At the dawn of misty youth.
Earlier this year, Beverly Cleary died, at the age of 104. This inconceivable lifespan roughly corresponds with that of American culture itself, a small but important part of which Cleary embodies.
We are used to thinking of American culture as overwhelmingly dominant in all aspects — this is what it kept telling us, even in its dying delirium. But now, in 2021, it is finally possible to detach ourselves from it and examine it from the outside. We can try to answer those questions that it never thought to ask itself, such as: What was American culture? What was and was not part of it? What did it want to tell us, and what did it tell us without intending to? What has it left us? In the process we may find surprising answers. For example, we may suddenly realize that American culture never really succeeded in creating an adequate children’s version of itself — that is to say, there is no such thing as American culture for children.
Americans were extremely successful in creating a teenage and youth culture that beguiled the entire world. But the same model failed when they tried to apply it to children. The reason, for both the success and the failure, was the total cynicism underlying the American view of culture. Americans understand the impact that culture has on people, but not the reason why. To them, the effect substitutes for the cause; the importance of culture makes it a lucrative business, and so anyone who creates cultural work must be out for material gain, a competing firm on the cultural market, so to speak. Since American culture can imagine no other motive, in the end it is equally sceptical of itself.
But this is not a major setback when it comes to culture for adults. In fact, it helps. A good businessman knows what his customers want, even when they don’t. To convince them that they need the product, there is room for a certain amount of artistry on the seller’s part. In the glory days of American culture, one could give the crowd their money’s worth with a dazzling display of virtuosity, and there was no contradiction whatsoever between these two sides of show business. Sergei Rachmaninov himself deliberately wrote the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” one of his best works, in a way that would entertain and impress American audiences, and the theatrical character of this work made it tremendously successful. In a certain sense, this approach to culture is more humane than the elitist view of the artist as lone genius, whose greatness is proved by the fact that no one else can bear him.
The same principle used to work in youth culture. Young people have money to spend, are susceptible to trends, and have crude aesthetic tastes, all of which makes them good targets for American profiteers. At the same time, they do have certain tastes and values, and are harsh judges of anything that does not fit their standard. They like the idea of creative ability, even if they have none of their own. They also prefer to personify their values by idolizing a cultural figure in whom they believe these values to be reflected. Youth culture thus requires individuals, or at least passable imitations of individuals. But bringing in a person also introduces some unpredictability. When the logic of youth culture requires there to be a young writer or musician, it is no longer possible to oversee and control every single aspect of the process by which the commodity of art is produced. Some part of the process has to be ceded to the artist, who may have his own view of his work and audience. Again, the content of youth culture is a completely separate question; I only mean that, in order to exist at all, it has to be allowed to run, at least in part, on the same principle underlying all culture throughout history. The only alternative is to violently eradicate all culture as a concept, which indeed is the new future that lies before us.
But with regard to children, Americans believed that they had finally found the perfect captive market, an audience that could simply be ordered to buy anything (with their parents’ money) and would accept any such order without question. On the face of it, the plan looked solid, and fortunes were made off cartoon characters and breakfast cereal. And yet, in the long term, it turned out that this immense mountain of cultural garbage needed hardly a moment to blow away in the wind. Americans found, as they did with every other product, that it was cheaper to outsource the manufacture of children’s culture. Ironically, a significant portion of the profitable American market was then taken up by Japanese cartoons and video games, and the reason why this could ever have happened is that Japan, unlike the United States, had a culture for children. Japanese writers and cartoonists even worked to create an idealized children’s version of American culture. That’s where you really find the “American dream” — in the imagination of foreigners to whom “America” was a kind of fantasy playground in which the traditions and restrictions of their own cultures could be temporarily suspended. It was a charming game that could be packed up and put away at any moment.
Where the arcade still glows.
Americans never fully understood that the standards are raised for children’s culture. Children have even more trust in their cultural icons than teenagers do in theirs. In youth culture, cynicism and destruction naturally appeal to the audience, but children are still afraid of these things; they still need a sunny, straightforwardly good world in which they can feel safe under their parents’ wing. At the same time, they also have more curiosity about the outside world than teenagers do, to say nothing of adults. Every impression is stronger in childhood. Nabokov worked on Other Shores during his forties, and published it during his fifties, but of the fourteen chapters comprising this book, eleven are about his childhood and youth, the twelfth is about his time in college, and only the last two have anything to say about the next twenty years after that, even though that was the time of his most intense intellectual activity, which produced his best work. The perfect aesthetic object could only be created by looking backward; the sole value of Nabokov’s later life experience was that it could be used to retroactively (and selectively) refine the sharp memories of childhood.
