New Worlds

Inundated as we are every day with international news, editorials, television commentary, and blogs, the world seems a terribly complicated place in which moral choices can only be partial and relative.  But occasionally a writer or philosopher comes along who is able to strip away inessential details so that ethics and morality once more seem clear.  One such is Wallace Shawn; he has sometimes been dismissed as a mere exegete of liberal guilt, but if that’s what he is then he is certainly the most moving, affecting one we have.  To the general public Shawn is best-known as a charming character actor (notable film performances include The Princess Bride, Manhattan, and Clueless, my personal favorite), but he has also had a long career as an author of philosophical plays, including Aunt Dan and Lemon, My Dinner with André, and, most recently, The Fever.

Shawn’s new collection, Essays (Haymarket Books) can be read as a companion piece to his plays, since it covers so many of the same ideas.  “My parents brought me up to believe in ‘morality,'” the author remarks, going on to describe his mother’s preoccupation with suffering children in Third World countries.  The young Shawn shared this apparently innocent concern until he began to see, “as it appeared out of the mist, the outline of my own figure as a character in their story.  It turned out that my role was sinister, dreadful, but for my first forty years I hadn’t realized that.”  The essays in this book, written over a period of decades, explore this theme as well as others — politics, art, theater, sex, aesthetics — all within the broad context of human responsibility.

Geraldo Rivera doesn’t write quite as gracefully as Wallace Shawn, but he, too, presents a virtually unanswerable moral argument in The Great Progression: How Hispanics Will Lead America to a New Era of Prosperity (a Celebra Book, New American Library).  Rivera adverts to a number of statistics brought up by people like Lou Dobbs, pointing out that there are now nine times as many Latinos in the U.S. as there were in 1950, and that, “If current trends hold, 25 percent of the U.S. population will be Hispanic by 2040, and by the end of the twenty-first century, the United States will be a majority-Hispanic country.”  This, of course, terrifies the anti-immigration pundits, who fear that “the industrious, God-fearing, ethical, family-valued, disciplined, self-governing and moral New World colossus the Founding Fathers contemplated” will soon be changed beyond recognition.  Rivera argues that Latinos possess all these supposedly echt-American qualities, and that in fact they have displayed stronger “family values” and a more powerful work ethic than the Anglos who would exclude them — a contention impossible to dispute.  “In much of the United States there is scarcely a lawn mowed, a fruit picked or a baby cared for, but by a Hispanic….Latinos, particularly the newer arrivals, have seized the opportunities that exist at or near the bottom of our still relatively affluent society, so down-low it is only minimally affected even in these times of widespread economic travail, turmoil and stress.”  These are the individuals, Rivera posits, who are most likely to fuel America’s economic revival.

Rivera’s polemic confronts head-on our often-confused national identity, our notion of just what it means to be an American.  That notion, as embodied in our perennial search for “exceptionalism,” has now been addressed by the eminent scholar of intellectual history, William H. Geotzmann, in Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism (Basic Books).  Goetzmann describes the book as “the story of the search by American intellectuals for cultural self-definition…. My theme, of course, is the American quest for the climactic model of world civilization that not only would incorporate the best ideas, the best lifestyles, and the most profound spiritual values, but also would forever remain free and open to the new.” 

Goetzmann’s panoramic vision covers a century, from the Founding Fathers — “who were nothing if not intellectuals” — to William James and the Pragmatist philosophers of the late nineteenth century; along the way we encounter figures as diverse as Alexander von Humboldt, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  The civilization he describes is “derivative and syncretistic.”  “In my opinion,” he continues, “there is honor in acknowledging this fact, and folly in the reductionist search for the one quintessentially unique American factor in our global civilization.  This is an interdependent world, and there is no better time than now to acknowledge this fact and to build upon it.”

Christmas is approaching, and since New York Review Books has reprinted one of the books I adored most as a child, that is what I will be giving to the children on my list — no matter how loudly they scream for electronic gadgets.  The book in question is Carbonel: The King of the Cats by Barbara Sleigh (first published in 1955), which I know is still golden because when my own children read it a few years ago they loved it as much as I did.  Sleigh is one of the authors whose work J.K. Rowling appears to have mined in coming up with Harry Potter; she specializes in having magical events happen to ordinary children, combining fantasy and down-to-earth humor in a singularly charming mélange. 

Sleigh’s ordinary child is ten-year-old Rosemary Brown, who hopes to help the family finances during the holidays by cleaning houses.  An old lady at the market talks her into buying a decrepit broom, and throws a large black cat in as part of the bargain.  It turns out that this is Carbonel, the rightful King of all Cats, whom the old crone has enslaved and put under a spell.  It is now up to Rosemary — with the help of the magic broom and her new friend, John — to break the spell and free Carbonel so that he can reclaim his kingdom from its usurper, a monstrous ginger housecat named Popsey Dinkums.

Sleigh understood children, and what is more she understood cats: Carbonel speaks exactly the way one feels a particularly proud cat would speak, if he could.  New York Review Books has also given us the two sequels to this masterpiece: The Kingdom of Carbonel, in which an evil but beautiful gray Persian called Grisana attempts to take over Cat Country for her own, and Carbonel and Calidor, in which Carbonel’s son and heir rebels against his sheltered life and apprentices himself to a witch.  All three books are pure pleasure — even for adults.