But Not a Literary Lion

Writers are often conscious of their family trees (which differ from their genetic family trees). The trees reflect each writer’s influences, and, of course, writers will discover they have thousands of cousins influenced by the same writers. We recognize that we have Literary Lions (e.g., Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dickens, et al.) and the rest of us, who modestly may claim to be Literary Meerkats.

When this meerkat was in grade school, Dick and Jane readers in the Forties confirmed that the future writer could recognize such words as “Dick,” “Jane,” “Spot,” “run,” etc., but face it: The series didn’t provide a riveting read.

Instead, the Bible provided sentences and cadences that the youngster would hear in Sunday school and during the services. John Steinbeck adapted several narratives for his novels: the Exodus with The Grapes of Wrath, Genesis with East of Eden, etc.

Shakespeare was writing during the composition of the KJV and its predecessors, and the wondrous language combined with his poetry to bring alive stories of star-struck lovers, melancholy princes, and ambitious Scottish thanes.

More accessible were tales of ghosts at Christmas by Charles Dickens, and, as the boy developed confidence, he could tackle stories about guillotines, hard times, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield.

Along with Dickens came the stories of Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe. He eventually went through all of Twain and most of Poe. Twain’s influence towered over that of the 20th Century Literary Lions: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.

When you follow the Mark Twain limb, it branches out into humor in general, ranging from Twain’s contemporaries Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby to such radio-TV-film comic writers as James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Will Rogers, and many others. Serious academics were focusing on Henry James, while this child of Twain was focusing on the novels and books of Thorne Smith, H. Allen Smith, Mac Hyman, William Brinkley, and other Literary Meerkats. He was influenced by such late golden age radio figures as Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Edgar Bergen, Stan Freberg, et al. and by 1950s television geniuses: the Sid Caesar team of Sid, Carl Reiner, Howie Morris, Imogene Coca, plus such writers as Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, et al. He tracked Steve Allen’s team from Tonight to Sunday evenings against Ed Sullivan. He was late coming to the skits of SCTV and Monty Python but found that most of them compared favorably to skits from Sid Caesar and Steve Allen. (Alas, he found Saturday Night Live generally to be a little off.)

The Writer’s Family Tree has other branches: Edgar Rice Burroughs and his tales of Tarzan, Tarzan’s son, John Carter, etc.; Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock and even his “serious” writing (in his mind) about knights; Maristan Chapman’s novels about boys having adventures, possibly in the spirit of the Hardy Boys (which he never read).

Mixed in with these are comic books, ranging from the D.C. superheroes to Captain Marvel and his team (his sister Mary and Captain Marvel Jr.). Another comic’s villain, possibly named Iron Jaw, had an iron jaw, like the maw of a steam shovel; he was so popular that they turned him into a hero. The sneak thief, Patrick “Eel” O’Brien, was betrayed by his chums and wound up as the heroic (and impish) Plastic Man (who should be played in a CGI movie by Jim Parsons). When the horror comics were at their peak, both Drac and Frankenstein were protagonists in their own comics. The author loved the horror comics with monsters playing baseball with some victim’s body parts (the head, eyes wide open, trying to scream in terror).

Rule of thumb? Read everything, as long as it’s interesting. By and by, you’ll discard the derivative or repetitive work, especially writing that is boring or mundane. Stretch yourself and make sure your standards are being raised. If you drive alone for long distances, get audiobooks for classics that you might not read otherwise.

Thus spake this Literary Meerkat.