This is an incomplete list of what I consider to be my best work. Some of it was published, some of it I was even paid to write. The majority of it, though, was not published. It was either for a class or, for a few works, was written entirely because I wanted to. Many of these works I have edited or expanded on after the original submission. For example, some of the stories originally were confined by a strict word count limit for the assignment, but here they have been expanded well beyond that limit. The purpose of this list is to show my style and voice. It is not a curriculum vitae.
Parenting in A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ novella a Christmas Carol is one of the most beloved works, not only by the author but in of all English literature. Often credited with restoring the popularity of celebrating Christmas, a Christmas Carol is the story of the redemption of the wicked Ebenezer Scrooge after four ghosts visit him. Before his redemption, Scrooge is old, rich, greedy, selfish, hateful, and alone. One of the primary causes for Scrooge’s repentance is his learning the potential fate of Tiny Tim if he does not reform his ways. Tiny Tim Cratchit is the crippled son of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s employee. Tiny Tim is the antithesis of Scrooge, being young, poor, giving, selfless, loving, and surrounded by family. A Christmas Carol is often read as a commentary on Victorian class structure, with Scrooge being the personification of the capitalist elites and Tiny Tim serving as the poster boy for destitute working-class children. While this critique of class structure is certainly present in a Christmas Carol, it is certainly not the only theme found in the piece. Throughout the work, there is evidence of a commentary on parenting in the Victorian era. This interpretation again has Scrooge as the example of the result of bad parenting and Tiny Tim as the example of good. In a Christmas Carol, Dickens shows that how a person is raised has a greater effect on that person’s character than the social class from which they come.
The Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge to a boarding school. Inside, the young Scrooge is alone “when all the other boys had gone home for jolly holidays” (Dickens 1392). A short while later, Scrooge’s sister Fan comes to the young Scrooge and says she intends to bring him home, noting that “Father is so much kinder than he used to be,” (Dickens 1392). From this passage, it becomes clear to the reader that Scrooge did not have a good relationship with his father. Indeed, his father was responsible for putting Scrooge in the boarding school, where, although he had friends, he clearly was not happy. Indeed, young Scrooge is most miserable around the holidays, when everyone else gets to go home. Judging by young Scrooge’s surprised response of “Home, little Fan?” (1392), it is apparent that Scrooge’s father had not previously allowed Scrooge to come home very often, compounding his misery.
In his article “the Metapsychology of Character Change: A Case Study of Ebenezer Scrooge,” Joseph Clarke notes that a Christmas Carol features “no direct reference to Scrooge’s mother” (256). Scrooge’s family dynamics were off when he was a child. There was no mother figure, and his father appeared to want little to do with him, leaving young Scrooge alone and isolated. The only family member who Scrooge seems able to depend on is his sister Fan. She herself “died a woman” (Dickens 1393) and left Scrooge with his nephew, Fred as his only remaining family. Despite his obvious affection for his sister, Scrooge wants nothing to do with his nephew, Fred. This may be because Fred serves as a reminder of Fan or because Scrooge has learned how to be a father figure from his own father—by not being one. Regardless of why, by the time Fred enters the picture, Ebenezer Scrooge has already become the cruel and heartless man that he is at the beginning of the story. The isolation of boarding school, the apparent meanness of his father, the conspicuous absence of his mother, and the death of his sister have all contributed to Scrooge’s closing off the world, even his own flesh and blood.
Although from the Ghost of Christmas Past the reader learns that Scrooge had a rough upbringing, the spirit also reveals that there was a positive father figure in Scrooge’s life in the form of Fezziwig, to whom Scrooge was once apprenticed. Clarke notes that “the endearingly hospitable Fezziwig who, as Scrooge’s cheerful employer, was the very opposite of his father” (258). Fezziwig serves as a positive role model for Scrooge later in his childhood, when he works as an apprentice during his teenage years. Instead of sending him away on his own as his biological father had done, Fezziwig brings Scrooge and his fellow apprentice, Dick, into the family Christmas celebrations. Not only does Fezziwig give Scrooge a more positive father figure to look up, but he also serves as an example of what a good employer should be. This means that Fezziwig, in addition to being the opposite of Scrooge’s father, is also the opposite of what Scrooge himself has become by the beginning of the story.
The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a Christmas ball that Fezziwig is throwing with the teenage Scrooge in attendance. In “Spectacular Sympathy: Visuality and Ideology in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol” Audrey Jaffe notes that for Scrooge “the sight of Fezziwig’s ball renders him ‘unconsciously’ like his former self” (259). Scrooge was happy when Fezziwig employed him, and the memory of Fezziwig’s celebrations with his employees causes Scrooge to return to that happiness briefly. Realizing that he is nowhere near the boss that Fezziwig was, Scrooge laments to the Ghost that “I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now! That’s all” (Dickens 1395). This recognition that what he has become is not what he once strived to be marks the beginning of Scrooge’s redemption.
Fezziwig was obviously a positive influence on Scrooge, one who he looked up to and, later, upon reflection and redemption, wanted to emulate. However, despite the fact that Scrooge’s employer and surrogate father was a role model, he was not enough to stop the downward spiral into hatred that Scrooge was already on by the time he was apprenticed. Fezziwig was only a factor in Scrooge’s life after the lasting effect of Scrooge’s biological father had already been cemented and later factors, such as Belle’s breaking up with him due to his being a workaholic, would be more than enough to outdo any long-term benefit to Fezziwig’s presence.
Ebenezer Scrooge had every reason to be happy. He was healthy, successful, and wealthy. Yet he was angry and miserable. Tiny Tim Cratchit was the exact opposite of Scrooge. He was crippled and destitute and, going by Scrooge’s theory that money was the key to happiness, should have been miserable and depressed. Yet Tim was probably the most joyful character in the entire work. The key difference between Scrooge and Tim was their relationships with their families and in particular their relationships with their fathers. While Scrooge’s father sends him away to boarding school and has nothing to do with him, Tiny Tim’s father Bob, Scrooge’s employee, is an active and influential part of the crippled boy’s life.
When the reader is first introduced to Tiny Tim, the Ghost of Christmas Present is showing Scrooge the celebrations going on at the four-room Cratchit house. Bob Cratchit “had been Tim’s blood horse all the way from church” (Dickens 1404). In other words, Bob had been carrying his crippled son on his shoulders. Then, at Tim’s mother’s asking, Bob boasts of Tim’s thoughtfulness, although his voice “trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty” (Dickens 1404). Bob is proud of all of his children, perhaps even especially the weak Tim, but he worries that Tim will not survive. This caring and concerned father figure is notably absent from Scrooge’s own childhood and while there is no mention of Scrooge’s mother, Tim’s mother is as loving and involved as his father and siblings.
Preston Shale, in “Existential Scrooge: a Kierkegaardian Reading of a Christmas Carol” points out that, later on, while foreseeing Christmases Yet to Come, “the Ghost shows Scrooge the sincere grief that the Cratchit family feel at the death of Tiny Tim” (748). This of course famously contrasts the fact that no one mourns the death of Scrooge himself in this vision of the future, further driving home the point that Scrooge has no family while for Tiny Tim family is everything.
Both Scrooge and Tiny Tim have rough childhoods. Despite the fact that his father is apparently able to afford to send him away to a boarding school, it is implied that Scrooge did not always have money. When Belle leaves Scrooge because of his obsession with work over her, Scrooge defends his actions saying “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty” (Dickens 1396). Scrooge had experienced the misery of poverty firsthand, and it was his desire to avoid ever having to live in impoverished conditions again which led to his becoming greedy. Ironically, Scrooge becomes greedy out of fear of the misery that stems from being unable to afford to spend on wants or needs, yet chooses to live a deprived life himself because he won’t spend any money.
Early in the story, Scrooge is disgusted by the idea of being charitable to the poor and reasoned that his nephew Fred was “poor enough” to be incapable of being happy (Dickens 1378). Like Scrooge, Tiny Tim grows up extremely poor. Unlike Scrooge, however, Tim never allows himself to be miserable for his family’s lack of money or his own being crippled. Instead, he chooses to be thankful and appreciative. Elliot Gilbert, in his article “the Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,” notes that “the rejected child of Scrooge’s memory of himself being actualized in the crippled boy with whom, through Bob Cratchit, the old miser has an inescapable rapport” (28). Scrooge himself is able to see the similarities between himself and Tiny Tim and realizes that he is largely responsible for Tim’s exacerbated condition.
