An essay,"Fallen Idols," by Margo Rabb in the New York Times book section, describes the hazards of meeting your favorite authors. You get to meet a writer whose book has shaped your life and discover that he is rude, drunken, lecherous. Or all three. The first half of the essay describes this admiration-to-disenchantment sequence as a "celebrity crush," and the second half explores a more nuanced and mature understanding of the complicated relationship between the person and the work.
Unfortunately, as we look about, the mind-set that generates the celebrity crush is far more prevalent than the mature understanding.
Philip Larkin's reputation went into an eclipse after the publication of Andrew Motion's biography and Larkin's Selected Letters, both revealing a number of unpleasant character traits. I thought that his shortcomings as a person, and his realization of them, heightened my appreciation of the beauty of his poetry, the best expressions of twentieth-century melancholy I know.
H.L. Mencken has been dismissed by some people because of the sour and ugly expressions in his published diaries, but I have defended him as a campaigner against Babbitry and for personal freedom.
The genteel anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot and the rougher variety of Ezra Pound are, justifiably, held against them, but I think that the politically correct who wish to cast them out of the canon are mistaken. Would you dismiss Shakespeare because he smeared Richard III in the propaganda piece for the Tudor dynasty? Would you junk John Cheever's beautiful short stories because he was depressive, alcoholic, and conflicted about his sexuality?
Unfortunately, the childish demand for plaster idols to be carried into adulthood extends well beyond literary fandom.
Salon reported a while back on conservatives in Tennessee who wanted to make sure that nothing negative would appear in history textbooks about the Founders, particularly their intimate connection with slavery. But Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others were slaveholders, the slavery issue was the rock on which the Constitutional Convention nearly wrecked, and the three-fifths clause was the ugly compromise that set up a political dynamic that led inexorably to civil war. It was an issue that the Founders struggled with and failed to resolve, personally and politically.
Of course, you can understand that impulse in Tennessee because there are childish adults on the left who want to say that we need not pay any attention to the Founders because they owned slaves; and Thomas Jefferson in particular because he fathered children on a slave who was his deceased wife's half-sister, and never mind the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia statute for religious freedom, or the University of Virginia.
You know those people who say that they have no objection to governmental surveillance because they have nothing to hide? If that is true, that there is nothing about their proclivities and behavior that would embarrass or shame them if it were made public, then they have not lived much of a life. We are all flawed human beings; there may be a scattering of saints among us who transcend those flaws, but there are no superheroes. Larkin and Eliot and Mencken and Jefferson and others merit our respect and admiration because they were able to transcend, for a time, their very human limitations and accomplish something great.
Please, grow up.
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