Monday, April 11, 2005

Isabel Paterson, Part 2: The Highest Form of Intelligence

Well, I've finished my second read-through of Stephen Cox's biography of Isabel Paterson. I have a tendency to re-read stories (whether fictional or not) that leave me unsatisfied in some way, despite the quality of the writing. I think I'm looking for satisfaction with every subsequent reading. Of course, since words on paper do not magically change when books are shut, I am always left again unsatisfied. Nobody could have written a more beautiful, enchanting telling of Isabel Paterson's life than The Woman and the Dynamo, but you are left with the impression that even the author himself was unsatisfied at the conclusion of this biography.

Isabel Paterson, graced by God with natural genius, humor, flair and originality, died and remains in such obscurity that the conscientious reader cannot help but gnash her teeth at the whole of mankind that rejects to this day the very prophets God sends to enlighten us. I think somehow in this second reading I was hoping to find the ending changed to something like this:

And then the entire world sat up and listened to what Isabel Paterson had been saying all along, everyone stopped poking their noses into everyone else's business, the governments stopped interfering in the energy circuit of the free exchange of ideas and goods and instead started protecting life, liberty and property, and that is why the world is a place of peace and fulfillment for all individuals today. The End.

And then I would look up from the book and miraculously see a country that is not at war, not trillions in debt, not aborting babies, not throwing away billions into government schools, and is basically minding its own business with the rest of the world following our lead, as it tends to do. Peace and prosperity would be the norm, Isabel Paterson would be on Mount Rushmore, and I could go about my life without worrying so much about the fate of my beloved country.

Though, believe me, there is a lot to be comforted by in the reading of this extraordinary life. The very fact that she was able to find a voice in the Twentieth Century and express that voice to the world in a regular column of a mainstream publication (not to mention in many novels and her great work, The God of the Machine) is simply amazing when you consider that that was the century that brought us Wilson and WWI, Lenin, Stalin and the whole blight of Communism, FDR and the New Deal, Hitler, Mussolini and WWII, and colorless, wishy-washy, gutless, spineless collectivism in just about every other arena of life, in America and abroad. The most surprising thing about Pat is not that she became somewhat bitter toward the end, but that she found the courage and conviction even to begin the fight for individual liberty and the morality of capitalism.

So, let me sit with a cup of tea - Pat's preferred tonic of imbibition - and try to express my love for my dear Isabel.

Well, as I wrote before, Isabel Paterson was funny. Very funny. So funny, that reading excerpts from her column will lead the reader through reactions ranging from the quiet titter to the boisterous guffaw. The amazing part of this is that she wrote a timely column, filled with persons and literary works from a bygone era. That her humor could be so relevant to the modern reader is a mark of her particular skill, and that these bits of humor were framed so well as to make them relevant is a tribute to the skill of her biographer. Sometimes, Dr. Cox lets these aphorisms stand alone:

The main object of a university press seems to be to publish books which one wouldn't be found dead reading. (66)

Psychology is a science which tells you what psychologists are like. (66)

Nothing that well-meaning people might do would surprise us. (68)

People mostly do as they like, and that would be fine if they'd let other people do the same. (68)

Sometimes he gives contextual information to pack a greater punch:

Unmerited fame was easily punished. Hearing that the work of a popular sociologist had been translated into German, she asked, "Why wouldn't it be a popular move to translate it into English?" (69)

After watching Bruce Barton's life of Christ, The Man Nobody Knows, linger for months on the bestsellers list, she greeted the appearance of his next effort, The Book Nobody Knows, with a brief gloss: "Meaning the Bible, which Mr. Barton has just discovered." (69-70)

She was perhaps the only person in the Western world who was immune to Churchill's "Blood, Sweat, and Tears" speech. She noted that he had borrowed the salient idea from Garibaldi, and besides, "All heads of states are considered great writers while they are in office. It goes with the job. And we mean it goes with the job." (70)

He notes that she wrote amidst the peerage of such luminous literary wits as Mencken, Parker, Fitzgerald and Lardner, in fact stating that "wit and humor were the soundest currency of the age...and Paterson had no difficulty exploiting her own sense of humor." The fact that she was not afraid to express this humor in the "vulgar tongue of this country," that she was at home in America's newly rooted sense of itself as a separate entity from European culture, that she helped to distinguish our distinctly colloquial and casual version of the English language, that she was enchanted by this vernacular's "elusive note of poetry," made her a powerful voice in both literary and political commentary. Reading excerpts from her column in The Herald Tribune calls to mind some of Ring Lardner's ability to capture "American" as a language.

"Wit and humor," she said, "are the highest forms of intelligence." One would tend to agree, especially if that one has ever tried to "write funny" or do five minutes of good stand-up comedy. One should then reflect on the fact that so little of what so-called intellectual lights write or say is funny in the least. A lightness in self-expression will draw readers back continually in a way that no pedantic pondering ever will. Ever wonder why so many of "Oprah's Book Club" authors have no success with their successive literary offerrings? Oprah's recommendation is enough to coax a purchase from the legions who hail her as Messiah, but, once having read and become fully in-touch with the artistic proclivities of the Great OW, these readers will not seek out further works by these authors...because most of them are sooooooo depressing and annoying and boring. Oy!

So, Isabel was very funny.

I have recently been checking out her novels from the library, and I am pleased to report that her style with fiction is also very accessible. The two I have so far read I will share about in Part 3 (you knew it was coming, didn't you?). Until then, have fun reading The God of the Machine (which I know you have, because you purchased it at my bidding two weeks ago from I'll be back with more Isabel-adoration soon.

Peace to all!

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