Of course, for all their similarities, Scrooge and Tiny Tim are quite different. After his father’s effective abandonment, his sister’s death, and his fiancé’s desertion, Scrooge has learned to avoid being hurt by simply cutting off any and all feelings for anyone and avoids even the lightest conversation at all costs. Even his long-time business partner Marley is just that, a business partner, and never a friend. Tim, on the other hand, is friendly and happy to talk to anyone, including total strangers. In fact, Tim is hopeful that his being crippled may serve as an inspiration to others, “he hoped the people saw him…and…remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see” (Dickens 1404). For Scrooge, long left alone by his family, talking to people was a troublesome burden. For Tiny Tim, who grew up in a house of brothers and sisters who all ate together, socializing was an indispensable part of life.
Scrooge’s life of jealous greed and misery is, of course, transformed in one fateful night after his encounters with the ghosts. After seeing Tiny Tim in the present and what will become of both the crippled boy and himself in the future, Scrooge realizes how much he has in common, for better and for worse, with not only Tim and his father Bob, but also with Fezziwig and his own heartless father. Scrooge goes from what Lee Erickson describes in “the Primitive Keynesianism of Dicken’s a Christmas Carol” as “the most cold-hearted of penny pinchers” (51) to someone giddy at the prospect of buying the biggest and most expensive turkey available to give away. This transformation is quick and decisive, with biographer Edgar Johnson noting that many readers have “objected to Scrooge’s conversion as too sudden and radical to be psychologically convincing” (qtd. in Erickson, 22). However, it is obvious that this conversion was not in fact all that sudden or radical. Instead, the “new Scrooge” was present in Scrooge the entire time; he had merely been repressed by years of hardship caused by his father and other external factors. Scrooge saw the similarities between Tiny Tim’s situation and his own. Firstly, his younger self was being mirrored by Tim as a victim and secondly with his older self mirroring the harshness of his own father. After these realizations, combined with the positive memories of Fezziwig as an example of what Scrooge should have become, the real Scrooge, an inherently good person, reemerged.
After his transformation, Scrooge himself becomes the best father figure in the entire work. He is not only “a second father” to Tiny Tim (Dickens 1425), he is also a father figure to Fred, Bob, and indeed the entire city. Scrooge follows the example set by Fezziwig by raising Bob’s salary and treating his clerk as family. He remembers his own suffering with poverty and becomes so charitable that the man who had the day before asked for donations is not sure whether or not he is serious. Scrooge, thanks to the ghostly intervention, is finally able to overcome the demons he has struggled with his entire life beginning with of his father’s mistreatment.
Tiny Tim, famously, “did NOT die,” (Dickens 1425). Instead, Tiny Tim remains the same joyful and thankful kind soul that he has always been. With the new fatherly relationship with Scrooge, who freely and eagerly spends on the boy and the entire Cratchit family, Tim not only does not die, he thrives. The negative upbringing which haunted Scrooge never comes close to threatening Tim. He, thanks to Scrooge’s remarkable turnaround, has an even more positive childhood than he had before. There is little doubt in the reader’s mind that Tim will go on to succeed and be as loving and giving as Scrooge has become, in no small part because of the way he is brought up.
A Christmas Carol is one of the most famous stories in all of English literature and is on the surface a story of redemption and the spirit of Christmas. For that reason, it is universally popular. But a deeper look reveals Dickens’ masterpiece to have a multitude of themes and to run commentary on the Victorian Age. Though the most widely recognized of these underlying messages is that Victorian England’s class structure was deeply flawed and unfair to the working class, one of the most important motifs in the work is that of parenting. The Victorian Era marked the beginning of reform of the treatment of children. They went from being valued for being small enough to fit into chimneys to educated and cared for as the future of the Empire. Although this was progress, Dickens assured his readers that it was not enough. Children need to be positively influenced by both of their parents if they are going to be raised as good people. Social class and education are not nearly as important as having a caring mother and father who sits down to dinner as a family. In a Christmas Carol Dickens provides in Ebenezer Scrooge an excellent example of how poor parenting and the absence of one parent can have long-lasting adverse effects on a child while in Tiny Tim showing what good can come of proper parenting regardless of how unfortunate the child’s life otherwise is. Through a strong positive influence of their parents, a child knows that no matter their physical ailments, no matter how little money they have, they are God blessed, every one.
Clarke, Joseph H. "The Metapsychology of Character Change: A Case Study of Ebenezer Scrooge." Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, vol. 11, no. 4, Oct-Dec2009, pp. 248-263.
Dickens, Charles. “A Christmas Carol.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Longman, 2010, pp. 1376-1425.
Erickson, Lee. "The Primitive Keynesianism of Dicken's a Christmas Carol." Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 30, no. 1, Spring97, p. 51.
Gilbert, Elliot L. "The Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens' a Christmas Carol." PMLA. 90.1 (1975): 22-31. Print.
Jaffe, Audrey. “Spectacular Sympathy: Visuality and Ideology in Dickens's A Christmas Carol.” PMLA, vol. 109, no. 2, 1994, pp. 254–265., www.jstor.org/stable/463120.
Preston, Shale. "Existential Scrooge: a Kierkegaardian Reading of a Christmas Carol." Literature Compass. 9.11 (2012): 743-751. Print.
Benjamin Franklin and Fredrick Douglass: American Adams
Benjamin Franklin was one of the United States of America’s Founding Fathers, a Renaissance man who did it all. Over the course of his long and colorful life he served as an author, printer, political theorist, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesmen, and diplomat at various points in his colorful life. Frederick Douglass was born a slave and went on to become a well-respected writer and abolitionist. As a leading thinker during the Enlightenment Era, Franklin helped to advance science and philosophy as well as unite the thirteen colonies into a single democratic nation. By raising awareness of the fact that slavery was harmful to all involved, Douglass succeeded in helping to change many Americans’ perspectives on slavery. Before his rise to importance and fame, Franklin was the original American Dream story, going from a poor nobody to a self-made success story. Douglass too, achieved an American Dream when he was able to escape from slavery into freedom. Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass, because of their innocence and perseverance, were both able to achieve the American Dream and help to forge to the modern idea of what it means to be an American.
In his autobiography, which is addressed to his son, Benjamin Franklin writes that “having emerg’d from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World,” he thought his life should be recounted, “& therefore fit to be imitated” (Franklin 402). Though obviously not known for being humble, Franklin’s chooses to recount his life because he realizes not only that his life was both unusual and important, but, more importantly, in the new American republic, his story of success from nothing could be the first of many.
Franklin was born in 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts to Josiah Franklin and his second wife Abiah (406). Franklin came from a large family and worked for his father from a young age. From his father, he learned “that nothing was useful which was not honest” (408). Beginning at an early age Franklin was a voracious reader, noting that “all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books” (409). Though he originally wanted to be a sailor, Franklin was apprenticed to his brother by his father to become a printer. Benjamin found his brother James to be difficult to work for, and in 1723 Benjamin ran away, eventually ending up in Philadelphia (Belasco and Johnson 399). Franklin embarked on a highly successful career as a printer, printing the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper, Poor Richard’s Almanac, an annual volume of advice, General Magazine, one of America’s first magazines, and numerous pamphlets. In 1748, at the age of 42, Franklin sold his paper and retired from printing in order to pursue other interests (399).
It in is the second half of his life that Franklin becomes a major figure in a multitude of fields. “Benjamin Franklin tried his hand at virtually every intellectual pursuit the eighteenth century had to offer—from scientific invention and music to politics and philosophy” (Medoro 91). This later in life Franklin is the one who helped draft the Declaration of Independence, negotiate the end of the Revolutionary War, signed the Constitution, pioneered discoveries regarding electricity, and invented everything from a stove to bifocals. Franklin, through his very public life and political work, helped to forge the identity of America as one United States. However, it is his earlier life as an entrepreneur and businessman which established him as one of the first to achieve the American Dream, in part because of the fact that, early on, he was an American Adam.
In his article the American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, R. W. B. Lewis defines an American Adam as being an idea which was developed by American writers choosing to relate their heroes to the Biblical Adam pre-Fall. This version of Adam “was the first, the archetypal man. His moral position was prior to experience, and in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent” (5). Thus, an American Adam is the quintessential “first American” who is defined by his innocence. Though he is certainly not to be literally thought of as the first American, Benjamin Franklin was perhaps one of the first people to think of himself as “American,” as opposed to “British subject in the New World.” This is due to the fact that he was largely responsible for creating the identity of a united America at all, thanks to his numerous writings and famous political cartoons, to say nothing of his contribution to the Declaration of Independence. Franklin’s inherent innocence, as he humorously describes in his Autobiography, is also a critical part of his character and further cements him as an American analog to Adam before the time of Original Sin.
