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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 17, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Music Man, Authentically Black, Winesburg, Sachar

I hope you didn't miss the wonderful production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man on the Wonderful World of Disney Sunday night. If you did miss it, look for reruns or the video.

At first it seemed to me that Matthew Broderick might not be right for the part. Having seen Robert Preston's bravado film performance, I missed that edge of brashness. Broderick was charming, but also quite low key. Almost gentle.

But as the production went on, I realized that the same quality of innocent insouciance that worked for Broderick in the brilliant Ferris Bueller's Day Off still works for him today. He can play an extravagant part, and do extravagant things ... and still be believable.

In fact, when you think about it, somebody as obviously a con man as Robert Preston's Music Man would never have succeeded except in a town of idiots. But Matthew Broderick's Music Man might just have brought it off.

Meanwhile, the rest of the production is superb. Kathleen Marshall's choreography is absolutely brilliant -- it may be the best television choreography I've ever seen, fitted to the screen and arising out of the realistic settings.

Kristin Chenoweth can't help how much she looks like Cameron Diaz at moments; to those who saw My Best Friend's Wedding, I can happily assure you she doesn't sing like Diaz. In fact, she has a gorgeous voice, acts musical comedy very well, and I want to see her in more musicals.

The rest of the cast is also excellent, including the kids, who are cute, as expected, but also real, which is a pleasant surprise.

And you know what? I'll take an "old-fashioned" musical like The Music Man over "edgy," "modern" ephemera any day.

*

Some of the most interesting common-sense writing in America today is coming from a group of black writers who defy the standard boundaries of "left" and "right," of Democrat and Republican.

Columnists like William Raspberry and Leonard Pitts, Jr. Scientists and scholars like James McWhorter and Thomas Sowell.

Of course, any black writer who varies from Leftist dogma is immediately tarred as a "conservative" -- or, when it gets really nasty, as a "race traitor." Or, meanest (and dumbest) of all: "Not Authentically Black."

If you grew up with a black skin in America, you are authentically black in every sense -- you've tasted racism, you've experienced one aspect or another of black culture, and you've also felt the contradictions as you pass from one culture to another.

Like every human being, in every culture on earth, you respond to the culture around you differently from any other person.

But if you're an American black, you better respond exactly according to the prescribed recipe or you get drummed out of the corps. According to the Left, that is -- the self-appointed thought police of African America.

It's not surprising, really. Whenever a group is worried about disappearing through assimilation, there are those who want to enforce rules of conformity to keep members of the group from straying into the surrounding culture. That's why words like "orthodoxy" exist.

But what if the dogmas of the orthodox are actually self-defeating? What if you see clearly what your own people need to do in order to solve problems that are harming your children?

And what if the vision you have is one that absolutely contradicts the official dogmas of the "loyalists"? What is the loyal thing to do? Spout the party line, so you seem loyal, even though you don't believe it? Or tell the truth as you see it, even though you will then be called disloyal?

Some of these free-thinking black writers have managed to avoid being smeared, mostly -- William Raspberry and Leonard Pitts have not, to my knowledge at least, been called "inauthentic," even though they have written column after column showing that they don't follow anybody's party line.

And some writers -- Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele -- have pretty much embraced the label of "conservative" and then had to bear the mudslinging that followed.

James McWhorter, though, is still in a kind of curious middle ground. He is not, in fact, conservative -- not in the sense that he subscribes to the Republican agenda. But he is also not a subscriber to any other ideology.

In various scholarly books (on linguistics -- non-professionals need not attempt to read them) and popular works, he has shown both his brilliance and his ability to communicate well with common people.

But he accidentally got caught up in the politics of race, when, as an expert on slave creole languages, he was asked his opinion on the Oakland "Ebonics" controversy.

As a scientist, he simply answered correctly: American black speech is not a creole language -- English words pasted onto African forms and structures. It's at most a dialect of American English.

The trouble is, he wasn't being called on as a scientist. He was being called on as a black scientist. He was expected to follow the party line.

To him, of course, this was ludicrous. There isn't "black science" or "white science," there's simply science.

Quite without meaning to, however, simply by having the integrity to speak the truth, he found himself being vilified as a conservative.

So as long as he was getting slapped around for views he had never sought to present publically, he figured he might as well get his views out clearly. In an earlier book, Losing the Race, he did a powerful job of speaking about problems faced by blacks in America today.

Now, in a follow-up book, Authentically Black, he answers the many people who have written to him -- or attacked him.

This is a book that refuses to accept the idea that black people can only tell the truth to each other, while spouting the party line wherever white people can hear.

