She’s wrong, but it’s OK

I started reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. I almost stopped reading before I finished the tenth page.

At the bottom of the ninth page, Maxine Hong Kingston begins talking with Mary Gordon:

[Mary Gordon says:] “It’s capitalistic
of us to expect any good to come from peace demonstrations,
as if ritual has to have use, gain, profit.”
I agreed, “Yes, it’s Buddhist to go parading
for the sake of parading.” “Can you think of a writer
(besides Chekov) who is holy and and artist?”
“Grace Paley.” She smiled. “Well, yes.”
Obviously. “Thoreau.” “Oh, no. Thoreau’s
too Protestant, tidy, nonsexual. He goes
home to Mom for hot chocolate. No
sex, no tragedy, no humor.”
Come to think of it, Thoreau doesn’t make
me laugh….

This is where I almost stopped reading. Doesn’t she get it? Walden is a hilarious parody of all those early nineteenth century adventure books where the protagonist travels to some exotic place and has adventures; the fact that Thoreau goes home to have hot chocolate is part of what makes it funny. Thoreau is constantly poking fun at himself. Admittedly, his puns are often terrible (the title Walden is itself a pun on Waldo, the name Ralph Waldo Emerson was known by, and on the poverty-seeking Waldensians). And Thoreau’s humor can be broad and even a little crude, like twelve-year-old boy humor. But when you read Thoreau out loud to a group of people, you get belly laughs. Maybe this is what comes when we no longer read literature out loud: the words just form in our heads, and we lose touch (literally) with the physical reactions words can provoke.

I decided to forgive Maxine Hong Kingston’s inability to get Thoreau’s humor. She can’t help it if she doesn’t have an inner twelve-year-old boy who likes bad puns and broad humor. And the rest of her memoir is pretty good, although it’s not very funny.

5 thoughts on “She’s wrong, but it’s OK”

  1. When I was assigned excerpts from Walden in high school, as Kingston probably was, they were presented to us as if they were supposed to be an argument for the back-to-the-land movement and, simultaneously, as if they somehow undermined it. Thoreau had his mommy do his laundry, went the charge, the implication being, everyone who tries to live more simply is just riding on someone else’s technology. (I think we were supposed to think that she had an electric washer-dryer in the shed in Concord.) There’s no question that Walden has been inspiration and even instruction manual for those who want to live farther out from civilization, but that’s not all it is or all he meant it to be.

    High school English class certainly didn’t focus on Thoreau’s humor, and with all respect to Kingston, who is no intellectual slouch, it’s very possible she hasn’t cracked the book open since then.

    I’m curious where else the conversation went. Holy writers? I’m looking at my fiction and poetry shelves and seeing many without trying (here are half a dozen off one shelf: Forster, Gaines, Garcia Marquez, Gilman, Hawthorne, Heller), but maybe I am misunderstanding the question. I think if a writer produces a work of art that lights the path for a reader’s spiritual life, that’s not only holy but is evidence of a spiritual life on the writer’s part.

  2. I would add Steven Gould and Steve Perry to the list of spiritual authors, just to add in some representation for SF. The idea that Buddhists ever do anything without expecting a result is nonsense, of course: one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism is that every action produces a result.

  3. Ted — I can think of other SF authors whom I think of as spiritual — Ursula K. LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, Kelly Link — but are they also holy? Grace Paley I would call holy — Ray Bradbury, not so much. But I know much less about SF authors as persons, so it may be my ignorance. In any case, it’s a very interesting line of thought to pursue.

  4. I’m not sure how this morphed into a discussion of SF authors with spiritual or religious themes, but I would argue that a great deal of SF has at least quasi-religious dimensions, given that much SF aims at evoking some “sense of wonder”.

    SF authors who seem to me particularly religious or spiritual in their explorations among classic authors include Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke (much influenced by Stapledon), and Damon Knight. Among contemporary authors, I would think of Ted Chiang.

  5. I just hoping you wrote(or sent your blog to) Kingston, disabusing her of her ignorance.

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