religious convictions will not permit him to see beyond certain words, phrases, and incidents to assess, as thirteen and fourteen-year-old students do, what is truly significant.”
I went on the state what I believed to be the merits of “Nigger.”  The superintendent of schools and my principal were pleased with my rebuttal.  The school board appointed a committee of several objective-minded, respected residents of the community to read the book and present their opinions.  These individuals sided in my favor.
This bizarre experience had two ironic outcomes.
First, after my classes had finished reading “Nigger,” all of the paperback copies were placed in the librarian’s safekeeping until the school board reached its determination.  The next fall I decided to use the autobiography but found that, due to the dilapidated condition of the books, the librarian had thrown away all but three or four.
Second, the father at some point during our dispute stated that he wanted to “bring down the wrath of God upon Mr. Titus.”  In his eyes I was a “disciple of the devil.”  Near the end of the Christmas vacation I strained my back and shortly thereafter contracted pneumonia.  I missed about two weeks of school.
Try as I had to divert student attention away from the man’s daughter, I wonder to this day how much embarrassment and anxiety the girl must have felt during those several weeks of strife.
Speaking for my colleagues as well as for myself, thank you, Orinda Union School District, for making a career teaching your community’s children such a fulfilling achievement. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh, Earl Percy -- "We Are Indeed Fortunate"
It was in the early morning hours of April 19 that General Gage received a message from Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith that reinforcements were necessary.  Smith and Major John Pitcairn had heard distant meeting house bells tolled as their force of 700 soldiers advanced toward Lexington.  Clearly, militia companies were being summoned.  Smith’s request for assistance was the one wise decision he would make that day.
Gage had placed Earl Percy in command of a reinforcement army of 1,000 men.  Percy had not received Gage’s first order -- written at 3 a.m. -- to muster his men and depart.  Customarily, orders sent from Gage to Percy went first to the quarters of Percy’s Brigade Major, who thereupon sent them to Percy and his four field commanders.  Because the Brigade Major had not yet returned from a late night revel, Gage’s order had been left in the care of the Major’s servant.  The man had forgotten about it when the Major returned.  Realizing that Percy’s army had not assembled, Gage rewrote his order at 5 a.m., an hour after he had wanted Percy to march.  This message was delivered directly to Percy.  Two hours later, Percy waited impatiently on his horse in the middle of Scollay Square. 
He had ordered his brigade, the Royal Marine Battalion, two supply wagons, and two artillery pieces to muster at 6 a.m.  At 6:30, save for the Marine Battalion, all had been present and prepared to leave.  It was now 7 a.m., three hours past the time General Gage had originally wanted Percy to march.  Here is an excerpt from my novel “Crossing the River.”
             The young nobleman had controlled his temper. To an uninformed observer he was a sanguine commander awaiting the return of his adjutant, enjoying during the while the crisp morning air. When the captain appeared at 7:05, Percy was close to exploding.
     “Your Lordship. The Marine Battalion is now being assembled and equipped,” the adjutant stated.
     “Now?! Do you mean they have just now begun their preparation?!”
     “Yes sir. That is correct.” He licked his lips. “The marine duty officer insisted, rather vehemently, that he had received no order to assemble.”
     Stunned, Percy refused to speak. Finally, incredulously, “I received my order an hour ago! That cannot be!”
     The adjutant shook his head, made no attempt to answer.
     Percy's face contorted. “By God, we shall know why!”
     “Yes sir!”
     “Go to the Province House! Report this to the General! Now!”
     Hammering the front of his saddle, Percy released a torrent of obscenities. Bored soldiers turned to stare. He was making a spectacle of himself! Bugger that! Twice incompetence had undercut him, and he had not yet progressed one yard (Titus 230)!
Percy would learn from his adjutant that the Royal Marines’ orders had been placed unopened on the desk of their commander, John Pitcairn.  Not one subordinate had been informed of Pitcairn’s absence.  The marine detachment hurriedly assembled.  At 8:45 a.m., Percy’s army marched across Boston Neck.
To reach Cambridge and the road to Lexington and Concord, the column had to march across the Great Bridge, which spanned the Charles River.  Rebel provincials had removed the bridge’s planks.
     Percy raised his spyglass. There, stacked beside a shed close by the north end of the bridge -- in plain sight to provoke him -- were the missing planks. Moving his glass, Percy examined the bridge’s string-pieces. Several men, wrapping their arms and legs around the pieces, could cross the river. They would need an hour to replank the bridge.