Now imagine being a children’s author, with the chance to directly create these formative impressions in readers — especially those who would otherwise never experience any on their own. Most people’s childhood, like their adult life, is uneventful, offering little to the senses or the mind. Literature can compensate for the deficiency of “real” life, becoming a window to a broader and deeper idea of being, whose power and value is only magnified by the impossibility of existing in reality. A children’s author is in a position to shape readers’ very perception of the idea, throughout their entire lives. In a certain sense, this kind of art has the power of God, at least potentially. The only book that can produce this same kind of impact on adult readers is the Bible. The Gospels allow them to become children again, prodigal sons returning to the Father.
Of course, the reality of children’s literature falls far short of this. Meaning has to be simplified in order to establish contact with a young audience — there is still room for subtlety and nuance, but they have to be accordingly scaled down. But at the same time, the simplicity of children’s literature creates opportunities for allegory. Reading Andersen to their children (if such a thing is imaginable to any contemporary English speaker), parents can’t help but recognize themselves, perhaps with some bitterness, in the unthinking Emperor of China or the pragmatic field mouse. Or one might remember a better version of oneself in Gerda or the steadfast tin soldier. What to children is just a story is, to adults, a reminder of something they lost, or had never found to begin with.
Americans never got that far, but they did try. In the twentieth century, American culture attempted to develop a children’s literature, as seen in the history of the Newbery Medal. The ultimate and utterly predictable fate of this effort may be summarized by the headline of a 2008 article, “Critics say Newbery-winning books are too challenging for young readers,” in the Washington Post, the standard-bearer of mind-numbing middlebrow conformism. Of course, cultural value cannot be conferred with a literary award either, but still, true allegory sometimes appears in unexpected places. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, winner of the 1994 Newbery, describes a dystopian society, an expurgated children’s version of 1984, in which life is strictly regimented and people receive work assignments at age twelve that last for the rest of their lives. The protagonist, who has just turned twelve, receives a packet of rules corresponding to his assignment (one that is unusual, but not relevant to this discussion). The last rule in the list is, “You may lie.” This comes as a shock (emphasis in the original):
from The Giver
Putting aside the literary quality of this passage, you have to agree that this is a perfect metaphor for the Platonic principle of organizing society. Especially American society.
But, by and large, there is still not much cultural significance in all of this. The Giver is ultimately a didactic morality play; children are still a captive market, this time for timeless truths rather than cereal. Whenever American culture swears off commercialism, it becomes ideological: the snake-oil salesman, doing time for insurance fraud, always “finds Jesus.” At the end of the day, all this, too, falls by the wayside. And yet, American culture did manage to produce one children’s author.
Beverly Cleary wrote deliberately simple, ingenuous stories that very young readers could understand without much effort. Her settings reflect mid-twentieth-century existential security, full of comforting markers such as milkshakes, paper routes, family pets, outdoor games, parents (I know, it is hard to imagine, but people used to take the existence of parents for granted), school friends, and so on. Cleary had a deep perception of the way in which very minute difficulties, unnoticed by adults, seem extremely daunting and frustrating to children. Her best-known character, Ramona Quimby, goes through many of these trivial tribulations: a classroom rival steals her idea in art class, her sister laughs at her when she misunderstands the words of the American anthem. Even Cleary’s young readers could understand that Ramona’s dismay and anger were excessive, while also recognizing these feelings in themselves. It may have been the first time it ever occurred to them to look at themselves from someone else’s point of view. Many people never think to do so in their entire adult lives.
Cleary was not above commercialism. She even wrote three tie-in books for the TV show Leave It To Beaver, now emblematic of oblivious, well-fed American self-satisfaction. (Much later, she admitted that “it was boring work,” of which the most memorable part was removing all the moralizing from the outline provided by the show’s representatives.) Some of her characters, like Ralph the talking mouse, were obviously intended for a very young audience. Even Ramona Quimby rigorously followed all the rules of marketing — a popular character has to generate an entire series, which in Ramona’s case was itself a spin-off from another series. Cleary quickly became successful (there was not much serious competition), but her literary peak came very late, in 1983, at an age that many writers never reach, and those that do are certain to be in decline.
