Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘american literature’

Cornpone opinions in academia

I was commenting recently on the attempt by University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) Chancellor Phyllis Wise to explain to all of us addleheaded profs that her ability (and that of US employers more generally) to fire people for expressing their opinions really has nothing at all to do with freedom of speech or academic freedom:

People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Political scientist Corey Robin has taken up the same quote, and explained how pervasive it is, and how fundamental it is to the machinery of repression in the US. It seems like one of those dogmas that is patently absurd to the uninitiated, but for those inside the machine (and by “the machine”, I mean simply mainstream American thinking about politics) it is self-evident.

Robin has nothing on Mark Twain, who wrote more than a century ago:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

He explained at greater length in his great essay “Corn-pone Opinions”, telling of a young slave whom he knew in his boyhood, who told him

“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”

I can never forget it. It was deeply impressed upon me. By my mother. Not upon my memory, but elsewhere. She had slipped in upon me while I was absorbed and not watching. The black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions — at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.


Bill and Phil

Having published my comment on William S. Burroughs and his place in the grand tradition of English perversity, I should point my readers to this brilliant précis of the Burroughs corpus by Belle Waring at Crooked Timber:

I think pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books. For me. Except William S. Burroughs, and that is because he does not want to sex chicks up. Not even a little bit. He wants us to be able to make clones, and then just go live on another planet with only men and boys and million-year-old crab creatures made of radioactive cadmium and then have gay sex there. It is astringently refreshing to have a novelist not care about having sex with you at all. It’s the best! Goodbye, poorly drawn female characters who exist as trophies for when the protagonists level up after a boss battle with Freudian analysis!

But I should complement this dismissal of the IMNs with this interesting feminist (or, at least, womanist) defence of Philip Roth.


Flyin’ kites in the rain: Reflections on American fairy tales

What’s the connection between Ben Franklin and Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly’s character in the 1952 film musical Singin’ in the Rain), aside from being the Americans most famous for felicitous activities during a rainstorm? I was watching the film recently, and was struck by the opening scene, which I had forgotten, where the hero, movie star Don Lockwood, narrates his biography, and we see Lockwood’s intimation of a sophisticated, upper-class upbringing — “[Mum and dad] sent me to the finest schools, including dancing school. . .   We rounded out our apprenticeship at an exclusive dramatics academy… We played the finest symphonic halls in the country.” — humorously intercut with images on the screen of low-class reality — tap-dancing in a pool hall and fiddling in burlesque theatres, piano in honky tonks and whorehouses, being slapped by parents, etc.

It occurred to me that in one paradigm old-world fairy tale, a seemingly riffraff protagonist is revealed to be a person of consequence when his hitherto concealed high birth is recognised. In the American transformation, a seemingly foppish aristocrat is revealed to be a person of consequence when his hitherto concealed low birth and plucky struggle to the top are revealed. And as in so much else, this feature of American character and culture was first limned by Benjamin Franklin, in his famous “Information to those who would remove to America“:

According to these opinions of the Americans, one of them would think himself more obliged to a genealogist, who could prove for him that his ancestors and relations for ten generations had been ploughmen, smiths, carpenters, turners, weavers, tanners, or even shoemakers, and consequently that they were useful members of society; than if he could only prove that they were gentlemen, doing nothing of value, but living idly on the labor of others.

An even more pithy statement of a similar world view, that I have seen attributed to Franklin though without being able to find the reference (so that I suspect the source is in fact someone else):

I care not who my ancestors were. I care who my descendants will be.

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