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Rant #265
(published February 9, 2006)
Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Pop-ularity
by Noah Berlatsky
In punk rock, it's an article of faith that the smaller the audience, the better the music. Stadium seating with a bunch of suburbanites? Please. No, if you want bragging rights you've got to see Gesticulating Goat in a basement with four other hipsters, two of whom are dating members of the band.

Taken to extremes, this sort of thing is ridiculous — logically, Gesticulating Goat may be bad even if nobody likes them. Nonetheless, it's nice to have a whole segment of the fan base that believes with every fiber of its latest thrift-store purchase that 1,000,000 Rolling Stone fans can be wrong. It provides balance and a certain level of humility — not a word often associated with rock critics, but there you are. Assuredly, a punk rock canon exists, but at least the mythology has room for the notion that the greatest band of all time may be one that nobody has ever heard of.

With literature, it's a different story. Plenty of pundits are eager to condemn works that are overly popular, of course — witness Harold Bloom's wounded trumpeting when Stephen King won the National Book Award last year. But Bloom doesn't fetishize forgotten works — on the contrary, he promotes books that, as they say, have stood the test of time. Bloom's mortal enemies, the P.C. crowd, are[ital.] interested in lost authors, but only if they're women or minorities. It's the oppression they love, not the obscurity.

Whichever side of that particular debate you're on, the result is a pretty deterministic view of fame: books are chosen because of their Darwinian fitness for survival or else by virtue of their racist/imperialist/hegemonic agenda. I'm somewhat sympathetic to both of these views, and there are plenty of authors whose careers can be explained equally well by either — Kipling, for example. Still, I can't help but think that to a certain extent getting into the canon is simply a matter of dumb luck. Emily Dickinson's first letter to T. Wentworth Higginson could have been lost in the mail; T. S. Eliot could have been hit by a motor-car; Alice Walker could have given up writing for a career in socially-conscious advertising. And the face of American letters would have been changed forever.

Perhaps Virginia May Garcia never became a household name because she suffered some such fateful setback. Certainly, when she graduated from Hyde Park's University High School in 1927 she seemed to be something special. Her peers knew it — her yearbook description says that she had "an imagination like a fairy book" and that her talent would "take her far." Her teachers knew it too — one of them told her, to her intense pleasure, "Virginia, you can always write poetry." Most importantly, though, Garcia knew it herself. In one poem entitled "Quantity Without Quality", she pictures herself almost exploding with inspiration.

I'm stuffed with poetry
Up to the top of me,
Clear to the hairs of my head.
My fingers are singing
Low, and beginning
The twining of words around lead.

There's nothing in Shakespeare
Or Byron or Keats
As wide as my oceans of dreams.
Alas for my muses!
They spill on the paper
In thousands of thimble-wide streams.

Ostensibly, this poem is about Garcia's failure to measure up to the greats. But it's also about the breadth of her own potential. Her modesty may be sincere, but so is her ambition. Like her classmates and her instructors, Garcia believed she had a future as a writer.

But she didn't. To say Garcia's career fizzled out is an understatement — it never started. Besides a few pieces in her school's newspaper, the only writing of hers that survives is a diary she kept while traveling through Europe and about fifty poems, all collected and privately printed as The Journal of a Young Girl in 1929. After she turned twenty, I haven't been able to find any evidence that she published a single line. The Library of Congress doesn't have any other titles listed for her, and other databases have also come up empty. From census records I've been able to find out that she was born in 1909, that she had one brother, and that she was still living with her family in Hyde Park in 1930. And that's it. The Lab Schools alumni office put me in touch with a couple of her surviving high school classmates, but neither of them remembered her — not surprising after nearly eighty years.

So what separates Garcia from thousands of other aspiring poets who, to the intense relief of all, get over it when they hit 21? For me, it's simple: I like Garcia's writing a lot more than that of most 18-year-olds — or than that of most 40-year-olds or 60-year-olds for that matter. I first turned up her book in the University of Chicago Library, in 1999. At the time I was writing a composition and grammar textbook for the American School, a correspondence high school in the south suburbs, and was looking, with mounting frustration for appropriate, out-of-copyright examples of journal writing. Then I pulled her book off the shelf, expecting to open it up and read a pedestrian account of a young girl's travels abroad, of which I had already seen quite a few too many. This is what I read on the first page, spelling errors intact:

Dear Reader:

I called this the Funny Diary because I am going to try to make it funny, and I called it the Bunny Diary because it rhymed so nicely with Funny, and gave the title a quaint sound, don't you think? Maybe you don't, but I don't care. It's my diary, and I ought to have the right to name it any name I wanted, even if it was the Turkey Waddle Diary, or the Speckled Rooster Chronicle. So there!

