Unknown Classics

As we raced around the kitchen doing our daily morning dance I couldn’t help humming. Music is something that seems to always follow me around in the form of a hum or a whistled tune and so none of my family gave it much notice. The kids are too young to play “Name That Tune,” but Action Girl caught it.

“Were is the butter?”

“Got it.”

“The coffee needs pouring and the dishwasher still has claim to all the good mugs.”

“I’ll get them.”

“Hmmm mmmm mmm Mmmm Mmm mmm mmm m Hmmm Mmm.”

“Are you humming ‘Wash that man right out of my hair’?”

“Hmmmmm…. Perhaps.”

The night before, long after the kids were supposedly asleep, Action Girl and I finished the second reel of “South Pacific,” and I have to say, it was a lot of fun.

“South Pacific” is in no doubt to any body’s mind, a classic and I already knew a handful of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs from cultural osmosis, but like so many things we “know” all about, I had never seen it. Not even the highlights. Because of this, South Pacific fell neatly into my “To Do” pile along with a mountain of reading, a pile of movies and Lord knows how many songs. Call them cultural debris or the staples of knowledge, but the truth of the matter is that we all seem to know things that we really don’t.

“Treasure Island,” comes to mind.

I know the story well enough and this is not due entirely to the Muppets.


I knew as a young boy that Long John Silver had a peg leg and was not to be trusted but to be honest, I had no idea why. Young Master Hawkins never even crossed my radar, partly because he wasn’t an interesting pirate missing a major appendage but mostly because I HAD NEVER READ THE BOOK!

The really goofy part is that I even know the background about where the story comes from. Robert Louis Stevenson and his young family were on vacation in the very soggy and rainy Scottish Highlands back in the pre- pre- pre- technology days and being a good father and story teller, or perhaps feeling guilty at having dragged young children out to spend their summer in a stone cottage covered in lichen and moss, he spun the tale over many evenings to keep his brood happy and interested. Also, I’m guessing that if he strung it out long enough, he could pull a Scheherazade and keep him self safe from familial retribution while he slept. I know that’s the way I’d be thinking, at any rate.

My point is that to this day, I still haven’t read Treasure Island. Though I own an old, hardcover, dog eared copy rescued from some library’s discard pile, it sits gathering dust, patiently waiting for me to, like an archeologist, slowly and carefully dig down to its layer, brush it clean, document its many pages and finally set it on permanent display. I still have a lot of layers to go.

Having a weakness for old and important things, I have amassed a good pile to weed through and among the bit and pieces, there are lots and lots of cultural “classics.” The very word “Classic,” makes me think and reminds me of a rebuke I received from my little cousin Rachel many, many years ago. When I arrived at her house one day, no doubt in tow with my Mother, my young cousin asked me if I had ever seen the movie “Willy Wonka.” Apparently, she had just finished it and wished to discuss its finer points.

I hadn’t, and told her so.

“Yes you have.” She replied with hands on hips. Even then, she was practicing that look that all women learn to give men who are obviously being thick on purpose.

“Ummm, no. No I haven’t.” It seemed an odd thing to contradict me on and it made me nervous. I was still me, right?

“Yes you have! It’s a classic!”

“No. Really. I haven’t seen it. Not ever.”

Rachel was looking sort of panicked now and getting louder and more firm in her opinion of what I’d seen and what I hadn’t.

“Yes you HAVE! Everybody’s seen it! It’s a CLASSIC!”

I can only guess that there had been a conversation I had missed out on. My best theory is that her Mother had called the movie a “classic” and Rachel, being a normal and therefore inquisitive child, requested a definition. It probably went something like, “It’s something that everybody has seen.” It seemed that my negative answer had put me outside of humanity. Through my admission of not having seen Gene Wilder doing his dances in purple top hat and cane, I had inadvertently short circuited her world.

As I recall, I finally relented and claimed that I had seen it just to make things right with her again, thus completing the male/female dance called the “You’re right and I’m wrong” Cha-cha. Hey, it makes life livable and besides, I’ve seen the movie now and therefore regained my membership with the human race.

