Brown: The Last Discovery of America (11 page)

BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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In October 1979, at fifty-six years of age, Prince Lightfoot attempted a Stanford comeback, in gangster fashion, “accompanied by several men wearing T-shirts,” and of a “threatening demeanor” (
Stanford Daily
, 10-8-79, and ff.):
Timm Williams returned to the Farm Saturday, receiving a mixed response of cheers and boos from the seventy thousand fans. . . . Williams was appearing as . . . Chief Lightfoot for the first time in seven years. There are conflicting reports on how Williams, who had no pass, was allowed on the field. . . . He waved to the crowd and then slowly circled the track, accompanied by men who acted as cheerleaders by waving their arms to solicit applause.
As he paraded in front of the student section . . . Williams received both boos and cheers.
Although band members said they had been told to “just ignore” Williams, they included a native American fanfare in their post-game show. Williams began dancing, but stopped when persons in the stand began throwing ice and trash.
The final theatrical question in America concerns old age (beginning with middle age): how to behave “appropriately,” dress appropriately, assume a role that feels inauthentic and for which one is never emotionally prepared (one has seen others take the role so admirably). Remember, the mermaid no longer sings for you, old sport, nor does the wolf whistle.
Oh, what the hell. That will have to do. Nobody’s going to be looking at me anyway.
Two years ago, I am late for a dinner in London. Ten-thirty and the after-theater crowd is barking happily, yelping yuppily throughout this bright, meaty restaurant.
My party has arrived and is already seated.
Yes, I see them. Pardon me. Yes, yes, wavey, wavey. I’m coming.
Suddenly over a shoulder, I catch a glimpse of him. A voice and a glow from his table announce his presence, as do busers who hover. His arm is draped around the back of a woman in gray. He turns, a three-quarter profile, and as he turns, his eyes catch mine. They are still madly blue.
On June 15, 1816, William Hazlitt addressed readers of the
London Examiner
concerning the rumored return to the stage of the famous Mrs. Siddons:
Players should be immortal, if their own wishes or ours should make them so; but they are not. They not only die like other people, but like other people, they cease to be young and are no longer themselves, even while living. Their health, strength, beauty, voice, fail them; nor can they, without these advantages, perform the same feats, or command the same applause that they did when possessed of them. It is a common lot: Players are only
exempt from it.
T. E. Lawrence portrayed himself heedlessly—went native—betrayed his tribe, pursued a private sense of authenticity. The English could never see it. What did he think he was doing, traipsing around dressed like that, so chummy with the Toffees?
The bugger.
But the Arabs saw. If an Arabian could be thus portrayed, then there must be, then there would be an Arabia.
Before he took the role of Lawrence, Peter O’Toole consented to a producer’s suggestion he change his nose. Whatever his Irish nose had been was replaced by an English nose, which, of course, he kept; which is how we recognize him—for Lawrence portrayed him authentically.
When Prince Lightfoot stepped upon the field of Stanford Stadium to thunderous applause he was the distillation of an Indian, the Mohawk gas, the nickel sort, the Edward Curtis, the Burt Lancaster. His face painted, his arms fringed, his breast-plate rattling, he drew majesty; tom-toms intoned the mystery of his glance. But the puritan Indians of Stanford would not approve, in their Monday hearts, a musical-comedy Indian. Puritans distrust the efficacy of art.
Harry Demar “Timm” Williams, [who] personified Stanford’s Indian mascot from 1951 until it was abolished in 1972, died Sunday, March 6th, when his compact car was hit broadside at an intersection in Crescent City, Calif. He was 64.
. . . His last official appearance as the Indian was at the 1972 Rose Bowl, where he was carried off the field triumphantly . . . [Stanford University News Service 3-7-88].
Do not for a moment, darling, imagine I propose Timm Williams’s story as a sad story. His is a triumphant story. And if I seem to have fashioned from its shadow, from the privacy he wore, from all I cannot know, a parable for my own life, do not, for a moment, think you know what an Indian is. You are idle, shallow creatures. And we are not of your element.
Someone once described to me seeing a matinee of
The King and I
in New York. At the intermission, outside the theater, as my informant was pacing around with his
scrolled in his hand, he heard a sound like sweeping, like pavement being swept. He glanced down into the dark stairwell at the side of the theater and there he saw the star of the play, Gertrude Lawrence, in her second-act ball gown (dragging upon the pavement)—the most famous ball gown in theatrical history; the ball gown that will shortly be whipped through the real air of the stage during the “Shall We Dance?” polka, a moment of theater so purely accidental, so rehearsed, so wonderful that an encore is now standard in any production.
Gertrude Lawrence is wearing her Titian-colored wig. A diamond bracelet glitters upon her wrist. She is smoking as she paces back and forth. Within three months she will be dead. She will be buried in this ball gown. From which we can take it—if we take nothing else—that roles are to be taken seriously, not only by those of us who listen in the dark, but also by those transfigured personalities who move, for a time, in the light.