I may as well tell you, reader, before I begin, that this diary is going to be anything but strictly truthful. In the first place, I am very prone to exaggerate, and in the second place, truthful diarys are always too dry for any earthly use.

Despite Garcia's assertion, her diary doesn't contain many Mark Twain-style tall tales. It does, however, include a great deal of delightful writing. Whoever her introduction was addressed to (someone specific? a general reader?) it demonstrates a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous, and it's no surprise to learn that she was a fan of Alice in Wonderland. Consider her poem "Ode to the West Wind," which, among other virtues, makes use of the word "frappings."

Come, father frog,
And we shall sing together;
Rebel against the weather,
And hop about and sneeze.
In spite of your green frappings
And my quite toasty wrappings,
One's noses and bulgy eyes
May water as they freeze.
Alas for your cold flippers
And chilly-kneed young flappers,
Degraded into croaked replies
Incited by a breeze. . .

Or there's this meditation on a cat figurine, from her poem "The Carven Care,"

His amber fur
Is knotted up
In many golden curls.
His amber tail
Is twisted 'round
In many graceful whirls.
His amber paws
Are tipped with claws
Full seven inches long,
Because he is Chinese, you see,
And short ones would be wrong.

One of the things I enjoy most about Garcia's writing is how unexpected it is. Adolescents just aren't supposed to write whimsical, controlled light verse. Where are the paens to lost love? Where are the earnest confessions? Clearly, Garcia is no Anne Frank — a passing mention that "Reed Dickerson is the very nicest boy I have met," is as close to romantic revelation as we ever get. Instead, Garcia focuses on surface impressions, with only the most cursory allusion to her inner state. Here, for example, is her description of a bullfight:

The first bull was a disappointment because, in spite of the colored capes and the colored swords they stuck into his poor back, he would not get angry. The matador came out finally, with his long silver sword, and killed him quite, quite dead. Almost too dead for anyone disliking blood. And they tied him to two firy horses and dragged his body around the ring and out the door, and I felt perfectly beastly.

Her own emotions are catalogued, but not with any histrionic analysis — they're just another detail. The journal is engaging not because of the intimacy of Garcia's revelations, but because of the quickness of her mind and the sharpness of her observations. She has, in other words, the making of a social satirist, and in a couple of places she attains a sublime cattiness that wouldn't be out of place in Jane Austen's letters. On leaving England, for example, she notes that she was "a little fed up on red cheeks and blue eyes and quaint, quaint little children (not to mention the grown-ups) and fried fish for breakfast." After seeing the Folies Bergere in Paris, she declares, with an arch Puritanism, that "If anyone wants to get sophisticated, Paris is the place to do it."

And then there's the last poem in the volume, a lovely response to Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us" which is at once both heartfelt and deeply impersonal. Wordsworth's sonnet laments modern man's obsession with "getting and spending," which distracts us, he feels, from nature's glories. Garcia doesn't disagree, exactly, but she has a more sympathetic take.

When we have laid our minds in labor dull,
And lost the sight of Proteus and the sea,
And in ambitious greed let glory be
A dream of distant days; when hearts are full
Of pleasantries, and common duties dull;
Then deem us not so tuneless. Wistfully
We turn to stand upon the pleasant lea.
There marks the dreamer's dust no stone; a skull
Is all there lasts of him — no life — no light.
He died of hunger and a bitter heart,
Poor Poet, and oblivion, like night
Was qualified to quench his lonely part.
With burnished gold we labor in the mart;
We may not turn to mark the swallow's flight.

I find this poem remarkable, not least because in it Garcia sounds older than Wordsworth. It's he, the adult, who seems to be channeling some rebellious sixties adolescent, self-righteously upbraiding his father for working too hard. According to census records, Garcia's father was a self-employed mining engineer, and it's clear that the family was sufficiently well-off to travel in Europe repeatedly. In her journal, she makes no mention of ever having had a job of any sort. Nonetheless, it's she who takes the paternal role. We'd all like to dream if we could, my boy, she says. But if you don't work, you starve.

