It’s always been my contention that fiction reflects its time and place better than many histories. Shakespeare’s Athens and Italy say more about Elizabethan London than the historical Greece and Italy. In fact, during my MFA defense, I described two kinds of art: high art, which has a universal intent, and folk art, which seeks to illuminate its times. Both types cross over: high art needs a context in which to operate, which comments on the time and place the author has chosen and the best folk art illustrates universal themes in the context of a specific time and place.
And then there is the problem of history–times change and with them the contexts of art. Huckleberry Finn is perhaps the best known example. Huck’s description of Jim is not unusual for the time and his friendship with the former slave starts to transcend the racial barriers of its times. However, today, it is no longer acceptable. In my opinion, removing the word from Huckleberry Finn is wrong; it should be used as the basis of an examination of race and class in America in a particular time and place and decidedly not portrayed as acceptable. Shakespeare has been regularly revised by well-meaning idiots who want to remove the pandering to the lower classes that “marred” the great playwright’s work.
Leading me, in a roundabout fashion, to the topic at hand. Books whose contexts have changed in a relatively short time.
On the Road, Kerouac’s great work, used to be seen as the wild adventures of non-conformists in a conformist America. Dean Moriarity was the great hero, unfettered, uninhibited, the role model for all those who would be free. Today, rereading the book, or viewing the movie, Dean is more of a damaged, near-sociopath whose relentless auto theft, seduction, and hunger for acceptance by the literati makes the book more a study of someone you should never let near your car, your girlfriend or your life.
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Richard Farina’s only novel, showed the adventures of hipster Gnossos Pappadapolis’s adventures through a fictionalized Cornell, Cuba, and points in between, featuring wild mescaline trips, A-Bomb tests after a night at a Las Vegas casino, hunting a wolf in the Adirondacks, and a cast of characters who are the post beatnik, pre-hippy generation doomed to become Mad Men and suburban housewives. Farina, who died tragically (senselessly) in a motorcycle accident leaving a book publication party, probably would have gone on to update his visions in future books.
Alas, rereading it now, Gnossos, like Dean, seems more like a destructive child, someone who thinks that since he is superior to Philistine frat members, there is nothing wrong in plundering one’s room in search of Scotch and a free meal. Worse, his attitude toward women reflects those times, not these. What used to read as a wild seduction scene with Pamela Watson-May today reads as date-rape. His description of a friend’s wife, who guides his hand between her legs “to where she had something to say” was exciting to an 18-year old near-virgin, but makes Gnossos merely a sexist boy today.
Lest you think that all I do is read hipster novels, take The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel. The story of a group of friends, victims of W.W. I., on a holiday to Pamplona’s San Fermin festival, uses Robert Cohn as the quintessential outsider who will never understand what is real and important and what is simply surface. The last time I read it, what struck me was that Robert Cohn is an outsider because he is Jewish more than because he is not a veteran. “Why does he hang around looking so Jewish?” Jake Barnes’s friend asks, after complaining that Robert’s cheapness led to the telegram “Venga jueves,” when for the same price he could have given more information. That he slept with Lady Brett when Jake cannot infuriates Hemingway to the point that the novel hinges on Cohn beating up Brett’s bullfighter lover. Boxing, Jake reminds us in introducing Cohn, got Cohn’s nose broken and presumably made it less “Jewish.”
Hard to recommend these books these days without a major disclaimer. History moves on. Art remains fixed in its time and place.