Right now Mom and I are having are roof redone. I have not spoken to the roofers, although I will admit that in our neighborhood people who are more social do speak to people who do that kind of work for them as friendly acquaintances. I have, however, invited our handyman, Al, to Christmas dinner a couple of times. Though I only know the name of a few of my neighbors, I am reminded of something Harry Truman said. He was visiting an acquaintance in a rich neighborhood out of town. He knocked on the door of the house which turned out to be next door to the person he was looking for. “Does so-and-so live next door to you?” he asked. “I don’t know who lives next door to me,” was the reply. Harry wrote about it, “That would never have happened in Independence!” Independence was Harry’s home town, and in Harry’s hometown everyone knew everyone.
As for those roofers… I want to believe I write for people like those roofers… In books like Poor Folk (though I suspect the roofers are middle class) and Discovering Wonderland (who despite the strangeness of the little girl and her father, are Middle Class only). I really believe that the books people like when they start out reading are books about them. More, I believe the people who loved Dickens were “the people” and the same is true of Twain. Perhaps is also true about the Brontë sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell (neglected though the latter is as literature). And perhaps that is the kind of literature I prefer. And it is not just prose: I believe as disparate poets as the Brownings, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickenson wrote about popular causes or in their own way for or about “the people.”
Don’t get me wrong: there are some “upper class books” I like: I like F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance. This Side of Paradise; The Great Gatsby; and Tender is the Night, are favorites of mine. Despite his being a friend to Edith Wharton and leaving America, I like Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I would list T.S. Eliot except I am not sure he was actually rich. Yet having read one or two poems of Dorothy Parker, and having read The New Yorker for one year, I can’t say I like them. And I always felt that H.L. Mencken deserved to be what he was called in the 1950’s “the most hated man in America.”
That leads to a book which I probably hated too much to be reasonable at the time in high school, but which even today I regard with mild distaste: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I have never truly felt sorry for Newland Archer. I admit, Dickens did it: he dumped his wife for another woman (what Newland wanted to do but couldn’t). But at least there was more to Dickens’ life and work than being an adulterer or justifying adultery. I did not get that Newland’s problems ever went deeper than wanting a girl he couldn’t have–and I have had a similar problem: there have been lots of times when I was in love with somebody who didn’t love me. The truth is, the reason I didn’t feel for Newland was not just that, though: I didn’t get the feeling that besides being married to May and in love with Ellen wasn’t the only problem he ever had. He was so rich and spoiled in every other way. And I just couldn’t care.
In my heart I would rather write about “the common man,” the person I knew in school as a kid. I don’t know why the plight of being “ordinary” moves me more than the plight of being “intellectual” but it does… and that is even though I have always wanted to be “intellectual” myself. I have wanted to think deeply about themes like the nature of God, the nature of morality, and the nature of art. Yet frankly as subjects for my work I am always drawn by people who “live lives of quiet desperation” as Thoreau put it. They want “more” but they barely know what it is. What I like about my character Mike Bannock is that he aspires to be more, in the end, than he is “supposed” to be… he finds God in a trailer park and not in a mansion. As Lincoln put it: “The Lord must have loved the common man, he made so many of them.”