28 February 2010

February Made Us Shiver

It warmed up to about 45F (7C) today, so much of the snow melted. Still, there was a lot of slush in the streets and there still could be icy or slick spots, so I didn't go bike riding. It's not as if I'm training for the Tour de France. Still, I'm itching to get back on my bike. Those few little rides I've taken have whetted my appetite.

Plus, the Winter Olympics ended today. So now I just want winter to be done, over with, so I can get out and ride.

I'm thinking now of that line from American Pie: But February made me shiver/With every paper I'd deliver. In those lines, Don McLean captured the feeling of the month that's ending today: It's indisputably winter; Spring isn't around the corner and the holidays are long past.

Someone once asked what the song meant. His reply: "That I'd never have to work again"--or something to that effect. I don't recall that he recorded anything after the eponymous album. For that matter, I don't think he even performed again. Somehow I can imagine him moving into the woods of New Hampshire, as the recently-departed J.D. Salinger did. The difference is, McLean didn't become famous for not doing much of anything after his masterpiece, as Salinger did after Catcher In The Rye. For some reason, no one seems to have stalked McLean for interviews he wouldn't give, as so many journalists and fans did to Salinger.

Other than their reclusiveness, what other reason is there to mention Salinger and McLean in the same post? It occurs to me now that they are both essentially conservatives, at least if Pie and Catcher are indicators. In American Pie, McLean basically laments the sixties, the decade that had just passed before he wrote and recorded that song. Bad news on the doorstep; I couldn't take one more step. He felt that "the day the music died" was the day Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash; apres ca, la deluge. To me, American Pie is Stairway to Heaven without drugs or the sexual revolution. Some might say that it reflects an infantile desire to continue his adolescence; others have said the same about Catcher in the Rye and, for that matter, almost anything Mark Twain wrote before Letters From the Earth.

As for Catcher: Its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, has been called a rebellious teenager. How can anyone say that about a young man who says he wishes he could write a letter to Thomas Hardy to tell him how great a writer he is, and that he likes Evelyn Waugh, too, but not enough to write him a letter? I mean, I like Hardy, too: In fact, I think he's very underrated as a poet. But I wouldn't say that liking him is exactly an act of rebellion unless your elders were all fans of Ezra Pound and post-modern fiction.

I'll bet February made Holden Caulfield shiver, too. Yet somehow it's hard to imagine what he would be after a "summer of love." I don't think he would be quite like McLean, or the narrator of McLean's song. Then again, it's hard to see McLean's narrator having much sympathy with Holden, or whatever he might have become.

What they have in common with each other, and the rest of us, is that for them, and us, tomorrow will be March. Will it usher in the spring, or will it be a continuation of winter by other means that will end only with summer--of love, or other things?


Sophie said...

I always liked the designation 'heimatsliteratur', which doesn't quite translate as national literature.And I suppose I looked at these two works as such ; attempts at sweeping judgements rendered less banal, and conservative, by an appeal to nation specific myth.
Or maybe I just couldn't find Holden Caulfield remotely sympathetic and 'american pie'came over as sentimental 50's iconography.
On the other hand, I suppose anything was better than 'vincent'.

Justine Valinotti said...

Sophie, I'd never seen the term "heimatsliteratur" until you posted. It looks like an interesting concept.

Why do you think that so much of America's heimatsliteratur, if you will, is about young men escaping from domesticity of one kind or another (cf Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and The Call of the Wild), or into some fantasy they have about their own or someone else's past?

Sophie said...

I think I'd probably put forward the notion that rite of passage novels in the US also tend to serve as a recapitulation of the colonising adventure and national definition. It's not simply character being defined by environmental challenge but also populating and defining national space through the characters. Twain's river would be extremely problematic in, say, europe, because it would have to be part of a whole tradition of reference. Even with the urban, I couldn't say that it would be easy to find works similar to Paterson in broader world literature.
The flip side might be that US literature rarely makes any substantial approach to what it means for a character to be american, because the shaping role of landscape is so difficult to depict when primacy is given to the 'new found land'.
Fantasy / past is possibly similarly colonising that mythic empty history of the land.
Just had a lecturer in american lit. come by who was trying to work out whether there was a similar framework for female character rite of passage fictions and whether early lesbian frontier settings were evidential, but neither of us felt on firm ground with that one.
Does any of that make sense for you ?