Dear Mr. Henshaw has an unusual form for a children’s book. It begins with a sequence of letters by the protagonist to his favorite writer, a certain Boyd Henshaw. The first letter, which you see above, is written when Leigh is in second grade. But only a few pages later, he has already reached middle school, and the letters become longer and express more complex thoughts. First Leigh learns to explain why he likes Henshaw’s books, then says, “When I grow up, I want to be a famous book writer with a beard just like you,” (4) then the following year thinks of asking Henshaw some (simple) questions about himself, including, “Please give me some tips on how to write a book.” (7)
Henshaw is not particularly impressive as an author. His masterwork, which so captivates Leigh in second grade, is titled Ways to Amuse a Dog, and tells the story of how, “The boy’s father said city dogs were bored so Joe could not keep the dog unless he could think up seven ways to amuse it.” (2) His next book, Moose on Toast, is about how “the boy’s mother tried to think up ways to cook the moose meat they had in their freezer.” (6) In other words, he is a mediocre commercial writer who has worked out his formula (writing silly lists just cleverly enough for undemanding elementary-school audiences) and comfortably exploits it. A few years later, he tries his hand at serious literature, and produces a new book called Beggar Bears, in which “the mother bear was teaching her twin cubs to beg from tourists at Yellowstone Park. Then when the mother died because a stupid tourist fed her a cupcake in a plastic bag and she ate the bag, too, I knew this was going to be a sad book.” (56) Well, it is sad, but at least it is educational. Leigh, of course, just accepts all of this as it is, but it goes to show that Cleary had a realistic view of her profession.
Henshaw sometimes writes back, but his answers are never shown, though some of them are paraphrased by Leigh in his next letter. Cleary knew her audience — no child would want to read through the adult’s boring reply. But at the same time, this also emphasizes that Henshaw’s influence on Leigh is not through his merit as a writer or role model. Leigh’s contact with Henshaw happens totally by chance. Henshaw, of course, has no desire to be a “mentor” to this selfish child, who makes demands on him out of the blue: “Our teacher is making us do author reports to improve our writing skills, so of course I thought of you. Please answer the following questions.” (7) Perhaps he replies only out of amusement at the utter absurdity of this request, which may be what makes it stand out among his other correspondence. His answer contains quite a bit of irony: “When your letter finally came I didn’t want to read it to the class, because I didn’t think Miss Martinez would like silly answers, like your real name is Messing A. Round…she didn’t smile when I came to the part about your favorite animal was a purple monster who ate children who sent authors long lists of questions for reports instead of learning to use the library.” (9) He returns the favour by including his own list of questions for Leigh to answer.
Both children and adults can appreciate the comedy of Leigh’s reaction. He is infuriated: “That list of questions you sent for me to answer really made me mad. Nobody else’s author put in a list of questions to be answered, and I don’t think it’s fair to make me do more work when I already wrote a report.” (10) But in his next letter, “Mom found your letter and your list of questions which I was dumb enough to leave lying around. We had a big argument,” (12) and so he unwillingly sits down to respond, which takes him a significant portion of the book. Henshaw’s questions, such as “What is your family like?” (16) and “What bothers you?” (27) lead Leigh to inadvertently think about himself, perhaps for the first time in his life. His answers quickly become long and digressive; he finds that he has a lot to think about. The reader learns that Leigh’s parents are divorced, and he now lives with his mother in borderline poverty: “We live in a little house, a really little house… It is sort of falling apart, but it is all we can afford. Mom says at least it keeps the rain off, and it can’t be hauled away on a flatbed truck. I have a room of my own, but Mom sleeps on a couch in the living room.” (21-22) His father is a long-haul truck driver, a genial but unthinking man who “forgets” to send child support, does not respond to letters, and rarely calls or visits.
