I’m really breaking Jay’s rules now.
The Deal Me In Short Story Challenge asks readers to assign one story to each card in a deck of 52. Draw one card each week; read and review the story that goes with it. Since I joined, I’ve been drawing two cards at a time and looking for ways I can connect the randomly selected stories. For this deck/round, I’ve bent the rules further by including a bunch of essays. This week I drew two, “Where the Kissing Never Stops” by Joan Didion and “Don’t Call it Syphillis.” by Jesica Mitford, both from 1965. I didn’t plan that, honest.
Both deal with controversial art/artists.
Mitford’s article is about the attempt to bring the topic of syphillis to television. In 1964, noting a surge in syphillis cases, the Surgeon General and the National Education Associaton worked with MGM studios to produce a special cross-over episode of Dr. Kildare and Mr. Novak, two popular television shows about a doctor and a teacher, to develop an extended episode about syphillis. Their hope was to bring the topic out into the open as a way of making people aware of it, how to avoid getting it and how to treat it. At the time, syphillis was already 100% treatable if detected early enough, but far too many people were avoiding treatment out of shame, ignorance or both.
However, just before the program went into production, NBC cancelled the episode citing their desire not to offend sensitive audience members, especially Neilson families, remember them. Neilson families were people who participated in the Neilson ratings, rankings of just how many people were watching particular television shows each night. Back in the day, they ruled the air waves. NBC did not want to offend them, so the topic of syphillis remained taboo, even with the expressed approval of the Surgeon General and the biggest teacher’s union in the country.
Didion’s piece deals with similar issues. In 1965 Joan Baez purchased a large piece of property in Monterey County, California where she intended to live and to open a school for the study of nonviolence. Her neighbors did not approve. They took the issue to the county commisioners in an attempt to shut down Ms. Baez’s school where they feared all sorts of untoward things were happening. At the hearings one woman asked, “What kind of people would go to a school like this? Why aren’t they out working and making money?”
The two essays make an interseting set of companion pieces, a look at the contradictions in 1965 America in general, California in particular. Mitford’s story presents the general public struggling to overcome a conservative business while Didion presents a small group of radicals struggling to overcome a conservative general public. Both feature artists with a message considered too extreme and people with enough power to prevent the expression messages they disagree with.
I enjoyed them both.
Some 50 years after they were published, they now can be read as historical documents, a windo onto life and cultural mores during a time of great flux in America. That they still have something to say seems clear. Look at the stories you hear about local communities objecting to the construction of mosques in their towns and do characters on American television ever get sexually transmitted diseases? I don’t really watch much televsion, so I wouldn’t know.
I just read about it.