McWhorter is writing to all of us, black and white. He clearly identifies things that black people can only do for themselves. He stresses that black people can't afford to wait till white people are perfect before they starting to solve their own problems.

He might be right or he might be wrong, but he's speaking honestly, openly, and the issues he addresses are the real issues. White and black, we Americans are all in this project of creating a nation together.

Give these ideas a chance, folks. Don't get caught up in name-calling or exclusionism. Read this book.

*

Somehow I got through high school and college without anyone ever requiring me to read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.

I'm glad. Because some things are too good to be wasted on children.

Winesburg is a collection of stories set in the titular town -- a sort of dreamy Lake Woebegon without as much wry humor. There are recurring characters, most notably George Willard, a teenager working as the sole reporter for the town's newspaper, and his innkeeper parents.

Some inadvertent humor comes from the penchant of citizens of Winesburg to accost George Willard and force the most outrageous confessions upon him.

But maybe I'm wrong to find this unbelievable. Maybe back in 1900 or so people really did tell reporters the kinds of things they now tell Jerry Springer's studio audience.

Writing before D.H. Lawrence, Anderson plays Lawrence's game -- defining people, not by their intentions, but by the inexplicable animal impulses that drive them. The contrast between what they think they're doing and what they actually do is perhaps the main device of the book -- but it's a powerful one.

Yet it sometimes makes you feel as if you were watching a play about people being acted out by cud-chewing cattle.

Anderson's stripped-down storytelling rarely shows actual scenes; it's mostly narrative. He avoids pyrotechnics, speaking simply and describing little that is not essential.

The stories are irresolute in a way that is like life, but frustrating to readers seeking resolution and clarity. That's part of the reason why this book is pretty much wasted on young readers.

We aged wights who recognize that resolution in real life is rare feel at home in this world. In Winesburg, Ohio, nobody ever actually does much of anything, yet they still manage to writhe in inner agony over the choices they've made.

The other reason these stories are wasted on the young is that they concern life issues -- including youth itself -- that are simply not intelligible to those who have not lived long enough to have perspective on them.

Sherwood Anderson imitated nobody, but has been much imitated since, and for good reason. Flaws and all, this is a powerful work.

So if you have never read Winesburg, Ohio -- or read it and hated it when you were too young -- I urge you to give it another try.

I "read" it recently by listening to the unabridged Caedmon recording. Their stunt was to get a bunch of trendy-cool writers to read a story each.

This would have been fine, except that they almost all read in that sing-songy, over-articulated, love-every-word manner that too many literary writers use at public readings of their own work.

They have to emphasize the wording, because their own stories usually bore like a drill, so if the prose isn't admirable, there's nothing to keep you awake.

The nice thing is that Anderson's stories are clear and interesting, so you soon cease to notice the annoying readers.

At the end of the recording, you get a "bonus" of hearing some of the writers' comments about the book. A few were interesting. Some were pathetically self-serving. And one of them, a woman with a laugh like rubbed styrofoam, is so ghastly in her self-revelation that you feel like you've been trapped for an hour listening to her at a party until you want to kill the host for inviting her.

Recorded books should be performed by actors who understand the craft, not by writers who are hopeless before a microphone.

*

I pointed out young-adult author Louis Sachar a few weeks ago, for his absolutely dazzling novel Holes -- a book that adults should read if only to remember that there is great literature that kids are ready for.

Since then I've performed the experiment and verified that Sachar is absolutely dependable as a writer of lively, funny, and yet tenderly real fiction about kids in the middle grades.

Dogs Don't Tell Jokes is actually a sequel to Someday Angeline, but I read them out of order and it didn't matter. Using the same characters -- a girl so brilliant they skip her through the grades and finally send her off to a special school, and a boy whose only means of relating to other kids is to tell them jokes that aren't particularly funny -- Sachar treats them, not as "case studies," but as real people who don't realize how much they are blocking their own happiness.

Sixth Grade Secrets deals with that curse of the lower grades: clubs whose only raison d'etre is to exclude the people who aren't in them (rather like tossing a French phrase into an English sentence when a perfectly good English phrase, like "reason for being," could have conveyed the same meaning).

Kids think they're reading really funny books with believable happy endings. Adults also think they're funny, but they recognize that these are also chapters from the Instruction Manual of Life, which everybody quotes from but nobody ever seems to live by.

Even his books for early readers are a delight. Which, when you think about it, is precisely what early readers need: books that are so fun to read that they make it worth the work of learning how. Marvin Redpost, Kidnapped at Birth tells the story of a kid who realizes that he must have been adopted, and he's really the son of a king and queen.

Which is what I firmly believed as a child. Didn't you?


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