Saturday, December 26, 2015
Funny Thing ... (2)
I posted the other day about the literary allusions that seem "safe" in newspapers these days--and by "safe," I mean that cartoonists can be somewhat confident that many (most?) readers will know what the cartoonist is getting at.
I mentioned last time that I was surprised that very day when a cartoon in the Cleveland Plain Dealer alluded to Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"--a rarity, at least in my experience.
Anyway, here are some of the most common ones I've noticed in recent years. There are surely others I've forgotten: Forgive my failing memory.
1. The Bible. I've seen many cartoons that feature the stories of Adam & Eve, the parting of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments, Jonah and the big fish, Noah's Ark. (There are certainly others.) These tales from the Old Testament are so much a part of America's common culture that it's hard to foresee a time when readers will not recognize them.
2. Greek Mythology and Literature. The Trojan Horse makes many appearances in cartoons, as do Odysseus and the Cyclops (though not nearly so often as the Trojan Horse).
3. Arthurian Legends. The sword-in-the-stone story is perhaps the most common--but the Round Table has its share of appearances, as well.
4. Tales by Washington Irving. Especially around Halloween, the Headless Horseman rides again (from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"), and Rip (from "Rip Van Winkle") is fairly common, too, year-round.
5. Frankenstein. The creature from Mary Shelley's 1818 novel appears in all seasons (though, of course, most frequently around Halloween). Many people call the monster "Frankenstein," though Mary Shelley had made it very clear that it had no name. That was part of the horror. Victor Frankenstein didn't care enough to bother naming his creation.
6. Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge (from A Christmas Carol, 1843) is common this time of the year, of course, but he pops up now and then throughout the year, too. Other characters and moments from Dickens' work are far more rare, though I've see cartoons alluding to A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations.
7. Edgar Poe. Certainly, "The Raven" (1845) is the most frequent Poe creation that cartoonists employ, though Poe himself is a common subject, as well. Some of the stories occasionally appear, too--"The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Tell-Tale Heart."
8. Moby-Dick (1851). This is among the most common, I think. I find a white-whale (or an Ahab) reference every few weeks or so. Everyone knows the fundamentals of the story: obsessive, peg-legged whaling captain (Ahab) pursues white whale that took Ahab's leg in a previous encounter. (BTW: I have a T-shirt that I wear sometimes when I'm working out at the health club; on the front it says "Call me Ishmael," and I've had many people recognize this opening sentence from Moby-Dick.) I would guess, though, that fewer and fewer people read that novel every year--even in schools and colleges (where, I would guess again, that it's not all that frequently assigned).
There are, of course, others, some of which I will recall the moment I've posted this. So it goes.
So what does all this mean? As the years go on, the circumference of our common literary culture shrinks--"iris out" was the old filmmaking technique (see photo below). And what remains? What cultural knowledge do most of us share these days? Enduring popular music celebrities, certainly (The Beatles), current pop-culture celebrities (actors, athletes, criminals, politicians). Films (Star Wars). In literature, Harry Potter, I suppose, will hang in there for a while--as Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and others have. (I've been stunned in recent years to discover that people I've talked with have never heard of Norman Mailer, John O'Hara, William Styron, and numerous others.)
But the "classics"--the books? the writers? How much longer for them? I fear it won't be much longer.