George Dawson update: "Life is So Good."
I've just read the ghostwritten Life is So Good, the reminiscences of George Dawson, the Texas centenarian whose path to literacy I wrote about here.
Let's look at the elephant in the living room first: Dawson's ghostwriter, Richard Glaubman, is annoying. Far from being a ghost, Glaubman is overweening from the very first sentence of Chapter One:
"Wanting to enjoy every moment, I stared at the hard candies..."As I said in my Blogcritics review, if George Dawson began his sentences with gerunds, I'll eat my hat.
Don't expect to hear the genuine voice of a man who, born to a struggling Texas farm family and raised under the menace of Jim Crow, lived through the entire 20th century. You'll actually be spending your time with an elementary school teacher from Seattle who took down Dawson's stories and tidied them up for publication.
Glaubman is like one of the NPR "commentators" who think they are more important than the stories they cover. Here, for instance, from the first two pages of Chapter 5:
...lately I been talking a lot about my days in Marshall with this man that be coming to see me now. His name is Richard. He has lots of questions, thinks he wants to write a book. He comes with a tape recorder and we just sit and talk all day.The name "Richard" appears eight times in two and a half pages. Somebody is pretty stuck on himself.
He's different than other people that I know ... Most folks that I know don't read so much and don't have great book learning. This man Richard is different that way. ... Richard, this writer, reads a lot of books. So one night I asked him some questions ...
Nevertheless, Dawson's determination -- to share the experiences of a black man so poor he didn't even notice the Depression -- carries the day.
Did all my growing up in Marshall but was always on the outside. I couldn't read in those days and never even looked at a newspaper. ... In those days, it seems like everything had two stories, the white story and the colored story.Thankfully historians attend to humble people more than they used to. Archaeologists even sift through old slave cookfires to see what their makers' unchronicled lives might have been like. The lives of humble people disappear if nobody writes the stories. For this reason, Dawson's memories are priceless: he tells of surviving on a farm where the only product that could be bartered out was "ribbon syrup," how to slaughter a hog, the way he and the other members of the Negro baseball league couldn't find bathrooms they could use, working on the levees, riding the rails.
I started to notice that this paper was not about the Marshall that I knew. All the pictures, at the fire hall, the school yard, the grange, and the rodeo, only had white people in them. ... I am a witness to the truth. That's why I am still here. I can't let the truth die with me.
People wanted Dawson to have deep wise thoughts and he had a few (Oprah's favorite Dawson quote: "With children, you got to raise them. Some parents these days are growing children, not raising them.") However, it seems he really wanted to write about his young rambles from Mexico to Canada - the rest of his life gets short shrift, probably because he thought it wasn't interesting.
Two things really struck me. One was Dawson's ability to enjoy and take pride in backbreaking work. Here he is, gazing upon the Mississippi River when he has just taken a job digging rocks and dirt to dump on the levees:
Being twenty-one and free and just full of myself, I thought, it's a good thing I'm here. Holding back that river is gonna be some job. They will be needing my help to build that levee.The other thing which has gone unremarked in the book's reviews is this remarkable fact: that George Dawson and his wife Elzenia raised seven children on his low wages - and that all seven children graduated not only from high school but from college too.
I could see that job was made for me. ... I figured I was a man now and maybe about the luckiest one alive to be able to build a levee on the great Mississippi River. Of course, there was hundreds and hundreds of men working along the river too. But right then, if you had asked me to build the levee all by myself, I wouldn't have seen it as a problem.
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