“It is a foolish thing to make a long prologue, and to be short in the story itself.”–Second Maccabees

My title quote aside, I often find myself making a lengthy introduction to something I mean to discuss which is sometimes only slightly longer than the “prologue” itself.  And there have been times when I’ve just outright broken the above rule and abided by the old formula whereby one first embarks upon a long explanatory bit and then stops, draws breath, and says to one’s audience (who are perhaps getting more and more exasperated by the minute), “To make a long story short.” Then one gives the “punchline” or gist of one’s tale, which could’ve been handled in a much shorter form.  My excuse today is that not too long ago I ran across an appealing story about a story-teller which made me think of one of the most gifted story-tellers I ever knew myself (a junior high school history teacher of mine), and I wanted to intertwine the two subjects, or at least to present them together in a series of thoughts about story-telling, both oral and written.

In both cases (one case drawn from J. D. Salinger’s short story “The Laughing Man” and the other from my personal recollection), the story-teller was an older person, in both cases a man (though it might equally well have been otherwise), and one who was employed in the education or development of a much younger group of human beings.  In Salinger’s story, “the laughing man” is the hero of a set of tales told by a sort of camp counselor or after-school activities teacher, a hero whose rollicking career goes from episode to episode for quite a long time, each episode having a cliff-hanger ending, and inspiring a group of young boys to feel a strong personal connection with both the teacher and the hero of the stories.  It apparently matters not how unlikely and incredible the adventures are, the hero is believable to the boys’ hero worshipping attitude (and of course, it’s clear from the way the narrative is structured that in some interior, subconscious way they associate the hero with the teacher, believing incoherently almost that the fortunes of one rise and fall with the fortunes of the other).  When the teacher suddenly “breaks” the story-telling “contract” with the students, they are easily able to assign a cause from his personal life, and there’s a fine and singular sort of imagery at the very end of the story which, though it’s not a surprise ending in itself, signals the end of an era in a boy’s life just as readily as if it were an action.  A veil or curtain has been drawn aside, not only about the teacher, but about the story-telling process itself.  And I’m not going to spoil the story for you by telling you any more about it (just in case you either haven’t read it ever, or haven’t seen it recently).

In my own case, the story-teller was a man with a life which was better shielded from us as students.  He was a great humorist in his own right, was a good teacher, and was  (as I later learned) well-versed in literature in some respects, even though history was his field of work.  Here’s how it went:  we were in a state history course.  It was dull and slogging enough as subject matter to us, because even a good teacher could only do so much to “kick against the pricks,” as the expression goes, and teach it separately from the way most history classes were taught at that time, with lots of memorization of names and dates, and battles and generals and all that “stuff.”  He did his best to highlight the facts with us to inspire our memory abilities, and it was probably the best a history class could be for its time.  But what really was inspiring, especially to incipient English majors like me, were the stories he told us, one per week on Fridays, after our weekly state history test.

Somehow, my teacher always made the story last just exactly the same time as the class period.  He always finished on time.  The most interesting thing I found out about his surprise ending story choices, which had us hanging onto our seats until the very last moment, however, was that most of the stories he re-told came from written literature!  He spoke in a slow, suspenseful drawl–punctuated with little leaps and bounds of words at exciting junctures in the story–and he always managed to catch us off-guard at the end, whether with laughter, gasping, or awe.  When I got a little older and more mature, I discovered that our story-teller had been an enthusiast of the short story form from mostly American sources, both male and female, though he had a slight preference for the male writer.  I later identified his story “friends” in such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson, Stephen Crane, and Katherine Anne Porter.  There were even stories such as Katherine Anne Porter’s “He,” in which much of the drama relies upon the literary qualities, and upon conversations and voices of the characters–in their clutches and grabs at their mutual history (and which involves a developmentally disabled child, a subject needing delicate handling and a sure touch for junior high school students, especially when it’s Friday and they’re feeling the exuberance of release from an exam).  He “re-told” the story by inventing his own lines of narration and dialogue, getting the serious issues and themes across to us without moralizing, keeping the story on its real and essential track, modifying for our understanding without talking “down” to us.  In short, he became a performer himself, playing upon our minds and hearts and human qualities and teaching us to extend ourselves imaginatively to others through an experience of fiction.  And the best part at the time was that we didn’t have to do anything but listen; we didn’t have to write a paper on the stories, we didn’t even need to crack a book open.  It was a shared experience, one that often had us grinning and exchanging glances across the aisles at the startling conclusions of the stories, or perhaps even raising hands and asking questions as we almost always failed to do in English classes, where “this stuff” was paramount.  It was a wonderful experience, one which affected my own desire to become a writer just as much as anything I then or later encountered in print.

And that’s my re-told story for today.  Though it’s not much of a review per se, if you’re interested in looking up J. D. Salinger’s story, you will find it to be told in his usual matter-of-fact, apparently-uninterested-in-details stark manner, one which makes much more significant the final imagistic summary in the story.  You can find the story in a collection known as Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger, issued (and probably re-printed or re-issued by now) by Bantam Books (the original copyright was put through by Little, Brown, and Co.).   Today is the end of my weekend, and tomorrow I will be once again in the midst of myriad reading and writing chores.  I hope you all enjoyed the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, and are finding time to watch the competitions that interest you the most.  Ciao for now!

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Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

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