Franklin admits his naivete and innocence with his famous description of his purchasing of “three great Puffy Rolls.” Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Franklin knew nothing and no one. He admits this and considers it all the more remarkable that he is able to go on to accomplish so much in the City of Brotherly Love, choosing to recount in great detail his arrival so as to “compare such unlikely Beginning with the Figure I have since made there.” Franklin, “not considering or knowing the Difference of Money & the greater Cheapness nor the Names of his Bread” attempts to buy three pennies’ worth of bread and ends up with far more bread than he can eat (418). Franklin “paints a vivid picture of himself in the early pages of The Autobiography as a half-starved runaway stuffing bread into his mouth as he wanders through Philadelphia looking for somewhere to sleep.” Like Adam pre-Fall, Franklin, upon his arrival in Philadelphia, is innocent to the point of being ignorant, not knowing any of the ins and outs of the world in which he lives. This innocence is what sets Franklin up as an “American Adam,” and it allows him to become one of the first to achieve the American Dream, “the promise of a self-made man” (Medoro 91).
The American Dream is largely considered the uniquely American ability to move up the social ladder from the class one was born through only the actions of oneself. Blake Hobby and Harold Bloom, in the American Dream, admit that “the American Dream is devoid of clear meanings” but go on to try and define the concept as the affirmation “that it must be possible to have a nation in which all of us are free to develop…some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement” (xv). Perhaps the concept is best defined by Thomas Jefferson, edited by Benjamin Franklin, in the famous statement that all people are free to possess “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This pursuit of happiness is the American Dream, written in the very founding of the country.
The American Dream cannot be achieved in a country with a king and a defined caste system, the very defining trait of the Dream is that it is for each individual to pursue on their own without a ruler or master; it only became possible with the American experiment of democracy. This experiment, in turn, was only possible due to the willingness to fail which defined the great thinkers of the Enlightenment including Franklin. The innocence that makes Franklin an American Adam is also what allows him to forge his own identity and therefore pursue his American Dream. If Franklin had known what to do instead of having to learn it for himself through experience, he would not have been as willing to take the risks necessary to be a successful entrepreneur.
J. A. Leo Lemay considers Franklin’s Autobiography to be the “definitive formulation of the American Dream.” He argues that the book’s “primary function is to demonstrate that man does have choice in the New World, that man can create himself” (qtd. in Bloom and Hobby, 21). Franklin’s account of his rise from rags to riches goes hand in hand with “the rise from impotence to importance, from dependence to independence, from helplessness to power” (Lemay, qtd. in Bloom and Hobby, 24). All of these rises go hand in hand, none could have happened without the others, and all are part of the American Dream.
Although his story is very different from Franklin’s, Frederick Douglass is also an American Adam who achieves the American Dream by climbing the ladder of progress. Douglass is a self-made man in the truest sense, teaching himself how to read and write and shedding his enslaved past by creating a new name for himself. Like Franklin, it is Douglass’ early innocence which allows him later success.
Douglass was born in 1818, though he himself did not know when exactly he was born, noting in his autobiography that “slaves know as little of their age as horses know of theirs.” This, Douglass will later learn, was part of the larger effort to keep slaves ignorant and thus in chains. He was born in Maryland to a slave named Harriet Bailey, and a white man assumed to be his own master. From an early age, Douglass was driven by a strong desire for information, unable to comprehend why white children knew more than he did and why he was reprimanded for inquiring (1016). The wife of one of Douglass’ early masters, having never owned slaves before, began teaching Douglass to read and write, before she was stopped by her husband, who told her that education of a slave was dangerous. This was a revelation to Douglass who wrote: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (1031). This power, Douglass found, came from keeping blacks ignorant. Literacy was the key to freedom. Douglass, therefore, found that, as the husband had warned his oblivious wife, once he had been “given…the inch…no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.” He taught himself how to read and write by convincing white children he met in the street to tutor him as a game (1032). Later, as an adult and largely helped by his literacy, Douglass was freed from slavery, declaring “I planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape from slavery” (1060). In his recount, Douglass chooses to keep many details of his escape secret, for fear that publicizing them would prevent others from escaping in the same manner. He noted that he did not approve of the public declaration of the Underground Railroad for the same reason (1061). By making a conscious effort to not prevent others from following in his footsteps by accident, Douglass makes it clear that he wishes for himself to be the rule, not the exception. He strives for all slaves to achieve the American Dream of freedom.
After his escape from slavery, Douglass wrote extensively on the subject, including his autobiographical account. Douglass’ autobiography is as much the ideal representation for the American Dream story as Franklin’s. Douglass’ story is one where loss of innocence leads to pursuit of freedom by an individual acting alone. Like Franklin, freedom comes for Douglass hand in hand with a rise in importance, education, independence, and power.
In his writing, Douglass made a conscious effort to separate the institution of slavery from those who carried it out so as not to alienate white readers. He argued that slavery was harmful to the enslavers as well as the enslaved and should be made illegal for the benefit of everyone. Douglass gave as an example the white woman who had originally begun to teach him to read and write before being told not to do so by her husband. “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me…Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (1032). By attacking slavery itself, as an institution, and declaring those who carried it out to be victims of it themselves, Douglass was able to win over the opinion of many northern white readers. Benjamin Franklin was also a critic of slavery, serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion if the Abolition of Slavery (Belasco and Johnson 400).
Frederick Douglass meets the previously given definition of an American Adam, innocent in a pre-fall state. Early in his life, Douglass was unaware of what it meant to be enslaved. As a child, he first came to understand the horrors of the institution when he saw his aunt be brutally whipped. Douglass himself recognizes this as a loss of innocence, remarking “It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant…it was…the entrance to the hell of slavery” (1018). With this realization, Douglass loses his innocence, but he remains largely naïve in an Adamesque way until his discovery that slaves are kept down by intentionally being kept ignorant. These two separate realizations are what give Douglass the drive that he needed to achieve his freedom. It is only through the painful process of shedding his status as an American Adam that Douglass is able to find the determination to improve his status.
This improvement, of course, also ensures that Douglass, like Franklin, is one of the earliest to achieve the American Dream. Franklin’s American Dream is more of the traditional “rags to riches” story, seeing as he goes from poor to wealthy through only his own enterprise. Douglass’ American Dream, from slavery to freedom, is certainly no less of and is perhaps an even greater, example of the concept. Douglass achieves his freedom on his own; he is as much a self-made man as Franklin. Indeed, while Douglass does not become financially rich, he certainly achieves “some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement” which has already been defined as the very idea of the American Dream.
Douglass bears many similarities to Franklin. Both were largely self-educated through being well read. Both ran away, Franklin from his apprenticeship and Douglass from his enslavement, leaving behind known safety for the unknown chance of freedom from others’ control. Both were then largely on their own and forced to make their own success. Finally, both were persuasive writers who were able to rally large numbers of people to support their once unpopular cause. In fact, both of them became advocates of the same cause; later in life, Benjamin Franklin wrote strong criticisms of the institution of slavery in America, the land of the free.
Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass were both American Adams whose innocence enabled them to strive to improve their lot in life in a way which someone more aware of the hardships they faced would never have been able to do. Both men were living embodiments of the American Dream who were able to achieve greatness from humble beginnings through their own intelligence, work ethic, and willpower. Perhaps most importantly, both Franklin and Douglass believed in the idea American Dream. That they were not exceptional. That in America, anyone, free or slave, rich or poor, could make their own success and ensure that their children grew up in a better world than them. After all, everyone is guaranteed the right to pursue happiness.
Belasco, Susan, and Linck Johnson, editors. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature. Bedford, 2014.
Franklin, Benjamin. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” Belasco and Johnson pp. 402-463.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” Belasco and Johnson pp. 1009-1073.
Bloom, Harold, and Blake Hobby. The American Dream. New York, NY: Bloom's Literary Criticism, 2009. Internet resource.
Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. Print.
Medoro, D. "Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography As an Eighteenth-Century Omnivore's Dilemma." English Studies in Canada. 36.4 (2010): 91-107. Print.
