I did not grow up surrounded by English literature. Fact is, I grew up in a place where books were somewhat suspicious objects, not unlike a good stray shoe; seemed a shame not to be able to find a proper use for the thing, but damned if anyone could think what that might be. (Maybe put it under the low corner on that busted Lazy Boy?) In childhood, what I was surrounded by was some rednecks; practical folk, liked a good demo derby, maybe go-carts for the kids, Smokey & the Bandit, pancake suppers, swimmin' in the strip-mine, hillbilly music, snuff-dippin', that sort of thing.
You know the great Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys? Why, sure you do. The master of Western Swing, ol' Bob was a favorite of my Dad's. We'd be out together on a Saturday, delivering dog feed -- a little sideline of my Dad's-- and the old man used to sing "Cherokee Maiden", "San Antonio Rose", and "Ida Red", top of his lungs, driving country roads in the old panel-truck.
To this day, the sound of a party, somewhere in the back of my head, is still and will always be "Stay a Little Longer",. You know it. Sure you do:
Stay all night, stay a little longer,
Dance all night, dance a little longer,
Pull off your coat, throw it in the corner,
Don't see why you can't stay a little longer...
Now, that's a party, son.
I had to cross to the shady side of forty before I could listen to country again. Hillbilly was, frankly, everything I fled when I came away from home. Dinner parties, cocktail parties, the Socialist Party USA, just about any kind of party I'd seen in the movies, any party where people chatted about the latest books, sipped from glass-tumblers, pronounced the final "g" in words like "darling", ate sophisticated portions from little china plates, that was the kind of party at which I wanted desperately to be. Eventually, I even went to a few such. Not all one might have hoped, most of them. Now, I'm fine with a good shindy. Love me some Bob Wills now, too.
We're planning a little party here at the bookstore, come Thursday, July 14th. A month or so ago, I was shocked realize that the 200th birthday of the author of Vanity Fair was coming up on the 18th of July, and so far as I could see, there wasn't a damned thing planned for the occasion anywhere. (I've been searching.) How could such a thing be? William Makepeace Thackeray was one of the greatest, most successful novelists of the Nineteenth Century -- which is rather like saying the greatest and most followed "Tweeter" of the Twenty First, I suppose, for those that may not appreciate the three volume novel. Not a candle being lit nor a word said, save here. To celebrate, we're going to do a reading of Thackeray. I'll be doing my part, as I hope will at least a couple of others from the bookstore -- if all goes well, we may actually even have at least one genuine Englishman on hand.
As unlikely as it may sound, I believe the novelist would be pleased, with or without our Englishman. Thackeray was enormously popular in America. At the height of his fame he came over and lectured here on the four bad English kings named George, among other things. We loved that, and he was glad. Thackeray liked Americans. He came to see us twice.
The night of, I'm thinking we'll do a Thackeray story about a party. Not the kind of hoedown I remember from my rural childhood, and certainly not the dazzling ideal of the cocktail party as thrown in the movies by Nick & Nora, Thackeray's "A Little Dinner at the Timmons's" is a perfect little satire of mid-Victorian, middle class pretensions -- still perfectly recognizable today -- with a bit of slapstick and other silliness included on the bill, gratis. Should be great fun. Thackeray could be specially good describing snobs and climbers, and pretensions of every kind (see, for another example, his A Shabby Genteel Story) in other words, individuals like me, if I'm not careful.
It may seem specially strange, such a redneck as me proposing the memory of William Makepeace Thackeray, gentleman. I suppose it is a little odd that I should have become so devoted to such a writer. That's the beauty part, my dears. It is cliche of the slack reviewer to describe the writing of almost any Tom, Dick or Harry as being "universal in its appeal," and I would not say that everyone should like a novel like Pendennis, or The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., or even Thackeray's masterpiece, Vanity Fair. What I will say is that more should read Thackeray than do now, not as a duty or any nonsense like that -- I don't believe in reading books because they might be good for us -- but we should more of us be reading Thackeray because he is that good, in fact masterful in many instances. He can be deucedly funny. No lie. More than this though, he was a brilliant writer, capable of many moods besides the comic. He could be quite gentle, even sentimental about things like the superiority of the female, and the kindness owed to children. (I'll put up a short reading here somewhere, from Thackeray in a quieter, more thoughtful, even melancholy frame.) Rather than trust me about all of this, come to the celebration and see for yourselves, read one of the novels, and see if I'm wrong. Don't think you won't like it. You may well be surprised. Remember, if some rube like me can get to appreciate his finer qualities, well then anybody might.
Again, please don't be put off from coming to the reading then because of any unfamiliarity with the writer. You will have a good time, believe me. I'll do my best by him, I hope, try not to lower the tone much, keep my shoes on.