One of the obituaries following Cleary’s death stated, “Perhaps the world Cleary depicted was sanitized; there was very little in the way of divorce, real interpersonal acrimony, heartbreak, illness, abuse.” The unspoken premise underlying this opinion is that life is defined entirely by divorce, acrimony, heartbreak, illness and abuse; therefore, it is somehow wrong to see room for anything else in childhood. But Henshaw shows that divorce and heartbreak were very real to Cleary: Henshaw’s question “Do you have any pets?” induces a chain of associations in Leigh’s mind, leading him to recall his father’s dog and write, “Sometimes I lie awake at night listening to the gas station ping-pinging and thinking about Dad and Bandit hauling tomatoes or cotton bales on Interstate 5, and I am glad Bandit is there to keep Dad awake.” (24) Thus, very early on, the book presents the troubling image of a sixth-grader who cannot sleep because the circumstances of his life have burdened him with feelings that children his age should not have to handle. Surely even a hack journalist would not call this a “sanitized” world — the real difficulty for our self-appointed experts, I suspect, is not that Cleary ignores divorce, but that she describes it the way a child would see it, as a flaw in the world, a defect of existence itself. This perception is, if I may say so, a philosophical experience, but a child is unable to bear it with stoicism. Leigh treasures any occasion when his parents spend time together and the world briefly resembles what it should be: “Dumb songs, but we had a lot of fun. Mom and Dad hadn’t laughed that much for a long time, and I hoped they would never stop.” (42)
Mr. Henshaw’s next response to Leigh’s increasingly introspective, autobiographical letters is written on a postcard, whose brevity is likely a signal that he does not want this correspondence to develop (well, it is true, he never asked to become Leigh’s therapist). Whether in jest or in earnest, he advises Leigh to keep a diary. The remainder of the book consists of Leigh’s entries, stylized as letters to “Mr. Pretend Henshaw,” because “when I answered all your questions, I got the habit of beginning, ‘Dear Mr. Henshaw.’” (37) So, to summarize the structure of Henshaw, it begins with a sequence of letters that gradually become more articulate and complex; some of the letters are answered, but we do not see the answers; then there is a transition to a diary form, occasionally interrupted by additional “real” letters. No doubt Mrs. Cleary would have been amused to hear that, unbeknownst to her (or not, who knows), she had been making use of such complex, Nabokovian literary techniques, but in fact we have not seen the half of it yet.
Later on, Leigh’s school announces a writing competition, in which the prize is “lunch with a Famous Author and with winners from other schools.” (58) Leigh, you recall, had vague aspirations of becoming a writer ever since his first letter to Mr. Henshaw, and this seems to be exactly the chance he wanted, but he can’t think of an idea that can hold even his own interest. His classmates are all writing “weird stories full of monsters, lasers, and creatures from outer space,” (85) but this doesn’t appeal to him either. Finally, just before the deadline, he submits “a description of the time I rode with my father when he was trucking the load of grapes down Highway 152 through Pacheco Pass to a winery.” (108) The genre leads one to expect an “inspirational” resolution in which Leigh wins the contest. But Leigh doesn’t win — he is awarded honorable mention, and only gets to attend the lunch by pure chance, because the winning submission turns out to have been plagiarized. The “Famous Author” is one Angela Badger, who “writes mostly about girls with problems like big feet or pimples or something,” (114) which is not only another bit of fun at the expense of American children’s writers, but also shows Cleary’s ability to inhabit a boy’s perspective. Leigh has never read any of Badger’s books, has no interest in them, but is still curious to meet a real writer. The meeting takes an unexpected turn:
You may laugh, but we have seen this before, in The Three-Cornered World and The Gift. Both books are ostensibly about artists, but in fact, these artists do not have much tangible output to their name, and it is far from certain that they ever will. The real subject of these books is the possibility of art. Leigh now finds himself in an identical situation. Through his letters to Henshaw, he has become inclined to look inwardly, and his submission to the contest is the first and so far the only part of this inner life that has found outward expression. Likewise, to the outside world, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is only the author of one strange essay, which perhaps shows great talent but does not, by itself, amount to literary success. Whether his daydreams and poetic moods will find other forms through which to grow, or dry up and wither “because they had no root,” remains undecided. This unresolved quality forms the dramatic core of The Gift. Few things are as intangible and impermanent as artistic inspiration; these moments are all the more precious for their transience. In the same way, Leigh could continue writing, but he could just as easily move away from it to more conventional interests; in fact, Cleary wrote a sequel (Strider, 1991), considerably weaker than Henshaw, in which Leigh spends most of his time caring for his new dog. Perhaps he will eventually just accept his parents’ divorce as a fact of life, not worth dwelling on (as he says on the first page of Strider, “I wish — oh well, forget it“), and the letters he once received from a “real live author” will become a half-forgotten curiosity. After all, we never see the story he wrote (The Gift, at least, shows us Cherdyntsev’s work), and it is unlikely that he would turn out to have real literary talent. Cleary does not insist on her protagonist’s genius. Leigh is not easy to get along with; one can easily imagine his artistic introspection hardening into an embittered scowl throughout middle and high school.
But then, one is often surprised to find, upon looking back, that the entire course of one’s life had really been determined by a handful of utter trivialities. Henshaw’s answer, scribbled on a postcard, which Henshaw himself probably forgot about a year later, could just as well have been the beginning of Leigh’s formation as an individual. Their brief exchange meant nothing to Henshaw, but Leigh continues a mental dialogue with him for months. It is equally plausible that he would continue to revise it in his mind, addressing an image of Henshaw that no longer had any resemblance to the actual person. And, who knows, these thoughts might eventually become rich enough to sustain some sort of literary work. It probably wouldn’t happen that way, but it could. Henshaw describes a single instant in which entire lifetimes, many different ones, exist in potentiality.