Pudd'nhead Wilson in the Canon
The “literary canon” is the collection of writings, including books, poems, letters, and other works, which are considered important and influential enough to be worthy of study. To put it another way, the literary canon refers to “capital L Literature.” There is no consensus on what is worthy of being counted as part of the canon and what is not, and the number of works which are included is constantly expanding as the canon becomes more diverse. However, there are many works and authors which are nearly universally accepted as being part of the collection. These works and authors are often literary icons and both influential and popular national figures. Perhaps one of the greatest authors to be firmly included in this elite list of American writers is Samuel Longhorn Clemens, better known by his penname of Mark Twain. Many of Twain’s works, such as the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are counted as among the greatest and most important books ever written. However, while much of Twain’s work makes up the cornerstones of the American canon, some of it has been thrown away and largely forgotten. Though it explores many of the same key themes as Huckleberry Finn, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, a much lesser-known of Twain’s novels, is not nearly as widely read or studied. Whereas Huck Finn is required curriculum in countless schools, many students have never even heard of Pudd’nhead. This is unfortunate, as the depth and significance of the novel makes Pudd’nhead Wilson just as worthy of being part of the academic canon of American literature as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In addition to the general definition of the literary canon already given, Daniel L. Marsh specifically defines the American canon as being composed of “certain American writings so significant, so inspired, so esteemed by Americans, so durably valuable to the American people, so pregnant with the essence of the American spirit, so revelatory of the genius of America that, taken together, they constitute the authoritative rule of Americanism” (qtd. in Quirk and Scharnhorst, 13). Marsh was talking about nonfiction historical documents, such as the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address, but he also provides an effective definition for so called “Great American Novel,” a book which is so central to both the canon and culture that it can be considered definitive of American Literature. Books often considered worthy of the title of Great American Novel include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but one of the books most frequently provided as an example of the concept is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Indeed Ernest Hemingway, himself a monumental figure in American Literature, said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” F. R. Leavis agrees with Hemingway and goes further to not just say that Huck Finn was the centerpiece of American literature but more broadly that the “‘frontier tradition’ is made the source of a ‘truly American literature,’ the idea derives ‘an illicit respectability from the aura of Mark Twain’” (Donoghue 222). Richard S. Lowry argues that Samuel Clemens’ most important contribution to literature is the “character” of Mark Twain himself. But even though Twain is considered one of the most important of all American writers, not all of his work is held in as high a regard as Huck Finn. Indeed, many of Twain’s lesser known works, such as Pudd’nhead Wilson, are largely forgotten, despite the fact that they explore many of the same themes and have just as much to contribute to the American canon.
Pudd’nhead Wilson was published in 1894, ten years after Huck Finn, and well after Mark Twain was established as a well-known writer. Despite this, the book is not nearly as well-known or highly regarded as Huck Finn or some of Twain’s other work such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While scholars nearly universally praise Huck, they are divided on Pudd’nhead. Leslie Fiedler called it “one of the most extraordinary books in American literature” while Hershel Parker dismissed it as hindered by “unreconciled contradictions” including its “gaudy” ending (qtd. in Toles, 55). Perhaps Pudd’nhead is simply not as well written as Huck but is nevertheless an important work. George E. Toles admits that the contradictions Parker complained about are present but insists that “the book’s imaginative interest is scarcely reduced” by them (55).
Whether it is poorly written compared to Huck or not, Pudd’nhead certainly addresses many of the same ideas and motifs. Both stories take place on the banks of the Mississippi in Antebellum Missouri and both of them are about the inherent wrongness of slavery. Huckleberry Finn is defined by feeling divided between what he thinks is naturally right, free Jim, and what society has told him is right, return Jim. Huck’s innocence is a key part of the story, his defining moment is when he vows to save Jim even though, based on what he has been told, this means that he will go to Hell. “All right then, I’ll go to Hell” (Twain, Huck Finn 230). Similarly, Pudd’nhead shows the unnaturalness of slavery by having a free man grow up a slave and a slave grow up free without anyone realizing that the two had been switched. This divide between “what the soul aspires to and what the understanding knows” is “underlying all the major conflicts in Twain’s fiction…and in many ways undesirable knowledge all but engulfs the ‘serene’ and ‘independent’ activities of the soul in Pudd’nhead Wilson.” (Toles 58). Ultimately, both stories are about a loss of innocence through growing up, as Huck is exposed to the hypocrisy of slavery and Tom Driscoll and Chambre find that both of their lives were better off before they knew the truth of who they were.
Of course, while similar and sharing Twain’s sly humorous style, the two books also have many key differences in their method of storytelling. One of the defining traits of Huck is the fact that it is told in first-person point of view by Huck in the uneducated Southern dialect of a young child. Huck does not know or understand a lot of complex issues, and explains things in simple terms, the only way he knows how. Pudd’nhead, on the other hand, is told in omnipresent third person, with an unidentified reliable narrator who knows all the characters’ perspectives and who speaks like an educated adult. “The generous, accepting perspective of the child has given way to the weary and often bitter distance of the adult” (Toles 60). True, both books have the same Southern accent in spoken dialog between characters, but only in Huck does this dialect continue into the narration itself, as Huck is not only a character but also the narrator. This adds to the authenticity of Huckleberry Finn and helps make it an excellent example text of regional realism. “Huck’s language, as he speaks it, it is hardly excessive to say, is Shakespearean in its range and subtlety” (Leavis, qtd. in Donoghue, 223). Perhaps it is Huck’s innocent and straightforward narrating which has endured Huck to audiences. Mark Twain himself regretted writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in third person and chose to write Huck in first person because he felt it would be more realistic and would help the readers better relate with Huck. “Twain offered a triumphant demonstration of the power of colloquial speech in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (Belasco and Linck, 62). While the distance and objectivity of an all-knowing third person narrator can be advantageous, it also makes it feel as though the reader is watching a story rather than living it. As a result, the reader is unable to become as attached to the characters, which may be one reason that Huck has retained its popularity while Pudd’nhead has faded into obscurity.
Another key difference is the tone and ending of the two works. Though both are full of Twain’s signature southwest humor, Huckleberry Finn is definitely the lighter work, being more appropriate for children and having a happy ending. At the end of Huck Jim is free and Huck is heading west to avoid being civilized. While Huck’s ending is full of hope, in Pudd’nhead “Twain will have nothing to do with a fairy-tale ending” (Donoghue 228). The real Tom Driscoll is outcast from both whites and blacks, while Chambre, the man raised as Tom Driscoll, “as soon as the Governor understood the case, he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river” (Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson 126). Pudd’nhead Wilson, “dominated by a mood of somber suspicion and doubt,” is a denser book, discussing detective work and courtroom drama in a way which, while clear, is not as simple and easy to grasp as Huck’s down to Earth commentary of life on the river (Toles 61).
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is easy to read and universally praised as an American literary masterpiece, but this is not why it is so frequently used in classrooms. The book is worthy of study because of the amount of social commentary it includes and the number of themes which it touches on. Along with its primary theme of the inherent hypocrisy of slavery and the resulting conflict between what is morally and what is socially right, Huck Finn also explores the difficult passage from childhood to adulthood, exploitation and manipulation, being an insider and an outsider, and the defining trait of American literature, the frontier and with it the eternal search for adventure. No one of these ideas can be discussed in Huck without commenting all the others, as all of them are intricately intertwined with each other. This multifaceted world is why Huck is such a great example of Realism; Huck’s world is one which readers can believe because of how much it is like the real world. However, while it is the collection of all these themes which make Huck exemplary of American literature, all of these same topics are also addressed in Pudd’nhead.
Toles argues that Pudd’nhead is as grippingly realistic as Huck, noting that “Twain may well have possessed the most intensely divided consciousness of any of the major nineteenth-century American authors” (56). This divided consciousness is the conflict which defines Huck Finn, and it similarly defines Tom and Chambre, with who they are conflicting with who they have been raised to be. Tom comes to a realization similar to Huck’s, questioning “why is this awful difference made between white and black?” (Twain, Pudd’nhead 46). In this questioning of society, the inherent hypocrisy of slavery, the major idea of both novels, is once again explained. Pudd’nhead “feels almost frighteningly personal, full of strangely coded revelations” (Toles 56). Although it lacks the authentic feeling narration of Huck, Pudd’nhead is still a realistic story whose characters are complex and believable.
Other themes which contribute to the realism and complexity of Huck are just as overt in Pudd’nhead. The book is certainly a story of loss of childhood innocence, with the two characters who have been switched learning who they really are and therefore what their place is, as dictated by society. This very acknowledgement of the truth is exploitive, with Chambre being sold down river, and manipulative, as both men are forced into their new place in society, the one they were born to but do not fit. The frontier of Pudd’nhead is not the untouched wilderness and the promise of freedom and adventure that it is in Huckleberry Finn. Instead, the frontier of Pudd’nhead is the dark and dangerous future, one with Tom’s future being where he “could not endure the terrors of the white man’s parlor…yet he could nevermore enter into the solacing refuge” of the black quarters (Twain, Pudd’nhead 125). Chambre, of course, faces an even darker future, having gone from a free and wealthy man to a slave. Although Pudd’nhead’s frontier is thus obviously much more pessimistic than Huck’s it is still present as the unknown, keeping Twain’s—and America’s more generally—traditional fascination with exploration of the wilderness and the future.
