THE LITERARY HERITAGE
a journey from the confines of Western literature
by Max Reif
When I speak of my literary heritage, I speak in terms of literature as real influence, meaning infusions of energy. At 36, I feel that in some ways, looking back over it, my heritage is very poor, in other ways extremely abundant. I have gotten what I've needed, in literature and life: that I can say. I do not see how a man in this world can claim to be both frank and well-read at the same time, considering how much there is to read, and I do not feel I am well read. But I read steadily, for what it is worth, what I find useful to me.
I was born into the post-World War II era. Forms of thought were rather calcified in the strata of American society in which I grew up. There were writers. somwhere out on the fringes of things, pouring their energy back into society. By the time this energy reached me in the place in upper middle-class suburbia where I was ensconsed, however, my own and society's defenses had robbed it of most of its subversive fire.
The reigning triumverate in American literature at that time was, of course, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, with Steinbeck behind them and writers like Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe also there in the wings. J.D. Salinger was a little different: his Catcher in the Rye was so articulate in its expression of discontent that it practically reached me and made me question things for a few days.
I liked Hemingway, not so much for his themes, which were practically incomprehensible to me, but for the activities his characters engaged in: trout fishing, deep-sea fishing, and bullfighting. I had the illusion that because his style was "simple", I could understand him. He was, of course, almost univerally imitated by self-styled writers. Faulkner and Fitzgerald were far more difficult on the surface, and I suffered no illusions that I understood them. When I needed to write a paper for school, I found books of literary criticism at the library that told me what I had just read.
In poetry I was acquainted with E.E. Cummings and his curious experiments in punctuation, shocking enough to pierce my veil a little, and homespun Robert Frost, whose apparent simplicity of a situation would take you, like Hemingway, to your own depth of understanding.
Most of the writers of the time had a tragic view of life, but there themes scarcely reached me in my coccoon. The sense of the themes of literature being connected with one's own life, or of one's own life being the stuff of myth and change, and oneself a center of experience as valid as any character in any tale, was remote.
Then there were the Classics, spun about us like warm threads of the coccoon. The unquestioned Shakespeare was far beyone my intimate interest, both because of the difficulty of the Elizabethan language, and because I had not experienced enough of life to know what any of these writers, ancient or modern, were talking about, or why they chose to say it.
Moby Dick (I keep wanting to write "of course," because many people living today grew up in this same literary landscape) was to American classical letters what Shakespeare was to world literature. Plowing through Moby Dick, I scarcely "got" a word.
Cervantes, from whom a bit of the humor came through, and the incomprehensible Chaucer, filled in my world. Dostoievski's Crime And Punishment, in its shiny paperback edition, was prominent in every literarily-inclined bookstore, and was thus a fixture of my world. I didn't read it, though, until much later. Tolstoi was out there somewhere, with the monstrous War and Peace and some short stories we had to read for school. The only classic I can remember reading with any enjoyment was Huckleberry Finn.