Tonight my sophomores are assigned to read “Greyhound Tragedy” by Richard Brautigan. The story was published in the 1970s but takes place in the 1930s. So we spent most of today researching movies and movie stars of the 1930s. These are kids in which 9/11 is someone else’s history, so the 1930s is completely alien. So we talked a bit about what films looked like in the ’30s, who the movie stars were, what key world events occurred that might influence what movies would be about. So we looked at the Great Depression, the election of FDR, the rise of Hitler, Jesse Owens, Amelia Earheart, the Hindenburg disaster, etc. The goal was to provide some context for a group of 15-16 year-olds who idolize celebrities of their own, to help them empathize with the protagonist of Brautigan’s very short, minimalist story. I enjoyed teaching this story last year because it offered so many opportunities to discuss writer’s craft and elements of a story–what does a piece of writing have to have in order to be a story? For such a compact piece of writing, it’s a powerful example of how literary devices (such as metaphor and allusion) can add rich subtext and provide meaning.
When my colleague brought the story in last year, I immediately fell in love with it because I connected with the protagonist so strongly. My mother always watched old movies on the lone TV on Saturday afternoons while I was growing up in the ’70s. She filled our bookshelf with saucy books about the Golden Age of Hollywood that I voraciously devoured and eventually read with more adult eyes (a juicy favorite was Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon). Hollywood was a bright shiny dream for small town Oklahoma girls like my mom and me, so I fully empathized with the protagonist. I shopped at Penney’s as a youth. I loved Clark Gable movies (Teacher’s Pet is a favorite–Gable in a rom com!). And I understood the allusion to Harlow and Valentino in the final sentence–and how the reference to them adds another layer to the tragedy of the title. I will see just how many students can explore the subtext enough to understand what the titular tragedy of the story is–if they bother to read their homework at all tonight.
One can hope.
A clip from the 1958 Clark Gable/Doris Day film Teacher’s Pet (Gable’s Gannon character blurting out in protest of writing 2,000 words sounds just like my students. lol):