Pudd’nhead Wilson may be darker and more complex than Huckleberry Finn, perhaps, some would argue, making it too difficult a book to be taught in schools. But that is not a legitimate reason for it to not be included in the canon. Nathan Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is frequently on the same lists of “Great American Novels” as Huck Finn, and certainly has a darker tone, arguably even more pessimistic than Pudd’nhead, yet it is often taught in schools right alongside Huck Finn. American literature is defined by its diversity and relevance, not by how difficult it is to understand.
On top of all the themes shared with Huck, Pudd’nhead makes other importance contributions to the history of the novel. It is one of the first stories in which fingerprinting is crucial to the plot, making it in some ways a precursor to much of the detective genre. The book continues to be an interesting look at identity, with the contemporary question of who you are being different than who you were born being the driving force behind a story written nearly 125 years ago. Although its narration is not up to par with that of Huck and the book is certainly not a happy one, Pudd’nhead Wilson is certainly worthy of being read and studied in the American literary canon because of its themes and thought-provoking ideas. Making the reader reflect and question the world is, after all, the reason books come to be considered “capital L Literature.”
Mark Twain’s works have always been controversial. Over the course of its 134-year publication history, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned for everything from encouraging “mischief in America’s youth” to undermining “a culture devoted to ancestor worship” in China because Huck disrespects his alcoholic and abusive father (Quirk 193). Today, Huck remains under attack by those who protest the “unflattering portrait of a black man, and the excessive, perhaps obsessive use of the word ‘nigger’” (Quirk 193). All of these same objections could be rightly raised against Pudd’nhead. But Twain’s books should not be banned because of any of these inclusions, to the contrary, they should be studied precisely because these controversial components are central to the works. Rebelling against authority, whether by starting a revolution or simply causing mischief, is a defining trait of America and therefore integral to American literature. Refusing to acknowledge a book because of its use of a word is a refusal to acknowledge America’s past, and self-reflection is one of the characteristics which makes something canonical.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may very well be a better book than The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, but Pudd’nhead is still deserving to be in the canon. It offers another way to look at the same central idea that slavery is inherently hypocritical as Huck and by doing so brings new ideas. Pudd’nhead does not have the first-person narration that makes Huck so memorable, but it is still a hallmark of the movement of Realism, with its unhappy ending being in many ways more realistic than the rose-colored finale of Huck and Jim’s saga. Finally, and above all, Pudd’nhead is a uniquely American story. It deals with all of the themes which make a work American, including its commentary on America’s past and its look to the future as a frontier whose boundary will always be pushed, for better or worse. Pudd’nhead Wilson meets all of the subjective criteria to be included as a “Great American Novel” and therefore should absolutely be rescued from the dustbin of history to be given serious academic consideration alongside Mark Twain’s better-known works.
Belasco, Susan, and Linck Johnson, editors. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature. Bedford, 2014.
Donoghue, Denis. The American Classics: A Personal Essay. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Internet resource.
Lowry, Richard S. "Littery Man": Mark Twain and Modern Authorship. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Toles, George E. "Mark Twain and Pudd’nhead Wilson: A House Divided." Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 16, no. 1, Fall1982, pp. 55-75. EBSCOhost. Internet resource.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. Print.
Twain, Mark. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Project Gutenberg, n.d. Project Gutenberg Etext. EBSCOhost. Internet resource.
Quirk, Tom, and Gary Scharnhorst. American Realism and the Canon. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995. Print.
Frisco and Fuckhead
Michael Cunningham’s short story “White Angel” and Dennis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” part of the story collection Jesus’ Son, are similar in a number of ways. Both works are told in a first-person point of view by an unreliable narrator whose perspective is enhanced by drugs. Both narrators give pithy and profound observations about the world around them, brought on by the drugs. Finally, both are witness to a traumatic event, although how they react is different and highlights their difference in age, if not maturity. In both stories the reoccurring irony and indifference of the narrators sets the tone, but Frisco, Cunningham’s narrator, comes to regret what has transpired while Fuckhead, Johnson’s eloquently named narrator, remains unrepentant at the end.
“White Angel” takes place in Cleveland around the time of Woodstock. Frisco is nine years old and has a sixteen-year-old brother named Carlton, who introduces Frisco to drugs. At a party while high, Carlton runs through a glass door and bleeds to death. Throughout the story, the reader sees that Frisco greatly admires and idolizes Carlton. Frisco makes no decisions on his own, instead depending on Carlton to become “the most criminally advanced nine-year-old in my fourth-grade class” who notes that “I made no movement without his counsel” (Cunningham 379). Frisco’s dependence on Carlton is his great flaw. If it was not for Carlton, Frisco would have never done drugs to begin with and, once Carlton is gone, Frisco alone and unable to discuss what happened without getting angry.
“Car Crash While Hitchhiking” introduces the aptly named Fuckhead, whose life is chronicled throughout Jesus’ Son. As stated in the title, Fuckhead hitches a ride with a family only for the car to get into an accident. Afterwards, Fuckhead gets out of the car and, taking the family’s baby with him, wanders around the scene talking to people and trying to comprehend. Fuckhead was not responsible for the accident, although as he was the first to take action after it happens, only to become an inconsequential witness, saying “I had gone from being the president of this tragedy to being a faceless onlooker at a gory wreck” (Johnson 8). Fuckhead’s signature indifference, which will remain consistent for all of Jesus’ Son, first appears in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” He is numb to the horrors he sees and is unable to relate to the distraught characters around him.
The two characters are remarkably similar in their depiction of themselves and of drug use. Frisco, while high on acid, observes “tonight I discovered my ability to see every room of the house at once, to know every single thing that goes on” (Cunningham 381). Similarly, Fuckhead remarks that, thanks to the pills he had taken from three different strangers, “I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened” (Johnson 3). Both characters feel that drugs have heightened their senses and enabled them to observe the world in a way which was previously impossible. Both characters feel that they are more aware than they really are. Frisco is never really aware of anything for himself. Instead, he is entirely dependent on Carlton to enlighten him. As a result, he is asking Carlton questions constantly. In the end, Frisco sees that the door is closed and has opportunity to open it, but chooses not to. “I figure he can bump his nose. It will be a good joke on him” (Cunningham 390). Frisco fails to understand the danger of the door being shut and fails to take action. Fuckhead, similarly, is not as perceptive as he thinks he is. In fact, realizing what is going on well after the fact is one of Fuckhead’s most consistent character traits throughout Jesus’ Son. “I was standing out here in the night, with the baby, for some reason, in my arms” (Johnson 7). Like Frisco, Fuckhead has opportunity to help and chooses not to. “…endorse the idea of not doing anything about this. I was relieved” (Johnson 7). Fuckhead is aware that he should do something, but doesn’t know or care what should be done, saying “something was required of me, but I hadn’t wanted to find out what it was” (Johnson 8). Although the wreck is not his fault, Fuckhead is as guilty of not being aware enough to care as Frisco.
Both Cunningham and Johnson chose to have their characters make observations and aside comments through their narratives. These remarks not only help describe the scene or characters in it, but, more importantly, they indirectly tell the reader a lot about the character making the observations. The characterization comes not only in what the observation is, but also how the character chooses to tell it and when they feel the need to comment. When he first does acid, Frisco says that he was “trying to decide whether everything around me seems strange because of the drug or just because everything truly is strange. Three weeks earlier, a family across town had been sitting at home, watching television, when a single-engine plane fell on them” (380). The plane did not fall because of the drugs, but Frisco thought it was a good time to mention the plane because it backs him up. Everything truly is strange, drugs are the least of the world’s problems. This is a remarkably profound observation to come from a nine-year-old who is high. Fuckhead’s observations are even more telling of his character. When the wife of the man killed in the accident is informed what happens, Fuckhead notes that “She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere” (Johnson 9). No normal person would react positively to hearing a woman shriek over the death of her husband. Yet Fuckhead enjoys it for its liveliness and goes looking for it. This tells the reader a great deal, that Fuckhead may be, to put it bluntly, fucked in the head.
