I’ve just returned from teaching at the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana. What a wonderful gathering of writers! While I was there, I also had the privilege of delivering the keynote address as well as the opportunity to visit the land of James Dean in Fairmount, Indiana. Some folks have been asking whether I could post my keynote address, “Does Your Mother Know You’re Reading This?: Becoming a Writer in the Midwest.” Well, it’s a bit long, methinks, for a blog post, but I thought I might be able to share a little of it while at the same time talking about my fantastic day visiting Fairmount (Thank you, Cathy Shouse). All my life, people have mangled my name, calling me either Lee Marvin or Dean Martin, so why not a Lee Martin/James Dean mashup. Here goes.
My father, though he believed in education and expected me to do well in school, could have lived his life just fine without books. Still, somehow when I’d learned to read, I became a member of a children’s book club that published what they called Junior Deluxe Editions. They were wonderfully illustrated, but they were much more than story-books. They were novels with the size and bulk of the books that grownups read. The Junior Deluxe Editions were books like Alice in Wonderland, Captains Courageous, At the Back of the North Wind, Kidnapped, Hans Brinker, Penrod and Sam. I believe the club must have operated as any book club does, so many to buy and featured selections mailed to you if you failed to decline them.
One day, I was in my father’s truck while he was doing some sort of field work. There was a place behind the seat where he could keep tools and whatnot. I particularly liked the red flags he kept there, flags on short dowel rods that were meant to be used in the case of a road emergency. I was reaching for them that day, when I felt the square edges of a box. I pulled it out and saw that it was just the right size to hold. . .you guessed it. . .a book. I couldn’t resist. I tore it open to find inside a Junior Deluxe Edition of The Prince and the Pauper, a book that my father intended to return, having decided, I suppose, that my collection was as complete as it was going to get.
It occurs to me now that someone enrolled me in that club and someone chose those books for me, as I surely didn’t make the selections myself, and that person could have been no one other than my mother. She was, in a sense, building a library for me, an effort that my father decided to short-circuit. My mother didn’t even know the book had come until I showed it to her.
My father was angry, and somewhat ashamed because he’d been caught hiding it. “Are you going to keep it?” he asked my mother.
“Well, it’s been opened,” she said. “I hardly think we have a choice.”
James Dean grew up in this house just outside Fairmount, Indiana, after the death of his mother when he was nine years-old. This was the farm of his aunt and uncle, and this is where Dean lived until graduating from high school and then going to California where his farther lived. He attended college for a while and then went to New York to study acting. The rest we know: leading roles in three major motion pictures (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant) before his tragic death at the age of 24 in a car crash in California on September 30, 1955.
I like to think of this orphaned boy growing up in a small town in the Midwest while dreaming of brighter lights, bigger stages, missing his mother who always encouraged his creativity.
Again, from my keynote:
We [Midwesterners] could be as wary of those who visited us from afar as we could those who’d left us and gone off to make lives in the cities—sometimes even in foreign lands. In our less flattering moments, we thought those expatriates uppity, their absence a comment on the inadequacy of our provincial lives. Although we took pride in our children and dreamed good lives for them, we sometimes stopped short in what we could imagine. We wished for our daughters jobs as nurses or schoolteachers. We wished for our sons the inheritance of our farms or steady work at the refinery. We went on reading our Bibles, our newspapers, our seed catalogs, our farm implement manuals, our Reader’s Digests, our Family Circles and Better Homes and Gardens, our Enquirers, our Grits. Oh, sure, someone probably read the classics or contemporary novels—I know I’m generalizing—but for the most part we were communities who didn’t give much thought to the literary life. In fact, I’m fairly certain we sometimes stood on guard against the dangers of a life of the imagination, which stood in stark contrast to the level-headed horse sense we valued. We didn’t chew our cabbage twice, didn’t burn our bridges behind us, didn’t count our chickens before they hatched, didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, didn’t try to teach a pig to sing.