I'm not saying that Garcia's effort is superior to Wordsworth's — I do quite like it, but I can't fully endorse any poem which includes the phrase "qualified to quench his lonely part." Nor is this line an isolated misstep: Garcia is sometimes too precious, and frequently too sentimental for my taste. It's not like these sins are unknown to canonical writers, though: I recently reread To Kill a Mockingbird and The Old Man and the Sea, each of which contains more saccharine uplift than the other. At the very least, Garcia's prose is better than that of perennial American Literature favorite James Fennimore Cooper — but then, so is mine, and so is Tom Clancy's, and so is yours, in all probability.

Harold Bloom has said that the canon exists because we only have so much time on earth, and we need a guide to make sure that we read only the best books while we're here. This just seems silly — life, after all, isn't one long, cosmic cramming session. I think that we have a canon for a more pedestrian reason; people like to rank things, and then argue about the rankings. One of the satisfactions of reading is to compare books to one another, just as one of the satisfactions of baseball-fandom is comparing one ballplayer to another. Human beings are hierarchical, and so we have kings, Popes, and Top 10 lists.

Even if you put aside a lust for dominance, though, you can still find other ways to enjoy reading. One of these is succinctly explained by Marcella Berringer Day, the woman who published Garcia's journal. Day was probably a family friend — in any event, she had the diary in manuscript, and printed the volume without informing Garcia beforehand. She did this, she said, because "the Journal and Poems. . . have brought much joy to me and I am desirous of sharing my great pleasure in them." The greatest author ever is often just an assignment; an author you've never heard of, though, can be a gift. And that's how I think of Garcia — particularly of the first entry of her journal, written, it seems, in a single five-minute burst, and then laid aside, waiting, for seventy-five years, until I came along and picked it up.

Tuesday, March 2, 1926

. . . I have a bowl of Goldfish,
Whose tails are long and slim,
Whose eyes are large and pensive, and
Whose souls are sweet and prim.

I love them for their glimmer
I love them words untold.
To me my little Goldfish
Are worth their weight in Gold.

That is what one usually calls spasmotic poetry. It gives spasms to anyone who is so unfortunate as to read it. But that, of course, is not the point. I make it a point never to start out with the point. It is too sudden, and would be likely to startle. The point is that I really have got a bowl of goldfish, or at least a bowl of fish, since someone unkindly pointed out that four out of the six were grey, and therefore should be called Greyfish, or their more common name, perch. I still maintain that they are goldfish in disguise, although they are getting bigger. Mainly wider. Such darlings — so intelligent, so quaint, so beautiful and — so temperamental. Some of the larger ones bit the tail of one of the smaller fish until it (the tail) was all freyed at the edges and looked like a piece of cloth that had been unraveled part of the way, so I had to separate them (the fish). I put the largest fish in a darling little cooky jar, and the next to the largest in a jelly glass, and the four smallest ones in the original bowl, since I felt that they would not pick on each other, seeing that they knew what it felt like. It will do the others good to be confined in such narrow quarters. You can tell that they are angry over it, though. Every time I come near the one in the cooky jar, he gives me a dirty look, and then runs and snaps off a piece of seaweed viciously. Pretending it is me, I suppose. The fish in the jelly glass looked so cramped, poor dear, that I changed him to the bathtub for awhile. He seems to be enjoying it. Mary V. S. gave me some pointers today on how to be extremely popular. Here are the pointers —

  1. Buy a bottle of elusive "Emerole" perfume ($1.00)
  2. Develop a strong personality (not the elusive sort).
  3. Learn how to chew gum without swallowing it.
  4. Don't use a tangee lipstick profusely.
  5. Develop applesauce, bluff and poise.
  6. Study so that it looks like you study.
  7. Develop a graceful carriage.
  8. Develop any talent you may have.
  9. Curl your hair in a certain way.
  10. Go to Europe.
With these ten commandments in mind, I should rise to be a twinkly star on the far horizon of popularity. Yo ho ho and a bottle of pop-ularity!

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