Although Frisco and Fuckhead are remarkably similar in a number of ways, their characters differentiate when they are exposed to a traumatic event. Frisco choses to write about how two people, his father and Carlton’s girlfriend, handle the death, and how he views them tells the reader a lot about Frisco’s own response. When Carlton was alive, Frisco, though he did adult things, was very much a child, dependent on Carlton for everything. With Carlton’s death, however, Frisco is forced to grow up fast, remarking that “we are living in the future, and it has turned out differently from what we’d planned” (Cunningham 390). The future they had planned, “a future in which young and old have business together” had been Carlton’s future (387). Without Carlton it cannot happen. As proof that he has had to assume adult responsibility, it is Frisco who has to tuck his father into bed and ask whether he is okay (391).
Frisco’s description of the girlfriend’s problems after Carlton’s death are the most critical to understanding the problems of Frisco himself. The girlfriend held Carlton in her arm while he died and afterward began going to therapy. The other people in the town, including Carlton’s parents, talked about how hard the experience must have been for her, but Frisco has no sympathy. “I could never look her straight in the face. I couldn’t talk about the wounds she suffered. I can’t even write her name” (392). While everyone else understands that the girlfriend needs help, Frisco hated her for it. He explains his reasoning by saying “I never once heard her mention the fact that though she had been through something terrible, at least she was still alive and going places. At least she had protected herself by trying to warn him” (391). The first sentence of Frisco’s reasoning is understandable. He feels that she has no right to complain when Carlton is dead and will never go anywhere. The second sentence, however, is far more telling about Frisco. Here, by pointing out that she had “protected herself” by trying to warn Carlton, Frisco implies that he, by not trying to warn Carlton, was unprotected. The girlfriend has nothing to hide or be ashamed of, at least she tried. Frisco, though, is wracked by the guilt that he could have done something and chose not to.
While Frisco grows up fast and tries to deal with the guilt and the fact that the future is not what he and his brother had hoped, Fuckhead just denies everything. As he walked away from the crash to find someone to talk to, Fuckhead passed a man dying in the other car involved. Seeing the man, Fuckhead admits that “I just walked right on past” (Johnson 7). When he passes the man again, Fuckhead “made sure there was nothing I could do” (8). Whether or not there really was anything he could have done is irrelevant, Fuckhead is more concerned with justifying his lack of action than trying to save the man and failing. Twice on one page Fuckhead says “There’s nothing wrong with me” (9), once to the reader and once to a doctor. The fact that he felt the need to say it twice clues the reader in that something is wrong with him. Fuckhead even admits as such, saying “it’s always been my tendency to lie to doctors, as if good health consisted only of the ability to fool them” (9). Fuckhead needs help after all that he has seen, and he knows it. But instead of getting that help when he has the opportunity, he choses to deny that he has been affected. Fuckhead concludes his account of the car crash by breaking the fourth wall and saying “and you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you” (10). For Fuckhead, the world is a ridiculous and impossible place, which no one can understand or fix, so there is no point in trying.
Frisco and Fuckhead are more alike than they are different. The two of them use drugs to try and see the world in a way that they can understand and find the world to be a terrible place. Both of them bear witness to a tragic event which they saw coming and still did nothing about. The two are even both known by a nickname that someone else gave them rather than by their real name or what they call themselves. Yet their differences are remarkable and show how differently the same character type can be portrayed. Frisco is not as much of an adult as he thinks at first, he is very much dependent on his older brother. Fuckhead, meanwhile, is entirely on his own and does not depend on anyone, even though perhaps he should. When tragedy strikes, Frisco grows up fast and feels guilty for what occurred. Fuckhead insists that there was nothing that could be done and that he cannot be held responsible. In the end the nine-year-old Frisco has the far more mature and appropriate response to the horrible event in his life. Fuckhead, ostensibly an adult, has a childish reaction and plays the blame game.
Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. Picador, 1992.
Cunningham, Michael. “White Angel.” PDF.
Not a Road
One of the perks of being a City of Winchester lifeguard was the Fourth of July Thunder on the Lake fireworks show. The Fourth itself is mayhem, a federal holiday in the middle of summer vacation, only Memorial Day can rival it in scope. Every year, we would have over a hundred people crammed in a seventy-five by fifty-foot public pool in a mass of chlorine, sweat, sunscreen, and noise. Nobody ever wanted to work the three ring circus that was Independence Day, and everyone eventually did. It was worth it though, because after the pool closed the manager let all guards, family, and friends in to watch the fireworks.
The City launched its fireworks from Adventure Mountain across the street. Every year, Winchester burned up tens of thousands of tax payer dollars in a fast and furious display of patriotism, sending saltpeter and phosphorous screaming from the splinter-inducing mulch that covered the park’s playground. It was colorful, it was loud, it was fun, and we had front row seats. The show didn’t start till after dark, so to kill time we launched our own fireworks.
“Expelliarmus!” everyone laughed and ran for cover as Sam launched green and red fireballs from his Roman Candle wand.
“Alright, here’s some mortars. They should be pretty good,” Coach Dave prides himself on his firework acquisitioning abilities.
“Wyatt, let’s do four at once, two each. Give me another lighter.”
“Ah sh-t. Ok, go!”
They scrambled away from the launch tubes. Thump. A mortar hurled itself from its tube, reached only about six feet in the air, and exploded, sending sparks and burning shards of cardboard all over the parking lot.
“You put it in the tube upside down you idiot,”
After that near fiasco, we opted to leave the pyrotechnics to the pros for the night. The show began, we all watched and laughed and made bets on which one would be loudest. Too soon it was over and time to go home.
Not much happens in Winchester, so when there is an event, people come from all over the place and out of the woodwork to see. Though only us guards could go in the fenced in pool area, both parking lots were filled with cars parked to watch the show. They were lined up and down the driveway, bumper to bumper down Old Estill Springs Road and both ways across the bridge. Literally hundreds of cars jammed on the sides of narrow two lane roads. Once the show ended, everyone tried to leave at once. Lights flashed, horns honked, people cursed. Going the usual, legal way out of the Swimplex would take hours. We teenagers had another plan.
I’m not sure how it got started, but we soon opted to drive across the back parking lot and down onto the bike path. From there, assuming the cars could make it, we’d go up around the fire station, get back on the road at the four way, bypassing all cops and traffic, and barrel on down to DQ or Sonic or whatever of Winchester’s world renown dining options struck our fancy.
Three cars—Dean’s Trailblazer with at least seven people on board, Sydni’s pint sized two door KIA, and my dilapidated excuse of a Sentra—raced across the overcrowded parking lot with our windows down and music up. Unbeknownst to us, our manager and several of our parents watched our taillights vanish into the woods between the dumpsters and the baseball fence.
“That is NOT a road,” Colton, riding shotgun with me, read a text in the group message from our manager.
“Oh sh-t man, he saw?”
“To late now,”
We carried on. Sydni was in the lead when we got to the bridge. Covered, wooden, and built for bikes. It was about three feet over rock and lake, not a dangerous fall, but one that would be more than enough to get you well and truly stuck where no tow truck would fit. Sydni, in the smallest and lightest car of the convoy, got cold feet and decided she wasn’t risking the bridge. So she turned off the narrow path, off-roaded her little coupe through the bushes to the hill behind the baseball field, charged up, and got stuck halfway to the summit in the wet grass.
Dean, who’s car had three times as many people in it and probably weighed three times as much, ventured onto the bridge. Behind him, Colton and I could see the wooden structure shake and sway. We couldn’t hear over AC-DC, but I was later told it was creaking quite a bit. Dean was across the bridge soon enough, and over we went. My car zoomed across without any protest.
After the bridge came a hill which, by my rough estimation, is about a 91° angle.
“Can she handle that?” Colton asked.
“Oh yeah, we’ll be fine.” I gunned it and the Sentra clawed its way up the hill, entangling and snapping branches on its roof rack as it went. On our way up, we saw, through the woods, floating in the darkness, a pair of taillights.
“Dude is that Syd? How the hell did she end up over there?”
Colton checked his phone.
“Ha! She’s stuck. Let me out, I gotta go help.”
He got out and ran off to assist Sydni and company. I carried on, ripping through the gravel bike path, around the practice fields and up next to the fire station. I turned off onto the road and stopped behind Dean at the four way.
We got to DQ to find they were about to close; it was after eleven on the Fourth of July after all. They stayed open for us though and we all laughed about how stupid that was. Clay, the goody goody who went the long way, got there before Sydni, who’s shortcut off of the shortcut severely delayed her. After we had finished our Blizzards, we parted ways and went home, sticking to roads designed for cars. Other than the text, our manager never said anything about the incident. Dad laughed and said he couldn’t believe we’d done that. The next year, we waited out the traffic like good girls and boys. It wasn’t nearly as fun.