In the months after Cleary’s death, many of her one-time readers returned to her books and saw that they were still speaking to them as equals. The adults, they found, had been drawn just as perceptively as the children, like Leigh’s mother in Henshaw, who tries her best to keep her son from hating the man she still resents. The increased accessibility of Cleary’s catalog sparked interest even in lesser-known, less successful work, like her young adult romances (yes, she wrote those too!) with titles like Sister of the Bride. Who knows, they too might now reveal unexpected substance. Through all these discoveries and retrospectives, a sense of loss gradually emerges. One commentator wrote, “It is because the suburban way of life Cleary chronicled is rapidly disappearing that her work now often incurs nostalgia.” Suddenly, the grown-up Leighs have realized that there are now no possibilities in their lives, and very little certainty about how much time they have left. They had gotten used to thinking that their lives had inherent value, but in fact that was only ever true in Cleary’s work — where Leigh, the son of a careless truck driver and a part-time cook from an unhappy family in the California backwater, could transform into a writer, and briefly did, in Cleary’s view. The death of their beloved childhood author was the occasion that spurred their understanding of how utterly alone they really are.
Cleary herself was, perhaps, the happiest American, having lived long enough to think every thought to completion and feel no regret about leaving an increasingly alien world. She even had time to write her Other Shores, a few years after Henshaw — the memoirs A Girl From Yamhill (1988) and My Own Two Feet (1995). These were her only “adult” books, though readers who grew up with Ralph and Ramona should have no trouble recognizing the author’s voice. The similarity of these books to Other Shores is greater than may seem at first glance; Cleary, too, preferred to dwell on her earliest memories, expanding them to mythological proportions. At the end of Yamhill, she has only graduated from high school, and Two Feet follows her adult life only up to the publication of her first book (Henry Huggins, 1950).
Yamhill, in particular, is a remarkable document. Born in 1916, Cleary came in contact with the last vestiges of 19th-century pioneer life, but lived long enough to directly communicate these memories to 21st-century readers, who otherwise can learn about this time only through several intermediary cultural layers that distort it beyond plausibility. Yamhill also demonstrates, once and for all, that Cleary was an extremely perceptive observer, which may add to the motivation to revisit her children’s books. Her eye often lands on details that will seem quite peculiar to a contemporary reader:
Remember, we are talking about Yamhill, OR, a town with a “population of about three hundred,” (37) which did not even have a public library at the time — when Cleary’s mother campaigned to open one, there was much ado about whether this would require a tax increase, and the library had to run on donations alone. Well, these hardy pioneers certainly had their priorities straight, and old-time religion was probably not one of them: “Then the children joined their parents upstairs for the hard part of church, the endless sermon.” (34)
Cleary only lived in Yamhill until age six, when her father sold the family farm and moved to Portland: “Father was proud of his bountiful harvest of heavy wheat, laden fruit trees, woolly sheep, fat hogs, cows that gave rich milk. This was followed by bitterness because he could not sell any of it for enough money to meet expenses.” (69) Perhaps, to the self-proclaimed great architects of American history, the Great Depression was a welcome opportunity to forcefully uproot and erase this archaic way of life, in which there were still occasional shades of the tribe banding around the hearth: at harvest time, “Mother and Grandma Atlee cooked for the crew… The two women worked frantically, peeling, mashing, frying, baking on the big wood range in the hot kitchen, trying to prepare dinner before the crew complained of hunger. Finally they rang the dinner gong to summon the sweaty, dusty, sunburned men… As the men seated themselves, Mother and Grandma rushed in with platters of fried chicken, mountains of mashed potatoes, great bowls of green beans simmered with bacon for hours, piles of biscuits, coffee.” (62-63) The greatest entertainment, to be experienced once in a lifetime, is “a dog and pony show: music, clowns, dogs in costumes walking on their hind legs, pretty ladies leading ponies in fancy trappings, all marching, dancing around and around a big wooden ring in the center of the tent.” (58) On a summer’s day, little Beverly decides to run barefoot to her grandparents’ house, only to burn her feet on the hot earth. And the adults around her still belong to the ancient 19th century — her mother, in her youth, was “the little schoolmarm from the East who stepped off a train to the West to teach school,” (17) while her grandmother still sings songs from the time of the Civil War, and indeed Beverly herself “preferred rousing hymns such as ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ or ‘Yield Not to Temptation’ any day” (99) to the dreary songs they tried to teach her in elementary school. One of Cleary’s last memories from this time is, “Mother and I, along with others, gathered armfuls of blue bachelor buttons, which we left in buckets of water in front of the store on our way to the library. This was the last time we picked wildflowers in Yamhill.” (69)
