On teaching Baldwin & Lethem: two approaches to parental loss.The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ”
These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections. But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.
In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach. Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.
Here’s a famous passage, and one of my favorites, the same in both iterations of Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”:
He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftains: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementos, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know he was beautiful.
Talk about beauty—what gorgeous prose. The paragraph’s halting rhythm signals deep, stoppered feeling and a hard-won effort to speak the truth. This comes early in the long, dense classically three-act essay.
Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements. Here’s one:
That’s also from the essay’s book version, in Lethem’s collection The Disappointment Artist. In this example, the book’s and the magazine’s passages are essentially identical, though otherwise the version in the New Yorker has been radically truncated. While I think the lightly edited magazine version of Baldwin’s essay is benign—in fact, the seven space breaks added for Harper’s give welcome resting points for readers—I’m ambivalent about the shortened “The Beards.” However, a coup I scored for my “Classics lite” essay in Assay was an interview with Lethem. He takes a realistic view toward the need by periodicals to shorten long essays. And he’s happy with the shortened one.
The Collected Works of Judith Lethem—
. . . What’s one supposed to say when the mask comes off? Is there an etiquette I’m breaking with? John Lennon recorded a song, for his first album after the breakup of the Beatles (what a grand beard that was, art and companionship blended together, and the worshipping world at his feet!), called “My Mummy’s Dead.” I suppose this is my version of that song. I sing it now in order to quit singing it. Mine has been a paltry beard anyway, the peach-fuzzy kind a fifteen-year-old grows, so you still see the childish face beneath. Each of my novels, antic as they may sometimes be, is fuelled by loss. I find myself speaking about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world.
So I guess I must be, too. At least for certain audiences. As I explain in Assay, college underclassmen and continuing studies students have seemed overwhelmed by the length, intricacy, density, and cultural references in the originals. I’m eager to try the “lite” versions for beginning readers and writers.
In both essays, I can still show how structure can underscore meaning. That may be even easier to show in Lethem’s shortened “The Beards.” And I’ll be more confident that students will actually finish reading it. Teachers, to a degree, must meet students where they are—or at least this one feels he must. To get students to read what they don’t find “relatable” takes a whale of a lot of fear or charisma.