Opinion » Bill Cope

150 Years of Reading

A gift you can't return


Read anything good this year? And before going any further, let us qualify what I mean by good reading. First, at least some small portion of the reading material must have actually been written by the person who claims to have written it. So Going Rogue doesn't count.

Also, the material cannot be one of those books purchased in bulk quantities and distributed by right-wing organizations so as to make it appear that Americans are flocking to read it. Therefore, if you were ready to tell me you read something by Glenn Beck or Jonah Goldberg, save your breath.

Lastly, I mean the word "good" here to define a more elevated standard for the written word, and further, to exclude whatever does not meet those standards. So, if you spent the year cuddled up with anything having to do with teenage vampires, frankly, I'm not interested.

Then let me ask again: Read anything good this year?

I have. I sure have. In fact, I've probably read--and delighted in--more good stuff this year than I have during any previous year of my life. It all started a week or two before the Inauguration. If you remember, at the time, there was a great deal of comparison between Barack Obama and Abe Lincoln. I appreciated the spirit of these comparisons, if not some of the trivial nature they came wrapped in. I felt--still feel--a most significant circle was about to close on Jan. 20. A circle 150 years wide, 150 years deep, into which most of American history and culture and heart and anguish and joy would fit.

So more out of sentimentality than anything else, I decided to re-read something I hadn't seen since my college days. It was written by one of Lincoln's most ardent admirers on the occasion of that great man's murder--"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." I've kept all my old text books--figured they'd come in handy sooner or later--and I remembered the piece being in my anthology of American literature (The Norton Anthology, Vol. II, should you care). Most of you will recognize it as a poem written by Walt Whitman, one of the originals in a noble line of American writers and arguably, to this day, the most exuberant soul in that heritage. Whitman was a homosexual. A great, lusty bear of a homosexual. I didn't know about this when I read his poetry 40-plus years ago. My American lit. professor probably knew, but he didn't bring it up while discussing Whitman's work. Even as wild as things were on college campuses in 1967, some roads were more prudently left untaken.

Once I had finished "When Lilacs ...," and since I had the book out anyway, I went ahead and re-read all of the Whitman material the anthology provided. "Leaves of Grass." "Song of Myself." "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Twenty or 30 poems in all. Somewhere during the re-reading, I realized it would have been helpful--crucial, even--to me as a 19-year-old kid to know Whitman was a homosexual. It would have added a depth of emotional texture to his poems I didn't get, back in '67. It would have expanded my understanding of an American giant and his own understanding of America, and it might even have germinated a tolerance that had yet to come to me, back in '67.

I finished all of the available Whitman and decided to keep reading. After all, the Norton Anthology (third edition) is more than 1,700 pages of fine print. I'd only wiped the first layer of dust from the mirror.

I have to admit, I'd never had much use for Emily Dickinson. My memory of her was that she was a fussy old maid, picking over the smaller potatoes in rhyme. My shallow young mind marginalized her, poor lady. She in no way deserved the disdain some snotty student would hold for her some 100 years later. And now, having re-read Dickinson 40-some years later on, I hold a certain, unmistakable disdain for that snotty student. Now, having added those 40 years to my own experience, I can think of Emily not only as an exquisite songstress of the most fragile of human experiences, but I can remember she wasn't even allowed to vote in her day. That she and every other woman of the age were considered less than fully realized and treated accordingly. Little wonder her poetry murmurs instead of bellows like Whitman's.

Dickinson, Lanier, Harte, Joel Chandler Harris, and I kept reading. Ante-bellum, post-bellum, and then Samuel Clemens. Such a revisited treat was Samuel Clemens. "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg." Life of the Mississippi. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in its entirety. It's possible that you, at some point in your education, were assigned to read Huckleberry Finn. If you're indigenous to Idaho and close to my age, it's possible Jim was the first black man you got to know, fictionally or really. It's possible that it was Jim who planted that first seed of racial awareness in your young skull. It's even possible you supported--maybe even participated in--what King and Evers and those three boys in Mississippi died for, with Huck's friend Jim whispering in your young ear.

I didn't appreciate these possibilities until just this last year because I'd forgotten I'd ever read Huckleberry Finn. I knew about the river, I knew about the raft, I knew about Jim. But I'd forgotten what it was about. It was like I was seeing one of America's most familiar landscapes for the first time.

And I was. Next week, in Part Two, I'll explain how this could be.