Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mumbling Over the Mummies of the Past

I was perusing an old periodical the other day when my eye was captured by a brief editorial piece, meant for amusement, but with all too obvious implications, considered from more than one hundred years in the future. It was from The Dial and  titled, simply, "Casual Comment".

THE DIAL Jan 1, 1907
Vol. XLII , No. 493


"The serious study of fiction, so warmly advocated by Professor Phelps of Yale, is finding favor with many novelists of the day — or, one might safely affirm, with them all. Mr. Booth Tarkington enlarges on the benefits of such study, if devoted to novels of a certain type, in familiarizing the student with Indiana life and manners. Mr. Upton Sinclair is reported as declaring that novel-study will be required for a degree from the Jungle University, soon to be established at Helicon. Mr. George Ade says a good word for the movement as one (we will suppose) likely to result in a more serious study of college widowhood and other weighty sociological problems. Expectation is cherished that a student would gladly devote three or four times the number of hours to a course in modern novels that he would give to one in ancient language and literature, with a correspondingly greater intellectual quickening.

"Says Professor Phelps: "The two most beneficial ways to study a novel are to regard it, first, as an art form, and, secondly, as a manifestation of intellectual life." To this Mr. Ade adds : " But there are other ways. It is desirable to ascertain the identity of best sellers, and to study the reasons why they sell. The mechanism of publication should be studied also; as, for example, the methods of publishers in negotiating royalties, the best methods of street-car and bill-board advertising, the art of printing on rotten paper," etc. Manifestly the great novel-manufacturing industry must be recognized.

"Mumbling over the mummies of antiquity will no longer answer."

What hath Professor Phelps spawned? In his day (did he have tongue playfully planted in cheek? - certainly Mr. Ade did.) This brief note in the January 1st 1907 issue of The Dial hinted of a new university being being established by Mr. Upton Sinclair … The Jungle University. I suppose it would confer degrees earned from a course of study similar to that of the School of Hard Knocks. Possibly the hard knocks would be conferred upon graduation with a giant hammer blow to the heads of the plucky future alumni. Whether it was to be set up in the jungles of the inner city (Chicago, meat-packer to the world? New York, the world's market center? - a jungle, even then - Detroit - hardly yet advanced from a gleam in Ford's eye?), or solely within the jungley confines of Sinclair's mind, we are not told.

But Mr. George Ade, tongue or no, nailed the future squarely. These gentlemen of the book - academic and published wit alike -  even prescient George Ade - could hardly have foreseen exactly how pulpy the future would become - could have little imagined the giant industry that would shortly sprout up like a gargantuan pulpy jungle vine strangling its host tree. 

The host tree is the Romance Genre, a sturdy enough and virtuous tree of lovely leafy foliage. This jungle vine, sprouting from a seed dropped by some passing bird of plunder or cavorting monkey, has itself dropped down thousands of twisting tendrils that have taken root, growing up into leafy periodical genres of their  own - adventure pulps, romance pulps, movie pulps, western pulps, fantasy pulps … contents exciting, nutritional value for the mind: nil. Most of the old pulpy vines have died off - wilted and dropped to the ground or remain hanging, slowly drying out and shedding their tenuously attached outer coverings - to be browsed by collecting ruminants (you see how Mother Nature provides, nothing goes to waste!).

But a singular central vine continues to thrive and grow. It has evolved from a pulp industry to a paperback romance industry, with bright, garish blooms announcing their contents - super-saturated nectar with no mentally nutritional content.  Entire stores are given over to this industry. Walk in to any one of the paperback emporiums that specialize in romance (and its sister genre, the romantic fantasy novel with its numberless sequels stretching into a mind-scrambling eternity), and look over the sea of low shelves on which a riot of K-Mart colors throb in siren like enticement, luring the avid reader to swallow their mind-fattening contents. 

I used the word 'reader' with hesitation, for it seems these industrial products, in reality,  offer an escape from actual reading. No thought process is necessary for the intake of their contents. No stimulation of memory will be necessary, for the contents are one and the same for all. For sure it has its defenders - and there are even now college courses giving serious study to these romantic plot boilers - each to their own, I say; but let us still identify what is surely a voracious vine - a vine that strangles any ability to appreciate a finer, more considered literature.

Romance as a genre has always been with us - and always will be, hopefully. Consider the novels of Jane Austen, the wonderful literary outpourings of the Brontes, and the great melodramatic adventures of Dickens, Collins and Trollope - even Conrad -  all wrote romances or stories that had elements of romance, and readers read and are moved and relish the stories and take them to heart; in other words, both the heart and the mind are nourished. Even some modern genre romances - I am thinking of that charming by-lane of staid but hopeful adventure, the Regency Romance, inspired by Austen - feeds the mind and heart.

I fear the paperback industry, in its factory-like output, has even defeated Mother Nature, for who could imagine collectors of the future collecting, and cleaning the public environment of the choking deposits of what is essentially the same empty object repeated again and again - like fast food toys. But all one must do to envision this is to look at the habits of collectors today. 

Even myself, though I am cut loose in time's flow, may be  along with Mr. Ade, may be blind to the future, and collectors will avidly attach yellowing romance paperbacks to their collection. Like today's collector of penny-red stamps, which also look the same stamp to stamp, unless one takes a loupe and examines their differentiating details. I imagine a paperback collector of the future lovingly stroking colorful covers, and explaining to her friend who may not understand, saying in defense of their passion, "… But they are not all the same -  look, the hero on this cover may be wearing the same doublet as the hero on that cover, but he is sporting a mullet, don't you see! - and the heroine's bodice is cut lower!"

Some head-shaking arbiter of taste to come, aghast at such a collecting trend of the future, may then quip, echoing the editor of The Dial

"Mumbling over the mummies of antiquity will no longer answer."

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