Monday, June 23, 2014

The art is not the artist #3: Forrest Carter/Asa Earl Carter

Note: I posted my review of The Education of Little Tree a few years ago, but it seems appropriate in my "art is not the artist" series, so I'm posting it again, with a bit of a foreword:

I was focusing on the book, not the artist, when I wrote this review, so I didn't even mention the name of the author, Asa Earl Carter, who wrote as Forrest Carter. In a discussion at The Education of Little Fraud | MetaFilter a few months after I wrote this review, I said,
I keep thinking it's wrong to assume that Forrest Carter and Asa Carter are the same person. Yes, some people take new names to avoid responsibility for the past, but others take them to reflect significant changes in their lives (see Malcolm Little becoming Malcolm X, who then became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and regretted his older "blindness" about race). 
Uh, I'm not claiming Forrest Carter completely transcended his past. But he still wrote a book that made many people of many races agree that racism sucks, and there's no evidence that he did it cynically. Frankly, I don't think he could do it cynically. Writing what you don't believe is close to impossible.
And later in that discussion:
...the question of redemption fascinates me. Forrest Carter wanted to cast off being Asa Carter as desperately as he could.
According to this, "In 1958, Carter himself quit the Klan group he had founded after shooting two members in a dispute over finances."
It also has this: "Although Mr. Carter, who wrote four books, failed to address the issue of his bigotry publicly, Mr. Friedenberg said he believed that "his apology was in his literature." For example, he said, the handful of blacks and Jews in his books are depicted sympathetically. "The bad guys are almost, without fail, rich whites, politicians and phony preachers," Mr. Friedenberg said."
I would love to read Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s "'Authenticity', or the Lesson of Little Tree" from the New York Times Book Review, because it sounds like Gates does an interesting job of talking about whether a work is still valid as fiction when you had thought it was fact.
There's a strong attack on Carter's lack of research here, but I wonder if the writer is failing to recognize that bands in tribes can have different accents and use different words. For example, he says the "Carterism" for "crow" is "Ka-gu," but the Cherokee word is "Ko-ga," and ditto for "Awi usdi" versus A-wi-us-di", which sounds to me like "you say potatoe, I say potatah." It may be that to damn Carter's inaccuracy, the writer is just trying a little harder than necessary.
A review of The Education of Little Tree

I'd heard about The Education of Little Tree for ages, but everyone said it was wonderful, so I avoided it—I have little stomach for "wonderful" books. Then I heard it was racist and Oprah had disowned it, so I got curious: How could a racist write a book that many people of many races would love? Writers can write from perspectives that are not their own, but that calls for empathy, and racists have little empathy for anyone they do not identify with.

Still, it stayed low on my priorities until I saw it on a "Do not read! Racist!" list. So I read it.

I looked hard for the racism. Most of the characters are Cherokee. They're good people. Only one black shows up in a very minor role, but he's good people. A Jew shows up, and he's good people. Some of the whites are not good people, and some of them are. The book isn't racist in its depictions of races.

Now, it has no good people who identify as Christian and several bad ones who do, so the book may be racist against the Christian race. But some of the good people in it seem to be Christian. Given the setting, it's extremely likely they are. I don't think any Christian who gets Christianity would be upset by its portrayal of Christian hypocrites.

But it may be racist in one way: none of the greedy people are good people. The store owner is decent, but there's a general sense that the race of greedy people screw up life for the rest of us.

Which may be why Oprah decided to disavow this book. If you're a Christian living in a fifty million dollar mansion, you might be glad to denounce a book that suggests rich people are part of the problem.

I don't know how accurate this book is. I've lived in the Deep South, and I've lived next to an Ojibway reservation in Ontario, and I didn't see anything that was insulting to southerners or Indians. If you're hoping to learn about Cherokee ways, this is not a good book to read—it's about a kid and his grandparents who live in the mountains, far from other people. But if you're hoping to learn that Indians are good people who were horribly treated by whites, this is a fine book to read. I can't do better than the Atlantic's reviewer: "“Some of it is sad, some of it is hilarious, some of it is unbelievable, and all of it is charming.”

Sherman Alexie said, "Little Tree is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden White supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a White supremacist." I think Alexie's a great writer, but he over-estimates the literary abilities of white supremacists. It's true the characters are idealized, but the list of books with idealized characters is long: some stories are realistic, and some are romanticized. The Education of Little Tree is drawn with broad strokes, but so is The Boondocks.

I recommend Christina Berry's write-up about the controversy at All Things Cherokee: The Story Behind The Education of Little Tree. She concludes,

Leni Riefenstahl's photographs and films were pro-Nazi and promoted themes of racial purity and eugenics. But despite that, she was a talented filmmaker and photographer. At what point do we separate the art from the artist, the work from its context? The Education of Little Tree is a great book. I was moved to tears the first time I read it, and when I first learned of the author's past I was angry and hurt, but I still like the book.

I would argue that the book has actually made an incredibly positive impact. It wasn't long ago that books and films filled with blatant sterotypes of savage Indians (played by white actors in red paint) was the norm. The mere fact that this title has generated so much debate and discussion regarding the plight of Indians in American popular culture is a positive step forward. Personally, I think that this is a great book, both for the themes of culture and life that the author himself addresses, and for the heated historical and cultural debate which has grown out of it.