Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Miss Stuver, Doc Savage, and the Make-Believe World of Literature

            Nancy Stuver was a young woman recently out of college when I met her over 45 years ago. This rather timid woman was my high school English teacher. Her job was to teach us American literature.

            In those days I was withdrawn and difficult, a troubled kid with a crappy attitude whose personal life had exploded into chaos. I didn’t particularly like reading, certainly not the horrid books Miss Stuver wanted us to read. I would merely skim a few pages and bluff the rest, just enough to get by. The poor woman didn’t know how to handle me.

            But ironically at that time, I was reading Doc Savage. Doc was the Man of Bronze, the superhero who righted wrongs and punished evildoers. Written mostly in the 1930s by Lester Dent (Kenneth Robeson), Doc and his five aids (headquartered in New York City), sought adventure in a world of dirigibles, autogyros, and automobiles with running boards and starter switches that you needed to step on to engage the engines. In Doc’s world, criminals could be converted by a simple operation, heroes could be beaten senseless without lasting consequences, and good guys always won. During my high school years, Bantam Books reprinted these adventures at the rate of one a month.

            But something happened as I escaped into the world of Doc. In fact, what happened was the same thing that eventually killed the original series. Reality.

            World War II arrived, and Doc’s successes against horrid villains who threatened to destroy the world seemed insignificant to the reader, now enmeshed in the horrors of fascism and war. Doc Savage Magazine underwent some changes in those years but finally stopped in 1949. The escape world of Clark Savage Jr. could not survive in the real world. In fact, Doc’s world seemed hollow when even compared to my own troubled world.

            So what does all of this have to do with Nancy Stuver? Her patient persistence changed things. Huckleberry Finn was the first book forced upon us that I actually read; in fact I was taken by it. And though still a make-believe world, this one was different. This book told an adventure of a troubled kid and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River, and a Colonel who stopped the lynch mob who came after him, and a feud that generated serious consequences. In Twain’s make-believe world, I saw something about life that was indeed real and important.

            So I read the other books that she offered: The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, plus other books that today I don’t recall. And somehow in all of this, I understood that stories needed to be more than just taking us into a make-believe world. This make-believe world needed to show us something about life, and if the book is really good, something about ourselves. These make-believe stories were not threatened by reality, but rather taught us something about it.

            So what would I say to Miss Stuver if we met today after all of these years? Would we talk about a runaway slave named Jim? Or perhaps Doc and his friends?

Probably not.

I might tell her that I’ve had three books published, and if she remembers me at all she’d be stunned.

            But what I think I’d like to say would simply be, “Thanks, Nancy.”

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