The American Scholar: New World, Old World


A professor I had in graduate school once told me that all stories are either about a stranger coming to town or someone going on a trip. The professor was rather short with wavy gray hair and had a plump face and a hoarse voice. He came to class with just a pen and the student’s story to study in the workshop, and most of what he taught us was said in a wandering preamble that opened up discussion, or after the fact at serious comment from a student during class. He never came up with a point to make, and he didn’t denounce or even inform, but rather shared a thought or two with us without seeming to care about the effect of his remarks or even if we let him. had heard. In class, we didn’t cling to his every word, but we listened intently, and at his mention of the two story formulas, everyone in class nodded, because of course they all knew that. . You go out into the world or the world enters. Only I was surprised. Learn so late something suddenly so obvious! It was like wondering all afternoon where your glasses were only to find them on a string around your neck. You’ve had them all along! They only seemed to miss! If only I had thought to check around my neck! If only I had remembered to think about stories! Think about life!

This experience of missing information so basic that it should have been in my blood repeated itself recently when suddenly, like an epiphany, I realized that you have a story as soon as someone enters a new world. It was like a whole new idea, but it was really the trip my teacher had been talking about. How to bring a character into this world, what a wonderful path! Passing through a wardrobe, making a wish by grabbing a magic charm, falling down a rabbit hole, jumping in a puddle, climbing into a hot air balloon, being swept away by a tornado – all of this projects a character into a new world where the great adventure is to see if and how the old rules apply.

Most of the stories that came to mind were children’s stories. But Jack Finney’s science fiction novel Many times revolves around the protagonist’s repeated excursions into the world of the past, and such classic fiction as Jane Eyre launches the character into the new world of boarding school, away from home, and now into the world of work. Jane, whom the reader first sees as a 10-year-old kid hiding in a library alcove, still has a long way to go before she is master of her domain, and not relegated to corners. Isn’t that what a good story tells, a happy story? How do we come from our corners to join the world, even if we had ventured to take it head-on? Lay down your weapons. Look around you in wonder.

Sometimes a character doesn’t learn it over the course of a story but simply testifies to the goodness of wonder as a response to life. I think that’s what Forrest Gump does in the movie that bears his name. The adventure is his, but the lesson is ours: welcome life and don’t worry too much. He does it, at every turn, despite the pain he feels and those of which he seems oblivious. But why, I wondered with two students in my adult pre-intermediate class, describe Forrest Gump like a comedy, like our English textbook did? Surely that’s not it. Two students remained in the class, and one of them frowned that the assessment was wrong. Forrest Gump is not a comedy, he says. I turned to the other student, who shrugged. So I pressed him. He gestured to suggest a tear in the corner of his eye. “Sad,” he said.

I had just seen the film for the first time by chance, and I agreed that it was not a comedy. In fact, the comic scenes had confused me because they hardly corresponded to the tenor of the film, full of trials, difficulties and death. Even the ending isn’t a solution to a problem, like sending the stranger on their way or returning safely to his world, because, really, Gump has no problems, just circumstances he’s dealing with. impatience, giving no indication that threats or loss might overwhelm him. He never seems to venture into another world but takes his world with him, and his acceptance protects him like a shell. Other lists categorize the film as either a drama or a romance, but my students and I decided it was more broadly an adventure story. But then, isn’t everything? Adventure! Walk up to him or step back to let him in. Or, as Gump does, wake up each day open to what’s coming. Once again the fundamental, indisputable truth, which strikes me as a novelty: the adventure of it all. As Helen Keller said, if life isn’t an adventure, it’s nothing. I will go on an adventure for nothing, without a doubt.

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