Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sparrowhawk: Wings of Praise

There comes a time when the praised should return the favor. As a belated birthday present to myself, I will dwell, for a change, on a pleasant subject, which in this instance is the quality of fan mail my Sparrowhawk novels have generated.

The catalyst for this diversion is a letter I found in my post office box last Friday the 20th, from a reader who apparently had galloped through the first four titles in the series.

"Your books have opened my mind to a new world, a wonderful world. I am a third grader at Harbor Day School in Newport Beach [California] and I checked out the Sparrowhawk novels from my school library. Although I did not know it, the day I checked your books out was one of the greatest days of my life."
So wrote Benjamin Most, in a genuine, handwritten letter, with complete, well-constructed sentences and in a legible, cursive style (better than my own). I will not quote the rest of his letter here (it contains "plot spoilers"), but will say that it represents two important things: that he is a prodigy who has received some encouragement from his parents and teachers to think, and to think independently; and that he is obviously being taught to form his own values and express them. Not a hint of self-consciousness or apology is in the letter. What Benjamin likes about the novels he comments on in a lengthy postscript; the main body of the letter, however, is reserved for observing why the novels are important to him.

For me, the letter is further evidence that there are individuals "out there" who are receptive to heroes like Jack Frake and Hugh Kenrick (and their ages are irrelevant). As a "fan" letter, Benjamin's is nonpareil, given his age (probably eight or nine years). It is the kind of letter that justifies the dedication in Books Four through Six, which is a quotation from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged: "To hold an unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one started."

Which is what Jack and Hugh achieve by the end of Book Six: War, the last in the series, debuting in December. In this instance, it is a vision Benjamin shares with Jack and Hugh when they were his approximate age in Books One and Two, a vision they never relinquished or allowed to be corrupted or abridged.

When one considers the state of education today and the obscene fare that passes for children's literature and entertainment, together with the unrelenting pressures imposed on children to conform, give up, and become "multicultural" and semi-literate, selfless, value-deprived or value-repressing ciphers of their "communities," Benjamin's letter is an unusual and spectacular exception to the norm. Jack and Hugh as young boys are role models I intended them to be, and Benjamin has proven that this was a successful experiment in "good intentions."

Needless to say, I am honored that the novels inspired Benjamin, and his letter will have a special place in my collection of fan mail. He is my kind of reader - a hero of his own making.

Also heartening for me is the mail I receive from teenagers and adults, who are no less immune to Sparrowhawk's appeal. The notes of appreciation, astonishment, and honest enchantment from teens and college students are rarer, but they are sent. Titles from the series are being used in college and high school literature courses, a development I dared not dream of while writing the novels. (Often I will remark to interested browsers at booksignings that the series is becoming a classic, and I'm not even a "dead white male.") Teachers are ebullient that the series provides an alternative to the deficient, always politically correct history textbooks available to them, or to the multicultural, value-negating (and boring) literary fiction recommended or mandated by school boards.

Parents, especially, are grateful that Sparrowhawk exists, not only for their own "entertainment" and edification, but because it serves as an antidote to what their children are exposed to in school. A goodly number of them are home-schooling their children. Most of them email me their thanks and their hopes that I will continue the series.

Occasionally, however, a parent will go beyond praise, as in this excerpt from a long email sent to me by Peggy, a mother in Ruckersville, Virginia. After making some very perceptive observations about the political state of the country and the apathy or ambivalence of many Americans, she asked:

"...Are we so far removed that we don't care any more? Where are all the heroes when you need them - or perhaps more to my point - are there any people now who have the courage and knowledge to forge a new government or at least a modification of the one we have for the better?....There are many nights I lay awake thinking of these things when I hear my children rustle in their beds. I know you don't have the answers to all my questions, but I was hoping you might have a more learned opinion of how this country might be able to go forward from what we have learned from the past....."
That letter earned a two-page reply from me, in which, among other points, I stressed that politics would be the last field of human action to be affected by a renaissance of rationality and individual rights. I also assured her that there were many besides her who cared, who responded to the novels in exactly the way she did, and that Sparrowhawk was intended, besides being an epic on the moral revolution necessary in men before a Declaration of Independence could ever be written, to be an allegory on our own time.

I also pointed out that in virtually every instance, regardless of the nature of the response, whether it was just a brief thanks or an enthusiastic encomium, the novels caused people to think, to acknowledge the differences between 18th century America and Americans and their 21st century counterparts, and to wonder what they might be able to do about it.

