Saturday, February 6, 2010

J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

I reread The Catcher in the Rye this week, for obvious reasons. I read it first in ninth grade, I think; I doubt I could have been much older than that. It changed my life. I was never obsessive about it - I never read it again until this week, and never read any other Salinger until my late 20s - but I was definitely one of those readers who identified intensely with Holden Caulfield.

I'm not ashamed of that. Reading some of the retrospectives that have been pushing up like daisies in the last couple of weeks I gather it's no longer quite fashionable to identify with Caulfield. At best it marks you as an immature whiner, at worst it seems to set off alarm bells with some people. Well, so be it. I've always been (or tried to be) on the side of the maladjusted and misunderstood, the outcast and disillusioned. Holden Caulfield seemed normal to me when I was fifteen. It was people who weren't bothered by the cruelty, hypocrisy, stupidity, and cupidity of the world that I couldn't understand.

Which isn't to say I, um, condone all the things that people have done in Holden Caulfield's name. I hate that I even have to say that: hate the psychos, hate the straights who think all nonconformists are potential psychos.

Rereading it now, I first of all have to ask myself why I never read it again in all those intervening years, if I (as is plain to see) never lost my ability to identify with Salinger's protagonist. Partly it's that I seldom reread books, even ones I love. There are too many I haven't read - I always want to move on. And that's it: I moved on. If you'd asked me at 15, at 20, at 25, I don't think I would have said I could ever quite move on from the intense alienation that made me love Catcher in the Rye. I'm nothing if not a wallower. And yet, I must have.

Because this time around I felt something else for Holden, besides the recognition of my adolescent self (at 15 it was a shock of recognition; now, of course, it wasn't a shock). I felt pity.

It wasn't the pity of those who psychoanalyze Holden - that seems to be a school of interpretation, too, reading his alienation and other narratorial traits as symptoms of sexual abuse or unresolved grief or some other psychopathology. I don't think that's where it's at. Certainly Salinger hints at special traumas in Holden's experience, but I don't think Catcher in the Rye is a mystery. We're not supposed to "solve" Holden, dismissing his quirks as symptoms of any malady other than adolescence itself, at least in postwar modernity.

I felt pity not because I saw Holden as being a freak, but because I still saw him as being so normal. Of course he's immature and a whiner, of course he's alienated and confused about sex and excitable and directionless and full of hatred that's really frustrated love: he's sixteen, for Chrissake. I mean, come on: the world really is full of phonies. At some point in adolescence you realize this, and it freaks you out. If you're lucky, as you grow up you learn to deal with it, and if you're really lucky, you start to have compassion on the phonies, because you realize you're them and they're you, and struggling for authenticity is just as much a part of the human condition as is learning to live with the things you don't like. Maybe at forty you find, if not peace, then at least some survival strategies. But who has this at sixteen?

Is this the same pity Holden himself feels toward Phoebe and all the other kids he wants to save in the reverie that gives the book its title? Maybe. Not if you read that passage as meaning that Holden wants to save kids from having to grow up - but maybe the feeling behind that impulse is the same. I mean, if I'm now feeling what Salinger meant me to feel (yeah, authorial intent is thin ice, but who can resist the urge to skate on it?), then it's the feeling of an adult (Salinger was, what, thirty-two or so when this was published?) looking back on adolescence, recreating it with the immediacy of adolescence but hints of the perspective of maturity, pitying his subject. Knowing that it's possible to get through this, but that at the time there's no way to see that. Wishing you could help, knowing you can't. (Or that the only way you can is by proving you understand. By writing a book. I mean, it was a poem - a misremembered poem [the creativity of the anxiety of influence?] that inspired Holden's vision, right?)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ted DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun

So my experiences with the Heard Museum and thinking about Indian issues came a day after visiting a place in Tucson called the Gallery in the Sun, devoted to the work of a local artist named Ted DeGrazia.

That's the wrong way to put it: it makes it sound like somebody established a gallery to showcase DeGrazia's work. DeGrazia established the gallery himself, to showcase his work. The Art World Elites (which in this case evidently meant art historians and curators at the University of Arizona) didn't give him any respect and wouldn't show his work, so he decided to show it himself.