A few years ago, I decided that it was high time to knock down a few more classics that had eluded me. The first conscious step I took was to put Steve Martin’s adaptation aside and read “Cyrano de Bergerac.” I LOVED it. Were they all this good? Is that why they sit in such an exalted place? I attempted the same with another legend and got 98% of the way through, “A Farwell to Arms” before I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to see the rest. Hemingway might have been a boozy, thrill seeking genius, but to my mind, his writing just doesn’t stand up. At least not now. At least… not to me.

The good news is that there is still a stack of material that goes up to my chin that I have yet to go through. The bad news is that there is simply no way that I will ever get to the bottom of it.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to focus on what you like. I’m not the type of person who does things because it earns me brownie points with the black turtleneck and beret crowd or gets me bragging rights amongst my peers, but rather because I don’t want to miss out on something good. The stories of woe and hardship are plentiful and I’m sure that many of them are expertly and gut wrenchingly told, either on the page or the silver screen. I know that many people love these stories of personal horror and you too may enjoy this type of Opera bait, but you won’t see me there following along. For me, the day is just too nice to ruin.

So, over the last two nights, Action Girl and I watched our classic and now cheesy musical and had fun laughing at the soft focus and doubtless revolutionary color changes through out the production. Were were both taken by surprise by the heavy moral message that came through only at the very end, taking the unexpected and I’m sure at the time, controversial slap at racism. You learn something new every day, even if it’s from something old. Especially if it’s old, in some cases.

I’ll have to return the movie to the library today and see what’s next on the list. There’s a good collection of older folks here in the community and that translates into some great old movies to take out. Classics abound.

The trick is to find one that I know all about, but not really. You never know what you didn’t know until you actually learn.

I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair and send him on his waaaaaaaay!

Maybe I should just hum it as I walk.

8 Responses

  1. We were visiting Disney back in 2005, before I knew I was pregnant with Lil’bug, and were at the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. H turned to me and asked if this was Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Both of us looked at each other blankly. Um, I dunno. Maybe not. No. Well, I don’t think so.

    The week after we returned I was in CVS and they had the ‘great illustrated classic’ version for $3. woohoo! I bought it and a few others that had slipped, unread, through my literature education. I’m working up to Bronte and Austen, then on to Dostoyevsky and then we’ll see where we go from there. I really have no excuse while working for a publisher that produces and gives employees discounts.

    • I love those “Illustrated Classics!” My Mother was a middle school teacher for years and when she found out about them she bought a bunch. She used them for students who finished their work early or said that they had “nothing to do,” during study halls. They were universally loved by the kids! It might not be the same as reading the real book, but for lots of people, it will be as close as they’ll get and this way, they’ll at least know the story!


  2. You simply must see the Treasure Island version where Charleton Heston is Long John Silver and a very young Christian Bales plays Jim Hawkins, it;s the best!!

  3. Going the English Major route at university I read a lot of the “Classics”. I like reading … and most were great, but some were real stinkers.
    It’s nice to read to see what all the fuss is about anyway. I think “Gulliver’s Travels” was the biggest eye opener since I’d only ever seen any of it from some cartoon on “The Banana Splits” when I was a kid.
    The book was better.

    • The eye opener for me was that some classics just stunk… and that it was OK. When you’re a kid, you just assume that you don’t “get it” or that your reading it wrong or something. When you’re an adult and, after 150 pages, you put the book down and conclude that further reading would just be painful… I don’t know… It makes me feel smarter, not dumber for doing so. 🙂


  4. I’m missing my share of classics too. Jane Austen comes to mind first, or Alice in wonderland, or Slovene comics Zvitorepec for that matter.

    You’re right – stick to your own classics and have an occasional pick from the official pile. With some of them, one is really missing a lot.

    I was reluctant to read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita since my mother would parade it as a classics for years. But it really is a must by my standards now.

    • Actually, my wife just went through a Jane Austin binge a little while ago. She decided that it was high time she actually read the stories, just like we were talking about!


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