Sunday, October 29

Old Man, Young Man, and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner's 1952

The Black Pearl
Scott O'Dell
Dell 1967

In 7th grade I was asked to pick a title from among a list of Great American Literary Authors and write a report. I picked The Old Man and the Sea because it was the shortest.

These things matter when you're 13 years old and dubious about the merits of what adults call "good" and "classic" and "literature." The shorter the book the less time it will take to read it, which means the longer you can put it off; which means a shorter period of time to skim before the report; which means the less you have to write because, after all, it's the shortest book you could possibly read. "Sorry, my five page report came in at 3 and a half pages because it was a short book. Didn't you say it had been printed -- in its entirety -- in a single issue of Life magazine?"

What also mattered was that the book had been adapted into a movie starring Spencer Tracy, who my 7th grade English teacher truly adored, and I was hoping I could parlay that affection into some kind misty-eyed grade inflation. And when I announced my chosen title Ms. Beyers-Ott beamed and announced that she had planned to show that movie later in the term, and wouldn't it be interesting to see how my vision of the book compared to the film.

In the parlance of the time: Busted. Royal.

I tried -- and I mean I really tried -- to slog through those scant 140 pages, trying to find a reason to care about the old man and the sea, and the fish and the struggle, and the sharks and the old man's bloody hands. I remember propping my head up in the library as I struggled to maintain consciousness, even going so far as to risk what little cache of cool I had as a rebel by wearing my glasses in public to keep the words from blurring together. In the end I managed to retain the bare essence of the story but gain no insight, no thematic understanding, nothing but the most threadbare of summaries. When the time came for the movie in class I put my head down on my desk, jacket over my head in embarrassment as I realized my complete failure as a young reader.

I say all of this in preface to The Black Pearl as I have come to believe that there may be something lost in the teaching of classic literature, and much gained in letting young readers discover for themselves what is or should be a "classic" or even "literature." To be clear, I do believe in the need for a solid foundation in a shared literary tradition -- and one more inclusive than previously prescribed but nowhere near as rigid as the many Cultural Literacies out there -- but that the definition of that foundation should come from a collective space.

In the 4th grade my teacher, Mrs. White, took time every afternoon to read to us from the cannon of what has since become classic young literature -- Harriet the Spy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- but at the time were merely good books for young audiences. One of those was Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins and it worked in well alongside our studies of California Mission history. What a strange world California once was, with sea hunting Native Americans and not a trace of Hollywood on the horizon! Though one could argue that in the time between 4th and 7th grade my sophistication should have been prepared for the Hemingways and Saroyans, the Hartes and Londons and Twains on the shelves I would have been better served with the substitution of The Black Pearl for that Crusty Old Man and his Ridiculous Sea.

Ramon Salazar is a boy on the cusp of manhood, the son of a wealthy Baja pearl fisherman whose fleet regularly brings in the biggest and the best. Impatient Ramon dreams of the days he can join the boats and dive for pearls, and ultimately win the approval of his father. In the meantime he learns the details of the business: the weighing and appraising of the pearls. Before he gets the chance he suffers personal and family insults from Sevillano, the fleet's braggart, and vows one day to get even by catching the Mother of all Pearls.

But first he must deal with El Manta Diablo, the largest Manta in the Vermillion Sea.

The themes of manhood and of proving oneself are played out against the local mythology of a two ton killer manta who guards the sea beds containing the largest black pearls around. Ramon must defy and outwit his father to obtain the Pearl of Heaven -- a 62 caret flawless black pearl -- despite the wise old Indian who warns him that the Manta Diablo will not rest until his pearl is returned. Ramon must also later steal the Pearl of Heaven away from the church (where it was deposited to bless the town's fleets) and return it to the sea but not before being forced into a confrontation with the Sevillano the Braggart who cannot stand his most precious lies being bested by a boy.

Every chapter in this slim book delivers a twist, a sort of reverse cliffhanger where you feel everything is resolved by the end of the chapter only to skitter sideways like a crab at the beginning of the next chapter. Near the end when O'Dell has to tie everything together it all starts to feel formula-fed, but really there's no other way to end the tale. Questions are left unanswered -- What will Ramon do now that the family business is destroyed? Will he admit to having stolen the Pearl of Heaven from the church? Will he even bother to tell the tale of what he's seen and done to his family? -- bit these are exactly the kind of questions young readers like to ask and answer for themselves. Perfect for five page book reports.

Meanwhile, over in Cuba, an unlucky old man goes out on his boat, farther than he's ever gone before, and catches the largest marlin in his life. He struggles to catch the fish, suffering all along, then lashes the fish to the boat and struggles to bring it to shore while sharks eat away at his prize the whole way. He returns to his hut and collapses, his unlucky streak ended, the last great haul of his 80+ years a skeletal testament to his skill and undying spirit. The end.

Okay, I've simplified unfairly. I was merely trying to recall my own interpretation from 7th grade. Honestly, what does a 13 year old boy know of an old man's struggles, of an old man's fall from grace with his community? What does a boy know of regaining a shimmer of former glory he has yet to taste? More, what does a young boy in an English class understand of the symbolism of an old novelist in a sea of hostile critics suffering to land one last chance at relevance? Only later -- beyond college even -- did I come to understand the disappointments of adults and the idea of a noble battle against hostile criticism. As a teen I would have been better served to work through the issues of becoming and developing my personal sense of self through books like The Black Pearl rather than wrestle with the demons of a classic novelist who shot himself rather than continue to live a life in futility. What kind of a message did they think they were sending us back then?!

Am I advocating the removal of classic literature from the classroom? Not anymore than I am suggesting that we replace these books with the untested Harry Potter series. There's something to be said for the idea of introducing young minds to what is considered relevant to society and culture, and explaining that relevance. A high school sophomore ought to know who Steinbeck is, the general story behind The Grapes of Wrath and how it connects with the dust bowl and American farm migration in the 1930's... but a student is much better off deeply exploring Of Mice and Men for its literary merits.

[As an aside, about five years ago I picked up The Grapes of Wrath for the first time since high school and marveled at it. No way could I have understood or appreciated what that book had to offer until I'd had a bit of hardscrabble living of my own to measure it against. What an amazing piece of reportage. Where is our contemporary Steinbeck?]

My personal initiation into the adult world of literature happened when I discovered a collection of Vonnegut short stories hidden in the garage. My dad had hidden this and some other books he felt were just a bit too mature for me and my younger siblings to read. My teachers -- bless them -- raised an eye at my reading Vonnegut during free time but said nothing more. They certainly didn't call out the morality police to have me frog-marched out of school, or hauled my parents (and library) publicly across the keel, and for that they deserve praise. That initial act of forbidding sent me running to the adult section of the public library more than any introduction to classic literature in a classroom. Given how teens tend to run contrary to adult desires perhaps the best course is to give them more relevant (to them) literature and suggest they avoid certain classics.

Then again, if Ms. Beyers-Ott had given me The Black Pearl to write a paper about, instead of letting me hang myself on Hemingway, perhaps I'd have performed just as poorly. Perhaps instead of championing Scott O'Dell's coming-of-age tale set in La Paz I'd bemoan having not been introduced to Hemingway's Old Man at a young age.

There's just no pleasing some kids.

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