Chapter Four
THERE WAS NOTHING HEROIC ABOUT THE FIGURE OF BENJAMIN Franklin, bespectacled, portly, subtle, radical, dangerous.
In grammar school—and as new to American history as to the American tongue—I nevertheless puzzled through several junior biographies of Franklin because young Ben’s ambition magnified my own. I kept lists in those years of the books I read. I recognized the yearning to escape the limits of family—“a strong inclination for the sea”—as well as some more vertical yearning: a boy becomes a man by gaining wisdom; each book a rung therefore; each rung a classical tag. I weighed the shame of the sordid candle shop where Franklin was forced to work for his father against the optimism of old New England. Ben greeted each new-minted morning with the self-improving question:
What good shall I do this day?
The only other federal figure who interested me as much as Benjamin Franklin was Richard Milhous Nixon. I did not admire Nixon, his name a negation. I recognized him. The part of my formation that was not tutored by Franklin—Franklin recommending the society of right-minded men—was fascinated by Nixon, his knock-kneed stealth.
Because of Franklin, I went in my black suit to improving lectures where I took notes. One night an address by Eleanor Roosevelt. Another week a diplomat in sunglasses from New Delhi. I purchased tickets to touring Broadway plays—they used to call them “bus and truck companies,” the kind that came to Sacramento—ennobling plays like
A Man for All Seasons
Sunrise at Campobello
. I loved them because they were improving. My black suit was the uniform of self-improvement, of the seminarian, the apprentice, the Machiavel. I wore mine from eighth grade to college—taken in, let down. My black suit made me invisible and that was its point. Respectably shabby, and that was its point. I could go to the opera. I could go to New York.
But I would never wear the black suit as patrician George Washington wore a black suit, or John Kennedy for that matter. I wore a black suit as Nixon wore a black suit. As Malcolm X wore his. It was the putting on of sweat rings and dried lips and bright eyes, the black suit. Unease, yes, but also optimism. Nothing so dries out a young man’s skin as the black suit. It never fits. Mine didn’t. It wasn’t supposed to fit, the kind of suit I had, the acolyte’s suit. It was appropriate. There is nothing so attractive to the world as an ardent young man in an ill-fitting suit. Whereas a young man in a well-fitting suit has joined . . . something.
Because of Nixon, on Monday nights I’d tell my parents I was going to Boy Scout meetings, and I went instead, alone and in my Boy Scout uniform, to the smoke-filled, cigar-scented pro wrestling matches at the Memorial Auditorium. There I joined Okie women in flannel shirts and teenaged Mexican farmworkers, and several hundred other spectators who knew the game in America was rigged against them.
In the light of day, at my Catholic high school, it was Kennedy versus Nixon. It was Kennedy, of course. Just so, to earn extra credit (a kind of Nixonian stealth), and to attract the notice of my English teacher (another), I wrote a book report on
Profiles in Courage
, which must be a very good book because it won a Pulitzer Prize. The book did not interest me.
I admired a darker grain. Reading Nixon was a private pleasure whereby I sought another league. I was first at my public library to check out
Six Crises
. I read with shrill pleasure Nixon’s recollection of the call to boyish ambition: “Only one train a day went through the town of Yorba Linda (population then of less than 300) and hearing its whistle as it slowed down at the crossing never failed to start me to daydreaming about the places I would visit when I grew up.”
In those years, I hadn’t learned to cover my ambition by feigning detachment. At an all-boys’ high school, naked ambition was certainly acceptable on the playing field, where players could dote with unironic concentration on “Coach”—Coach’s Adam’s apple, Coach’s gold fillings, Coach’s wedding ring, the tassel of corn silk at Coach’s throat; all the mysteries. Fawning ambition so plainly expressed in the classroom was quite another matter. It wasn’t that I got A’s; other boys got A’s. It was that I wanted my A’s so badly and sought them so blatantly—that’s what everyone saw.
Nixon: “I won my share of scholarships, and of speaking and debating prizes in school, not because I was smarter but because I worked longer and harder than some of my more gifted colleagues.”
Courtiers of the Italian Renaissance extolled a locution of insouciance they named
which translates to nonchalance. The young Florentine was schooled to study the art of the courtier so well, so habitually, as to transform his own demeanor to an artless grace. There was to be no seam to seeming; no nurture to naturalness. Such an idea should repel Americans. American myth celebrates becoming—the awkward journey of effort and pluck. In his
Studies in Classic American Literature,
D. H. Lawrence, the coal miner’s son, mocks Benjamin Franklin. Though Lawrence came from the working class, he remained an Englishman and it was necessary for him to forget the reason why Americans rebelled against the fatherland. Lawrence mocks Franklin’s notion of a self-invented man—“ The ideal man! And which is he, if you please?”—because Lawrence cannot enlarge upon the daunting, often comic task of self-invention. Free of the father, what is the American to do but imagine himself in the future tense? What could Ben grow up to become except an inventor? What figure could convey him but an aphorism?
BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
5.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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