Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Daring Young Man

by Pa Rock
Reader and Human Being

Here is how "association" works, at least in my nimble mind:

Several weeks ago I had collapsed in front of my television and was channel-surfing when I came across the movie classic, "It Happened One Night" just as it was about to begin.  It's called a "classic" for good reason, so I made some popcorn and settled down to enjoy the show - a movie that I had not seen in many years.  About an hour into the feature there is a wonderful scene when a busload of people are driving through a rural landscape on a dark and rainy night.  One of the passengers began to sing a popular song from the previous century, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," and others on the bus started joining in - with different passengers getting up and adding verses.  They were having a great time until the bus rolled off the road and got mired in the mud.

After the movie ended, I was still humming the song of the daring young man, and my mind drifted back to my high school literature class forty-some years earlier when I had read William Saroyan's signature short story, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze."  I remembered that I had been impressed by the story and by Saroyan's talent as a writer, but the fog of way too many years left me with no memory of what the story was about.

A quick visit with my friends at confirmed that the story was still available, and, in fact, was the title story in a collection by Saroyan.  I made the order, it arrived a few days ago, and I have already read several of the stories including the one that I was after.

And I remain very, very impressed with the writing abilities of the late Mr. Saroyan.

William Saroyan wrote "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression.  He was only twenty-six-years-old at the time the piece was sold to Story magazine.  This very short story chronicles the last day or two in the life of a young man looking for work and slowly starving to death.  It is a stark and very realistic tale of street life during the depression.  There were large numbers of unemployed desperately competing for a very few jobs, and some lived on the streets, and some died on the streets.

However, not only was Saroyan a gifted chronicler of the times, he was at the forefront of a much less formal type of writing, a narrative told in patterns and rhythms that more accurately mirrored the way people actually talked.  His work is complicated, yet very easy to read, and his characters linger well beyond the last pages of their stories.

The daring young man haunts me.  He wanted to work, desperately, yet there was no work - and he starved to death.   It was 1934.  There was no unemployment insurance, and certainly very little in the way of a safety net.  And he died.  And thousands of others died during those horrible years - but those years gave rise to Social Security, insurance to protect bank deposits, and national jobs' programs like the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.  America became a country that was not afraid or ashamed to take care of its most desperate souls.

But now the children and grandchildren of the people who struggled through the Great Depression are running the country, and their response to economic hard times is to vilify the poor.

We are becoming a truly shameless society, and our bus is about to get mired in the mud - again.

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