It is no accident that the philosophic school of pragmatism was developed in the United States. Americans have always prided themselves on having practical ability. It should be no surprise, therefore, that there is a strong trend in North American culture that is anti-intellectual but that does not devalue practical intellectual accomplishment. North America’s cultural heroes may not always be educated or socially polished, but they usually display a genius for something which large numbers of people appreciate. There is tradition in American literature of the character who appears to be slow-witted but who actually is outmaneuvering his or her adversaries. Joel Chandler Harris’ Brer Rabbit outsmarts Brer Fox, and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer tricks others into painting a fence for him. Cunning has always been part of the identity of Americans.
Cunning seems to be a characteristic not only of the extremely intelligent but also of those who might be regarded as mentally deficient. The fool who is gifted with special insights is an ancient literary character; such fools are also found in American literature, in which the mentally disabled are frequently not without resources. The triumph of the less-than-bright individual is a recurring literary motif. Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump (1992), Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” and plays such as Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door (1988) are examples. Forrest Gump, the title character of Groom’s novel, serves as a mirror of mid-twentieth century America. Born in a small Southern town, he participates in almost everything that has defined American identity since the 1950’s. He plays football, fights in Vietnam, visits John Kennedy at the White House, breaks racial barriers, and operates a highly successful business. He also barely surpasses intellectual dysfunctionality. Gump manages more or less on his own, but the four retarded men of Griffin’s play live in a state-supported residence supervised by a social worker. They only function some of the time, and it seems that their chief purpose in life is to drive their well-meaning social worker supervisor—who stands as a symbol of sensible authority—into intellectual exhaustion.
The difference between Groom’s Gump and Griffin’s boys is that Gump is usually involved in something grand, such as visiting the White House. What happens more often than not is that the grand event is made commonplace by Gump’s refreshing simplicity. For example, he asks the president if he may use the toilet. Conversely, Griffin’s characters stand the universe on its head by making every trivial problem into something momentous. Lucien Smith, for example, has the mind of a five-year-old, but imagines that he is able to read and understand the weighty books he is always lugging about. No amount of patient but increasingly exasperated dissuasion from Jack, the social worker, changes Lucien’s opinion.
Writers are always searching for a device that will shift traditional points of view in order to illuminate. Using the mentally deficient as a means of turning the world upside down is one such device. It is not always used with the zany touches of joy and comedy typical of Groom and Griffin.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1935), for example, is dark...
(The entire section is 1351 words.)