As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river towards the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps, huddled together along the riverbanks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves, and begone.
Dubliners, 73 (Compass Books, 1958)
“You see that man getting on the train? The one with the dog? I went to highschool with him.”
I’m on the PGM bus, Westbrook to Portland, at the height of afternoon rush hour: babies crying, a high-booted old man in the back cursing the driver, and this tattooed, tank-topped mother whispering to her six-year old daughter in the seats across from me. The girl’s careful eyes watch the man climb onto the bus, where the driver helps him find a seat.
“Look at his face. Next to his eyes. See the scars?” The mother drags three fingers across the side of her cheek, a vague mimicry of a Wolverine macho-move. The girl, riveted by her mother’s story, nods.
“I was friends with his brother. Once, when we were teenagers, my friend’s asleep when a gun goes off outside. He runs out, and there’s a pool of blood. One of his brother’s enemies had shot him straight-” the mother gently places a long, painted nail on her daughter’s cheekbone “-through the eyes, in one, out the other. He’s never been able to see since.”
The practice of storytelling, for thousands and thousands of years, was carefully controlled by a complex hierarchical system: what stories could be told, acted, printed, was long the decision of a royal monarch, a religious leader, or an authoritarian government. Because of this, the characters reflected in literature through much of history are limited to a privileged class; if lower class characters do appear in these older texts, they are foils, theatrical piece of stage equipment to reflect and refract the emotional state of the central characters.
There are, of course, exceptions to this trend. Chaucer’s lower-class characters from his Canterbury Tales come to mind (though they fulfil perhaps too many base stereotypes of their demographic), as does the Gravedigger in all his wisdom in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or indeed many of the heroes and heroines from Jewish and Christian holy texts.
However, it was not until widespread hikes in literacy, and technological advances in the printing industry that readers, and writers, from a great expanse of socio-economic backgrounds stretched the carefully laid bounds of “acceptable” prose. What flourished from this bountiful new batch of readers and writers was an entire new demographic of characters, characters from all backgrounds who are nevertheless offered the gift and right of dignity.
This above all was the impression I got from reading Dubliners. A carefully organized sequence of short stories set around that small but iconic literary city, I found (with the help of Professor Bud McGrath) this theme of “dignity despite poverty” to be one of the most interesting threads running throughout. Poor characters are not deadened in speech of emotion by the conditions surrounding them. They do not wax poetic, in the traditions of Shakespeare or Dante, but they do speak and feel. The description above is given through the eyes of Little Chandler, a man dissatisfied with his middle-class life, determined to leave Dublin and live a life of more vanity and excitement. Yet, hidden in a description meant to revile (in the preceding sentence, Little Chandler tells us how “his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street”) is a carefully sculpted image of beauty. The houses, ramshackle as old tramps, are yet observing, transfixed, a sunset. There is a hint of sublimity in this description, a presence of something thoughtful, tranquil, and indeed, elegant.
While much of the literature written about or set in Maine today revolves around natural beauty, transcendental escape, and a few over-romanticized depictions of picturesque, eternal-Summer villages, there is a complex, harsh, integral culture in Maine’s lower income communities, largely untapped for its root beauty by artistic representation. Indeed, one of the only writers actively writing about this culture is Stephen King who, while prolific and in my opinion an incredibly gifted storyteller, is almost entirely ignored by the “literary community.” King’s characters, though they are often placed in radical and exaggerated (and yes, occasionally just downright silly) situations, are nonetheless authentic. They worry about the same things many of us worry about, they drink the same beers we drink, they cry, they shit.
It is not enough to simply insert some expressionless “poor person,” much in the way mainstream media has begun inserting token minority characters into TV shows or movies. These characters must be real. Why should lofty thoughts be reserved for rich people? Another of Joyce’s characters, Polly, facing her mother’s decision to force marriage upon her, is described in the following way: “Her hopes and visions were so intricate that she no longer saw the white pillows on which her gaze was fixed or remembered that she was waiting for anything” (68). This is not a simple woman, and she does not approach the working-class complexities of her life with a simple mind.
When Thoreau escaped to Walden pond to write waxingly (and, in my opinion, poorly) on the transcendent beauty of the natural world, he missed the transcendent wisdom of the few souls who carve life and home out of this shoreline. Each year, many tourists from around the world come to ogle at our water, our hills, our emptiness, and (starting this week) our leaves, also missing the lives being led around them. These lives are wealthy in complexity, and are rocked by the same powers of love, hate, death, birth, excitement, mundanity–all the same complexities Joyce’s characters feel. And they’re there for the observing, and to take part in; all you need to do is hop on a bus, and listen. That mother is just one example of the blunt, uncensored, neo-Gothic style of Maine storytelling. She is also just one face in a huge and diverse demographic.
One of the myriad purposes of literature is to create empathy for those who have lived and experienced situations unlike our own. I have grown up surrounded by this rich, rough Maine culture, but have always felt an outsider to it. A few books have captured the essence of it for me, but there are not enough, and they are not paid enough attention to. I hope for more.