A Dummy In Charge
It was only my second or third time as head lifeguard, the summer after senior year, at the Winchester Swimplex city pool in Tennessee. I should have been on my best behavior. Wouldn’t want to make enemies out of any coworkers or get on the boss’s bad side. My problem, then as now, is that being on my best behavior is terribly boring.
A head guard is in charge of all the other lifeguards working that particular shift. Head guards’ responsibilities include setting the guard rotation for the day, assigning other guards their particular chore for the day, helping the other guards solve disputes, both with each other and with patrons, monitoring and maintaining pool chemicals, helping hand out lunches as part of the Backpack program, and working the front desk when the front desk lady is on break, all in addition to the responsibilities of a regular lifeguard. But above all, the head guard is supposed to set a good example for the guards under them. That is why a lifeguard must have been employed for at least three years before they can even be considered for promotion to head guard.
It was my third year, and I was in charge, sitting in the break room bored. It was early summer and we had few patrons, which in turn meant we only had two guards on stand. 12:00, time to go to the back and check chemicals. They were fine, but while I was back there I caught sight of Junior and had a terrible idea. Junior is the manager’s personal crash test dummy. He is used for CPR training, and when not in use, the manager often dresses him up and leaves him either in the back room or, more frequently, sitting at the manager’s desk.
The manager was not there. He is often gone for hours at a time. So, thinking of the humor and not of the consequences, I returned to the guard room, where I found Rachel and Courtney sitting idly on their phones.
“Rach, Courtney, come here and help me with this.” I told them.
“What are we doing?” asked Courtney.
“Just come here, it’s gonna be awesome.” I replied.
Of all the guards to use as accomplices, Rachel and Courtney were the worst possible choice. They were new, they had only been guarding as long as I had been in charge. They did not yet know the ropes, the dos and don’ts. Which is exactly why they went along with my terrible plan.
We dressed up Junior. Red Guard shorts, navy blue visor, black whistle, we even put sunscreen on his nose. Then we hauled him outside and hoisted him up onto one of the empty guard stands. Put the guard tube strap over his shoulder and the tube across his lap. Opened the umbrella over him. He looked better equipped and more attentive than Savannah did across the pool.
In my defense, I did not actually leave a crash test dummy guarding a pool with real live patrons swimming in it. Not by himself anyway. There were two real, live, certified lifeguards out there with him the entire time. While Junior was on stand, the other guards laughed and took pictures. Patrons pointed and asked each other what was wrong with that guard. Some of them realized what it was and looked disgusted or amused. After thirty minutes or so, more people came to the pool. We went up to three, so Junior relinquished his post to a high schooler on minimum wage and went to relax in a lounge chair by the pool. He laid there and tanned for the rest of the day. No one mentioned anything to me or the other guards. The manager did not return that day. When we closed, Junior returned to the chemical room and I thought we managed to pull a hilarious stunt without any consequences.
The next day the manager and I were standing on the indoor pool deck after swim lessons. The other guards had already gone back to the guard room.
“Stetson?” asked the manager.
“Yeah boss?” I asked. Bryan is, for all intents and purposes, a great boss. He is pretty chill. He’s also uncanny in his ability to sneak up on people and show zero emotion.
“Can I talk to you a minute?”
“Did Junior go outside yesterday?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“He was on stand about thirty minutes, then he sat on a lounge chair for a couple hours.”
“A couple hours?”
Bryan paused. “Ok. He…he doesn’t need to go outside, ok? I had some people call and complain. It doesn’t look good. Word could get back to my boss and that would not be good. Got it?”
“Yes sir. It will not happen again, sir.” Bryan’s boss is Beth, city administrator. Word got to Beth, it could go all the way to Dad at the City Council. It would be in both Bryan and my best interests that word not get to Beth.
“Who helped you?”
“Courtney and Rachel.” I instantly regretted ratting them out. Word would get back to them and the other guards. “Stetson threw them under the bus.” As head guard, that’s not good.
“Courtney and Rachel? That’s all?”
“Ok. That’s all. Thank you Stetson.”
He got up and left. That was it. No punishment, just embarrassment and the unspoken fact that this was strike one. Or maybe two. Three and you were out. Fired. I’d need to be on my best behavior from then on. Bryan cornered Courtney later that day and questioned her. She tried to take the blame and cover my tracks, unaware I’d already been caught. She and Rachel both got their first strikes. They were mad at me for a while after that. Guess that was better than what could have happened. At least Junior wasn’t fazed.
Rescuing a Kayak
I have been a lifeguard for four years, a kayaker for eight, and a swimmer for fifteen. My job has seen me clean up horrible things, work with huge vats of chemicals, get cussed out, called things, argue with adults, save lives, operate floats, and direct triathlons. It has been an eventful four years. But without a doubt the most unusual job I have ever done is rescue a kayak.
Usually guarding the lakefront is easy. There are few people, and those that do come can swim and operate a boat or, if they can’t, they freely admit so and just stay on the dock. That Saturday, though, was different. It was sunny and warmer than it had been in months. People had cabin fever and those who normally did not come to the lake decided to.
Two people work the lakefront. A lifeguard, usually me, and a recreation employee. Usually the rec worker is a guy whose name I never found important and who thinks he knows more about the world than me. He’s from Florida, so his experience with kayaks and lakes and snakes must be better than mine from landlocked Tennessee, never mind that we have kayaks and lakes and the exact same snakes.
That Saturday though, the usual guy was not there. A girl, Ashley, had been assigned to work it. Poor Ashley, it was her first day working the lake.
For the first time in a long time, all of the boats were signed out. Two guys came and signed out the last two kayaks—a yellow one and a blue one. They laughed and shoved off and we went back to the table and thought nothing of it.
A short while later we heard shouting. I looked up and saw the kid who had signed out the blue kayak. He was sitting in the bow of one of the canoes, waving his kayak paddle around and shouting at us. The canoe came in and he accused us of having given him a faulty kayak. It had sunk, he said, and he left. His friend in the yellow kayak returned and left as well. I looked out and saw it—a light blue hump floating in the middle of the brown lake.
I got in the yellow kayak and went out to see. The blue kayak was upside down, full of water, and half submerged. I tried to flip it back over, but instead just caused my kayak to lean in protest. Not wanting to flip myself, I stopped and, unable to move the blue one, returned to the dock. I told Ashley that it was going to take two people to get the blue kayak back, and that I thought it would be easier if the two of us went in separate boats. Other than the yellow kayak, the only other boat we had was a gray two person kayak which had just returned. Ashley said she would prefer the yellow kayak because she “might not have the arm strength” for the gray one. So I switched to the gray one, Ashley got in the yellow one, and we went back to the blue one, floating four hundred yards from shore.
Once we got to the blue kayak, I managed to flip it over, with Ashley preventing my boat from flipping. The yellow kayak that Ashley was in had a rope on it, so we tied the blue kayak to Ashley’s. She then began to paddle back to the dock, towing the still full of water kayak behind her. So much for not having the arm strength. I offered to help, but she insisted that she could handle it. So I paddled along slowly while she struggled to pull the blue kayak behind her.
We travelled this way for several minutes. I kept repeating my offer to help, and she kept refusing. After we travelled about a hundred yards, a motorboat with two fishermen in it puttered by in front of us. They looked at us for a long time, carefully considered the situation, and carried on their way without the slightest offering of assistance. Several minutes later, after we had travelled perhaps two hundred yards, I finally, foolishly, insisted on helping. I tied the back of my boat to the front of Ashley’s so that mine, hers, and the sunken one made a three boat train. We tried to continue in this way, but found that neither of us could steer. Ashley insisted that she could handle it, and that I untie my boat from hers.
While trying to untie my boat, I leaned too far, and flipped. Straight into the cold, brown water. I couldn’t help but laugh—what else was there to do? So I flipped my boat back over, untied it, took off my shoes and threw them into it, grabbed it by the bow and started swimming to shore. So we went. My progress was now just as slow as hers. I swam, towing my kayak full of water, she paddled, towing her kayak full of water. In this way we continued to the dock.
Once at the dock some girls who were tanning helped us get the boats out of the water. It took forever to drain them and carry them back to the shed. At 4:30, half an hour after our shift was supposed to have ended, we were finished. We had done it, the kayak was saved. I never know what to expect as a lifeguard. Anything, everything, nothing. It’s all in a day’s work.
