Have you ever noticed when watching mysteries how often the English professor did it? As soon as I see an English professor as part of the cast of characters, I figure there’s an 80% chance that we have our future convict identified. There’s probably some logic to that since those screen writers are often old English majors. Write what you know.
But let’s not be too fast letting writers off the hook either. The age-old question has arisen recently due to Ken Burns’ PBS series on Ernest Hemingway. Lots of friends asked me if I have watched it. I haven’t because, I answer, “I don’t really like Hemingway.” They jump to the conclusion that I don’t like the man, his personality, his meanness. But, in truth, I just don’t like his novels although I do appreciate his short stories. I’m not alone in that, but Hemingway’s flame burns long and strong and if anyone can make us see Hemingway, the person, from multiple angles, it’s Ken Burns.
This led me to think about whether we should separate the writer as a person from his or her work, not a new or original question. Here’s a short list of famous fiction writers and poets who, all in all, we probably wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with
Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Vas Vegas) brings critics together to say he was “a first-class jerk.” He’s the one who invented “gonzo journalism.” He nearly drowned Bill Murray (who played Thompson in a fun movie, Where the Buffalo Roam) by tying him to a chair and throwing him in a pool. Murray wasn’t amused. Jack Nicholson also found Thompson unamusing after scaring the wits out of him, his family, and his guests who thought they were under attack one night. Thompson is a legendary jerk. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas nonetheless remains an interesting work.
Ezra Pound is the poet best known for his epic The Cantos (and don’t kid me; if one of you has read all 800 pages, it’s an inflated number. I know how much poetry is checked out at the library outside the children’s wing.) His issue goes beyond jerk. He was such an admirer of Mussolini that he, through determination and persistence, wormed his way into an audience with him. (I’m guessing Mussolini didn’t read The Cantos either.) A politically obsessed anti-Semite and fascist at heart, Pound was eventually locked up for treason. But if you admire epic poetry, he’s a rare example in English.
George Orwell of 1984 fame, whose book yet today speaks eloquently for free speech, sold his own friends out to the Secret Service during the Red Scare days. Orwell was England’s own Joe McCarthy. Yet 1984 doesn’t seem remotely dated. The work stands alone.
Allen Ginsberg, leading Beat Generation poet best known for Howl, was all in favor of de-criminalizing child porn. That alone is a serious problem. But the Beats were pretty bizarre and self-centered, and Howl stands up as a great representation of the thought and work of that same Red Scare period.
Notice that the quisling, the jerk, the fascist, and the perv were all men. I was surprised to run across Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) in the “bad person” category. She’s a piker compared to the men. She had her first “experience” (euphemism in play) on her mother’s tombstone (on purpose). That’s definitely hinky but perhaps just falls under “personal choice.” We wouldn’t want to toss out Frankenstein as a work or a metaphor just for that. Nor would I want to read a study to determine where on the weird scale that peculiarity falls (but it wouldn’t surprise me if such a study exists). I'm sure it would be a short search to locate, though, more women competitive with the men.
Here’s where the library comes into all this. We have a wonderful section of biographies and memoirs and of course historical fiction galore. We have or have access to all the works of the authors named here. You can read extensively on writers’ lives, read their work, and decide for yourself what you make of judging the work by the author’s personal life. Any librarian would love to help you find what you’re looking for. Besides, it’s time to pick up your new library card.
See you at the Library!
(To be published in the Frankenmuth News on April 14, 2021)