Reading Joseph Mitchell, Wodehouse, and Pedro de Castaneda

*

Joe Gould’s Secret, Joseph Mitchell

I don’t know if people were simply more gullible in the New York City of the nineteen-forties and fifties or if my easy cynicism has finally paid off in actual enlightenment, but I guessed Joe Gould’s “secret” long before the author himself discovered it. Gould seems to have been an intolerable person – a willful eccentric, a drunkard, suspicious and needy, suffering from delusions of grandeur. The last (perhaps) of the old Village bohemians, he claimed to be writing an Oral History of the age more than nine-million words long. He also claimed to be able to translate Longfellow poems into the language of seagulls. Gould’s charms, if you grant that he had any, quickly wear off. But something a little magical happens about two-thirds of the way through this book. I began to like Mitchell and to want to hear more from him – and I began to sympathize just a bit with Joe Gould in ways I hadn’t particularly intended to.

*

Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse had a bit of the holy fool about him. He was an innocent, liable, like Bertie Wooster, to find himself in the most compromising situations but without accruing any personal blame. The radio talks he gave from behind German lines, for example, got him accused of collaboration during the war, though an investigation later cleared him. Likewise, in Thank You, Jeeves (the very first Bertie and Jeeves novel, published in 1935), the casual racism of the era raises hackles for today’s reader. The “N” word is thrown out several times and Bertie spends almost half the book in blackface. But Wodehouse’s essential naiveté is such that imputations of malice are quickly discounted. In fact, I wonder if this isn’t one of his very best novels. The standard Wodehouse formula is at work – there are engagements and threats of engagement, difficult relatives, combustible cottages, and an accumulation of crossed purposes that only Jeeves can untangle – but the pacing and plotting and repartee are particularly good. So too are the interactions between Bertie and his “gentleman’s gentleman,” spiced with the friction occasioned by Bertie’s intolerable banjo playing, which causes Jeeves to actually leave his service in the first chapter. Fear not, however. In the end all is well and there are kippers for breakfast, whole schools of them.

*

Narrative of the Coronado Expedition, Pedro de Castaneda de Najera

“I have always noticed, and it is a fact, that often when we have something valuable in our possession and handle it freely, we do not esteem or appreciate it in all its worth, as we would if we could realize how much we would miss it if we were to lose it. Thus we gradually belittle its value, but once we have lost it and miss its benefits, we feel it in our heart and are forever moody, thinking of ways and means to retrieve it. This, it seems to me, happened to all or most of those who went on that expedition, which Francisco Vasquez Coronado led in search of the Seven Cities, in the year of our Savior, Jesus Christ, 1540.”

The Coronado expedition was like a story out of legend, a half-medieval army marching into an unknown wilderness to chase rumors of The Seven Cities of Gold. But it was not a legend, and they found nothing of the sort. In fact, the record of their contacts with the peoples of the American southwest is filled with deceit, coercion, and violence. The Spanish – or at least their leaders – never tried to understand the world they stumbled into. They only understood gold. Quoted above, Castaneda, who was a member of the army, appears to have been more thoughtful. His memoir, written twenty years later, is haunted by wonder and longing for the strange lands he saw (his descriptions of buffalo herds and the Great Plains are among the earliest by any European), but also by regret.

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