In Portland, ordinary people like these are turned into isolated, anonymous drifters, blank slates without hometowns: “More men lost their jobs. Almost every day, at least one defeated man came to the door trying to sell shoelaces or pencils to earn a few cents.” (241) Cleary’s father becomes a security guard at a bank during the midnight shift, and thus has to give up not only farming, but sunlight itself: “The vault, with its heavy steel door and time lock, was located in the basement. It was a sad place for a man who had spent so much of his life working outdoors in the Willamette Valley.” (234) Really it is here that the contemporary American was created; if the Depression hadn’t happened, it would have been necessary to invent it. Many episodic details from the Ramona books, from the 1950s to the 1990s, were taken directly from the author’s own school days, such as “tumbling off tin can stilts,” (108) or singing “a strange song about ‘the dawnzer lee light,’” (98) or being laughed at “for naming my doll Fordson-Lafayette after a Yamhill neighbor’s tractor.” (103) This means that they were anachronistic even in 1955, and yet, for a very long time, they still seemed mostly contemporary to Cleary’s audience, because her childhood had taken place at the very beginning of this era, when the general framework of twentieth-century life was just being constructed. In a certain sense, Leigh’s troubled family descends from the Depression.
Cleary’s father was far more responsible than Leigh’s, but the totality of the change in his life devalued his experience: “A man whose life had been farming had little to offer in the city but willingness to work, loyalty, a dignified appearance, and a gracious manner.” (218) From this moment onwards, American parents have had little worth passing on to their children — each generation has had to rediscover married and family life completely on its own. Americans are isolated temporally as well, from both their parents and their children, and the youth culture that they created attempted to impose this template on the rest of the world. But perhaps there was more to this fixation on youth than just pandering: perhaps several decades of living in this way had instilled in Americans the conviction that their parents could not be looked to for wisdom on anything. Money, maybe, but not wisdom.
Nonetheless, through absolute self-sacrifice, Cleary’s father was able to purchase a relatively calm childhood for his daughter. The hardships of the Depression are ever-present in Yamhill, but usually in the background. The family’s “Spartan meals” of “creamed chipped beef on toast” (219) were eventually made into a cute joke in Henshaw, suggesting that these conditions did little lasting harm to the author, although she fully understands the severity of their impact on her parents. School comes and goes with the usual minor injustices and annoyances; perhaps the one aspect of it that is strikingly different from contemporary schools is that “home economics and manual training” attempt to teach practically useful skills, such as “laboring over samplers of stitches and seams” and “making white sauce without lumps,” which could have actually been helpful to families during the Depression (and would be helpful to some families now). Cleary mildly criticizes these assignments, on the grounds that they emphasized “conformity and following directions, not creativity,” (180) but here I am afraid she does not fully realize the difference between herself and others.
Here at Fallen Leaves, we dutifully apply ourselves to the appreciation of music and art, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, I think that any attempt to inculcate it as part of a mass secondary education curriculum will only debase the very ideas of music and art, repelling those students who, like Cleary, have the potential to appreciate them, while leaving all the others just as indifferent as they were before. Cleary fully believed in the American myth that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it, and Henshaw is perhaps the most compelling supporting argument that anyone has ever made. But, although Leigh insists that “I am in the middle. I guess you could call me the mediumest boy in the class,” (Henshaw, 15) the development of the book shows that he cannot be completely average. Cleary, certainly, was not; anyone who reads Henshaw and Yamhill will see an extremely sharp mind behind them.
Ironically, Cleary’s school still ended up doing more for the appreciation of art and music than contemporary curricula, albeit unintentionally:
Other Shores taught us that autobiography is but another genre of literary fiction. Cleary’s insistence that, “We gasped when Fantine sold her beautiful hair to pay the Thénardiers for the care of Cosette. Even the most terrible boys sat still, fascinated,” (Yamhill, 184) is the only implausible moment in her entire career as a writer. I wonder if she got carried away with wishful thinking — she claims that this reading of Les Misérables continued for the rest of the school year and even into the next one! I have trouble imagining public school students that can sit still for this long, or for that matter a public school teacher caring enough to try to communicate with them in this manner. But perhaps it goes to show how little I understand people who, in historical terms, lived only a short while ago.