Here I am, giving a signed copy of my novel, Break the Skin, to conference participant, Rebecca Watson. She’s only been writing a few months, but she has dreams of writing for a lifetime. The conference was full of such dreams. Sometimes I wonder whether the Midwest conditions us to be ashamed of our dreams for fear that people will think us overly ambitious or proud for believing that we can achieve our goals. I say, dream big. I say, follow your heart.
Again, from the keynote:
One day, I walked into the small lending library that had come to our little town. To this day, I love the leisurely feeling of strolling down the aisles in a library, just to see what I can see. At the time I’m remembering now, public libraries—even that small lending library—were almost holy, so sacred that they required hushed voices. If you spoke at all, it was in a whisper. There were no cell phones ringing, as there are now, no beep-beep-beep of the bar code scanning self-checkouts, no clacking of computer keys, no full-throated voices at the reference desk. Oh, listen to me go on, old fuddy-duddy that I am. The libraries of my youth were places of supplication, places where you stood humbly in the midst of all those books. Places of reverence.
Even if the book was Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, the 1966 bestseller that Amazon.com now describes as an “addictively entertaining trash classic,” a novel of “sex, drugs, and schlock and more.” One of the most commercially successful novels of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies. I didn’t know any of that when the book caught my eye that day. Maybe it was the bold white letters on the black spine that first drew me to it. Maybe it was the sound and rhythm of the title. The front of the jacket was white with the title and the author’s name in black and gray letters. Brightly colored capsules—yellows, reds, blues—the “dolls” of seconal, nembutal, and amytal dotted the cover as if someone had left them scattered there. For whatever reason, I opened that book and read the first paragraph: “The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming—an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. But she didn’t mind the heat or the littered midway called Times Square. She thought New York was the most exciting city in the world.”
I was hooked. I’d never been to New York, but someone, this character, Anne, had just arrived there and she thought it was wonderful. A journey had begun, and I wanted to know who Anne was, why she’d come to New York, and what would happen to her while she was there. It didn’t matter to me that the novel was a bestseller or that people had sat in judgment of it. All I knew at the time was it was the start of a story, and it promised to take me somewhere I wasn’t able to go on that hot day in Sumner, Illinois. All I had to do was check it out.
And that’s where the problem came.
The librarian was a woman who lived on our street. I’d always thought her a kind woman, pleasant and quick with a smile and a good word. Her name was Rose and she had black hair curled on top of her head.
She took one look at Valley of the Dolls, and she pressed her lips together in a tight line and looked at me over the top of her glasses. When she finally spoke, she was stern.
“Does your mother know you’re reading books like this?”
For a moment I was flummoxed by the question. I hadn’t had any feeling of shame about checking out that book until she asked me that question. The only thing I knew to do was to tell the truth.
“My mother lets me read whatever I want,” I said.
I imagined that Rose was forming a new impression of my mother, then—not a good one, and I was sorry about that. But it was true. My mother was never afraid of what I might encounter between the covers of a book. She trusted me to recognize and to discard the books that were lacking in merit. Perhaps, it was the way I answered Rose, in a voice that managed to calmly state the fact while at the same time indicating how surprised I was that she had asked the question in the first place. Suddenly, she was the one ashamed.
She took my card. She penciled in the due date on the checkout slip glued inside the back cover. I read Valley of the Dolls, and as far as I can tell it did me no harm.
I end with this story as a way of saying how thankful I am that I had a mother who loved reading and who invited me into the world of the imagination. How thankful I am that she opened the world of books to me and never tried to close my mind or my heart to any corner of that world. She wanted it to be mine in its entirety. Who knows what I might have missed, had she felt otherwise.
The above image is of a note left on the headstone at James Dean’s grave in Fairmount. I confess to not being able too make out the weathered scribble, but I’m glad it’s there, this note I’ll wager came straight from the heart. Here’s something that Dean said about acting: “To grasp the full significance of life is the actor’s duty, to interpret it is his problem, and to express it is his dedication.” Sounds like a good description of the writer as well.
So a toast to all of us dedicated to the willed word on this day when I think of James Dean leaving Fairmount, setting out to find what might be waiting for him in the larger world. Actors, writers, dreamers from the Midwest. Reach far and high. Find your way to what pleases you.