Jane Austen, Allen Ginsberg, and My Descent Into Madness

prideandprej

I had a teacher once at Stonehill College in southeastern Mass, and he was a pretty good teacher. It was a long time ago. Mr. Lawrence (pseudonym) taught me to love Conrad. He showed me how to read Joyce’s “The Dead.” He told me, too, that, “anyone who wishes to understand the modern-day, English-language novel must understand Jane Austen, specifically Pride and Prejudice.” He was a truly inspired teacher, Mr. Lawrence. Just the same, I wish he’d kept that part about Jane Austen to himself.

I didn’t get around to Pride and Prejudice until after college. I don’t remember much about the first read. There was a grand ballroom, and there were dashing, marriageable young officers all over the place. On p. 19 (my edition), I underlined, “They [the ever-eligible Bennett girls] could talk of nothing but officers.” In truth, I never finished the book. I did, however, underline copiously, figuring to someday return to it, and make sense of it all. That never happened. Sadly, the plot and the characters, however well crafted, put me in mind of what it might be like to chew on cardboard.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “The one problem in the mind of the writer [of Pride and Prejudice]…is marriageableness; all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with…” I was all in with Emerson, of course. In the main, though, scholars and great writers around the planet have apotheosized Austen since the nineteenth century.

There were more aborted tries at getting through it. Why this obsession with a book I hated? Maybe there was a little Gatsby to it. You know – the boy who grew up deprived, and who spent the rest of his life trying to appear respectable. I’d taken it into my head that all the smart people loved Pride and Prejudice. What the heck was wrong with me, then? Besides, I’d read a gazillion novels since college, but, by Mr. Lawrence’s reckoning, I’d never understood a one.

Well, the years rolled into decades. Life was good, and I thought I was over it. But, for reasons I can’t explain, it came to me one dread winter evening, not more than ten years ago, that I absolutely must understand Pride and Prejudice. I must! And if I did, it became clear, I could look any English major, anywhere, straight in the eye. It was a sickness, really.

I retrieved my old, beat-up paperback from the attic (cover price, $2.45), and drove straight to nearby Stonehill College, specifically the main reading room of the beautiful, spacious campus library that had been nothing but a gleam in a future architect’s eye back in my day. The place was packed, by the way.

But before settling in, I went to a window, and stared over to an adjacent building, where – and this is important to note – on a night in March, 1993, the poet Allen Ginsberg himself had come to read from his wonders and his songs. I’ll be forever grateful and proud that I had returned to my alma mater that night to hear him. For Allen Ginsberg died not a few years later. But this was no time for nostalgia. I was there to read Pride and Prejudice. In truth, though, I was only on page 9 when the first signs of trouble appeared.

Jane Bennett was chatting Elizabeth Bennett up about the marriage-eligible Mr. Bingley. “[He was] sensible, good humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners.” observed Jane. “With such perfect good breeding!”

“He is also handsome,” Elizabeth gushed, helpfully.

Jeeeeeeeeezus, wheezed out of me like air from a leaky valve. Who reads this stuff?

Ten pages later, Mr. Bennett, father to Jane and Elizabeth and a house-full more of prospective brides, tells a couple of them, “[Y]ou must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I’ve suspected it for a long time. Now I’m convinced.” They call high blood pressure the silent killer. Not necessarily. After reading sentences like that, my blood pressure sounds like the seven seas, pounding, collectively, and roaring on the troubled beaches of my inner ears.

It seemed I’d been there ten hours, but a look to the clock showed it had been thirty measly minutes. Just the same, I needed a break. I slouched down in my chair, and closed my eyes, the fingers of both hands interlaced, and resting on the rise and fall of my belly, I stretched my legs out under the table, and I thought back to that magical night Allen Ginsberg came.

Allen, you crazy old bastard, beatnik-weirdo genius. Come back to Stonehill College this night, from wherever you are, and read to me. And if you read to me, then I won’t have to read Jane Austen.

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Gradually, a voice was heard in my head. What peaches and what penumbras, whole families shopping at night. But whose voice was it? Aisles full of husbands, wives in the avocadoes. Babies in the tomatoes Where had I heard that voice? Wait! At first I didn’t dare to hope, but – yes – it was him! He had come back! And though my eyes were closed, my ears told me Allen Ginsberg was sitting directly across the table, reading “A Supermarket in California.”

By now, my smile diffused the same beatific glow whence the beats took their name, Where are you going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight? I slouched yet deeper; until I let my eyelids rise slowly, to have a look across the table at him. .

Why, he wasn’t there at all! My mind had been playing cruel tricks.

I straightened up in the hardback chair. I put my reading glasses back on, and I muttered, OK, Jane, hit me with your best shot.

And did she ever! I’d riffled through the paperback with my thumb, until I came to a page near the end, where my eyes came to rest on one particular sentence, underlined in red: “Oh, Lizzy! Do anything but marry without affection.”

I sat, stunned. There was a ringing in my ears. How long? I don’t know how long, damn it, but at some eventual instant, I found myself on my feet, arms opened wide like the fat lady at the opera. I threw my head back and I bellowed across a sea of students, “I don’t care what anybody thinks. Pride and Prejudice sucks!”

I went profoundly silent. The trouble was, that everyone in that big reading room did exactly the same. All eyes were upon me. Hmm, I was forced to consider, scanning about, who’s the crazy old bastard now?

I packed my book, my legal pad, and my Monarch Review notes (cover price $.50) into my backpack. And I left, though not as forlornly you might expect. I was free now, and someone was reading poems and songs inside my head.

        I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, 

        hysterical, naked…

Honest. This time it really was him!

        angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry     

        dynamo in the machinery of night … 

And I never read Jane Austen again!

3 comments

  1. Bob Fernandes

    I disagree absolutely, utterly, completely. It was a very different time and a very different society. No one would think to write like Austen today, just as no one would think to write like Dickens or Melville or Shakespeare. But we would be oh so much the poorer without them. I would never want to be without Austen.

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