     It was another impediment not of his making. The day seemed already half-spent. Not having received any intelligence of Colonel Smith’s situation, he was bedeviled by two contradictory thoughts. His assistance would not be required. Too much time had elapsed for him to prevent the Colonel’s destruction (Titus 280).
Earl Percy’s next difficulty was ascertaining which of several roads exiting Cambridge was the one he needed to take.  No subordinate offered a confident opinion.  There was nobody outdoors for him to question.  Suddenly, a young man left a nearby tavern.  Percy’s had the man brought to him.
            “Your name, sir.”
     “Isaac Smith.” The provincial looked past Percy’s horse.
     “You are a resident of Cambridge, are you not?”
     “I am a tutor at the College.” The man rubbed together the heels of his hands.
     “Mr. Smith. I need your assistance. Which is the road to Concord?”
     The young tutor stared, looked away, slid his hands down the sides of his trousers.
     “I believe you know. As one gentleman to another, I request this simple direction.”
     “I … cannot tell you that information.” Smith’s face crumpled. He looked miserably at Percy’s stirrups.
     This man is not rancorous, Percy thought. Neither is he deceitful. He is patriotic. Most importantly, he is afraid. He is, I conceive, malleable.
     “You need not be apprehensive. Whatever you choose to tell me, I shall release you.” Percy smiled gratuitously.
     The young man made eye contact.
     “I call upon your honor, sir. Which is the way to Concord?”
     About to speak, the tutor hesitated, grimaced. Five seconds later he pointed.
     “You are certain that is the road?” Percy sat very straight and still.
     Isaac Smith again met Percy's scrutiny. “I am a man of honor, Colonel,” he rasped. “I do not lie.”
     Right palm raised, Percy answered. “Men of honor are a scarce commodity. We are indeed fortunate” (Titus 281).
Hearing distant, concerted musket fire, notified that Smith’s army was retreating under great duress, Percy deployed his forces in a large rectangle on high ground just east of Lexington.  Into the rectangle staggered the survivors of Colonel Smith’s 700 men force.  Percy provided them an hour’s rest.  Meanwhile, his artillery pieces bombarded concentrations of militia units assembled in Lexington.  Taking command of Smith’s men, Percy determined the marching order of the vastly enlarged column.  Smith’s men would lead, the provincials having inflicted most of their punishment on the middle and rear of the original column.  Flanker squads would deploy off each side of the road to kill as many militiamen as they could.  Where heavy concentrations of the enemy waited, he would utilize his artillery pieces.
At Menotomy (Arlington today) there was fierce combat.  Initially, his men marched through a narrow gauntlet: a row of houses to his left and a 75 to 100 foot cliff to his right.  Beyond the gauntlet lay flatter land and the town proper.  Here, segments of militia companies, without protective cover, challenged Percy’s swarming flankers.  Something heavy thumped Percy’s stomach. 
     Looking at the front of his coat, he saw several threads protruding through an empty buttonhole.
     Percy issued his instructions. Afterward, he marveled.
     Had God just spared him? Had he been sent a divine message? Was his survival an essential part of a grand design? Christ’s blood, how could he, or any man, know?!
     All that he had experienced argued that man determined his own fate, that God was ever the impartial observer.
     Engaging in pointless conundrums, especially now, was wasted contemplation. If he were to make anything of this event, it would be: his coat button had, as his opinion of these rebels, been shot to pieces.
     How he had underestimated these provincials. They had fought -- they continued to fight -- with savage determination. The past fifteen minutes a half dozen or so had advanced to within twenty yards of his person. Contrary to every senior officer’s expectation, these commoners, directed -- he had to believe -- by veterans of the late war, had withstood His Majesty’s finest!
     But the King’s Foot, his soldiers, warranted greater acclaim. Outnumbered, at times encircled, they had fought valiantly! Their inexorable ferocity, their unparalleled resiliency portended their survival.
     How much longer, how much farther could they persist? At what point does the body negate what the spirit charges? Having witnessed the utter debilitation of Colonel Smith’s forces at Lexington, he feared quite soon. His field pieces, shattering stone walls, tree limbs, sides of houses, sheds, and barns, had scattered lethal concentrations of militia. Following each cannonade Percy had restarted the column’s retreat. Once more, he believed, his six-pounders would extricate him. Leaving the village of Menotomy, recuperating while they marched, his soldiers would journey to Cambridge, where, he presumed, the rebels waited at the Great Bridge, where by feigning a return to the Bridge he might save his command (Titus 368-369).
Work Cited:
Titus, Harold.  Crossing the River., Inc., 2011.  Print.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I will be on vacation until the second week of October visiting my daughter in New Jersey after which I will resume posting historical information, book reviews, scenes from my novel, and commentaries about teaching.
Harold Titus

