Growing up, I loved comic books, but I let others revere Superman or Batman as their super-hero. My hero was anything but super yet so much more human and hilarious: the blustery, flustery, ever-outraged Donald Duck. I couldn’t get enough of him and girlfriend Daisy — and those nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. For some reason, though, I especially loved his rich Uncle Scrooge McDuck.
Maybe it was because I had a rich uncle, too. That was my Uncle Max. Actually, he was my mom’s first cousin by marriage, but I’m guessing many of you also had cousins who were a generation older and who therefore became “aunts” and “uncles” — since the thought of calling adults by their first names was mortifying. Uncle Max was a beloved family physician in a small northern Indiana town. He earned and deserved what seemed like a “fortune” (compared to the rest of our family) by being an incredibly hardworking, brilliant, and compassionate physician to his multitude of grateful patients.
My most vivid memory of the numerous visits that my family made to his home ninety miles away was in the late 1950’s when color televisions had just started selling. Since Uncle Max always seemed to us to have the first and best of everything, we were eager to spend an evening watching this remarkable innovation.
It was a Sunday evening, and the program was TheDinah Shore Variety Show sponsored by Chevrolet. We all sat in their plush den marveling aloud at the incredible colors on the screen, while politely keeping to ourselves the fact that Dinah’s face had never been that particular shade of pumpkin nor had her hair ever glowed with the strange hue of Christmas-tree green.
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything in my medicine chest to help poor Dinah tonight!" quipped Uncle Max, demonstrating his delightful bedside manner, even in the den.
When my parents purchased our first color set a few years later, I was amazed that not only was the color greatly improved, but the price was significantly less than what Uncle Max told my dad that he had paid for his. This was the beginning, of course, of a phenomenon that has now become law in our computerized age: the first is never the best nor the least expensive. How many times have consumers rushed to take advantage of the initial sale of some laptop, smart phone, or appliance, only to discover that had they waited just a bit longer, they could have possessed a finer and less expensive model?
But is there any field left in which the oldest can still the best? Well, thank you for asking -- yes, there is: literature.
Call me “old-fashioned” (a badge of honor, as far as I’m concerned in this disorienting, newfangled twenty-first century), but I believe that the first named poet in our language — Geoffrey Chaucer — wrote what remains 700 years later the funniest and most diversely populated poem in English: The Canterbury Tales. And I am not alone as an English teacher in believing that Western civilization’s first novel — Cervantes’ Don Quixote — is also its finest.
In exact opposition to the values of our current age, the study of literature reveals that the earliest can still often be the most highly prized. Perhaps the reason might lie in the definition of literature’s sphere. Whereas most academic subjects are rather exact studies (biology as the study of living organisms; physics which explores the properties of matter and energy), literature has a much less specific but more sublime goal: helping its audience vicariously experience what it is to be a feeling, thinking person in all past ages.
Early authors do not suffer from their lack of modern scientific or technical knowledge because their field is the unchanging truth of human nature; thus, these writers seem to me to know everything worth knowing. Today, with the help of computers, Google, & Wikipedia, we can instantly uncover the smallest factual tidbits but without any intelligent or cultural context, so we can learn more and more about less and less until we may end up with the dubious distinction of knowing absolutely everything about nothing much at all.
And so I return to my first experience with narrative “literature” — Donald Duck comic books, which actually premiered back in 1938. Though comics and animated cartoons have so advanced technologically in the intervening eighty-plus years, I defy you to tell me that they are as perfect and uproarious as Donald and his madcap relatives. You’d better not contradict me, or I shall hurl at you those immortal words of Daffy Duck, that other Grand Poobah Of Bluster: “You’re Dethpppicable!”