Thanks to a tweet from Shani, I devoured this two-part series on dancehall music and homophobia in Jamaica over the weekend. I won’t say anything else about it specifically because I really, really hope that people go read it. But to me, this is what’s important and interesting about cultural criticism. I may bungle my way into arguments over movie trailers, or gush over Robyn, but really, for me, the primary question is what what we like says about who we are. What we spend our time and money on for fun is incredibly important, even, and maybe even especially, if we’re spending time on things that are frivolous. And sometimes popular forms contain deadly serious content. If I could do this full-time, this is the kind of story I’d want to write.
I really need to remember that when I go home to my parents’ house for holidays or various and sundry other visits, I don’t need to bring extra books with me. It’s not just that they have a marvelous collection, but I find myself revisiting childhood books I haven’t looked at in years. This time out, I teared up happily re-reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men, an inferior successor to Little Women, especially in its moralism, but still a rather satisfying fable none the less.
What made this reading though was one of the gifts my parents gave me: Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 joint biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson. I’ve always known that Little Women and its successors are directly inspired and shaped by Alcott’s life—that fact is directly alluded to in the book, when the immortal protagonist Jo March writes her novel-within-a-novel. But I don’t think I knew the extent to which the specifics are simply biography in disguise. In Little Men, Jo tells a naughty girl enrolled in her school that:
“I had a new pair of shoes once, and wanted to show them; so, though I was told not to leave the garden, I ran away and was wandering about all day. It was in the city, and why I wasn’t killed I don’t know. Such a time as I had. I frolicked in the park with dogs, sailed boats in the Back Bay with strange boys, dined with a little Irish beggar-girl on salt fish and potatoes, and was found at last fast asleep on a door-step with my arms round a great dog. It was late in the evening, and I was a dirty as a little pig, and the new shoes were worn out I had travelled so far.”
Turns out, Louisa May Alcott had the identical adventure. She ran away from home and was found by the town crier sleeping on a doorstep curled up with a friendly dog that had decided to turn protector. It’s like the moment I had reading Homicide, when I found out that the opening scene in The Wire actually happened.
It’s incidents like this that make me question the imaginative power of fiction. There’s no question that fiction lets us tell stories that might be too painful, or personal, to relate simply as the truth with names attached, and that fiction allows authors to create the follow-up to a perfect anecdote. If we don’t go anywhere beyond “Got to. This America, man,” in The Wire or the little girl found on a doorstep in Little Men, we miss the point. But I don’t know that fiction set in our world and playing by the rules of it can be more extraordinary, or perfectly illustrative, than the gorgeous randomness of true life.
Welcome back! I hope that those of you who celebrated Christmas had a wonderful holiday, and those of you who didn’t, got a good rest, or had other good things happen, depending on your pleasure. Let’s read up to, but not past, the section entitled “Phreaking,” by Thursday. For the rest of the week, I’ll be posting once or twice a day.