Wednesday, March 23, 2005

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.

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 ...
The name "Richard" appears eight times in two and a half pages. Somebody is pretty stuck on himself.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.

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At 6:37 PM, Blogger Michele said...

George Dawson is such an inspiring man; can you just imagine how wonderful it would be to sit and listen to his stories and his wisdom? Oh, that would be wonderful, in fact that is what I was hoping this book would be like. I have been thinking of him and his story often (since you first posted it). It sad that the writer's ego rather than Mr Dawson's life is what jumps from the page.

The fact that his seven children each graduated from college is indeed a remarkable fact. That in itself is inspiring. Thank you for this post. You too are inspiring.

At 7:20 PM, Blogger kenju said...

I wonder why the editor of this book didn't censure the author?

At 10:10 PM, Blogger Dawn said...

I read this book about 4 years ago. I must say that it was a wonderful book and really makes you think about life. He is truly an amazing man with a wonderful story to tell.

At 11:48 PM, Blogger Badaunt said...

What a shame he didn't have a better ghostwriter. The fact that the ghostwriter is present at all in the story is sad, and somehow patronizing.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that it is sad that most of you only focus on the ghost writer and not the man telling the story. YOu did just what Mr. Dawson was afraid you would do and only looked at the surface. I placed myself in Richard's shoes and actually sat down with Mr. Dawson and heard his stories. All of you were too worried about Richard being in the room. Richard is an intergal part of this book because through Mr. Dawson's dealings with him we learn more about Mr. Dawson as a man and we also enjoy the lessos that he was trying to teach Richard along the way.
And to the person who said that Mr. Dawson just spoke of his "ramblings" because he thought they were interesting. What are you thinking and what were you reading. The each story of his travels indicated a difference in areas of the country, mexico and canada regarding his treatment and each story illustrated a lesson that he had learned from that particular place. This was a book that should have been read with the heart first and then the mind second.

At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Anonymous. Those that focussed on Richard's participation missed the big picture. The trips to Mexico and Canada spoke volumes about the differences in the countries on this continent. Richard learned so much from George and that was really George's reason for participating. To miss that point is to have missed the whole essence of George and his desire to make a difference in his small way, one person at a time. He was not judgemental and for the readers to be judgemental is really quite sad.

At 12:11 AM, Anonymous Viktoria said...

I understand George Dawson died in a car accident in the Mercedes he received as a gift? Does anyone have details? Thanks. Viktoria

At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

George Dawson had a fall and was hospitalized. He died 3 months later on July 5 2001.

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Woo.. You know its nice to read these stories of how he has inspired you, Mr. Dawson, I mean.

He is my great-grandfather and I love him.

I aggree with saying why focus on the ghost writer and not on Mr. Dawson.

Please feel free to message me

on myspace at

if you have anything you would like to say to me.

At 1:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It didn't seem to me that the focus was on Richard. I have just finished reading one of the most inspiring biographies that I have ever read. A story about a man who knew how to live. I was surprised to read the negative comments which I just read.

At 7:56 AM, Blogger Janet J. said...

When I hear such negative, cynical remarks, I am reminded of just how much hatred, bigotry and jealousy still exists in this world. What are these people focusing on that would allow them to miss the very essence of this story. As the Bible says, it is from a man's HEART that he speaks. These critical words say a lot about their hearts. I LOVED THIS BOOK and so grateful to have heard, first hand, from a man who lived through so much. As a black woman, I appreciate all that he endured and still kept a good heart.

At 3:52 AM, Blogger emiko said...

I am very impressed and inspired by this book in many ways. Mr. Dawson sets an example of a life that is simple enough to agree, yet hard to achieve these days. I think Richard ('cause Mr. Dawson calls him like that) did a good job of hiding and showing himself whenever the story allows. I did not get the feeling that it was a book about him. Most definitely, it was a great story of the life of Mr. Dawson, and all that is. Because he is not a writer, I expected this book to be written by someone else to begin with. Otherwise, it wouldn't be so natural. We needed someone to pass the story on and i am grateful that Richard did it so well and we had the chance of getting to know Mr. Dawson a little better.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Patricia said...

I also agree with what anonymous said. The book had to be written by somone and I think that Richard did a fine job. Focus on George Dawson and get over your problems with Richard.

At 5:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the book but was annoyed by the parts where Glaubman puts himself in - never mind, he wrote it and I didn't. It was worth reading.

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous A. Onimo said...

The story was truly inspiring. I found it to be a story of injustice, hardship, and that of triumph. It should inspire those that read it to move to action to do better in life and to have a mind to always do their best with what they have. It would have been great to meet Mr. Dawson and to know about what it was like in the days of open racism and talk of the changes that have occurred since this time. This evening I will be at an event where Richard Glaubman will be signing books. It will be at The Ladies Literacy Club in Ypsilanti, MI. This was special to me because I just started reading the book over a week ago and on this past Saturday I got an invitation in the mail to this event. Sure would have been great if Mr. Dawson could have been at this event. With all of his suffering, God rewarded him and he was honored in his last days. This was truly a good thing for him to have experienced this in his lifetime.

At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Naggy52 said...

George Dawson is an inspiration to life that if you really want to achieve greatness in life you have to give it your all. By George, he finally got it.

At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Maria said...

I have not read the book yet, but I would like to. I saw Mr. Dawson on Oprah, and was really impressed by him. He did not only wish that he could read, he did something about it, setting an example for not only young people, but people of all ages. He had a story to tell, and he did it the best he could. I enjoy conversing with older people of all races because they fascinate me. One of the people that had a great influence in my life, my mother, who was from Mexico shared many of her experiences growing up in Mexico in the early 1900's, terrorized by Villa, then at 17 coming to the U.S. to work overcoming many obstacles. I wish she could have shared her story. Very few people know what a struggle really is and give up when things get rough.

At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this book and really enjoyed it. George Dawson was quite a man. I didn't mind Richard being in the book at all, I thought it was interesting the way it was done.

After reading the book I do wonder if he ever got his roof fixed!

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel I was lucky enough to read about a man who possessed incredible insight and integrity and who chose to live his life based on values we could all learn from. Without the ghost writer, who I mostly tended to forget about because Mr. Dawson's story is so fascinating and inspiring, we wouldn't be having this discussion today. Their relationship added humour to the book, and was a testament to Mr. Dawson's wisdom.

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Danny said...

I love this story. I haven't read it in a while and will start reading it again. It says that George outlived his 4 siblings. Did he outlive his cousins that he was raised w/ as well? How old were his siblings when they passed? I know this is just a side aspect of his magnificent story, but I have an interesting theory as to why he may have lived so long


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