My dear addled mother, as she is proud to tell me, you, and anyone who ever asks, graduated with honors as an English major. Granted, she did it in the sixties, which means she doesn’t remember most of it (so she was there, obvs; she does remember various marches and political actions and roomies being tailed by the feds, but that’s a story for another day) — anyway, her memory, due to the recreational drugs of the sixties and seventies and then the necessary ones of the eighties and nineties and nothings, is not quite what it once was.
That is why this conversation, which really happened, is so funny.
MY MOM: “You wanna watch Moby Dick?” …. “I’ll take that look on your face as a no.”
ME: “No. Hell no. You ever read it?”
MY MOM: “No. I don’t think so. I might have, I don’t remember.”
ME, THEATRICALLY: “Oh god. OH GOD.”
MY MOM: “Couldn’t be that bad.”
ME: “We read that in, uh… in high school. Parts of it anyway. You can’t really read a six hundred page novel in three weeks.”
MY MOM: “Did they skip all the…” *gesture*
ME: “Naw, they left the weird stuff in. We skipped all the animal killing parts. And the biology lessons.”
MY MOM: “How does it end?”
ME: “Oh, Ahab’s dead, Starbuck’s dead, the boat’s dead, I think the whale’s dead, there’s this whirlpool and Ishmael gets magic’d up to safety or something to tell the story.”
MY MOM: “Ishmael?”
[at this point I leave the room]
MY MOM: “YOU BETTER NOT BE CHECKING TO SEE IF MY DIPLOMA IS GENUINE!”
ME: “We used to have it. I think I used the book to shore up a table a house or two ago. How do you not know this? Call me Ishmael? Big famous opening line?”
MY MOM: “Eh. I guess it didn’t leave an impression.”
That, as I recall, was my lulzy American Lit class in high school – junior year, I think. I remember it more as The MST3K-ing Of The Classics. We did Moby-Dick,skipping around as, like I said, it is bloody hard to do a book that size in under a month, and half the time the teacher would start our recaps of what we read with “Okay, now, this is really weird.” It was, too. We didn’t read the whale hunting, or the biology lessons. I’m not sure why; I can only assume my teacher didn’t find them as amusing as the bits we did read. Said bits were: a detailed discussion of why and how Ishmael and Queequeg wound up in bed together with lots of winking and nodding; that baffling scene where they skin the whale’s penis and turn it into some kind of waterproof suit for somebody; that other baffling scene where Ishmael gets high on squeezing spermaceti (again, cue more maniacal laughter from a bunch of teenagers) and starts loving on his belowdecks crewmates. “DID HE AND QUEEQUEG BREAK UP OR SOMETHING?” We really thought those two crazy kids were gonna make it.
But that wasn’t the only classic we mangled. That notable class started out with James Fenimore Cooper, who even today I refer to as James Fenway Cooper, and his Bluestocking books. (I forget which one it was.) Our awesome teacher warned us: “We are only reading this because technically it is the first American novel. It is also one of the worst, if not the worst. I hate Cooper! I am not going to take it seriously. I don’t expect you to, either.” So off we went into the wilds of Manhattan with Natty Bumppo, stopping every three pages to boggle over spatial impossibilities and the worst battle logistics since the Charge of the Light Brigade (which we didn’t read in that class, as it was British).
What I came away with, regarding Cooper, was this, as a loose paraphrase: Cooper was writing soap operas for people who had never been to America, would never go to America, and would not recognize an Indian if one teleported in out of nowhere and cracked them over the head with the Cricket Bat Of Critical Thinking. They had cricket bats back then, right?
We also did Faulkner, which was a shame, because our teacher really liked Faulkner, and I did too when it was just the Rose for Emily one (spooky-ass Southern Gothic, yay!) but then. BUT THEN. We had to read As I Lay fuckin’ Dying and our teacher, this poor woman, who had led the lulz through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through sperm-squeezing and nineteen Indians jumping out of one little pine tree onto one canoe without snapping the former or sinking the latter (logistics, Fenway, logistics!) – all of a sudden she was trying to get us to take a book seriously. A book that involved rotting feet inside concrete casts, and crazy children writing entire chapters of Very Important Plot, If You Just Decode It Enough, and MY MOTHER IS A FISH SO I DRILLED HOLES IN HER DEAD FACE, and the stank-ass coffin getting dragged out of lakes and the vultures circling and a barn fire and I don’t even know what else. Imagine, if you will, twenty-two kids locked in this rictus-grin of ‘WTF but I know you really like this and overall you are a decent teacher so we are going to try to hide our bafflement here.’ We weren’t too good at hiding, which meant more symbolism. But after that we read Gatsby, which is always a good time.
… my senior-year English Lit class was just as bad, but with, you know, The English. So the only part of Chaucer we read was the prologue and the Miller’s Tale (lolbutts) and that poem about the virgins who make much of time (lolsex) and Terence’s stupid stuff (loldrunks) and the Count of Monte Cristo (GUYS LOOK, CANON LESBIANS, I BELIEVE THESE ARE THE FIRST LESBIANS IN A MODERN NOVEL, FOR CERTAIN DEFINITIONS OF MODERN, ANYWAY, THOSE TWO WERE SO DOIN’ IT) and… yeah. Though I did come out of it with a fondness for Wilfred Owen, so it wasn’t all wasted.
(That year, English Lit, was the same one where my life totally imploded and I quit worrying about homework and started worrying about survival, meaning I failed all the takehome and aced the quizzes just by osmosis, leading my teacher to pull me aside, show me my grades, how they averaged out to a steady C, and then bemoaned the fact that I Was Not Applying Myself. “You piss me off,” he said, half exasperated, half admiringly. He tried.)
I have long thought that, though European (and American) literature wasn’t what made my mother nuts, it couldn’t have done her any favors in that department, either. Which, I am sure, is a dooming indictment of me too, and my five or six groaning bookcases. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree full of nineteen drunk middle-English subtextually lesbian virgins in leather stockings, as it were.