The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘children’

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »

No Name Is Safe

August 4, 2015 | by

gregory-peck

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.

It has been a bad summer for the iconic characters of Southern literature. A couple of weeks ago, a New Hampshire man named Huckleberry Finn was accused of rape. This was surely not what his parents had in mind when they named him.

When the world learned that Atticus Finch had aged into a crotchety reactionary with KKK sympathies, we thought of the children. Not just those thousands schlepping their mauve trade summer-reading paperbacks all over the country. But those named after what we believed was literature’s best dad; Atticus was the #1 boy’s baby name in 2015. As one baby-name Web site puts it, “Atticus, with its trendy Roman feel combined with the upstanding, noble image of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a real winner.” As the  New York Times put it, “Fans of Mockingbird have been crestfallen and disbelieving that their hero could be so changed, but perhaps no group more so than those who chose that name for their children.” Read More »

Civilization Was a Crust

June 22, 2015 | by

Konigsburg Book Cover

From the cover of Frankweiler.

Long before museums were pandering to callow visitors bearing selfie sticks, they were trying to attract young people the old-fashioned way. Any big collection worth its salt has had some sort of children’s guide for decades now: museums encourage kids to look for dogs and cats in Dutch tavern scenes, giving them Bingo-style checklists, colorful maps, and bits of trivia. (Fact: pointillist paintings are made up of lots of little dots.)

The Met has always had an especially good kids’ program, and one indication of this is how enthusiastically—and diplomatically—they embrace the classic E. L. Konigsburg novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. For the uninitiated, though I suspect there are few of you: this book chronicles the exploits of the Kincaid siblings, who run away and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum. There, they sleep in a sixteenth-century bed, bathe (and fish for coins) in a fountain, and, into the bargain, solve an art-world mystery. Read More »

Losing Count

April 16, 2015 | by

“Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” and the ambiguous history of counting-out rhymes.

Cedar-Central

A Works Progress Administration poster for the Cedar Central Apartments in Cleveland, Ohio, ca. 1936.

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny meeny miny mo

“Eeny meeny miny mo” is one of those rhymes that’s ingrained in our cultural limbic system—once we hear the first two syllables, the rest unspools whether we want it to or not. No one knows what eeny or meeny might mean; everybody knows what “eeny meeny” means. It turns up in strange places: in Pulp Fiction, in the Great Vermont Corn Maze, in Justin Bieber songs. But where did eeny meeny come from? Kipling tells us that “Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, and Mo / Were the First Big Four of the Long Ago,” but that’s not such a good lead.

What we do know is that once Eeny Meeny appeared on the scene, it was everywhere. In the fifties and sixties, the formidable husband-and-wife folklorists Iona and Peter Opie recorded hundreds of varieties in England and America, including, to name just a few: Read More »

New Words

April 8, 2015 | by

1000px-Ambidextrie.svg

Sometime in the third grade, a girl in my class began to claim she was ambidextrous. Previously, this girl had said she wanted to be a marine biologist. She also claimed to have athlete’s foot. This girl was a pretentious liar.

In fairness, marine-biology ambitions were all the rage that year. We were just moving beyond the easy descriptor stage; it was no longer enough to want an occupation you could identify from a Richard Scarry book, such as baker, doctor, or fireman. Now people wanted to be not just teachers but middle-school teachers, not just football stars but running backs—ideally, our choices conveyed an element of mystery and worldliness to the other kids. Still, generally speaking, our ideas for future careers were about as complicated as those you see in contemporary romance novels, where the heroines have easily explained jobs that seldom seem to interfere with the business of being a glamorous grown-up. Marine biology, with its vague hints of tropical waters and dolphins, seemed like a perfect career path for both the frivolous animal-lover and the committed scientist. None of us was sure what it entailed. Read More »

Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »