I ask indulgence for one last post on Stephen King’s IT, which I’ve been teaching in my American Fantasy class. I chose It not because it is great literature but because I have become convinced that King is today’s Edgar Allen Poe, an author who dreams America’s nightmares. Since I’ve been presenting the problems that King sees in America—the dark aspects of itself that it refuses to face up to and therefore is crippled by—I want to spend a post looking at what he offers by way of solution.
First of all, however, let me theorize about how an author dreams our nightmares. Narrative fiction, as Jonathan Gottschall notes in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, is a powerful way to find meaning in the world. It is also a double-edged sword, however. While stories can plumb the depths of the human soul (The Odyssey, The Brothers Karamazov), they can also be used by paranoid conspiracy theorists to link things that have no real connection. For instance, this past year there were some who claimed that an outlaw president who hates America deliberately allowed illegal Hispanic immigrants with Ebola to cross into the United States.
I use this as an example because, as unhinged as it is, it actually sounds a bit like a Stephen King novel. To be sure, the conspiracy theorists claim that their theories are true while King only claims to write fiction. A thematic reading of King’s fiction, however, shows that he makes his own far-flung connections.
For instance, in IT we see him connecting environmental destruction, murderous homophobia, domestic abuse, pedophilia and child molestation, sexual assault, race lynching, horrific union busting, prison brutality, and unrestrained gun violence. Michael Hanlon, the narrator, is a Derry librarian and historian who digs through the town’s archives to look for patterns. In each of Derry’s periodic outbreaks of violence (every 27 years or so, which is to say, once a generation), he discovers that a manic clown has made an appearance. Hanlon works as a stand-in for King, who uses his fiction to understand America’s penchant for violence.
Many authors have piled up connections to define America, most notably Walt Whitman. With each author we must ask about the truth of their vision. If authors are our prophets, as I believe, then it must also be acknowledged that there are false prophets and true prophets, those who feed off of paranoid fantasies and shallow wish fulfillments and those who are committed to truth. I would argue that our greatest writers are those who are the most unwavering in this commitment.
If King is at all accurate in his description of America, then does he have any useful solutions? As I see it, IT is telling us that, to successfully fight the clown, we must reconnect with our childhood imagination and idealism.
Several years back a student, Marjorie Kates, wrote a senior project for me in which she argued that King owes a lot to William Wordsworth, especially Intimations of Immortality. Like Wordsworth, King sees us entering the world “trailing clouds of glory.” We feel alive as children and are filled with hope, refusing to be discouraged by reversals.
Many of King’s child characters have special powers, which are symbolic of their special relationship to life. As we grow older, however, we lose the connection–“Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy”—and become dull and listless. Or at least some of us do. Others, more sensitive, become angry over this lost connection and lash out in violence, especially against the children who have what they have lost. But whether they are dull or actively destructive, the republic suffers.
If we get back in touch with our childhood selves, however, we have a fighting chance. In a sense, King is giving us a version of Jesus’ admonition, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In King’s view, the difference between entering and not is that between “disquiet” and “desire”:
Disquiet and desire. All the difference between world and want—the difference between being an adult who counted the cost and a child who just got on it [a reckless bicycle] and went, for instance. All the world between…
Disquiet and desire. What you want and what you’re scared to try for. Where you’ve been and where you want to go.
Or as William Carlos Williams puts it in Paterson, it’s the difference between a calculating, acquisitive approach to the world and an open and wondering approach. (I write about Paterson’s influence on King here.)
IT is about a group of children who save the world because of their special powers of imagination. Everything is vibrant because they are still connected with what Wordsworth calls “the Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star.” But the real drama of the book is the children returning as adults to defeat the forces tearing apart America.
In one respect, they don’t have a lot of motivation to do so because all are living comfortable and successful adult lives. Something is missing, however, a something that includes their inability to have children–which is to say, an inability to move confidently into the future. If they, and America, are to go forward, they must go back and reclaim who they were as children. The memories involve pain, which is one reason it is so hard to go back. But more powerful than the pain is the intense aliveness they felt, which includes the deep love they had for each other.
Childhood pain is something that one finds in King but not in Wordsworth. King knows that children don’t live the seemingly carefree life of Wordsworth’s shepherd boy. (“Thou child of joy, /Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy/Shepherd-boy!”) But that difference being granted, the message is the same. Just as Wordsworth finds a way to recapture childhood intensity, building on the intimations he has of some deeper spirit at work, so does King.
Wordsworth talks about catching at “shadowy recollections” and realizing that they are
the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing
If we connect with this master-light, then we can ward off both “listlessness” and “mad endeavor,” a good description of modern life. Wordsworth assures us that we get a second chance:
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither;
Can in a moment travel thither–
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Losers Club in IT and another stand-in for King, has Wordsworthian intimations that our children and memories of own childhood play can reconnect us with a healing force. In IT’s penultimate paragraph, Bill sounds like a combination of Wordsworth and the sister at the end of Alice in Wonderland:
It is good to be a child, but it is also good to be grownup and able to consider the mystery of childhood…its beliefs and desires. I will write about all of this one day, he thinks, and knows it’s just a dawn thought, an after-dreaming thought. But it’s nice to think so for awhile in the morning’s clean silence, to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love. To think that what has looked forward must also look back, and that each life makes its own imitation of immortality: a wheel.
Mortality may be heir to heartache and a thousand natural shocks, yet children’s beliefs and desires, their courage and love, “confirms” it—which is to say, certifies that life is worthwhile. In a play on the poem’s title, King says that, by acting upon our intimations of immortality, we create lives that imitate immortality. Wordsworth assures us our life is guided by the fact that we never lose sight of that “immortal sea that brought us thither” while King describes life as a wheel.
So the next time you find yourself discouraged by the news, look to your children or remember your own childhood. Then live your life accordingly.
One final thought: King sets the childhood portion of IT in 1958 when he, like his child protagonists, was 11. He dedicates the book to his three children, who were 14, 12, and 7 in 1985 when the novel came out and when the adult portion is set. Depressed though he was by the state of America at that time, he looked at his children, remembered his own childhood, and found hope.
Previous posts on Stephen King
And for an earlier version of today’s post, although far less developed: