Reviewing and reflecting on three books
The Human Comedy by William Saroyan (1941)
Celebrate What Is by Doris Standridge and Carol Tomlinson (1981)
An American Family by Khizr Khan (2019)
Some of the figures crowded around a car in the faded black and white photograph were familiar, but I didn’t know the boy sitting on the running board.
“That was Louis,” my father said. “Granddaddy Mack took him in when his parents died in 1918.”
Both parents had died of influenza shortly after Louis was born and he was brought up by my grandmother’s parents. There were several family stories like this. My mother was rescued by her aunt from being sent to an orphanage when her mother became sick with tuberculosis. During the Depression, my grandfather took in a whole family. Later, the eldest son of that family, who remained a family friend, and became a successful businessman, always spoke of the wonderful taste of my grandmother’s rice dishes. Taking people in, rescuing them, saving them—this is a memorable family tradition.
Throwaway people, human refuse, and other no-counts populate the daily news. By bribes, tricks, and subterfuge they slip into our society to graze on our welfare and take away our jobs. This explanation comes from a different tradition.
At the same time that my family was rescuing people, our country was turning immigrants away. The rationale and sentiment of those times are repeated today. The “wretched refuse” of Emma Lazarus’s poem were considered poor genetic material, illiterate, unskilled, criminal, and probably, if somewhat illogically, both communist and feeble-minded.
But the immigrant Khizr Khan was a highly trained Pakistani lawyer, devout Muslim, linguist, and meticulous worker with experience in working for a Texas oil firm in Dubai when he came to the United States. He didn’t want to practice law in a country where “professional witnesses” were routinely hired to strengthen a case and where legal advancement depended upon paying bribes. In a first-year course on constitutional law, he had read the American Constitution, and been astounded by the idea of creating a system of laws, not men. Privilege, graft, nepotism, and corruption were accepted legal practices in Pakistan, India, and most of the world. The American system offered a more honorable professional path. Living and working as a green-card holder, Khan saw for himself that the ideas of the Constitution were visible in Americans’ daily lives—even though they didn’t notice this fact. He sent for his wife and children, became a citizen, and sponsored the “chain migration” of his mother, siblings, and their families.
Hitler once previewed his genocidal intentions by asking, “Who remembers the slaughter of the Armenians?” Who indeed? William Saroyan was a second-generation Armenian-American who spent five years in an orphanage after the death of his father before his mother could rescue him and his brother by proving she could raise them on the salary of a cannery worker in Fresno. His first novel, The Human Comedy, incorporated his personal story into a larger story about the incredible toughness of human love and acceptance. Written at the very time that Hitler was clearing a path through Poland both for the invasion of Russia and the establishment of a network of extermination centers, The Human Comedy may strike readers as simple-minded and sentimental.
The cynical or at least critical irony we have come to expect from writers is, in fact, missing from all three of these books. As Tomlinson and Standridge describe Blair, the boy who ultimately dies from an accident, it is difficult to accept that such a cheery, even Apollonian, person could have existed. He seemed to float over the ground like a demi-god—even when he wasn’t skydiving. Similarly unbelievable is Khan’s exhilaration while sleeping on a Boston park bench for a week because he had spent everything he had in order to complete his law course at Harvard and pay for his family’s expenses in Houston. Perhaps most unbelievable, however, are Saroyan’s philosophical sentences:
Mrs. Macauley began to speak, but she did not turn to him. “You will find out,” she said. “No one can tell you. Each man finds out in his own way. If it’s sad, nobly or foolishly, the man himself will make it so. If it’s richly sad and full of beauty, it’s the man himself so, and not the things around him. And so it is, if it’s bad, or ugly, or pathetic—it is always the man himself, and each man is the world. Each man is the whole world, to make over as he will and to fill with a human race he can love, if it is love he has, or a race he must hate, if it is hate he has. The world waits to be made over by each man who inhabits it, and it is made over every morning like a bed or a household where the same people live—always the same, but always changing too. . . It was pity that made you cry,” she said. “Pity, not for this person or that person who is suffering, but for all things—for the very nature of things. Unless a man has pity he is inhuman and not yet truly a man, for out of pity comes the balm which heals.”
