James Francis Simon
My father was the least literary of men. Born in 1934, he grew up on the south side of Omaha, Nebraska, an ethnic haven populated in the early twentieth century by a gallimaufry of European immigrants. His own parents had arrived from Moravia in the early years of the century, by way of the classic westering route--via steamship from Germany to Ellis Island, then overland by train, through Chicago, to the Nebraska prairies. Like many sons and daughters of the second generation, my father grew up hearing his parents' native tongue but marked his assimilation into U.S. culture by becoming fluent in the American vernacular. And what a vernacular he spoke--earthy, colorful, and homespun. A born storyteller, he could regale a gathering of friends and family with pithy one-liners as well as vivid tales.
I don't remember my father as an avid reader, however. Reading was something you did if you had all your other work done, and for my dad that was mostly local newspapers like the Omaha World-Herald; the Nebraska Smoke-Eater, a monthly newsletter for volunteer firemen; and sporting magazines like Field & Stream. Our family bookcase contained about three shelves' worth of books: a World Book Encyclopedia set on one shell plus miscellaneous titles on the other two like Triumph and Tragedy, on the Kennedys; a collection called World's Best Fairy Tales, illustrated by Fritz Kredel; and manuals on training hunting dogs. I remember participating in the summer reading program at the city library while we still lived in town, but when we moved to a farm in the mid-1970s, reading during daylight hours, especially in the summer, became a punishable offense--a type of truancy, or outright defiance. Books were banausic--they taught you how to do something, or were a means to an end, not an end in themselves. If all the chores were done, inside and out (and they never were), then reading was permissible. Years later, having become a professional reader, reading during daylight hours for me is still slightly tinged by taboo.
The older I get, however, I trust less the solitary act of reading books and value more the social art of storytelling. To my mind, writing should be no more exalted than carpentry, or baking. As Vera B. Williams discusses in her essay in this issue (see page 52), real-life experience is "the fertile ground of the characters and stories of literature for all ages." When she spoke to three hundred fourth- and fifth-graders at the University of Oklahoma last October, she decided to forego the usual keynote lecture behind a lectern; instead, she surrounded herself by the schoolchildren, encouraged them to pose their questions first, and then spoke extemporaneously about the art and craft of "storybooks." When asked about her advice for aspiring writers, she responded: "You can't not know that there's something to write about, because if you're alive, things happen; and if things happen, you can write about them." For Williams, writing begins and ends with being immersed in the human condition, and out of the world springs the text, refined by craft and discipline. In one anecdote, she told the students about hearing her father recite Russian folk tales to her as a child. In "The Tale of the Silver Saucer and the Crystal Apple," when the peasant girl Maryushka ("Little Fool") rotated a crystal apple given to her by her father, she could see the whole world reflected in the dish. The way Williams opens her essay, which she wrote especially for this issue, it starts with a primal scene of storytelling--a child, sitting on a parent's lap, imagining the whole world slowly turning.
Pictured here with my father (myself barely ten months old, while he was thirty-three at the time), I was old enough to crawl but months away from walking, and years away from reading. Everything about the picture seems austere--the bare furnishings, my starkly white pajamas, my father's dark clothing, his taut jaw. Against the chiaroscuro of the scene, though, I see it now through the kaleidoscope of memory. I can still smell that pipe tobacco, and feel the rough-hewn strength of those hands, and hear that inimitable voice. And even though his voice has fallen silent, the stories resonate still.
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|Title Annotation:||In memoriam James Francis Simon|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2010|
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