This was a point of pride to him and still is to his fans, evidently. And the resulting gallery is definitely something to see - whatever else I may say about him before I'm done, I want to make it clear that it's worth visiting this place. In the way it embodies DeGrazia's originality and (in some ways) cussedness, it expresses something essential to understanding the Southwest. And the buildings themselves are pretty interesting, incorporating local materials and designs ranging from prison doors to adobe walls, rock floors, junk sculpture in the gardens, and a sort of romanticized primitivist mission-style church on the grounds. The church in particular is pretty impressive: sure, it embodies an embarrassingly romanticized view of poor Indian spirituality, but it finds him pursuing his aesthetic with enough tenacity and scale to make you want to classify him as a visionary, an authentic American wacko.

The problem is his art. He's best known for, and his gallery is full of, Indian kitsch – adorable, utterly infantalized paintings of Indian children, either with no faces at all or nothing but big black eyes and teeny-tiny mouths. At best his work is picture-book quality, with a certain naïve charm, a kind of Madeline-like joy in color and motion. Very midcentury, and it's not hard to see why DeGrazia was given his greatest recognition, having one of his paintings turned into a UNICEF greeting card in 1960.

But the charm wears off pretty quickly once you start to think about those faces. Not just the faces, but they're emblematic of how his art totally erases the individuality of his subjects, and therefore their humanity. They're objectified in the most all-encompassing way imaginable - they're decorative, nothing but harmless and colorful urchins. His paintings are filled with an immense positive feeling toward his subjects - he loves these wide-eyes mouthless Indian children - but also a colossal cluelessness about how offensive it is to reduce the rightful proprietors of this land to mute ornament.

The kicker, for me, is the museum's boast that DeGrazia had not only studied at UA, but had worked in Mexico City with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. So he's not a "visionary" (okay, I'll stop using that term, since I don't even like it), not even really an outsider. In fact, I'd argue that he was an insider, or about the closest you could get to being one in midcentury Arizona: somebody with access to the institutions of high culture, and the opportunity to train with recognized masters. The problem is, he came out of these encounters just as clueless as he went in: to have studied with Rivera and Orozco and still paint native people the way he did speaks of a truly remarkable obtuseness.

I'm glad I went.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Heard Museum, Phoenix; Jake Page's In The Hands of the Great Spirit; Indian Schools


So we did end up going to the Heard Museum, a few days later. And everybody was right, it was pretty impressive. Extensive, elaborate; shiny and beautiful. More than we could see in the afternoon we had to devote to it.

We spent most of our time in what they call their "signature exhibit," a big series of rooms detailing different peoples native to Arizona and/or other parts of the Southwest. Certainly it was impressive: lots of interesting stuff to see. I wish I could say it was educational; it was, after a fashion, but I ended up learning more about myself and my attitudes toward the presentation of this kind of thing than I did about the thing itself, if you get me. What I mean is that, there was a separate section for each people, with a little explanation of the people and a lot of things on display from that people - textiles, pottery, jewelry, katsina dolls, whatever is representative of them. All of it fascinating. But little of it accompanied by what I would have considered proper historical contextualization. Like there would be a whole case of pottery, some clearly old and some clearly new, but without much of an attempt to discuss the development of this pottery, influences, meanings of motifs, etc. ...The overall message I was getting was that the museum wanted me to come away not so much with a detailed understanding of the complex history of these peoples, but just with a general impression that they're awesome.

Which they are. And maybe there would be something a little un-awesome about a real anthropological or historiographical approach, something of the expert speaking about the subject, rather than subject speaking for itself. But anyway, I came away enthused but wishing for more information. (Like: how did Barry Goldwater end up with so many katsina dolls, and what was his relationship with native peoples? Not like they're going to talk about that, but...)