Incidentally, in My Own Two Feet, Cleary describes her college life. She first attended a two-year community college, then transferred to Berkeley, but the most striking educational experience during this time comes not from Berkeley, but from the two-year school, where a certain Mr. Palmer “assigned us a daily three-hundred-word paper on any subject, to be poked through a slot in the locker nearest his office by three o’clock every school day. We were to do this until someone in the class earned an A.” (Two Feet, 92) The simplicity of the exercise is deceptive; it takes the better part of a year before the first A is given. At the same time, the openness of the topic allows each student to choose whichever direction is the most personally useful. In Berkeley, on the other hand, Cleary took exams where, “The major question was something like ‘Discuss the influence of history on English literature,’” (189) which sounds like someone’s labored imitation of scholarly discourse. Evidently, universities always were the intellectual parvenus and impostors of American society.
In any case, as the twentieth century settles in, Cleary’s everyday life becomes more ordinary, to the point where she herself is no longer able to find much of interest to say about it (and finally concludes her memoir). But Yamhill also has a literary interest, not only a historical one. In this book, Cleary created the most striking literary character of her career, also a rather disturbing one — her own mother.
One can see something of it in their family photos. Cleary’s father looks very much the stolid American burgher, “in whom is no guile.” Cleary’s mother has a much livelier, more energetic gaze, but her mouth is drawn in an expression of merciless fanaticism. A cruel disposition, combined with an artistic temperament, practically invites disaster.
It is hard to say exactly when things start to go wrong. At the beginning of Yamhill, Cleary’s mother is an industrious pioneer wife, cooking dinner for the harvest crew, bringing her daughter to birthday parties where, “Sedately, we played London Bridge, drop-the-handkerchief, and ring-around-the-rosy. I could have played all day.” (Yamhill, 47) She leads the initiative to open Yamhill’s first public library, and recites Chaucer and Dickens to her little daughter during the long winters. She does not demonstrate much affection, but who knows, perhaps that is just the way of these plain, simple pioneer folk (surrounded as they are by such rustic, pastoral scenery as the Masonic Hall), and Cleary makes an effort to find occasions where she said something sympathetic or encouraging. When teenage Beverly is given the leading role in a school play, whose script she has also written, “I overheard Mother whisper a surprising statement to Dad: ‘If she has it in her to go ahead and be somebody, we should back her up.’ She never made such statements to me.” (286)
But, when Beverly is a sophomore in high school, a young man from her ballroom dancing class takes an interest in her. Beverly’s mother insists on inviting him over, though “Gerhart” is already twenty-one, with a job and car — but then, these dates are thoroughly chaperoned, and perhaps she is just impressed by Gerhart’s apparent success in life, while her own family is struggling to get by. Almost immediately, however, it becomes clear that Gerhart and Beverly are incompatible. Gerhart has an odd mean streak and derides Beverly’s teenage interests, literary and otherwise, while Beverly simply does not understand or care what he wants of her, because “I felt I wasn’t ready for boys.” It does not seem to be a very dramatic situation; at first, one expects that it will quickly be resolved, like all of Cleary’s other school anecdotes. Beverly’s mother even says that, “You are seeing too much of Gerhart. You should go out with other boys,” (272) and Beverly’s father never thinks much of him to begin with.
