Collective memory is such a strange thing. Living in the moment we often take for granted that movie stars, pop stars, world renown authors, earth shattering historical happenings will never be forgotten. Sadly (or gladly depending on one’s point of view) this isn’t the case. The societies we live in whether nations or extended tribes, make choices as to what we will and won’t remember collectively. That which is replayed or repeated most often will be the winner whether it deserves a place in history or not. The English have this saying, ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November.’ Nearly four hundred years old, this childhood chant (that all English people know) calls the people to remember Guy Fawkes (and his associates) who nearly managed to blow up parliament with kegs of gun powder in 1605. Every November 5th the English build bonfires and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. This is an excellent example of collective remembering. Whether some individuals getting drunk and setting off fireworks can remember anything specific about Guy Fawkes is irrelevant. They remember collectively! In four hundred years time it is highly probable they will still remember Guy Fawkes, but what will they remember about the early happenings of the 20th or 21st century? There’s no telling. The words nine-eleven may have no meaning at all except to a few experts on our time. Even if they learn about the early 21st century in school, there is no knowing from what point of view they will be taught the ‘chosen’ events.
It doesn’t take long to forget. Anyone over forty can look back over their lives and see events or common experiences fading from the collective memory because individuals have no say in what is or isn’t remembered. One of my favorite authors as a child was Frances Hodgson Burnett. Thirty-plus years after the first reading of The Secret Garden I still feel that surge of magic when I dig in dirt, when I hold a skeleton key or when I see a robin. If my plants could talk, they’d tell you my thumbs are not remotely green, but I love them because they allow me to pretend for a few brief moments when I pluck weeds from their pots that I am in my own secret garden. I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way. The Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1915) have both been best sellers since they were published. Most people who know of these books will probably assume, as I did, that she wrote few other books (I tried to read Little Lord Fauntleroy but I found him annoying). Frances Hodgson Burnett made several large fortunes in her life writing romance novels. She was world renown! Publications on both sides of the Atlantic were desperate to be the first to print one of her short stories or serialize one of her new books. She was an instrumental figure in creating international copy write, yet that fact along with most of her books has been forgotten by the collective.
In my teens I accidentally discovered another forgotten author who, like Burnett, had once been world renown. That summer afternoon in the library I ended up looking over the H’s in the Adult fiction. There, high above my head (I’m 5ft 3′ and the shelves must have been nearly 7ft tall) was this group of five or six books all in the same faded purply-blue cloth. I couldn’t read the faded print on the spine. I think the fact that someone had gone to the effort to make a set of books look so boring made me get one down to see what they were. I don’t remember which Fannie Hurst book I opened first; it was Lummox, Great Laughter or Imitation of Life. There was no synopsis. You had to read to see if it was any good. When I resurfaced from the story I gathered up those boring looking books no one had read in years (you could tell by the stamp-date history on the inside of the cover) and took them home and inhaled them. After leaving home and moving away, I was thrilled to find copies of my three favorite Hurst stories in the same faded purply-blue cloth bound covers. I bought them, read them again and I loved them. You would have had to offer me a very large sum of money to part with them (many many times what I paid for them); they were treasure! When I moved to England most of my books were sent back to my parents (I planned to have them shipped to me somehow). Unbeknown to me they ended up in my Grandfather’s uninsulated work shed where they became moldy and eventually were thrown away by my mother. When I was told long after the event, it was like learning a whole group of dear friends had died. I mourn them still, but they aren’t real people and I’m finally ready to acquire new copies.
This last week I asked myself what I wanted to read and the answer came back, Fannie Hurst’s Lummox. I didn’t know why. It’s at least seventeen years since I’ve read it; I could only faintly remember the plot line and ending. I was curious to see if I would love it as much as I did when I was younger. I found a 1989’s paperback copy on line and bought it. Having come down with a slight chest cold, most of yesterday I lay in bed feeling poorly, happily lost in another world. The main character in Lummox is a woman named Bertha (it would have been pronounced Berta). Born an illegitimate child from a dead mother, she’s alone in the world. A tall blonde of Scandinavian-Polish background; a strong square unattractive woman, she spends most of her life working as a servant or doing hard physical work with a heart cramped from inexpressible love; she’s a mother without anyone to mother. The title comes from a pejorative term for a clumsy stupid person and this is how most people see Bertha.
I think I love Lummox even more than I did before. It was just what I needed. It’s made me think about cramps in my own heart that I’ve been ignoring; the part of me that’s a mother without anyone to mother. Reading it was cathartic. The only negative thing I could say about the book is I wish it was a little longer, but that’s probably me being greedy. If you love character driven novels; Lummox is a beautiful story that spans the Eighteen-nineties and into the Nineteen-twenties. Fannie Hurst was born in 1885 and the story was published in 1923. Having written it as a modern story set in New York, after 86 years it creates a tear in time so we, the readers, can peek back and see another world. The Collective has decided to forget Fannie Hurst and her novels, but her work deserves to be remembered! I give Lummox five stars.