Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Zane Grey and the Prejudices (and Nobility) of our Fathers
I am not a fan of dumbing down our reading curriculum for students as I believe hard reading impacts far more than their ability to read. And if a child can't read because of a learning disability, all the more important to read to them and/or tell them long stories to develop the part of the brain that can keep information in front of them long enough to reason with the facts at hand. Even readers should be read to - long, descriptive books with cliff hanging chapters to keep them interested and build their brain circuitry so they are better able to handle large pieces of information at a time.
During the times his books were written, there was no politically correct mandate that demanded Indians be called Native Americans and viewed as noble unless brought to shame by the acts of white people. Regardless, Grey painted many Indians as high minded but non-self consciously presented others as savages, depending on the circumstances of the story. He consistently found many individual attributes of the Indian to be virtues in any race but believed, overall, the Indian race had fallen into spiritual poverty. At the same time, he consistently wrote that the white man had tragically and arrogantly erred in attempting to Christianize and socialize the red man (to use his turn of phrase).
Grey's earlier novels adopted the basic premise of the times that the white man's culture and overall intelligence were superior to the Indian, yet again and again, told tales where this was demonstrated to be untrue. He wasn't preaching - it was as if he didn't realize the inconsistency. Over time, he moved away from the premise, for the most part. Still, the manner in which he describes Indians always surprises me and disquiets me when I re-read his earlier books. I have to remind myself that they reflect the times in which he wrote.
His heroines are typically self sacrificing and frequently undergo a maturing in the novel brought about by suffering and/or an evolution from headstrong innocence to wisdom as a result of the scales falling from their eyes related to imperfect authority figures such as a parent or religious leader. The heroines frequently began as young, good hearted but self-centered (or, alternatively, profoundly childlike and obedient), and grow, emotionally and spiritually, throughout the novel. It is not uncommon for the hero and heroine of a Zane Grey novel to end up being sadder, wiser and more content. In the scenarios he painted, life is hard, painful and wonderful.
A basic premise of Mr. Grey was that sex, separated from love, deadens a woman's soul. Accordingly, he believed that a woman who married for reasons other than love sinned against herself. He was kind to heroines who were fallen women as a result of war or seduction by an unscrupulous man who abandoned them. Accept his premise or not, I liked that he was less concerned that a woman rejected a social or religious "rule" than he was that, to his way of thinking, in separating love from sex, she harmed herself. A very odd notion, these days, when any constraints on female sexuality are deemed an attack on a woman's freedom and dignity.
Agree or disagree, it seems to me that we have fallen upon a coarse time in our culture where people seem to argue and point fingers regarding other people's politics, religion and economic class rather than spend productive and sustained effort looking inward - attempting to see themselves clearly and trying to be better people, less petty, more productive, kinder, more, well, spiritual - to be more than just a critic of the world and people who see things differently. I am not saying I am any different but I sure see a lot of people more concerned with criticizing the big picture - as if the finding of fault makes them personally more ethical - than they are in facing and improving what is going on in their own hearts and behavior.
A few of Grey's novels, aside from the changes in our culture, confuse me. For example, one novel I read recently had a hero who was in love with an unfortunate young woman who had been blackmailed into a situation where she was treated as a "sealed wife" by a Mormon elder. She hated the elder and when he visited, although Grey was not graphic about it, it amounted to rape. She begged the hero to kill her "husband" but he refused because murder was wrong. In fact, when the elder appeared, she begged him to stay and defend her but the man jumped out the window to get away. The elder was eventually killed by the man's best friend (an Indian!), who wasn't about to let the elder continue to abuse the poor young woman.
To his credit, Grey included in that novel many Mormons who were exceptionally fine people.
The hero thought the heroine killed the elder and the heroine thought the hero killed him. Both were relieved about the elder's death because it freed the heroine, but distressed at how it came about. When it came to light that the Indian friend had killed the elder, they were both relieved that the other didn't have "blood on their hands" (but apparently had no such qualms about the soul of the Indian friend). Hello? If I was about to be raped and the man I loved jumped out the window to leave me to him, he better just keep on running. I mean, some people just need killing.
I would DEFINITELY run away with the Indian.
I have always enjoyed his descriptions of the time around WWI, a period that hasn't gotten nearly the attention as WWII. While the animosity of some of the civilian population towards our returning WWI vets didn't rise to the level of what happened in Vietnam, the themes of vets being lost upon returning to civilian life; neglect of our injured warriors; what we now call PTDS; the attitudes towards the war of first generation German immigrants who played such a big role in settling the west; picking up the pieces by returning wounded veterans; and the initial civilian enthusiasm for war followed by the abrupt apathy of the civilians who wanted to put the war behind them and move on to happier times (think Roaring Twenties) were emphasized.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
In thinking about my love for the novels of Zane Grey, despite his clear difference from me in how he viewed other races and women, I began thinking of my late father and grandfather - two men I adored and who I respected. There is no doubt in my mind they carried within them a fundamentally different, from me, attitude towards minorities and women - an attitude that I find deeply troublesome.
Both men, despite deep rooted prejudices against minorities, were in a position in their careers to advance/promote black men. And they did.
My father owned and ran a small business for decades. I recall him, many times, express confidence and appreciation for his black manager who knew my dad's small business, backwards and forwards. I remember the grief and concern my father had for this man when his small business was failing, how concerned he was at how in the world he would be able to keep his manager employed and with health care benefits. I recall how he paid out of his pocket as long as he could to help the man stay afloat after his business failed - trying to help the man bridge the gap until he could find a new position. Whatever his feelings about black people, in general, my father loved, appreciated and respected this black man, and surely that contributed to a legacy that mindless prejudice is wrong.
It made a difference in how I view the world.
Likewise, my grandfather, raised in the deep south, never said much about civil rights but there is no doubt he had his racial prejudices.
When the man died, quite a few minority families came to his funeral and stood up to thank him and tell our family all the things he did to help them educate their children. One day laborer spoke with pride of his son, the dentist, who "Mr. B." (as they called him) gave summer work and loans so he could stay in school. Same story with another family whose son was now an engineer, another who had been able to go to trade school. Surely, the families who worked to support their children are to be given the lion share of the credit, but the fact remains that my grandfather, despite his raising, saw their potential and did what he could to help them develop it.
I had no bigger cheerleaders when I went to college and, later, to law school, than my father and my grandfather. I never caught a hint, nor do I believe it existed, that they had doubts as to my ability, or the propriety, of their little girl working on an advanced degree. And by the time my own girls went off to college, that they would get at least an undergraduate degree wasn't even a question.
I do not believe they are exceptions to their respective generations. Certainly there are hateful people who are just mean but I still think that if you scratch the surface, many of those old bigots, most in fact, when confronted with a female or minority face, on a personal level, chose to do the fair thing. I can't speak for the generations that came before them, but I know what I have observed in my own life. There is something to be said for having to look another person in the eye when you make decisions about their life. It changes things.
Evelyn loves it here - she runs all over the place and has gotten quite muscular:
Happy Quilting, Penny, Evelyn and Pearl