Wednesday, March 30, 2016

We can't all be cowboys

I was a reader, not a cowboy.
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Booker T. Washington
"There is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem," Booker T. Washington said. I have no argument with that, but it does occur to me that many people, perhaps even most people, would flip it around: "There is as much dignity in writing a poem as in tilling a field." That's assuming they even believe that all labor, like all of humanity, is created equal.

My parents, I'm sure, would have favored the second phrasing. My mother in particular. She was the daughter of a full-time farmer and the wife of a part-time farmer, and she would have preferred that her son take more interest in tilling fields than in writing poems or writing anything else. In time she realized I was a hopeless farmer and that if I could make a living doing something else, even writing for a newspaper, so be it.

Larry McMurtry
Lately I've been reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, one of Larry McMurtry's many memoirs. He grew up on a Texas cattle ranch, and his parents expected him to be a cowboy, as mine expected me to be a farmer. They gave him a pony to ride around the ranch, with an old cowboy to watch over him. He hated that pony. Once he discovered books, not easy since his parents apparently had no books, he was interested only in reading and later writing, not horses and cows. Later he would write about cowboys, most notably in Lonesome Dove, but that doesn't mean he ever longed to be one.

One day a traveling salesman stopped at the McMurtry ranch, and his parents bought a World Book Encyclopedia for their son, intended to aid him with his schoolwork. "In attempting to do the respectable thing -- become a household with an encyclopedia -- my parents had unwittingly unleashed a demon; they may have sensed that all those words, on all those subjects, most of which could have no utility for a young cowboy in Texas, were what was going to take me away from the small safe town and the ranch on the hill," McMurtry writes.

For me the turning point in my life came when my parents returned from a shopping trip to Toledo with a Smith-Corona portable typewriter in the summer before I entered high school. As with the McMurtrys and their encyclopedia, the typewriter was intended to help the kids with their schoolwork. Little did they realize the demon they had unleashed.

Previously I had had no interest in writing, and none of my teachers had ever commented on my ability in this area. But I loved watching my words flow onto paper in neat type, and I was soon writing stories and poems and producing a weekly newspaper and various books and magazines, all with that little typewriter.

In homes all over the world, the sons and daughters of doctors discover they have no interest in studying medicine, the offspring of lawyers and merchants decline to join the law firm or take over the family business; the children of artists decide they prefer something else over art. Most parents, difficult though it may be, eventually come around to agreeing with Booker T. Washington.

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