Monday, April 15, 2013

Literary babies and bath water

Ezra Pound
The other night on television I caught a few minutes of the reality show Baggage, hosted by Jerry Springer. A young man had to choose among three attractive women on the basis of the baggage each of them carried. One of the women, for example, was a heavy smoker and a former drug addict. The man, of course, had some baggage of his own that was revealed at the end of the show.

All of us carry around baggage, those things that make us less than ideal lovers, friends, employees, neighbors, whatever. Sometimes our decisions about other kinds of things are influenced by baggage, too. Do you avoid Mel Gibson movies because you don't like how he behaves when he's had too much to drink? Have you trashed your Barbra Streisand records because you dislike her politics? And what about writers? Is your choice of reading affected not just by what writers write and how they write it but also by how they lived their lives? Are there deal breakers in your reading life? And should there be?

Thomas Lynch poses this question in his book The Undertaking. Speaking of the poet Ezra Pound, who moved to Italy and both embraced fascism and supported Hitler, Lynch asks, "But ought we be kept from "The River-Merchant's Wife" by his mistaken politics? Should outrage silence the sublime?"

One person who doesn't think so is Nancy Pearl, who in Book Lust to Go writes, "One of my favorite writers, Edith Wharton, visited the country in 1917 and wrote In Morocco about her time there. What took away from the delight of reading a previously unknown -- to me -- Wharton book was the anti-Semitism that creeps in a bit here and there throughout the text." Pearl recommends the book just the same and continues to regard Wharton as one of her favorites. Even so, the new knowledge about Wharton affects how she views the great writer. How can it not?

This kind of thing is one of the dangers of reading about the lives of famous writers.  Just like the guy on the reality show, you are likely to learn some things you don't really want to know. And then you have to decide.

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