Is it Possible to Outgrow Our Literary Heroes?

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In the space of a week, Maya Angelou died and Tom Robbins published his memoir, signaling the end of his career. Let’s reflect on our heroes. First have a look at this video of Angelou talking about Malcolm X, Dr. King, and W.E.B. DuBois, urging us to stop believing our heroes are “larger than life.”

Her premise is that when we make our heroes larger than life, we come to believe they were superhuman. And that discourages us from envisioning ourselves as being capable of greatness. Angelou urges us to have the courage to stop being discouraged, and to remember that heroes are human. In fact, the Greeks taught us that heroes are practically defined by their flaws.

So now onto Robbins. I wanted to whisperflash the new Tom Robbins memoir to the Kindle and start digging around in the brain of one of my literary heroes. Then I read some excerpts from Tibetan Peach Pie:

A pastor is “more creepy than refrigerated possum slobber.”

A hot night feels like “the interior of a napalmed watermelon.” 

Tom Robbins used to be able to stretch a simile JUST enough, stopping a magical millisecond before its breaking point. Not anymore; not always, anyway. Seems he’s reverted to caricaturing himself. He believes he’s supposed to sound a certain way, so instead of being straightforward, he resorts to overwrought metaphors like, “Claws of lightning ripped a turbid bodice.”

This brings me to the time I told my ex that I had a great piece of magical realism lurking in my head and Tom Robbins would be the perfect person to write my story. You know what he said? “Why don’t you just write it yourself?” What kind of response was that? Tom Robbins was my hero, man. Don’t mess with the heroes. They do the writing, not me. [As an aside, Spike Lee does need to do a biopic on W.E.B. DuBois]

Anyway, Tom Robbins came along during my formative and suggestible years. I had been traveling around India. Exhausted and dispirited, I holed up in a backpacker-infested ashram in Rishikesh and stayed for weeks. That’s when I met two people that changed my life: my ex, and Tom Robbins.

The first Robbins I read was Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. It was a revelatory experience, the way he waxed poetic about beets and made socks talk. It wasn’t so much the unconventional story construction (what story construction?) as the whimsical lyricism. Not what he said, but how he said it. I devoured every Tom Robbins novel I got my hands on: Skinny Legs and All, Another Roadside Attraction, Jitterbug Perfume, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues…I even became curious about Seattle.

And then in 2000, Tom Robbins came out with Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. My recent sojourns in Southeast Asia made the title seem resonant with my life. But when I finished the book, I felt betrayed. Fierce Invalids lacked the pizzazz his previous novels had, and one could even say it sucked. My hero let me down. Although I’m not typically a grudge-holder, I stopped reading Robbins altogether. I didn’t even buy his children’s book that seemed like it was written just for me, called B is for Beer. 

Seeing that his memoir might not be as meaty as I would have liked (and not even in the same league as Caged Bird) I’m facing a conflict in that I’m increasingly interested in reading writers on writing. I’ve read many of Maya Angelou’s essays on writing, including those tacit references to the process of writing in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. My next writers on writing book should probably be the acclaimed On Writing by Stephen King.

Should I give Tibetan Peach Pie a chance, too? Maybe, because now I don’t think it’s possible to outgrow our literary heroes. After all, recognizing that our heroes aren’t perfect is a sign of maturity in us, as well as great respect for them. We acknowledge their humanity, and our own, which gives us courage to persevere. Heroes have flaws, and they still change our lives.

  • Who are your literary heroes and why?
  • When did you become disillusioned by one of your heroes?
  • How do you reconcile your heroes’ greatness with their humanity?
  • What are your favorite writers on writing books or essays?
  • Your favorite memoirs?

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