Annie Proulx after winning the National Book Awards' lifetime achievement medal gave a highly praised speech decrying the country's destructive politics and environmental devastation for the sake of corporate profits.
Yet, I was bothered by Proulx's closing statement in support of "happy endings." Proulx's beneficial prescriptions deny the tragic vision of our greatest literature. We strive for reconciliation and redemption, yet fall short of the glory of God.
In Victorian England, audiences couldn't accept Cordelia's death in "King Lear." Some fool rewrote Shakespeare's greatest play so that Cordelia lives and is reconciled with the old king.
I'm sure Proulx understands the truth of tragedy. Shakespeare also wrote comedies in which love conquers all. At the end of his career, he turned away from tragedy and toward a more benevolent view of humanity, expressed in "The Tempest."
Dickens' "The Christmas Carol" reflects Proulx's vision. She cities an anecdote about Darwin allegedly tossing novels into the fire if they didn't have happy endings. That sounds like the Victorian sentimentality, which Darwin did so much to demolish. Dickens, with his tale of Scrooge and the Cratchets, presented a persuasive statement against Darwin's survival of the fittest. Tiny Tim's blessing at the end expresses liberalism's hope.
I like Dickens, and Hollywood rom-coms, and Disney endings (although Bambi's mother and Old Yeller both died.) Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed's community gathering at the close of "It's a Wonderful Life" is one of my favorite movie scenes. I also recognize Dickens and Capra's emotional manipulation.
What worries me is that Proulx's message can lead to the kind of kitsch that authoritarians use to control us. Her views reflect a dangerous nostalgia, the fuel of "Make America Great Again." After Donald Trump's election, writers like Garrison Keillor called for progressives and liberals to enter a path of denial, cultivating their personal interests and ignoring politics.
No one wanted to admit the extent of Trump's program to demolish the middle class, destroy our national parks, ravage the environment, use public policy in support of his family's and fellow plutocrats' greed. Now, each day, we are confronted with a total assault on the best American values.
Here is the conclusion of Proulx's remarks:
The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.” Darwin: They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds—nothing that ended unhappily. If he happened on something like that, enraged, he flung the book into the fire. True or not, I’m ready to believe it. Scanning in his mind so many times and places, he’s had enough with dying species, the triumphs of the strong over the weak, the endless struggle to survive, all doomed sooner or later. He’d earned the right to happy ending, at least in fiction, with its micro-scales.
Hence the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, greed daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers scurried to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido, gone astray in the first chapter, turns up barking gladly in the last. Thank you.