24 September 2006

Gerald and the Phoenix

Back in August, I commented on David and the Phoenix, a gentle 1957 fantasy by Edward Ormondroyd reissued in the 1990s by Purple House Press. In this 2004 Daedalus article, Washington University in St. Louis's Merle King Professor of Modern Letters Gerald Early wrote of his fondness for the book. His mother gave it to him while he was in third grade, and he feverishly read and reread it.

Early says:

The phoenix was especially appealing to me, since it personified resurrection, thus making death not death at all, but some sort of cosmic learning experience. (One feature of some American children's literature is its third-rate Emersonianism, its remarkable mixture of childhood angst and the regenerative power of pluck: Americans seem to insist, more than they have any right to, that even the most tragic situations must yield to a frightfully unreasoning optimism, so that all boats, in the end, are 'uplifted.')
(Yes, don't we all want that "sense of hope"?)

Early picks up the story when he was in college, listening to black-consciousness music:
In a spirit of racial holiness, I heard Doug and Jean sing, "Those that were lost shall surely be returned"—and out of nowhere I recalled David and the Phoenix. I knew that book as well as I knew my own name, but as a child I could not, for the life of me, explain what it meant to me. But when I heard Doug and Jean's song, I realized that David and the Pheonix had taught me two contradictory yet complementary truths about childhood. First, that some things about childhood are lost beyond recovery, and we are pained rightly or wrongly by the loss. Second, and more profoundly, that most children's literature is about lost children returning home.
Early's comments struck me in two ways. First, I wrote before about how I found David, the young hero, to be a blank, but wondered if that could help young readers project themselves into his story. Early was a black child born in 1952, and thus had little chance to read or view stories about other black children. This book's pictures show David as a white boy, but his otherwise generic character may have helped young Gerald identify with him.

Second, the theme of death and rebirth that Early found so powerful as a child and young man is actually a very small part of David and the Phoenix. The novel is episodic, and the conflict running through most of the book is the Phoenix's rivalry with a Scientist. Only in the last couple of chapters does it become clear that the Phoenix is about to immolate himself. Of course, if you know the legend of the phoenix going in, and especially if you're rereading the book for the fifth time in a month, then that fate hangs over the character all along. I think that's the experience that Early remembers, the dread of moving toward the end of the book, when he knows the Phoenix must die and be reborn. A "cosmic learning experience" indeed.

Next month, Phi Beta Kappa will give Prof. Early a special award for "for distinguished service to the humanities."

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