The House on Mango Street – Book Review

You can find a recent review I did on Cosmoetica, this one being on The House on Mango Street, the famous novel by Sandra Cisneros.

I may post the review in full on this site as well, but in the meantime here are some points that I make in regards to art that were, in the end, excised from the review due to length:

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The problem, however, is when people start to conflate the comfort Cisneros provides with things of actual depth. Despite its being considered Chicano Lit it doesn’t do much to expand the reader’s purview or understanding, opting instead to provide confirmation of certain views. Do we really need to be told that Mexican-Americans are human, or that societal expectations affect women for the ill? Instead of exploring the substance of bigotry and its origins Cisneros is fine with feeding the reader the answers he is already aware of and in ways that are accessible and easy to swallow. The reader’s feelings of comfort are mistaken with the consumption of something substantial for ideas contained in the novel are “important.” As a result, you have a book that you can hold-up and say “See, this book talks about important things! It must be good, and I’m a good person for advocating such tripe!” But if you want a story to survive you have to do more than cater to the reader’s feelings and expectations. You have to do more than mimic what people want to “hear.” More has to be done.

When Moby-Dick was first published hardly anyone wanted to read it. Yet, it has managed to survive and is, rightfully, considered a classic today. It did not serve the needs or desires of the people in Melville’s time, but greatness does more than act as a gentle service for an individual or population. One could argue that The House on Mango Street has “survived” and, therefore, is a great work, but that just makes it an exception. Mango Street is an example of “The Bukowski Effect.” Despite Charles Bukowski’s mediocrity he is still being read two decades after his death; however, this isn’t because he actually provides anything to the reader of artistic or philosophical worth, but rather because he provides an “image” that people like to latch onto. His poetry isn’t very good, but his work in conjunction with “the man” conjures up an attractive image, that of the rebellious and tragic drunkard. One might call Bukowski “an original,” and in some ways he was, but I bet that you, the reader, can write a poem in his style that is equal to some of his best with little to no effort. Now, attempt the same with the style of a Yeats or Rilke. Even if you manage to capture Rilke’s voice I doubt that you would be able to write something as great as “The Panther.” Bukowski, despite his originality, is far easier to emulate both stylistically and qualitatively. Just because he was “the first” doesn’t mean that he was good.

Now let’s look at Mango Street with the same lens. It was first published in the eighties but is still being read today. Classes, from middle school to college, are assigned this dreck largely because of what it represents rather than what it accomplishes. Sure, it might have been a “first,” in the sense that it was a flagship book for Chicano Lit, introducing the literary world to Mexican-American and Latino Literature, but let’s consider something: if Mango Street was never written, would Chicano Lit be in an entirely different place as it is now within the mainstream? Perhaps, though I have a feeling that if Mango Street was never around some other book would have taken its place. Like Bukowski’s poetry, Mango Street is completely replicable and replaceable, regardless of the quality of its sentiments or the things it represents.

The point is is that the lasting popularity of works like Mango Street is largely due to chance and people’s artificial prolonging of its legacy. And besides, will Mango Street still be read a hundred years from now? What about 500? The book’s popularity hinges on its subject matter and accessibility and the times we currently live in. I doubt the claims for its “novelty” and “importance” would be enough to save it from becoming negated by time. There is simply no reason for a person in the year 2525 to read this piece of shit (hell, there’s no reason to read it now.) However, there would still be reason to read Black Boy or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for greatness always has something to offer that goes beyond the ephemeral. A thousand years from now, notions of “blackness” or “whiteness” may have long been dissolved, but Black Boy would still be relevant for it gets at the core of not just racism, but certain aspects human nature that allow such prejudice to arise. This is because Richard Wright was a writer who put his art at the forefront. Maybe Sandra Cisneros really prioritized “the art” when writing her book, but regardless of intentions her book fails because she is a lousy artist, not because of its message or subject matter.

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2 thoughts on “The House on Mango Street – Book Review

  1. Interesting comments.
    Calling Bukowski a mediocrity is generous, Andrew. His whole corpus is shit (at least what’s available). The lone caveat to that is how bad the shit stinks. You might find a solid poem in Donald Hall’s Collected- *shudder*- but not Bukowski’s. The man could not write well nor cared to, even in the cluelessly scattershot way of a Hall.
    Future artists need to get past the I- and persist to do so. While I agree with your comments- re: Melville’s Moby-Dick, Rilke and Yeats, not even they could do this. How do you explain Dick vs. Clarel? Or, Rilke’s great poems vs. his poor prose? Or, that for every great poem Yeats wrote there’s at least 3-4 bad ones?
    Dan Schneider has beaten this to death, but it’s natheless correct- artists are measured on quality, quantity, and diversity. Rilke had the first two (with exceptions), but lacked the last. He approaches all his subjects from an inner standpoint, then climaxes. Great execution, but all blend in one.
    From Tu Fu to Whitman, and up into Stevens and Crane, as well the Hesses, O’Neills, Kubricks, Picassos, Mozarts, and on: all will permeate through the ages, but only from one eye’s view into the several.
    It’s up to the 21st Century’s artists to add more than one voice to the mix. Be fruitful and multiply!

    • I think one way to help artists go “beyond themselves” is to make them realize that art is more than mere “self-expression” and that one’s feelings aren’t the center of all things. You’re right about Melville and Rilke. As great as they were they had a hard time going beyond themselves; if they were able to they would have been more objective with their work–they would have been more consistent and taken more chances, pushing beyond their wants and their emotions. Passion, intuition and raw talent can only take you so far.

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