Two events in the history of redemption happened this week that seem to me related, and indicative of our historical moment: the gangster Jeremy Meeks was awarded a modeling contract, and Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m fascinated by both, largely because I’ve been reading long Victorian poems.
The poem I’m reading is Phillip James Bailey’s Festus (1839). Like Tennyson, who admired the poem more than he trusted himself to say, I can hardly begin to speak about its glories for fear of rhapsodizing, swooning. It challenges Milton in scope, language, and intellectual power. Maybe it bests him. People don’t read it much anymore because the fusty Victorians were put off by its theology: at the end of the ages, Lucifer is welcomed back into heaven, having done his necessary, evil work on God’s behalf.
Meeks is a thug: a guilty-as-charged, caught-in-the-act thief. And not the clever cat-burglar type, whose impressive whit and dexterity allow him to escape with the jewels minimal disruption. An armed mugger, he terrorizes and assaults innocents. He may have shot and killed some. But he’s also among the most beautiful males the good Lord ever made. He’s an Adonis, an Antinoos. His face is a type of human perfection that transcends sexual preference, that, importantly, sells things. The sheriff’s office responsible for his arrest tweeted his mug-shot in a moment of triumphalism, and it immediately went viral. The comments are the usual: “Smooth criminal,” and “Model Prisoner,” and “can we be handcuffed together?” but the ones I’m interested in say things like: “Maybe all of our love for him and his hotness will help him give up crime.” Some say he’s been offered a modeling contract, but I can’t confirm whether it’s true. If it’s crazy, it’s also kind-of wonderful to think this fellow, whom the police have called “one of the most violent criminals” in a rather violent area, might become a millionaire when he gets out of prison, might even be released from prison, because he’s got nice cheek bones. The thinking is: his beauty puts him beyond the range of our justice systems, which are human, while he is clearly from the gods. There’s a #freeJeremyMeeks campaign going around, not because he’s innocent, but because he’s pretty. What if? What if he straightened right out, seeing the money and fame and women he could have if he’d put on a suit or a bathing suit, and give up the thug-life? Our love, as the commenter said, will have transformed him.
Likewise Donna Tartt. She writes trashy pulp novels, full of cliches and sentences that could have come from Stephanie Meyer, that mill of pre-arranged sap. Her new book, The Goldfinch, has been breathlessly praised by people impressed by sales figures, and panned by everyone who cares about writing and literature (NYRB, New Yorker). There’s a summary of the debate, written by a partisan who thinks all criticism is elitist, here. Though the board that decides such things was heavily stacked this year with businesspeople, and light on artists, I’m still amazed they gave it to Donna Tartt. Everybody is. For those looking for scale, it’s like giving the James Beard Award to Burger King. It’s so egregious on wonders if they aren’t doing something with it. Picture the boardroom.
“No one cares about the Pulitzer anymore; let’s do something to really shake things up.”
“Yeah, we’ll get the young people, and the women engaged again.”
“Guys, this is going to sound crazy, but what if, this year, we didn’t give the Pulitzer prize to some high-minded literary mumbo-jumbo no one is going to read. What if instead…”
And at a stroke, they’ve changed what the Pulitzer is, what it means. Like those people who aren’t content to let comic books be fun and popular and great, but insist they be respected as a serious art form, the Pulitzer people have used the prize’s prestige to redeem popular, low-brow fiction. Who cares if it’s aesthetically criminal, couldn’t our love transform it? What if, having been treated as author of Serious Literature, Tartt became an author of serious literature?
I think all these moves are audacious, but I really do love them. They’re so peculiarly American, so optimistic, so dismissive of the past. Bailey was British, but his book sold best in America, and one can see why. What if there is nothing so vile that our treasuring it, regardless of merit, can’t save it?