Saturday, March 01, 2014

Connections: Huck Finn, Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, and diners

These blog posts are a Saturday exercise. On Saturdays, my family and I go to the DeKalb Public Library, where we check out an overflowing tote bag's worth of materials, mostly Pokemon, Ninjago, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Lego related titles by my son. I get my requisite three audiobooks to keep me company on my overnight truck rides, DVDs, and yes, occasionally, a book.

We don't have Internet at home. The smart phone is enough of an intrusion. So, my only chance to access the Internet in a non-mobile, large-screen format is my weekly visit to the library. And I use my 90 minutes on these blog posts. I go into the writing session with a general idea. For example, today I reminiscing about my childhood fascination with Huckleberry Finn and how that has shaped the trajectory of my life.

Or something like that.

I leave it open to whatever sparks my interest. We'll see where whim and fancy takes us. So, without further ado...

The only thing controversial about Huck Finn to me when I was a kid was how the book influenced my actions. Inspired by the color illustrations in my edition of the classic Mark Twain novel, I used a hollowed out a section of corn cob and the plastic handle of a push up pop to create my own corn cob pipe. I then absconded one of my mother's Bel/Air 100 cigarettes, broke it apart, and put the tobacco in my pipe. I almost threw up from inhaling an acrid mixture of menthol tobacco and melting plastic.

I didn't know about the N-word and its many social implications, nor did I realize the revolutionary idea expounded in Huck Finn that a black man could be equal and in many ways morally superior to a white man. I enjoyed the tale's comic tone, the constant sense of adventure and, oh, what a life it would be, floating down the river, letting the world, the Midwest world familiar to me, a world only a couple hundred miles and a 100+ years at a remove from the world I knew, just float on by. Huckleberry Finn sparked the first inclinations of wanderlust -- not just for travel, but for a style of travel that puts me into Thoreauvian contact (Contact!) with the world at large. And while I just had a childlike inkling of what that world meant, Huckleberry Finn sparked a desire in me to see it.

And Huckleberry Finn  introduced me to the illustrations of Norman Rockwell, who never had a gallery exhibit in his own life and was rejected by all "serious" artists as a square. And yet his work endures. His illustrations, which graced the covers of The Saturday Evening Post, a now-defunct magazine that once was the largest circulating magazine in America, showcase not only the idealized notion of what it is to be an American, but especially, in his later works, reflect the turmoils and shifting values that America endured in the sixties, which was late in
Rockwell's career.


Rockwell did a series of illustrations for an edition of Huckleberry Finn, and I read this edition in elementary school and remember, as I've experienced many times since, how initial knowledge of a thing brings about recurring instances of exposure, like a hidden clue popping up around every corner. I noticed the infamous Thanksgiving print in my grandparent's living room, the Four Freedoms on a back wall at a public library, and a jigsaw puzzle of a Rockwell illustration (some backwoods home, if I remember right, with junk all over the yard). Looking at Rockwell's illustrations most likely gave me a skewed, middle-class, white, commercialized, and patriotic view of American life. But in spite of being kitschy, idealized, broadly popular, and not worth any regard by those cool enough and with refined and educated tastes, Rockwell's illustrations, because his art was realistic, showcase the style and fashions of more than 50 years of American history. And that is not to be discounted or easily dismissed.


Later, as a teenager, I read a comic book that didn't feature any supervillains, explosions, or fighting of any sort. Kind of strange and subversive. It was an issue of Dazzler, and despite a most cursory Internet search, I can't find the issue number. It was in 1980s, 85 or 86, or maybe 87. At the time, I'd never been out late, never paid for my own meal in a sit down restaurant, and had no idea who Sarte, Kant, or any of the other philosophers mentioned in the issue were. The comic featured a scene of young know-it-alls, ready to conquer all the worlds problems, or at least smugly assume they held the keys to the kingdom, over an endless carafe of coffee at a diner.

A few years later, 1992 or 93, the age of grunge, I was 20, a smoker (but not of Bel/Airs), I used to hang out at a Perkins restaurant in Rockford with my community college friends. And one night a serious young lady with black-painted nails, talked with me in all earnestness about the bleak existential angst of Franz Kafka's The Castle and how all human endeavors are useless and doomed to failure and decay. And I could only reflect, at the time, how this moment was like that Dazzler comic book. And somehow, I thought, I'd arrived at a turning point.


Not too much later the bleakness of Kafka's last work, with hints of Rockwell's The Soda Jerk (some connection with paper hats), came to fruition when I saw Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Of course, not too later, I saw the similar version with Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart. But here was what the Goth girl was talking about -- loneliness, isolation amidst the masses, and coffee. And a diner.



Diners and roadhouses hold a particular place in my idealized mindset. As most people know, diners are the original fast food, established to serve food quick and cheap to factory workers on their lunch breaks. They are inspired by the diners featured on Pullman railroad cars. In fact, many roadside diners are converted rail cars. They are non-pretentious. And for a guy careening, ever philosophically through his 20s, a good diner is a great place to be after the bars close, your ears are still ringing, and you got the munchies and a desire to get some ideas off your chest.

And I guess I'm wistful now because, like most American icons, diners are commoditized, like Ed Debevic's, an affected caricature of what a diner should be. The iconic imagery of a diner has imploded on itself. Besides, I don't smoke anymore. And I don't close bars anymore either. I still read. And philosophize. But all my friends are too busy with careers and child rearing to attend to such trivial matters as urban isolation and the futility of ambition.

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