In October of this year, my choir — MasterVoices — will present the New York premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon‘s opera, 27, about the literary and intellectual salons held at the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the years between the world wars. Hemingway and Fitzgerald are characters. So are Picasso and Man Ray. It should be a heady romp of an opera!
Because the opera is so literary, I decided it would be fantastic if I could bring my College Bridge Senior English class to see it, but this posed a challenge: How in the world would 12th graders ever truly appreciate the work without some knowledge of all the key players? Or, for that matter, how would I?
See, I’m somewhat poorly-versed when it comes to the Lost Generation. I know all the big names of the era that any self-respecting English major should know, but I haven’t ever spent much time with them. I read “The Old Man and the Sea” in 7th grade twenty-five years ago and remember very little of it beyond the fact that I disliked it. I tried to love Hemingway by reading The Sun Also Rises on two separate occasions but found the book to be a tiresome chore. I’ve never been gaga about Gatsby like a lit-lover is supposed to be, and I think I opened up Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons once while in college, read a single poem, shuddered, then promptly returned to it to its shelf in the library. Thus ended my time with the Americans in Paris in the 1920s. To me they seemed purely hedonistic and self-absorbed, and really self-important. I didn’t have much of an interest.
And I might have left them there, sitting on the shelf and continuing to accrue accolades from everyone but me, but for three things: this upcoming Ricky Ian Gordon opera, as I’ve said, and Joyce and Woolf. They’re of the era and of the ilk, more verbose than their American counterparts and a thousand times more cerebral and difficult…and yet I adore them. As an Irishman and a Brit, there might be an argument for the difference of their literary output, but, most things being the same, I ought to be able to find something worthwhile in their American peers, right? So it occurred to me that the only reason I ever came to love Joyce and Woolf in the first place was due to my professor, Richard Hood, who provided rich, detailed background to their lives and times that gave their writing a context and a point of approach. He made their writing feel vital to a young twenty-something in the late 1990s, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful and now need to replicate for my own students.
I never had that with the Americans in Paris — I’ve never read them in the context of a class — but if I’m going to enjoy performing in an opera about them, and if I’m going to provide my students with a richly satisfying educational experience, then I’d better damn well get studying and teach myself so that I can pass the knowledge on.
Which is what I’ve been doing. First, I made a third attempt at The Sun Also Rises, and this time I finished it. I won’t say it’s become my favorite book or that Hemingway’s genius dripped from the pages in any obvious way, but I really did like it — so that’s a start. I’m currently reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume, a book that seems to have been released to coincide exactly with my interest in the subject matter; it came out at the beginning of last month, just as I was piecing together my course of study. Blume’s book has acutely sharpened my appreciation for and interest in Hemingway.
Anyway, in the days and weeks to come, I plan to post my explorations of the works I read in a way that is meant to be shared with my students, but will hopefully be of interest to any reader who stumbles across my blog. I’m coming at this with an open mind, yes, but, more importantly, with a humble mind. My previous encounters with the Lost Generation writers have left me feeling dismissive of their talents, but this time around my thought is, “You know what? They are beloved for a reason.” Rather than try to trash them, I’m going to try to see what it is that others see, and I’m going to share this experience with my students.
And with you. So if you’re reading this and you have any reading suggestions for me, please feel free to pass them on in the comment section. Otherwise, keep checking in for updates!
***Apropos of nothing, here’s a video of my aforementioned professor, Richard Hood, playing the banjo as he’s wont to do. A man of many, many talents; he not only taught modernist literature, he toured the country (world?) with his bluegrass band, led humanitarian trips to Haiti and moved me cross-country from Ohio to California. Hemingway may or may not be a genius, and Stein probably isn’t (not really…), but Hood sure as hell is!