We're into Week Two of our July mini-mester study of Evolution in America. Some thoughts, prompted by the class's reaction so far to Edward Larson's Summer for the Gods and Matthew Chapman's Trials of the Monkey...
I'm a bit surprised at the vehemence of some students' negative response to Chapman. His book is 20-plus years old now, which in 2020 definitely dates it in some respects -- especially when it comes to those sensitivities in reference to which lately we talk about being "woke". I really don't think anything I've read in his pages marks him as an inveterate racist, and if he was sexist it was a form of sexism not at all uncommon among men late in the last century. That's no excuse of course, ultimately, but it's still useful to remind ourselves that attitudes many now recoil from were widely and un-circumspectly shared not so long ago. I don't mean to let him off the hook, I just don't think we ought to leave him out to dry as though he were the only one ever (for instance) to call attention to morbidly-obese Greyhound passengers. May we just note his serial insensitivities, class, and turn our attention in a different and potentially more constructive and instructiver direction?
My hope is that we can release our author from the amateur psychoanalyst's couch, stop speculating about his possible childhood traumas (beyond those he himself reveals), and concede that while his confessions do sometimes place him in an unflattering light they also show him to possess a degree of self-effacing humility and self-critique that I for one find honest and even refreshing. As one of us has commented,
Chapman has not offended me in the way he has some others in the class. His is disrespectful, irreverent and brutally honest but I also find him self-effacing, most often kind to others (at least to their face) and certainly a passionate observer to the people and places he encounters not to mention having a very humorous turn of the phrase. My thoughts keep going back to the fact that he is Hollywood screenwriter and in this role he has learned what arouses an audience, what placates an audience and what entertains an audience. I think he has his well developed "writing tools" on full display in this book. There are time when I wonder what the people he encountered and profiled in the book thought if they ever read the book and if is still welcome in Dayton but I enjoy his writing-crassness, foibles and all. He certainly makes no secret to who and what he is and the elements of his psychological make-up.Quite so.
In any event, what I'd like to urge is that we view ourselves not as Chapman's character judges and jury but simply as fellow visitors (virtually this semester, alas, in this time of COVID) to a small Tennessee town with a big history of aggressive resistance to Chapman's famous ancestor's evolutionary hypothesis. Let's peer over his shoulder as he encounters people very different from himself culturally, linguistically, ideologically etc., and eavesdrop on his conversations. Let's see if he and they can make any headway in understanding where each other are coming from.
Not to spoil the story, but I've already indicated that I do find Chapman's willingness to reach across those chasms of difference and his progress in coming to understand and even respect his new friends -- all while maintaining a different point of view -- quite rare by comparison to the way people in our day typically regard those of a different party, faith, culture, etc. etc.
So to sum up: to me the point of reading Chapman is not to analyze and it's definitely not to obsess over his personal character flaws. The point is to see how very strange American anti-evolutionism can look from a British pro-evolutionist perspective... and then to see if that gap can be narrowed, if mutual respect can emerge from civil conversation and awakened curiosity about the circumstances, values, aspirations and so forth that created the gap in the first place.
And, we also and simultaneously want to be reading Larson's historical account of the events in Dayton in 1925 with at least as much active engagement. It's a fascinating tale, and it really happened in our Tennessee back yard.
* Don't know if you saw what I did there, just a little poetic humor. Very little, perhaps. But let's keep having fun with our subject-matter.
"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is a sonnet written by English poet John Keats when he was just 20 years old. Essentially, it is a poem about poetry itself, describing a reading experience so profound that an entire world seems to come to life. The poem talks specifically about a translation of Homer, the Classical Greek poet, by George Chapman, an Elizabethan poet whose translations were more concerned with the reader's experience of the text than loyalty to the original form. The poem was published in the newspaper The Examiner soon after it was written in 1816. LitCharts