Peggy's letter is evidence of the success of another "good intention" of mine.

I have received fan mail for Sparrowhawk from virtually every European country but France. I won't attempt here to explain why not; it would require a lengthy cultural critique. Perhaps the French are still under the collective spell of Jerry Lewis, Tati, Sartre, Beckett, Ionesco, and other comic and not-so-comic absurdists and existentialists. Heroes who revolt against tyranny and don't make a mess of it, as historically the French have repeatedly done, must not exude that peculiar Gallic élan that seems to appeal to the French. I earnestly wish to be proven wrong.

If only the French would rediscover the value of great French writers and artists such as Hugo, Rostand, and Ingres (the roll call of French "greats," most of them of the 19th century, is quite long), I would not presume that their Tricolor is destined to sport the Islamic crescent and star.

But, here is an excerpt from Mike Kindler, a British fan from Selsdon, Surrey:

"I have been spellbound by the Sparrowhawk series, not just by the way you make me feel as if I'm a fly on the wall during the events of those momentous times, but also by the parallels we Brits face now with our absorption by the EU. Thank you on both counts...."
The biggest volume of "foreign" fan mail comes from Britain, followed closely by Scandinavia.

Fan mail also comes from readers with a religious bent, or from readers who have bought the erroneous notion that America was founded on Christian principles. To wit, from Thad Jahns, in response to a remark of mine on the Rule of Reason site, in which I said, "The 'Spirit of '76' is not in evidence in America today, except in a minority of individuals marginalized by the dual phenomena of collectivism in politics and the revival of religion."

Mr. Jahns asked: "How would you define 'collectivism in politics'? Are you implying that the 'Spirit of '76' and religion are mutually exclusive?"

After citing Ayn Rand's commentaries on collectivism from the Lexicon, I more or less answered his second question (though in a more civil tongue): "You're damned right they were mutually exclusive! How else would you explain the Constitution, and the fact that it does not permit the establishment of a theocracy? See John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, et al."

Objectivists (a minority becoming less and less "marginalized") can be counted among my fans, and they have sent me mail, as well. Some compare the Sparrowhawk novels with Ayn Rand's, and some have the perspicacity not to make such a comparison. The first group are forgiven their enthusiasm, but I must side with the second group. It was never my intention or purpose to emulate Rand or her novels. I have always been my "own writer," and if literary critics and literature professors wish to place the Romantic epic of Jack Frake, Hugh Kenrick, and America in the same class with Rand's novels, so be it.

Personally, I don't think the jury is still out with that verdict, but it isn't for me to read it to the court. However, I cannot recall Rand ever comparing her novels with Victor Hugo's or anyone else's. In that respect, I must emulate her absence of vanity.

The last two excerpts help to substantiate my claim and my purpose. Marnee wrote that she has

"...fallen in love with Jack and Hugh. I never thought I would find novels with characters and stories that I could cherish as much as I do Ayn Rand's novels...I would like to thank you for doing justice to our American Founders, our heroes, giving them the moral character and putting their fight and achievements into the philosophical context that they deserve...."
And, Erskine wrote:

"What did I like best about the stories? The heroes. You succeeded in making them both real and heroic. They are not weak imitations of John Galt, and they don't stand in his shadow. Jack Frake and Hugh Kenrick are distinct heroes with their own existence, and their own claim to my admiration. They are fully alive."
So, I thank Benjamin, Peggy, Mike, Marnee, Erskine, and their countless discriminating fellows for contributing to Sparrowhawk's success as a contemporary literary phenomenon, for valuing the series as I had envisioned it would be valued, and for demonstrating their own "unchanging youth." They, too, are fully alive.


Myrhaf said...

Thank you, Mr. Cline, for sharing your fan mail with us. With all the bad news in our culture, it does a soul good to hear of people responding positively to art of high value.

Marnee said...

Hi. Oh Im just thrilled to get my fan letter quoted here.

To be sure, the Sparrowhawk series, in my mind, are novels with their own wonderful distinction. (Comparing to Rand was the only way I could think to express my ideas.) It is the essence of the heroes that is so very much like Rand's. It is Ed's distinct style and storytelling that makes them so real and so, umm, them. :)


Constant Reader Redivivus said...

well now that you mention it, Mr. Cline, December will have at least one debut worth attending... since I hadn't seen any announcements elsewhere.
Marnee's got it on the nose: I agree that your writing (even before Sparrowhawk) works a vein marked out by Ayn Rand but by no means fully exploited.
Thanks again!