Monday, September 22, 2014

"World's Fair"
by E. L. Doctorow
E. L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair chronicles Edgar Altschuler’s recollections of his first ten years of existence, the growth of his childish awareness of the difficulties of life, and the personal handicaps placed on him as he attempts to acquire self-assurance and experience happiness. Edgar is a Jewish boy growing up in New York City’s Bronx during the rise of Nazism in Germany. His health is problematic. His family’s economic stability is tenuous. His parents’ relationship is combative. The younger son of the family -- a “mistake” baby, eight years younger than his brother and mentor, Donald – he is dominated by his parents and his sibling. He must forge his way through all of these difficulties to develop the self-confidence necessary to persevere against the adversities, both indiscriminate and deliberate, of his time and location.

As an infant, Edgar was asthmatic, allergic to everything, a great burden to his resolute mother. “I was attacked continually in the lungs, coughing, wheezing, needing to be steamed over inhalators. I was the mournful prodigy of medicine … I was plugged regularly with thermometers and soap water enemas.” Much later in the novel he suffers a burst appendix and must survive peritonitis.

Through most of the story Edgar’s father owns a record, sheet music, musical instrument, and radio appliance store in Manhattan. Later, he is forced to move his business and loses much of his clientele. Near the end of the novel he loses the store.

Edgar the adult confides that “the conflict between my parents was probably the major chronic circumstance of my life. They were never at peace. They were a marriage of two irreducibly opposed natures. Their difficulties created a kind of magnetic field for me in which I swung this way or that according to the direction of the current.”

Late in the novel Donald assesses his father. “Dad went off in all directions, he was full of surprises, some of them were good, some not so good. But it kept everyone on edge, Mother especially. … He was the kind of man to fool around, to philander. He was errant. He had a wild streak to him. He was generous to us … but he had his secrets and they came out of the same part of his character that made him dream big impractical dreams that he couldn’t realize.”

Edgar’s assessment of his mother appears fragmentally throughout the novel. “My mother ran our house and our lives with a kind of tactless administration that often left a child with bruised feelings, though an indelible understanding of right and wrong. … There was no mistaking her meaning—she was forthright and direct. She construed the world in vivid judgments. … Everything she did was a declarative act. … My mother wanted to move up in the world. She measured what we had and who we were against the fortunes and pretensions of our neighbors.”

Edgar overhears her understandable complaints to a visiting friend. “‘I have exactly three dresses that I wash and iron and wash and iron. … I haven’t bought a stitch of clothing in years. And he plays cards. He knows we need every penny and he plays cards. … He comes home at one, two in the morning. Where has he been? What has he been doing! I’m struggling here all by myself, trying to keep things going…. And when he is home he runs to Mama. [Believing her not worthy of her son, the mother-in-law is incessantly critical of her] … I’m a good wife. … I don’t think I’m all that bad a person to be with.’” The father’s retort to her criticisms is nearly always the accusation: “‘You’re a suspicious person, you’re always thinking the worst of people.’”

Edgar learns early of hatred toward Jews prevalent in poor Irish and Italian East Bronx neighborhoods, “where people lived in ramshackle houses with tar-paper siding amid factories and warehouses.” He has noticed from his bedroom window “strange youths not from the neighborhood … vaulting over the fences into our yard. They climbed the retaining wall and disappeared. These were the boys who hated boundaries and straight lines, who traveled as a matter of principle off the streets, as if they needed to trespass and show their scorn of property. … They were the ones, I knew, who chalked the strange marks on our garage doors.” Swastikas. “‘They’d like to be Nazis,”” Edgar’s mother warns him. “‘They carry knives. … They rob. You come inside if you see them.’”

Several years later Edgar, returning from a public library located close to an Irish, Italian neighborhood, is confronted by several such boys. He is threatened by a knife, forced to lie that he is not a Jew, and is robbed of the coins in his pocket. The incident is one of the major traumatic events of his young life, and it is the major catalyst of sudden growth of maturity and self-esteem, which he exhibits near the end of the novel.

World’s Fair is not among my most favorite historical novels. My interest in the story lagged in several places. For example, I would have appreciated less detail about the exhibits of the New York World’s Fair. I did not become connected initially with Edgar and his parents. I put the book aside for an entire month before I decided to finish it. However, I recognize entirely E. L. Doctorow’s skill as a writer. His depth of characterization, his richness of historical detail, the seriousness of his themes, his use of sensory imagery (Edgar’s trip to the hospital following the rupture of his appendix and his struggle not to succumb of ether was masterful), his use of humor (Edgar was critical of The Shadow because he would not use his special power either to observe ladies undressing or kill Hitler), the poignancy of several key scenes (Edgar knows that the children in his hospital ward are dying because the toys that they receive are expensive, elaborate, and not appreciated and they have excluded him from their friendship knowing they are dying and he isn’t): all of this is worthy of a ten-page essay replete with many examples. E. L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair is better than many books I read but not one of my top ten.    

