Nat(han Irving) Hentoff

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Eleanor Cameron

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Nat Hentoff has written two novels for teenagers: one good, Jazz Country …; and one, to my mind, a failure, I'm really dragged but nothing gets me down…. In his essay "Fiction for Teenagers," Hentoff says, "Is it possible, then, to reach these children of McLuhan in that old-time medium, the novel? I believe it is, because their primary concerns are only partially explored in the messages they get from their music and are diverted rather than probed on television. If a book is relevant to those concerns, not didactically but in creating textures of experience which teenagers can recognize as germane to their own, it can merit their attention."

What troubles me is that, in Hentoff's intense concern to reach teenagers, the difference between bibliotherapy and literature is lost sight of. I'm sure Hentoff knows the difference between the two: that literature was never written with the purpose of providing a tool or a release for the desperate. It is written because someone must make palpable and seen and understood his private vision of the universe. What we call literature gives the reader an intensified sense of existence, a revelation, gives him people with idiosyncrasies and habits and beliefs, people with histories and possible futures which the reader cannot help dwelling upon when the last page is turned. People, I should think, at the opposite pole to those faceless ones, the message carriers (most of them depressingly, boringly alike in their involvements and rebellions and obsessions) presented us by the writers of the catering and problem type of teenage novel. Reading a stack of them becomes tedious beyond endurance, especially when they are written in the first person, purportedly by a teenager.

And yet Hentoff, desiring, I am sure, to write an admirable novel, one with quality, has given us exactly what he speaks against—didacticism, an arrangement of ideas already well-known to teenagers—but has not given us what he created in Jazz Country, a texture of experience. This, it would seem to me, ought of necessity, given the nature of the human body, to include Flannery O'Connor's all important eye. Yet very rarely does I'm really dragged give us the look either of human beings or of places; we are not, strangely enough, made aware of any particular place. And in losing the particularity of place, we lose somehow the sense of reality, and I mean an intense sense of reality. We are all but blind—like the chambered mole. Nor do we feel the surfaces of solid objects; they seem scarcely to exist. We never smell anything. As readers, we seem stripped of all senses except hearing, and remember McLuhan's saying, "For the eye has none of the delicacy of the ear."

I'm really dragged is like a play, with the characters coming through to us only in their speeches about subjects of interest to contemporary teenagers. You experience Hentoff's people as you do those in a play, only the strictly pertinent core of them rather than the accomplished novelist's exploration of facets of personality. And you can go through the short chapters and assign a title to each just by running an eye down the dialogue: Chapter One, the draft and blacks vs. whites; Chapter Two, father vs. son; Chapter Three, drugs, to smoke pot or not to smoke it; Chapter Four, father vs. son; Chapter Five, blacks vs. whites; Chapter Six, father vs. son; Chapter Seven, the generation gap; Chapter Eight, parents and school; and so on. Is this what Hentoff calls "textures of experience"? But surely that texture we call "the novel" gives us,...

(This entire section contains 713 words.)

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at its most treasurable, a passionate, sometimes rapturous meeting between the artist's private vision and the haunting, ambiguous, paradoxical world of feelings and objects—all interlaced. And these interlacings open up for us intimations about ourselves and the world we had not guessed at before, or had not seen, nor been able to put into words for ourselves. (pp. 111-13)

Eleanor Cameron, "McLuhan, Youth, and Literature" (copyright © 1972, 1973 by Eleanor Cameron; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. XLVIII, Nos. 5 and 6 and Vol. XLIX, No. 1, October and December, 1972 and February, 1973 (and reprinted in Crosscurrents of Criticism: Horn Book Essays, 1968–1977, edited by Paul Heins, The Horn Book, Incorporated, 1977, pp. 98-120.)∗


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