Looking backward, generation to generation

I have completed Chapter 9, which documents Toole’s first year in Puerto Rico where he was an English instructor in the Army.  The chapter ends a few months before he begins writing Confederacy, but offers some key experiences that clearly influenced the development of the novel. In studying his letters from 1962 I have been keenly aware of the challenge of rendering the idiosyncrasies of a generation.

Toole’s letters from Puerto Rico in 1962 are filled with humorous observations, but they are often at the expense of Puerto Ricans.  He makes some lamentable comments that would have broken the hearts of his students had they read his letters.  But yet, he was known as a caring and devoted teacher to his Puerto Rican students. In context, his letters are private and, as I point out in the chapter, a game of narrative voice.  But that does not make his most deplorable comments anymore palatable to me as a reader.

So the question becomes, how do we understand such commentary from a person reared in a social climate and generation that considered racial differences inherent and natural?  Is it unfair to impose our own values of the politically correct onto a moment in history that had yet to cultivate those social values?  Or are we obligated to uproot these inequities and take them to task? 

Of course, decades from now, our children will struggle with our own idiosyncrasies.  They might despair the contradiction of our lip service to “going green,” but our actual laziness when it came to changing our lives for such a principle.  Or perhaps they will find the resolution to the debate on same sex marriage a simple question of civil rights.  Indeed, our children will shake their heads at us too.  But hopefully they will seek to understand the milieu of our era, as I do the same in this project, not as a justification, but as a way to better understand the slow movement of change, the hard earned lessons of any generation.  

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3 responses to “Looking backward, generation to generation

  1. Speaking as someone who processes archival collections, I run into situations like this frequently. It is always a challenge to reconcile how to describe documents and letters that are profoundly offensive to my admittedly liberal sensibilities, while also acknowledging the context in which they were created, and the authors who created them.I do believe archivists (and historians, curators, writers, etc) have a responsibility to present things in the context of the prevailing culture and politics of the time. Having said that, I think the notion that ‘well everyone back then thought ABC about XYZ’ puts the blinders on our collective responsibility to examine the unique circumstances in which prejudice and bigotry thrived among various individuals and groups.

  2. Thanks for offering this insight sussah. Indeed, I make a similar observation in the chapter. Although it seems to me that his letters in the early part of 1962 do not carry that narrative like quality that he begins after the summer of 1962. Of course, you are quite right to point out that Ken would not be troubled with political correctness. As any talented satirist he would mock such a concept. But at times, in those early letters, I think he shows the ability to be quite cruel in his humor. It was not a face he usually showed–and perhaps one that he reserved for private correspondence.

  3. Probably the letters to home, although part of the real world, were extensions of the process of descriptive fiction writing, which was going on inside Toole’s mind, by his own admission, somewhat obsessively. Also, the personal connection with his mother in earlier times included lots of fun with doing dialects. In a sense, the man being portrayed as the voice of the letters is one of his own characters. But I would think that Toole, the actual person, may not have been concerned with what we now call political correctness, in his fiction or in life, except to the extent that he might wish to contradict it. sp, n.o.