Hominy & Hash
IS 'UNHAPPY CHILDHOOD' AN OXYMORON?
by Constance Daley
The American Reporter
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Graham Greene, a prolific writer, playwright, critic, would have been 100 this year, had he lived. As one of the most widely read novelists of the 20th century it is no surprise he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature more than a few times, although he never did receive it. He wrote suspenseful tales that turned into gripping movies, but he was known as well for his flamboyant lifestyle with attendant intrigue. He named among his friends and, further, defended him against treason, master spy Kim Philby.
There's something Graham said and is now often quoted that bothers me. He would have said it in his characteristic style, which was all "style" in every sense of the British way: "An unhappy childhood gives a writer material for life." said to be amusing but no guffaw, just an undertone assuming dontchaknow, ahem, with a smile.
Unfortunately, there are readers who love to hear all about it. Although, the personal memoirs of "survivors" are losing interested readers. It would be hard to top Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, but I could personally match most of it. I just won't. There are so many things better left unsaid. Did it enrich the reader to know that hospitalized and dying Angela wanted a razor for those errant chin whiskers that offended her vanity?
My childhood couldn't have been happier, given the circumstances of my birth: a ninth child burdening a poverty-stricken family not looking for one more mouth to feed. I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Poor? Oh, please, don't let me count the ways. But how could I know that, then? And to dwell upon what I know now would serve no useful purpose. Why tell you about the soles of shoes that flapped in the breeze for want of the dime to have them repaired? And those soles would flap until the shoes no longer fit the feet.
Yes, I found McCourt's book gripping, more so for the things I understood only too well. But, it was more a feeling of shame that he aired the family's dirty linens by recounting the tale of his mother and his revolting relative/landlord and the demands that were made upon her to keep the very roof over their heads. We didn't have to know that.
Angela publicly shamed herself in begging at the church door, being turned away from class-conscious relief agencies. It hurt the pride of the beautiful, dancing, Irish colleen she had been to be among the downtrodden. She didn't need her own son to shame her more - for the things that happened in the dark, not on the church steps.
What is the point? The fact that there are readers for this genre doesn't mean we have to cater to them.
There are times, when in conversation with a friend, I might be telling an amusing story that, incidently, had an understory I'd gloss over. I'd see the listener's eyes cloud a bit and she'd interrupt my monolog saying: "Boy, Connie, you could write a book." But, I wouldn't have been talking about my case of Scarlet Fever and the ramifications of having that disease at that time.
I was talking about how Queens County handled these cases - how so readily they slapped QUARANTINE on a house, trapping the 11 of us inside. There was no going to school or work; it paralyzed the household and foreclosed any chance of income.
So that might generate an "Oh, my goodness!" from a reader, but what good does that serve? In my memory, it was a great time. While my brothers and sisters paced back and forth, peering through parted curtains, I sat up on a makeshift bed in the living room and was waited on.
A bowl of snow (in lieu of today's ice cubes) was always available. Mama would spoon some freshly fallen snow from the windowsill and I'd take it to reduce my fever. Does that sound like a miserable day in my childhood? I don't think so.
It's only with adult eyes that I can see the desperation that surrounded me.
You can only declare something as miserable if you're "in it." Personally, I wasn't "in it." I was happy, I was read to, I was played with, I went to bed wrapped snuggly in a blanket and I can still hear my mother's voice saying I was her little "papoose."
In my mind's eye today, I can see that the blanket was a small square and I'd have had to be wrapped to be covered at all. But, she made me happy. The stories were tales of those living more difficult lives: The Little Match Girl," by Hans Christian Anderson; Cinderella, Heidi ... all with a happy ending. And, ours would come, too, just wait and see.
Occasionally, the older ones would say, "If only we weren't so poor." My mother would answer with a smile, always with a smile: "The day will come, I'm sure of it, when you'll be so glad you weren't denied your poverty." Many of us have smiled at that because it's true. I am glad I've known such poverty and deprivation - but, not so I can write about it.
Graham Greene was very much 'to the manor born." His father was headmaster of a private college. I read that his constant struggle as a boy was of being loyal to his father and still being one of the fellows. I don't think he defined that period as miserable, nor a childhood that would forever be grist for his literary mill!
Graham's comments were for others. He wrote from his imagination with words flowing directly to the page. Yet he also has said: "The main characters in a novel must necessarily have some kinship to the author, they come out of his body as a child comes from the womb, then the umbilical cord is cut, and they grow into independence. The more the author knows of his own character the more he can distance himself from his invented characters and the more room they have to grow in." (Graham Greene "Ways of Escape.")
If Graham is saying, "the more the author knows of his own character," is he not also saying "Know thyself?" If so, then I am also aware of who I am, where I came from, where I'm going and a little bit of what it's all about. And there is no question in my mind at all about my childhood. It was the joyful beginning to a happy life. The "how" of it all came to me moment by moment ... and it's something I can reflect upon, chapter by chapter.
I've heard the comment that some readers envied Frank McCourt his miserable childhood and his ability to later write about it. They wished they could do the same.
They can. But I hope they don't.