The Well Witcher
Osprey in the Outfield
Tree of Knowledge
Mr. Occam was a mean old man who nobody in all of Appleton High could stand. He was the trigonometry teacher. It would have been better if he taught calculus or statistics, as only nerds who were dumb enough to think math had some real-world application took those classes. He didn’t though, he taught trigonometry, which was unfortunate for all involved. Everybody had to take trigonometry. Including the enlightened masses who knew that mathematics only exists to lower your ACT scores and crush your soul, which everyone knew is precisely why Mr. Occam liked it. Mr. Occam had taught trigonometry at Appleton High for forty-five years, and the rumor was the only time he ever smiled was when he threw a kid out for referring to the holy subject as simply “trig.”
Poppy Eaton never had much time for Mr. Occam or Appleton High in general. She sat in the back and hid behind her jet-black hair and worked, rather mathematically it must be confessed, on her routine. The tournament was in a few days. She’d need a score above 80 to win. If she wanted to skate for a living, she needed to win.
“Hey, psst,” the boy in front of her had turned around and was watching her.
“What?” Poppy had found in her fifteen years that boys who pssted you in the middle of class were even worse than the ones who waited till after.
“Do you know what the hell he is talking about?” the boy jerked a thumb at Mr. Occam, who was babbling in a voice so monotone one would bet that even he was bored of the lecture.
Poppy forced herself to pay attention for a moment. Good old sine, cosine, and tangent.
“Yea kinda,” she replied.
“What’s that?” the boy had already moved on from Occam’s lecture and was leaning his head at an absurd angle peering at the sketches of ramps in front of her.
“None ya,” Poppy growled as she used her arms to hide the sketches.
“Oh hell,” the boy said, noticing Poppy’s bag for the first time, “you’re a damn skateboarder.”
“…isn’t that right Mr. Smith?” Occam’s voice pierced the boy from behind before Poppy could respond.
“Huh?” the boy whipped around, his face turning red.
“Why don’t you tell the class about whatever it is that Ms. Eaton was showing you which is obviously more interesting than our discussion?”
“Sure,” the boy replied, his embarrassment turning to cruelty, “she…uh…Ms. Eaton here was showing me her kickass skateboard.”
Behind him, Poppy shot the boy a look of pure hatred that could have melted stone.
“You have a skateboard with you, Ms. Eaton?”
Poppy looked down at the floor. Mr. Occam was already over her, his dorky dress shoes and his tube socks, visible because his suspenders had his trousers yanked too far up his ass, on the floor in front of her.
“Yea,” she confessed.
“Yes, sir. I have a skateboard with me, sir.” Poppy said through clenched teeth as she made eye contact with him, his wore old bald head behind thick round glasses.
“Give it here then. It is obviously distracting poor Mr. Smith from our lecture.”
Poppy considered taking her board out and hitting poor Mr. Smith across the jaw with it, but instead she handed it over.
“Thank you,” Mr. Occam said with a fakeness that went perfectly with his button up and bowtie. He set the board down on his desk, continued his idiotic lecture, and Poppy sat in misery in the back of the room, every fiber of her being working overtime to keep her from killing poor Mr. Smith.
Hours, an eternity, later, after school, Poppy walked back down to the math hall. She knew the policy. Anything taken up in class you got back at the end of the week, unless the teacher chose to give it back early. Mr. Occam was the sort of man who wouldn’t give water to a drowning man, so Poppy didn’t really expect it back. But she wanted it back, and she was pretty sure she had calmed down enough to be reasonable. It was her first offense. It really was poor Mr. Smith’s fault, why didn’t Mr. Occam address the real problem by taking up Smith’s tongue? She was certain she could reason with Occam. She could try.
She rounded the corner, entered the math hall, and gasped in surprise.
Mr. Occam looked up, saw her, smiled, a real smile, and promptly fell off the skateboard.
“Hi Poppy,” he muttered as he picked himself and the board up. Poppy wasn’t sure which was stranger, the sight of Occam on a skateboard or that he had used her first name.
“Here’s your board,” he handed it to her sheepishly, “I meant to give it back after class but forgot all about it.”
“Umm, thanks.” Poppy took the board and just looked at the math teacher for a moment.
“I know,” he said with a grin, “totally ridiculous. I haven’t skated in a long time. Had to see if I still could.”
Poppy smiled and went home. After that, she tried harder to pay attention in Mr. Occam’s trigonometry class. Mr. Occam, the mean old nerdy skateboarding math teacher. The thought made her smile.
There were four people in the house, and they owned four cars. Logic would say that there was one car per person, and theoretically, that was true. But only one car was a Mustang GT; only one was an SUV capable of being practical when it needed to, only one got anywhere close to good gas mileage, and one was unfortunate enough that it didn’t really have any redeeming qualities about it. Two of the cars were manual transmissions; two were automatic. As a result of this hodge-podge of automotive attributes, the family played musical cars, usually driving one assigned to them but frequently commandeering another that they needed or wanted for whatever reason on that particular day. One day you might be driving through heavy traffic. You’ll want an automatic. Or maybe you need a manual so you can conveniently stall out somewhere. It has its uses. On Prom night the boy would need the GT, what else could he take? The Jeep? The God-awful blue Suzuki hatchback?! The mom had an art show; she’d need the Jeep to carry all her crap.
It was in the aftermath of this car-swapping that the mom found herself driving the Jeep while the boy took the Mustang. The mom was going to Wal-Mart, a secret journey to buy such forbidden items as cat food. If the grandmother knew the mom was wasting money on cat food, never mind that they had a cat, there would be hell to pay. The mom wandered around Wal-Mart, enjoying the freedom of it. Nobody knew her problems there. Nobody cared. But the inevitable came, and she went to check out and check back into the real world.
At the checkout counter, the mom got her total. 42 dollars and 19 cents. The grandmother would be furious if she knew. The mom didn’t have any cash, she never had cash, proof, according to the grandmother, that she spent money as soon as she got it. The mom went for her card. It wasn’t in her wallet. She checked again. Nope, definitely not there. The cashier is waiting. There’s a line forming. Why does Wal-Mart have 25 registers if they only use 3? She rummages frantically through her purse. One of life’s great unsolvable mysteries is why women need a wallet and a purse. It’s not there either. It’s gone. She does not have a card. She apologizes. She can feel her face turning red. She’ll find the card she promises. She just dropped it. Left it somewhere. She’ll find it. The cashier understands. She moves the cart, the $42.19 of harmless contraband, off to the side and begins ringing up the next customer.
The mom has turned her studio upside down and inside out, infuriating the cat and petrifying the chameleon, before she realizes where the card must be. McDonalds! Yesterday she went to the taboo money pit that is McDonald's. The drive-thru. Could she have dropped it on the asphalt, right there in front of the window? No. No, she would have remembered that. It must have fallen in the car. Yesterday she drove the Mustang, her car, rightfully. Another thing that the grandmother thought they could do without.
The mom gets to the high school in minutes. In the student parking lot, the Mustang is easy to spot among the swarms of students’ cars. Every student in the state drives either a beat-up jalopy, a pickup truck, or both. She rushes to her car and nearly yanks the door handle off. It’s locked. Of course it’s locked. She doesn’t have a key. She calls the dad. He says he doesn’t want to walk all the way across the school just to give her his keys. That would take a solid ten minutes. The mom is annoyed at the dad, but what else is new. She wonders what the grandmother would say about that. Probably take the dad, her son’s, side like she always did.
She texts the boy instead. He’s the one that drove the Mustang that day anyway.
“Honey? Can you please come down here and unlock the Mustang for me? I think I left my debit card in there.”
“No mom, I can’t leave class,”
“Please! It’ll take five minutes!”
“Sorry I can’t,”
The mom is angry. She’s desperate. Her $42.19 worth of paint, Dr. Pepper, and cat food are still sitting there orphaned at Wal-Mart. She needs her keys. Her keys. What she needs is leverage.
“Honey there’s something I need to tell you anyway. Something important.”
“I think I should tell you in person.”
“Is this a trick?”
“No, it’s about your father.”
“Please just come down here.”
The boy appears moments later. Her leverage worked. News about his father is more important than the class he wasn’t paying attention to anyway. But now he’s here, and he’s got the leverage.
“News first, keys second.”
The mom swallows. She’s expected this. The boy would have eventually found out anyway, but the plan had been to tell him together. This would be another black mark. She doesn’t care. The hell with it.
“Your father has quit his job. He said he couldn’t work nights anymore and quit.”
The boy just stares at her, knowing that the eternal fights over money will now come harder and more often. Numb, he hands her the keys.