My Literary Discovery of the Year: Laughing Whitefish

For me, discovering an important book that I’ve overlooked is one of the most pleasurable parts of the reading life.  I used to use the classroom to share my findings with students–who, I’ll admit, for the most part didn’t really care about my discoveries–but now, since I’ve retired, I’m forced to use The Tabard Inn to record them for a posterity which probably doesn’t really exist. That’s ok, because I feel it’s my duty, if not my destiny, to read forgotten books, to encourage these literary wallflowers and buried masterpieces to take their place in the spotlight, so to speak, even if no one is in the audience.

I’ve discovered a number of fine books through having absolutely no discipline in my reading the last few years. But I count Laughing Whitefish, by Robert Traver  (McGraw Hill, 1965), among the most significant of my discoveries. My readers may recognize Robert Traver as the author of the book Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a racy film starring James Stewart in 1959: the star’s father, believing the film to be immoral, actually took out an advertisement in his paper to ask people not to see it. You can see the unusual trailer for the film below:

Much attention has been given to Anatomy of a Murder, but I’ve seen virtually nothing about Laughing Whitefish, which is actually a great deal more important than Traver’s earlier book. In fact, I will make the claim here that this novel is every bit as important in its way as To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published five years earlier. Laughing Whitefish is based on real events and is based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; it takes place in the late nineteenth century and focuses on a lawsuit in which a Native American sues a mining company for breach of contract. Like Lee’s mythic condemnation of the inequalities between blacks and whites in the first half of the twentieth century, Traver’s book addresses the evils done to Native Americans during the settlement of the United States. And it does this in impassioned language. Take, for example, these words spoken by the first-person narrator:

It seems passing strange that we whites in our vast power and arrogance cannot now leave the vanishing remnants of these children of nature with the few things they have left….Can we not relent, for once halt the torment? Must we finally disinherit them from their past and rob them of everything? Can we not, in the name of the God we pray to, now let them alone in peace to live out their lives according to their ancient customs, to worship the gods of their choice, to marry as they will, to bring forth their children, and finally to die? Can we, who for centuries have treated the Indians as dogs, only now treat them as equals when they dare seek relief from injustice in our courts?….I am the first to concede that whatever you may decide here will be but a passing footnote in the long history of jurisprudence, that the pittance we are jousting over is but a minor backstairs pilfering in the grand larceny of a continent. (202)

These are difficult words for a white person to read, but I believe it is important for every American to read them, because they present the situation as clearly as Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. The question is, why is it that we know Lee’s work, but not Traver’s? I would suggest that Laughing Whitefish be made required reading in public schools, because it is just as important a book as To Kill a Mockingbird.

No one has a monopoly on misery in this country. But the first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists. The second step is exploring its origins. What a different world we might be living in today if, instead of making a film of Anatomy of a Murder, Otto Preminger had made one of Laughing Whitefish.






In Praise of Bad Novels




I read a lot. Not as much as my husband seems to think, but a respectable amount nonetheless. This year I am keeping track, and since January 1st, I’ve read fifteen books. That’s three books a month, a figure that includes one audio book but does not include the four books I’ve read for reviewing purposes. And among those books, I’ve found two books that I think are actually bad novels. Surprisingly, these two bad novels are by acclaimed authors–authors whose works I have enjoyed, recommended, and highly admired. Hence today’s topic: why reading a bad novel isn’t an utter waste of time.

Many of us have had those moments in which we spend a good chunk of time resolutely plowing through a New Yorker short story only to complain afterwards, muttering something like, “That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” And the same could be said about these two novels. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and listening to Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana left me frustrated and perplexed until I began to think about bad novels. After several days of thought, I began to see the value of reading books that simply don’t measure up to our standard of writerly quality.

Don’t get me wrong: while in the midst of these two books I kept reading and listening precisely because, knowing the authors’ other works, I expected things to take a turn for the better. When they didn’t, I grumbled and complained, and marveled at the insipidness of the stories being told. I finished Ishiguro’s novel thinking, “That’s strange–it never did get any better. Where is the writer who produced two of the finest novels of the last thirty years?” I finished Eco’s in even worse shape, thinking, “At least I knitted several dishcloths while I spent fifteen hours [!] listening to this thing.”

imgres-2So why would I celebrate bad novels? There are a number of reasons. First, there’s value in reading a body of a writer’s work, just as it’s worthwhile to watch a body of a director’s films. Watching the ebb and flow of good writing within one author’s body of work is instructive: it shows us readers that all writing is experimental, even the writing created by excellent and talented writers. Second, it makes us question our values. What makes a novel bad rather than good? Is it predictability and relying on telling rather than showing, as in When We Were Orphans? Or could it be long-winded musings that interrupt and detract from the real narrative, leaving readers with a shaggy-dog story rather than an enriching experience, as in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana? Would we judge these books as harshly if we didn’t know the authors’ other works, masterpieces in their own right? These questions may not have clear answers, but they are certainly worth considering.