That was only true of the main exhibit on the main floor, however. The other place we spent a lot of time was an exhibit on the second floor about the federal Indian boarding schools that existed from 1879 to...more recently than I was pleased to know. This was a program that I knew nothing about, in fact. And the exhibit was quite thorough in its history, unimpeachable in its presentation of just what white American was doing to the Indians through these schools, trying to do, and not quite succeeding in doing. Which was: to eradicate cultures. They were meant to, in the words of Richard Henry Pratt, who ran the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, "kill the Indian and save the man." Basically kids were taken off reservations, often against the will of their parents, and shipped across the continent to boarding schools where every effort was made to scrub them of any consciousness of their own culture, while they were being educated to be like white people - but of course inferior people, only fit for manual labor. Things got better later in the 20th century, but in the early days that's what they were about.

It was a very effective exhibit. It shook me to the bone. I'd never been taught about this chapter in my country's past. I don't even remember what I learned in high school about Indians, but I'm sure it was very little, and my own reading had been limited to Dee Brown. So I guess I had assumed that the most shameful aspects of my country's treatment of Indians were concentrated in the 19th century. But no: it lasted much longer.

But I can't say I was surprised to learn otherwise.

So. Before leaving we hit the museum shop, as we always do, and I was determined to find a book that might eradicate some of my ignorance. I considered buying Bury My Heart At and rereading it, but I settled on In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians, by Jake Page, from 2003. It's a generalist history, and as my sister the American History PhD reminds me, that means you're getting a little bit about a whole lot (she put it better), but I maintain that there's a place for the generalist history. You have to start somewhere.

So there are two perspectives from which you could evaluate a generalist history like this one. You could be an expert on the subject, capable of judging whether the author got it right: included the pertinent details, emphasized the right things, synthesized a narrative that accords with what the best informed people believe about the subject.

I obviously can't provide that perspective. I can provide the ignorant person's perspective (and is my anxiety about that showing? just a little): this is a readable, informative book. In 450 pages (including notes that are worth reading) it recounts the history of the land presently occupied by the 48 Contiguous from the earliest human habitation to the present. That's a lot of people and a lot of years and not very many pages, and yet somehow it manages to feel thorough.

Page does a good job of providing, or at least simulating, both breadth and depth. He pays a lot of attention to Indians (the term he settles on, for reasons that struck me as pretty persuasive) in all regions of the US, making sure to carry forward the story of, for example, Indians in California even in the 17th century when the main story would seem to be what's going on in New England and the Tidewater area, or tracing the fate of the Iroquoians long after the focus of conflict has shifted to the Great Plains. At the same time his own personal expertise is the Southwest, where he's based, and so he gives a lot more detail, some of it personal, concerning Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni developments - which seems like it should make the book feel unbalanced, but ends up providing a valuable depth of perspective.

He's obviously pretty sympathetic to the Indians - that's a boneheaded thing even to say. You can't know this history without being deeply moved, saddened, enraged... That said, he strives to make the work read like history, not polemic. He doesn't flinch from, for example, discussing cannibalism among the Anasazi; less sensationally and more importantly he consistently makes the point that Indians were never quite the natural ecologists we'd like to imagine they were - they exploited their environment for their own gain. Which is not to say they didn't have a different understanding of their relationship to the land than Europeans did... I sometimes felt he went a little too far in his efforts to be even-handed - he leaves out a lot of the details of the Sand Creek massacre that I remembered from Dee Brown's account, but just as there's a place for a good generalist account, there's also a place for a good polemic. (It's important, for example, to know that US soldiers cut off Indian female genitalia in this massacre and used them for personal ornamentation. We need to confront this stuff in our past...)

In short, it's even-handed, informative, and oh yes, moving. Plus, readable - Page actually has a sense of style.

My only complaint was that his decision to focus on the Contiguous 48 for the whole book, even before they were established, felt both arbitrary and limiting. Anybody who, like me, is ignorant enough that they need this book is probably fairly ignorant of the history of Indians in Canada and Mexico, too, but he only treats them when they directly interact with Indians in the 48. This lack is particularly grievous in his discussions of the Southwest - he talks about the Spanish presence moving up from Mexico, but in trying to understand Spanish interactions with Indians in what would become California, Arizona, and New Mexico, I found myself constantly wondering what Spanish interactions with Indians in Sonora, Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, et cetera, were like. Surely that's part of the story?