Gerhart himself is not particularly interesting as either a person or a literary character. His type, unfortunately, is perfectly recognizable to present-day readers — the sullen, resentful young man, whose endless grievances against the world, over slights real and imagined, seethe just under the surface. His mind, it seems, has been twisted by his miserable upbringing:
Cleary’s mother, in general, is shown to place great value on appearances: for example, she tells her daughter “to avoid” school friends “whom she considers ‘common.’” (214) One would expect Gerhart to quickly disappear from the narrative after this episode, but in fact, it only marks the beginning of a very bizarre fascination. Not long after, “Mother, who once told me I was seeing too much of Gerhart, began to say, ‘Now, you be nice to Gerhart. He’s lonely, and he’s been good to you.’” (281) Gerhart makes increasingly odd, possessive demonstrations toward her daughter, right in front of her, and seemingly with her full approval:
Gerhart finds a new outlet for his rage, “announcing he had joined Jehovah’s Witnesses. Any possibility of war or disaster brought him smiling to our door.” (306) Cleary’s mother does not approve of this organization, yet orders her daughter to accompany him on his missionary activities. When he is literally chased off someone’s doorstep, “Mother found this episode so funny she wanted me to go to church with Gerhart to find out what it was like… Eventually, of course, I was worn down and went to a meeting, which was held in someone’s backyard by a group of people who seemed so defeated by the Depression that their only hope was the destruction of the world.” (328-329) To realize how truly strange this is, you have to consider that Cleary’s mother never had the slightest inclination toward religious tolerance. Years later, when Beverly does meet a man whom she wants to marry, “[Mother] asked if Clarence had an Irish grandfather. This seemed an odd question… Yes, he had had an Irish grandfather but had never seen him. Well! This must mean Clarence was a Catholic, Mother wrote, and she told me I would be wise to drop him at once.” (Two Feet, 144) This is not a momentary caprice; it continues for months, if not years. “She wrote a brief, angry letter telling me…to remember I had promised I would never marry Clarence. I had done no such thing… After a dismal week a letter arrived telling me that by marrying Clarence I would be disloyal to my family and my religion. My parents would not give me their approval.” (185) When Beverly decides to get married anyway, “Mother said I had killed her.” (252) Note that, at this point, the daughter has a graduate degree, and both parents have met Clarence several times and failed to find any specific problem with him (if they had, it would have come up), not even a financial one. And Cleary’s mother hasn’t even “gone to church since Yamhill,” (Yamhill, 224) decades ago! But, evidently, there is no religious objection against sending her only daughter to sectarian meetings with a significantly older man — there is a big difference between fifteen and twenty-one — who has an obviously troubled family background.
Evidently, the matter was not as simple as a domineering and overprotective mother not knowing when to let her daughter go. Cleary’s mother was very unwell. “One day when I came home from school and laid my books on the dining room table, I picked up a composition book that I thought was Mother’s household budget. Instead, it was a diary, not of Mother’s life, but of mine, recorded by Mother… I wondered, since Mother said she wanted to write, why she didn’t write stories instead of her version of my life.” (309) Her illness did not end with the Depression. Years later, when Clarence comes courting (before the marriage), “Mother, smiling, made an entrance from the kitchen. She was wearing the pink dress she had made for me and that I had mentioned I had worn the night I met Clarence.” (Two Feet, 216) But if all she wanted was to vicariously live through her daughter, surely there were better ways to do it than parading in front of someone that she wanted to turn away from her house. All of these excesses have a strong destructive impulse — it is hard to see what could possibly have been accomplished by her obstinate encouragement of Gerhart (who, according to Cleary in one of her last interviews, “did go see my mother once in a while” even after breaking off contact with Cleary herself), unless on some level she had wanted to force her daughter into an unhappy marriage, perhaps so that she could then continue to intrude in it. In a sense, both Yamhill and Two Feet, written when Cleary was nearly eighty and her mother was long dead, continue the dispute between them while searching for an end to it. One wonders if either solace or satisfaction was found in the exercise.
Through this unresolved conflict, Yamhill (and Two Feet, to a lesser extent) acquires literary depth, but also conclusively proves that the world to which Cleary belonged was the opposite of “sanitized.” The fact that Yamhill has no explicit social message only helps to show the extent to which American society was scarred by the Depression — the children through their parents, and through other parents’ children, like Gerhart, whose unwitting hostage Cleary was for three years of her youth. This time may have been followed by American prosperity, and by the blossoming of American culture, but they both have always exhibited strange aberrations. One of these is the well-known American desire to make “divorce, acrimony, heartbreak, illness” and so forth into a public spectacle, a talk-show monologue before a live studio audience, demanding to be celebrated for the “courage” to face these difficulties while at the same insisting on their unquestionable normality. That Cleary did not do this in her work (even in Yamhill — I gather that she held back on much more than she shared) is proof, not of her lack of understanding, but of her wisdom. She had plenty of first-hand experience with American destructiveness, but made the free choice to separate herself from it. Perhaps the harmony that her books showed to American children only ever existed in her mind, but that only makes it a more precious gift. In the end, she was the only American cultural figure who ever felt any compassion for her audience.
Well, so long, Mrs. Cleary. It is only fitting that her last book appeared in 1999. The 21st century had no place for her; it really has no place for anybody. But where and when did she belong, then? Can we really say that it was Yamhill in the 1910s or Portland in the 1930s? Both are certainly present in her books, but only indirectly; Henshaw was written and set decades later, when Cleary was past retirement age. The more one tries to pin down and define this general “suburban way of life” that she is said to have chronicled, the more elusive its meaning becomes. Strangely, for all that Cleary’s work is celebrated for its realism, her world always was, and still is, out of time. “Real” American life turned out to be far more ephemeral.