THANKS TO MRS. FIELD, A GREAT TEACHER OF AMERICAN LITERATURE at Normandale Community College, I spent my twenties reading most of the American canon — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Mark Twain. Mrs. Field, being the solid sage she was, advised me to read slowly and without interpretation, to fall into each story as if I were talking with a friend. She wasn’t at all interested in the sort of political or psychological systems of interpretation through which many of my other teachers viewed literature. (For a far more astute commentary on the subject than I can offer, read David Foster Wallace’s short essays “Greatly Exaggerated” or “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Both are available in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Thanks to Don Sommers for that book.)
Mrs. Field was far more concerned with story and characters than hermeneutical systems, but that doesn’t mean her view was at all simple. She understood the things going on around the narrative, the scene of the times. She could speak with authority on Missouri antebellum culture, for instance, when we were reading Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. She knew about the Great Depression first-hand, and so was able to make sense of Proletariat writers outside the realm of politics. She was insistent that we not impose our modern perspective where it didn’t belong, and she hated contemporary arrogance — the stance, we now know better, was not an acceptable position to take in her class. She used to say, “Technology isn’t knowledge.” That was well before the internet, too; how much more important and relevant is her assertion now? She knew all kinds of music as well, and could confidently draw connections between forms, leading the discussion to something like the poetry of the blues.
Mrs. Field was really something. She is, along with Dr. Pinnsenault and Dr. Doctor (subjects for other articles) why I am glad I went to the totally unprestigious Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.
When I was twenty-five, as I was making my way through the canon, I read everything Faulkner wrote. After reading him, not only did I feel like I knew all those people in Yoknapatawpha County as if I were a resident, I felt like I knew Faulkner himself. Spending so much time with someone’s work is pretty close to spending time with the person. And that stuff really got in my head. I have always been a history buff, but I came damn near being overtaken by it that year. As Faulkner himself said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The same old debates, the same old classes, the same old racial absurdities, on and on.
And we think we know better.
I would be happy to eliminate the word “art” from our vocabulary. It is one of those frequently-capitalized words that makes its subject remote and aloof. The only category that works for me is, well, work. My work, your work, our work. Work is both an expression and a point of connection.
The following year, I read Hemingway. His clipped phrases and hard-edged language drew me in at first, more than the stories. But then, Hemingway’s characters eventually overswept me, in the process, teaching me something wholly new. I even came to enjoy the author’s relentless machismo as something true, even vital to what made him; to suppress it would have been disingenuous. It is because of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” that I came to enjoy the occasional camping trip, something I never thought I would do, being up to that point purely city. But in getting to know Hemingway I got to know something about myself, about the reset button that the natural world can offer. . In the story, Nick Adams heads to the woods to get over a broken heart; like Nick, I lay under the trees in Central Park (or last week, by Minnehaha Creek) on hard days to get some proper perspective. I am going to indulge in a related quote from another Hemingway story, “Ten Indians,” just because it is so beautiful:
He heard a wind come up in the trees outside and felt it come in cool through the screen. He lay for a long time with his face in the pillow … When he awoke in the night he heard the wind in the hemlock trees outside the cottage and the waves of the lake coming in on the shore, and he went back to sleep. In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.’
BOTH OF MY GRANDMOTHERS WERE STORYTELLERS. Grandma Bea (Beatrice Ann Baker — names are important) read a lot and wrote lovely letters, with the old-fashioned rhythm of dropped first person pronouns (i.e. “Went to the store. Was surprised to run into cousin Mary.). Her letters were plain, funny, empathetic, and musical. She really talked that way. I can still hear the way she said “Hello” — very melodic and totally personal. My Grandma Verna Mae was different — colder, but very witty and with a caustic edge. You knew her by the stories.
My dad’s dad, Harry Irving Walker, was a painter. He was also a hunter, fisherman, waiter, and instigator. He taught me a lot about art, or about the process anyway. He did not achieve greatness; his style was underdeveloped. But still, you can look at some of his paintings and know something about him.
I would be happy to eliminate the word “art” from our vocabulary. It is one of those frequently-capitalized words that makes its subject remote and aloof. I bristle when I am referred to as an artist; I only ever wanted to be a musician. I think instead in terms of what gets made: painters, writers, dancers, sculptors, etc. Who wants to be a broad category anyway? The only category that works for me is, well, work. My work, your work, our work. Work is both an expression and a point of connection.
When I listen to something, I’m also meeting someone. When I was younger, I wanted to interpret the music, or systematize it. It can be fun to sit around and discuss modes of alienation (thanks to Woody Allen for that joke), but in the end, I listen and read and look, because I can meet someone and learn something, usually about myself.
For years, I listened to jazz based on its technical achievement or prowess; maybe it is just my age at the time. I don’t do that anymore. I remember the first time I heard U2’s The Joshua Tree. It was a real problem for me; I pushed the album away for a long time. The music is so simple, but there is so much emotion there. It forced me to re-evaluate how I was listening. Fortunately, Mrs. Field came a long not too long after and gave me a more personal way to get with what art (oh, that word) is all about. What she was saying connected strongly with what I had grown up taking for granted, with grandmothers’ stories and my granddad’s paintings. You can get to know someone through their work, and they, in turn, can help you know yourself.
I suspect this is why we often know great musicians by one name, or a nickname: Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Trane, Miles, Monk, Basie, Mingus, Bird, and of course, Pops. We feel like we know them personally, and we’re right. (I’m not the first to come up with this, by the way; I think I first heard the idea from Wynton Marsalis).
I know there are many very smart people who could debate me and likely tell me exactly what is wrong with my view, and that is cool. I like debate and differences of opinion. But to me, systems of interpretation of art help us understand someone’s work about as much as chemistry helps us learn about love. Sure, there’s data to be found there, but that way of interacting with work doesn’t do justice to the feeling. In art and love, it’s the people we meet who are important. It’s all about contact, not context.
About the author: Jeremy Walker is a composer/pianist based in New York. He has performed with Matt Wilson, Vincent Gardner, Wessell Anderson, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Anthony Cox and other notable musicians. He was the owner of the now defunct club, Brilliant Corners and co-founder of Jazz is NOW! in Minneapolis. In April 2011, Walker stepped down as Artistic Director of Jazz is NOW! to focus Small City Trio in Minneapolis and several new projects in New York. Small City Trio just released their first album, a collection of original songs by Walker called Pumpkins’ Reunion, available digitally on iTunes. This fall, Walker will be hitting the road with Wessell Anderson and Anthony Cox.