Sunday, April 01, 2018

The unacknowledged father of YA - Dostoevsky



"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation towards K. bridge.

He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase."

Prophetic words, I thought. A whole future suddenly seemed possible to me. And I was fourteen.

My favorite young adult novel is Crime and Punishment. I read this before I read any of Dostoevsky’s other novels. I read it when I was in the ninth grade. It transfixed me. It did what I expect a novel to do, on the highest level: it became part of my inner equipment.

I read the translation by Constance Garnett. It was in the Clarkston High School library, which, looking back, was surprisingly well stocked. This was undoubtedly the result of the influx of suburbanites into Dekalb County in the 1960s, when Atlanta was still swanning it as the “capital” of the “New South”. My family had moved, like so many others, from New York (via Pennsylvania), and at the time, the regional difference was something that penetrated childhood games – accents were still markedly different, and of course the Civil War was the myth that boys could enroll themselves in when throwing nuts and burrs at each other in imaginary battle.

As a result of the swelling population and the can do spirit of the New Deal/Great Society, the County put up a number of schools, and even created a junior college. I have no idea, now, who was in charge of purchasing for the library – luckily, the person was not bothered, back then, by fundamentalist backbiters. Thus, our high school library had the wonderful Random House Ulysses, with the great big U on the cover. And it had the Modern Library collection. As I learned much latter on, Bennett Cerf bought the Modern Library titles from Boni and Liveright back in the twenties. The titles were a sort of wink – for back then, the modern classics were also risqué. Describing “lovemaking” or discussing “free love” was definitely a selling point for the modern. It was really one of the most significant business deals in American culture, though it is much less known than, say, the story of the Bell Labs inventing and giving away the rights to the transistor.   

So much of my education came from the Modern Library! I remember Dos Passos’s USA and its drawings, for instance: another great Young Adult novel, one that gave me a sense that history was a larger thing than dates and great names. But it was Crime and Punishment that pulled me out of my dogmatic, tv lulled slumbers. Although … really, TV cooperated with the Modern Library in my sentimental education. At the same time that Dekalb County was pumping money into the educational system, Public TV was coming on line – which, in the Atlanta area, meant channel 8 and, I believe it was, 36. Public TV was full of amazing things in the early seventies, little Dadaist American programs sandwiched among foreign movies and British imports. Among the latter was Masterpiece theater, which televised the Russians. My images of the characters in The Possessed are still yoked to the faces of  those probably now  deceased players.

As Adam gets older, I will doubtless discover a world of YA a bit different from Dostoevsky. I know little about the YA world, but from what I have read, the themes are still Dostoevskian. He is the unacknowledged father of adolescent angst, still.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

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Appreciate it!

Roger Gathman said...

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