Friday, April 8, 2011

The Grass Harp: a band of outsiders

In a 2000 New York Times interview with Frank Rich, Stephen Sondheim, the preeminent dramatist of the American musical theatre, observed, ”the outsider is basic to a lot of dramatic literature. This country’s about conformity. And so nonconformity is a fairly common theme...”

From Hester Prynne to Oedipa Maas, literature’s most compelling protagonists have been those whose conflicts puts them at odds with an entire society. On one level, stories of opposition provide more engaging narrative opportunities than those about unblinking agreement. But who hasn’t received some side-eye from the world’s Mary Worths now and then? Literature about outsiders presents a chance to find meaning in our own experiences of otherness.

The narrator of Truman Caopte’s novella The Grass Harp is sixteen-year-old Colin Fenwick, an orphan living with his father’s cousins: Verena, the cold, hard-nosed businesswoman, and Dolly, a delicate spirit living in constant awe of the world. Collin has no great love for Verena, but adores Dolly despite his embarrassment at the spectacle of her eccentricity. When Verena tries to turn Dolly’s secret dropsy cure into an industrial venture, Dolly and her friend Catherine flee with Collin in tow to the safety of a treehouse outside of town.

The trio’s escape from Varena quickly draws the attention of their staid town. A handful of other misfits join their party, including a retired Judge in need of connection who soon falls for Dolly, while most of the town grows increasingly desperate in their attempts to bring this band back into the fold of “acceptable” behavior. Through the adventure, Collin finds comfort in Dolly and the Judge’s steadfast refusal to conform simply for acceptance. After their example, and particularly against the contrast of the absurd pitch to which the town builds its resentment, he is freed of the embarrassment he once felt and begins to develop the maturity to set his own course.

The Judge explains the inner-strength and ultimate benefit they gain from having given up on conforming to expectations: “But ah, the energy we spend hiding from one another, afraid as we are of being identified. But here we are, identified: five fools in a tree. A great piece of luck provided we know how to use it: no longer any need to worry about the picture we present—free to find out who we truly are. If we know that no one can dislodge us; it’s the uncertainly concerning themselves that makes our friends conspire to deny the differences.” In the tree, Collin, Dolly, and all the others find the strength of knowing who they truly are.

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