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"An Inexorable Rage"
Pages 317-319
            An inexorable rage had propelled him.
     Hurrying across broken fields, thrusting his way through branches of pine, lurking behind boulders, tree trunks, and weathered barns, he had committed terrible acts. He had killed his first soldier near Meriam’s Corner east of the little bridge, having fired off three balls in two minutes. He had dropped another where Mill Brook passed beneath a second bridge. He had participated in five minutes of shooting between each of three evenly spaced houses near the by-road to Lincoln. The first of these buildings had been a tavern. Outside a second tavern he had fired at a looter devouring a hunk of bread.
     Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. It was not! It was his! His alone!
     God had killed his dearest friend!
     For twenty-five years James Hayworth had been Isaac Davis’s neighbor. James and his brothers and sisters had been raised some twenty rods down Farr’s To Meeting Road from the house of Ezekial Davis, Isaac’s father. James and his brothers, Samuel Jr. and Paul, had played with Isaac. They had labored together. They had taken their school lessons together, where James was now the school master. Every Sunday they had worshipped at the Meeting House. Weeks had passed during which he and Isaac had communicated daily.
     So worthy a leader, so beloved a mentor, so magnificent a friend, husband, and father!
     A week ago God had delivered to Isaac an enigmatic message. Perplexed, Isaac had permitted James -- who had come to the house to ask about Davis’s feverish daughter Mary -- to bear witness.
     “I want you to see something quite strange,” Isaac had said. “Come into the sitting room.”
     Isaac had gestured at his musket, positioned across two wall brackets. Perched on the musket barrel, its feathers ruffled, its dark eyes piercing, had been a barred owl.
     “How did it get in?!” had been James’s first question.
     “I have no idea.”
     “You’d think it would leave!”
     “It’s been here since yesterday. Hannah and I found it here when we came home from Jonas Hosmer’s.”
     Noticing that Isaac had placed rags on the floor to catch the bird’s droppings, James had said, “I’d drive it off.” He had wondered why Isaac hadn’t.
     “I’ve left the front door open. It refuses to leave.” For perhaps a half minute, showing the strangest of expressions, Isaac had stared at the owl. Its reciprocal scrutiny had been unrelenting. Turning to James, Isaac had said, “Ask your father about this.”
     “Ask him what, Isaac?”
     “Ask him if this owl’s visitation is an omen.”
     Later that afternoon James had related the incident. After frowning the Deacon had resumed his repair of the kitchen chair, James presuming that he would eventually comment. The following day the owl had flown out of Isaac’s house. That same day Isaac’s younger daughter, Hannah, had become ill.
     “Malignant sore throat,” Isaac had informed James that afternoon.
     That night James had beseeched God to be merciful. The All-Mighty Father had already taken to His house two of Isaac and Hannah’s children. The second child born to them, Baby Hannah, had died eight years ago after living one month. Two winters ago the infant Paul had survived but one week. Both of Isaac’s living daughters had contracted a disease that had killed at least three dozen children during James’s lifetime.
     If he could have foreseen what the owl’s visitation had
portended …
     But he hadn’t.
     Nor had Isaac.
     Eyes tearing, James seated himself in the shade of a tall maple, at the base of Fiske Hill. A corn shed belonging to a two-story, red-roofed house hid him from the back half of the redcoat column, which was laboring past. Feeling simultaneously God’s betrayal and Man’s innate cruelty, despising himself, he wept.
     Like the Biblical rider upon the pale horse he had administered horrific death!
     For what purpose?! Isaac was gone!
     The back of his head pressed fiercely against the maple’s rough bark, James heeded the cacophony of battle.
     We risk our lives to defeat tyranny! Why, Lord, do You punish us?!
     You have slain Isaac, to serve Your selfish purpose! You are cruel, Lord, heartless! Now take Your vengeance upon me!
     Minutes passed. His thinking shifted. A part of him asked, Who was he to pass judgment? His father had once said that a man was but a mote of dust amidst God’s great creation. He could no more fathom God’s design than he could the apostle John’s account of the opening of the seven seals. Was God speaking to him now? Answering him. Could he believe that God’s purpose had not been punitive or selfish? That His action had been -- so difficult for him to embrace -- necessary! Could he fire his musket again without believing he was being tricked?!
     Inspired by conviction, other men were fighting, whatever their inner turmoil. Should he not also, if not for pure justice then for something approximate? Maybe. But he would not. He had neither the strength nor the will. Nor the opportunity, the fighting having traveled to Lexington itself.