Did any mother ever say such things to a fourteen year-old son? One either dismisses the unbelievable passages in The Human Comedy as, at best, homilies disguised as dialogues or accepts them as good-faith expressions of Saroyan’s experience. Perhaps we can accept that in war time, any situation may lead to questions of meaning and existence, particularly for a boy who has become the breadwinner.
A family crisis like the fatal injury of a son paralyzed from a fall, as described in Celebrate What Is, or killed in battle, as in An American Family and The Human Comedy, quickly disperses the comfortable ironies, equivocations, and speculations that usually keep mortality at a distance. The stories of survivors, orphans, and immigrants show us with heart-rending clarity what sort of people we are because we are surprised by the unbelievable, simple humanity of the language:
A mother is stricken with guilt and frustration at the relief she had felt before she was told that her paralyzed son would live: “If we had been willing to let go of him, why hadn’t life been willing to let go as well?” (Celebrate What Is, p.145)
A father gives up playing through all the “what-ifs” about his son’s last moments: “My son was dead because he was trying to make sure a stranger wasn’t killed by mistake. He stayed true to the shape of his heart.” (An American Family, p.219)
Another soldier’s mother, Mrs. Macauley, foresees her son’s death: “There will always be pain in things . . . Knowing this does not mean that a man shall despair. The good man will seek to take pain out of things. The foolish man will not even notice it except in himself. And the evil man will drive pain deeper into things and spread it about wherever he goes. But each man is guiltless, for the evil man no less than the foolish man or the good man did not ask to come here and did not come alone, from nothing, but from many worlds and from multitudes. The evil do not know they are evil and are therefore innocent. The evil man must be forgiven every day. He must be loved, because something of each of us is in the most evil man in the world and something of him is in each of us. He is ours and we are his. None of us is separate from any other.” (The Human Comedy, p.189)
These remarkably unbelievable statements and questions are honest messages from the heart of human suffering. Only honesty can live with such suffering. The language is simple, heart-felt, and neither ironical nor vindictive. The stripped heart cannot be fed with hate or fear. As Ileana Cabra Joglar sings,
Let hatred be starved
By not feeding it.
Together, let us destroy
Walls, barriers, and wires.
(From “Odio” or “Hate” by Ismael Cancel and Ileana Cabra)
“Yielding in protest” to the facts of death and suffering, Tomlinson describes a family who “learned to look for reason in unreasonable death (and) learned to look beyond death for a quality of life which knows no limits. Because of Blair.” (Celebrate What Is, p.279). Tomlinson became part of Blair’s family, and was friend, colleague at the University of Virginia, and daughter to his mother for the rest of her long life. Khizr Kahn’s family grew by thousands as he and Ghazala established scholarships for other ROTC graduates from the University of Virginia and as they appeared at the Democratic Convention in 2016 to speak in honor of Capt. Humayun Khan and in praise of the Constitution.
The Macauley family lost and gained a son when the orphan Tobey, their son’s Army buddy, returned to tell them how Marcus died and how he had promised Tobey that his family would take him in after the war.
Mr. Spangler, a telegraph operator who sent so many messages from the War Department to so many homes, watched the dancers on July the Fourth. “The music was swing, jive, and boogie-woogie, and the dancing was terrific. ‘Americans!’ Spangler said. ‘Look at them. Americans—Greeks, Serbs, Poles, Russians, Armenians, Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Abyssinians, Jews, French, English, Scotch, Irish—look at them! Listen to them!’” All of them were brought together by African American music, another language of the heart. Then Spangler spoke about the dead—not the brave dead, or the sacrificed dead, or the patriots. That is not the simple language of the heart.
“I’m not going to try to comfort you,” Spangler said. “I know I couldn’t. But try to remember that a good man can never die. You will see him many times. You will see him in the streets. You will see him in the houses, in all the places of the town. In the vineyards and orchards, in the rivers and clouds, in all the things here that make this a world for us to live in. You will feel him in all things that are here out of love, and for love—all the things that are abundant, all the things that grow. The person of a man may leave—or be taken away—but the best part of a good man stays. It stays forever. Love is immortal and makes all things immortal. But hate dies every minute.” (p.280)
Love is immortal but hate dies every minute.