Oct 24

Respect (Just a Little Bit)

I was the least distinguished guest at the dinner party. It was a great honor to be asked to dine among the stars. So I detailed myself and was on my best behavior, enjoying a glass of wine and listening to the chat. I did not smoke, swear, or do card tricks. But then dinner was ready. The host's dining table seated only 8 and there were 10 diners. What to do?

The solution: Put a little table off in the corner and seat there (with place cards) the least distinguished guest and the second-least-distinguished guest, both unescorted females. We could neither see nor be seen by the diners, who had their backs to us, nor could we take part in their conversation. We were told with an apology that this arrangement was by lottery. Forgive me, but I doubt that one or two of the nationally and internationally famous would have been seated at the kids' table, lottery or not.

I'm from an ethnic subculture that loves to host and treats even the most extraneous guests as royalty. We would rather face a firing squad than set a few human beings apart as if there were not several alternatives to this arrangement, to wit:
1. Serve dinner buffet-style.
2. Buy or rent a larger table.
3. Use smaller chairs. (Accommodating guests is more important than matching or having to move your furniture.)
4. Dining room too small for the crowd? Move the table to the living room.
5. Have the hosts (or at least one of them) seat themselves at the second-class table.
6. Have the hosts buzzing around serving and refilling and ascertaining that all invitees are well taken care of (the hosts can eat later).
7. Move the event to a restaurant (doesn't have to be expensive) and write off the cost as a business expense and as a way to head off even a whiff of an idea that they sort their guests by importance.

I was so embarrassed at being thus Jim Crowed -- regardless of status I am still a human being -- that I had to try not to cry, asking myself grimly and repeatedly, "What would Eleanor Roosevelt do?" She famously said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." I wonder if anyone else was embarrassed by this arrangement. (Nobody said anything. I considered leaving. My parents would have seen the score, excused themselves and left. I thought that might embarrass the hosts in front of their other guests, and politeness required I should be embarrassed rather than they; and finally, I did not want to leave my poor tablemate twisting in the wind.)

As fate would have it, this happened to the only one who would ever write about it. It is what I have always done to stay sane.
Feb 10

The First Writer I Ever Saw:

norman_mailer_1988 Mine was Norman Mailer, fall or winter of 1972. My then-boyfriend, a freshman at the local college, knew I liked writing, so he took me to see a famous writer. Ignorant as eggs we sitting on bleachers in the gym looking at the first published writer I ever saw. I remember his tightly curled (like sheep's wool) hair. He talked at length about "existentialism," very big then.

Mailer denounced "Women's Lib," and a woman in the audience stood up and said, "Women's Lib isn't ____[forgot what she said]; it is a FACT." And Mailer replied, "Your ass is not a fact." Nobody laughed but nobody left. The probable origin of this then-very-daring/discomfiting exchange: In 1971 Mailer had published The Prisoner of Sex, a book tearing apart feminist intellectuals such as Kate Millett, whose world-changing Sexual Politics (1970) tore apart some work of Mailer's. I would not read Sexual Politics until 1975 (receiving it as a Christmas gift from another boyfriend). And that's all I recall. I don't remember that Mailer's books were sold there or that Mailer read from his books. This was when writers commonly toured. (What writer now would be booked by his publisher on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, so named because calling it UW-Kenosha would make people laff?) But I don't think that at that time writers toured only to read excerpts from their books. If somebody can recall, set me straight on this. It could have been that people sought writers' views on things in general, because writers, or artists in general, were equated with thinkers.

Later. when I read some Mailer, given all I knew of him, I judged him as an excellent stylist with a gift for turning a phrase. I believe he was not as much a thinker as a "doer," which, for all who are doers, carries with it the risk of making an ass of yourself.

[Photo of Norman Mailer, 1988, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.]
Jan 17

What Poetry Was Meant to Do

From Wikipedia. I got a genuine thrill reading this, and hope you do too:

When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it very offensive.Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire.Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote, "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote 'Leaves of Grass,' only that he did not burn it afterwards." Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth" and categorized its author as a filthy free lover. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians", one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman's homosexuality. Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended.Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.

On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature". Urged by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice . . .Stevens demanded the removal of the poems "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute", as well as changes to "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario’s Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers", and "Faces"
.

P.S. Whitman's title Leaves of Grass was a veiled way of saying "this is trash written by a hack or unimportant person."