And for those writers out there (and aren’t all of us writers, even those of us who don’t regularly produce manuscripts or succeed in getting our work published?), I’d offer this thought: considering bad novels gives us hope. If Kazuo Ishiguro can miss the bull’s-eye, even after he wrote The Remains of the Day, then we can certainly forgive ourselves for not coming up to snuff. We can continue to labor at our work, trusting that, like Ishiguro, we can still produce some wonderful work, a heart-breaking novel like Never Let Me Go, jaw-dropping in its artistry. Using Eco’s example, we can say to ourselves that our present work may not be quite the thing, but that another, beautiful piece of writing lies within us, struggling to come out.

And most important of all, we can remind ourselves that all stories are significant, and that even the not-so-good ones deserve to be told–and read.


Star Trek ,The Prime Directive, and Literary Studies


For the past few months, I’ve been undertaking my own private, systematic study of Star Trek–not the movies, or the Next Generation, or any of other spin-offs, but the original series. It began as a way to lure me into mundane chores, like ironing, during which I would watch the first few episodes; then it morphed into a means of occupying my mind while pedaling an exercise bike. I’m happy to report that in the last couple of months I’ve lost about ten pounds, more or less, as I pedaled my way through various adventures with Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Lieutenants Uhura and Sulu, Lieutenant Commander Scott, and the irascible Dr. McCoy.

I’ve learned a couple of things during this rather pointless but driven exercise. First, and most surprising, even those of us who were alive in the ’60s, we who remember the first-run reruns of the series, have seen far fewer episodes than we think we have. Oh, sure, we all remember “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but do we remember the episode in which Spock has to answer a call of nature (i.e., a mating ritual–which is to say he goes into a terrifying version of Vulcan rutting season) and nearly kills Kirk? Do we remember the first episode in which the famous Vulcan mind meld was ever used (“The Devil in the Dark,” Episode 26 of the first season)?

And what about the Prime Directive–a concept so compelling that it informs each iteration of Star Trek?

You can look up the Prime Directive in Wikipedia, and you’ll get a nice informative take on it there. In fact, if that’s what you want, you should probably stop reading this now and hop on over to it. While you might get a more systematic understanding of the concept there, you would miss my attempt to connect The Prime Directive with literature and writing, so I’m hoping you’ll stick it out for the rest of this post.

What I’ve found is that in the first season of the series, the Prime Directive is relatively unimportant, just a tidbit tossed in during random episodes. It’s first mentioned quite casually by Mr. Spock, as a regulation requiring non-interference in alien cultures, but only, he says, for living, creative cultures. It’s apparently perfectly acceptable to interfere with cultures that are neither living (what would that look like? isn’t the very definition of “culture” something that is dynamic and subject to change and thus living?) nor creative. The question is, of course, who determines whether a culture is living and creative? A few minutes later in this episode (“Return of the Archons,” Episode 21), Captain Kirk redefines the Prime Directive in Utilitarian terms: it is “the good of the body,” he says, going on to philosophize, “without freedom of choice there is no creativity, and without creativity, the body dies.” This is amended once more, only a few minutes later, when Kirk tells the evil robot Landru, “The evil must be destroyed: that is the Prime Directive. And you are the evil! Fulfill the Prime Directive!”

What we have here, then, is a mess of competing, non-aligning definitions, all iterated within a few minutes during one episode. (I’ll leave the connection between the Prime Directive as presented here and Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to real science fiction scholars.) It’s remarkable that the concept of the Prime Directive is so unstable that within a single episode–indeed, within a ten-minute span of a single episode–it changes three times. Only late in the second season will it attain the kind of stability and prominence that gives rise to our lasting notion of the Prime Directive. In Episode 27, “Errand of Mercy” — an embarrassingly implausible episode that deserves critical attention only because of how it redefines the Prime Directive–we see Captain Kirk’s reaction to his dawning realization that the Starship Captain of the Exeter, Ron Tracy, has violated the regulation. He declares in a solemn voice that Captain Tracy has “been interfering with the evolution of life on this planet. It seems impossible: a star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” Kirk’s sense of awed distress drips with drama and significance.

This episode, which is quite bad in and of itself and is based on a rather stupid allusion to the Cold War, becomes important in that it is responsible for the first serious definition of the Prime Directive.

Okay–fine. So what does it have to do with literature?

First, it shows us how concepts change and develop over time. It demonstrates that history–even the paltry history of a television series made 50 years ago–is not static, but is itself unstable, changing, and growing if we look at it closely enough. It also shows us that anything is a text that can be analyzed: a television show, a concept introduced by that show, even our attitudes towards that show. It illustrates that there is value in analyzing even (perhaps especially) those things we think least “artistic,” because, functional and practical in nature, they inform the way we think about a lot of different things. And finally, in terms of literary studies, it shows us that there is great value in studying an entire body of work, such as an entire television series, or all of Hemingway’s novels, or the films of Alfred Hitchcock, because when we do engage in this long (and often tedious) work, we are rewarded with greater insight into the ways in which ideas, themes, and the work of art itself develops.