Summer Reading Series: Frank Freeman on Richard Rodriguez

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez
(40th Anniversary Edition)
By Richard Rodriguez

with an introduction by Phillip Lopate
Godine, 2022
$24.95   216 pp.

Hunger of Memory, newly reissued in a 40th-anniversary edition by Godine, was Richard Rodriguez’s first book. It consists of a prologue and six essays he published in earlier versions in magazines such as The Columbia Forum and The American Scholar. In his introduction to the new edition, “My Kinsman, Richard Rodriguez,” Phillip Lopate, himself a fine essayist, puts Hunger of Memory in the company of “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Thoreau’s Walden, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, and, yes, The Education of Henry Adams.”

“My Kinsman, Richard Rodriguez” is a fine overview of the book and of Rodriguez’s career. (His other books include Mexico’s Children, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.) In exploring Rodriguez’s “fatalism, or what he calls ‘tragic pessimism’”—the inevitable “fall” a first-generation immigrant must endure to become assimilated into the larger public culture—Lopate remembers a moment from “Late Victorians,” an essay not included in this book, in which Rodriguez references a friend’s “Latin skepticism” and says, “You cannot forbid tragedy.”

That phrase—“You cannot forbid tragedy”—is the theme of Hunger of Memory. In the first essay, “Aria,” Rodriguez fondly remembers his early childhood. His parents came from Mexico, deliberately moved into a white middle-class neighborhood in Sacramento, and sent their children to a nearby parochial school run by Irish nuns. Sounds and language fascinated the young Rodriguez, and he soon realized that one talked one way at home and another in public. It was not just a matter of speaking Spanish within the family or English outside of it:

Like others who know the pain of public alienation, we transformed the knowledge of our public separateness and made it consoling—the reminder of intimacy. Excited, we joined our voices in a celebration of sounds. We were speaking now the way we never speak out in public. We are alone—together, voices sounded, surrounded to tell me.

This changed, however, when the nuns noticed that Rodriguez was lagging behind in English in school and asked his parents if they could speak it at home. His father and mother, wanting something more for him than the menial jobs they worked, agreed. This was the beginning of the “fall” from grace that happened in his life; he lost the safe and celebratory world of his childhood, because, in a sense, he lost a language and its private sounds.

For Rodriguez, who seamlessly interweaves his personal story with public concerns, this was a necessary fall. I wouldn’t call it a felix culpa exactly, but it’s close. This is how he phrases it:

Supporters of bilingual education today imply that students like me miss a great deal by not being taught in their family’s language. What they seem not to recognize is that, as a socially disadvantaged child, I considered Spanish to be a private language. What I needed to learn in school was that I had the right—and the obligation—to speak the public language of los gringos.

In other words, he writes a few pages later, “My awkward childhood does not prove the necessity of bilingual education. My story discloses instead an essential myth of childhood—inevitable pain.”

That is the tragedy I referred to earlier: for Rodriguez to become fully assimilated in America, his private family life, bound by a private language, had to suffer. The feeling of separateness from his family was the price to be paid if he wanted to succeed in American society. Rodriguez contends that a person can’t have it both ways: there has to be a sacrifice. And this sacrifice is what the proponents of bilingual education don’t understand, that you can’t have “an achievement of public individuality” without “a diminished sense of private individuality.”

In the following essay, “The Achievement of Desire,” Rodriguez describes another sacrifice that has to be made. While reading books on education for his dissertation in the British Museum in London, he came across a portrayal of “the scholarship boy” in The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart. In the passages of Hoggart’s book that most resonated with him, the focus is on how becoming educated entails a sacrifice of intimacy if you are from a non-educated family. The “scholarship boy,” Hoggart wrote, “has to be more and more alone, if he is going to ‘get on’. He will have, probably unconsciously, to oppose the ethos of the hearth, the intense gregariousness of the working-class family group.”

Rodriguez’s childhood goal, once he got over an initial aversion to reading, was to be an educated man. He realized he was changing, but used that knowledge to fuel his ambition:

Those times I remembered the loss of my past with regret, I quickly reminded myself of all the things my teachers could give me. (They could make me an educated man.) I tightened my grip on pencil and books. I evaded nostalgia. Tried hard to forget. But one does not forget by trying to forget. One only remembers. I remembered too well that education had changed my family’s life. I would not have become a scholarship boy had I not so often remembered.

Rodriguez laments that nothing much is written of sacrifice in books on education. According to him, education departments want to have the impossible, two contradictory aims: “Nothing is said of the silence that comes to separate the boy from his parents. Instead, one hears proposals for increasing the self-esteem of students and encouraging early intellectual independence.” He continues:

Paragraphs glitter with a constellation of terms like creativity and originality. (Ignored altogether is the function of imitation in a student’s life.) Radical educationists meanwhile complain that ghetto schools “oppress” students by trying to mold them, stifling native characteristics. The truer critique would be just the reverse: not that schools change ghetto students too much, but that while they might promote the occasional scholarship student, they change most students barely at all.

And yet, he goes on to say, the scholarship boy goes on rejecting nostalgia, in Hoggart’s words, “for some Nameless Eden where he never was.”

In a wry and moving passage, Rodriguez tells of how he spent all those hours in the British Museum, but gradually realized how lonely the scholar’s life was. The library “regulars” never spoke with one another. “I began to wonder: Who, besides my dissertation director and a few faculty members, would ever read what I wrote?” He plowed on with his research, but “felt drawn by professionalism to the edge of sterility, capable of no more than pedantic, lifeless, unassailable prose. Then nostalgia began.”

Rodriguez returned home to live with his parents. He was “relieved by how easy it was to be at home,” but observed that “My need to think so much and so abstractly about my parents and our relationship was in itself an indication of my long education.” And yet he soon saw the positive side: “If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact.”

The third essay, “Credo,” will keenly interest Catholic readers. In it, Rodriguez reflects on growing up within a family and culture defined by its faith. It is one of the most lovely tributes to a Catholic childhood—“a childhood lived through the forms of the liturgical Church” —I have ever read. He speaks of the richness of this liturgical life as compared with those of the “non-Catholics” surrounding them in Sacramento, for whom “it seemed there was all white and no yolk,” that is, “no incense, no sacred body and blood, and no confessional box.”

He also says nothing of the nuns beating him or striking his hands with a ruler, although he does mention the “clickers” they used. He also does not remember “the nuns or the priests to have been obsessed with sexual sins.” But he did notice a certain irony when “the priest told us how dangerous it was to look at our naked bodies, even while taking a bath—and I noticed that he made the remark directly under a near-naked figure of Christ on the cross.”

Mostly, Rodriguez says, his education was good and solid. And here he zings another contrarian note to the education departments of the world:

Stressing memorization, my teachers implied that education is largely a matter of acquiring knowledge already discovered. And they were right. For contrary to more progressive notions of learning, much that is learned in a classroom must be the already known; and much that is already known must be learned before a student can achiever truly independent thought.

The nuns saw “that learning is a social activity . . . a rite of passage into a group. On the other hand, “the nuns distrusted intellectual challenges to authority.” “When,” Rodriguez notes, “one nun told my parents that their youngest daughter had a ‘mind of her own,’ she meant the remark to be a negative criticism.”

Of his parents and the church, Rodriguez says something surprising:

Of all the institutions in their lives, only the Catholic Church has seemed aware of the fact that my mother and father are thinkers—persons aware of the experience of their lives. Other institutions—the nation’s political parties, the industries of mass entertainment and communications, the companies that employed them—have all treated my parents with condescension. . . . Only the liturgy has encouraged them to dwell on the meaning of their lives. To think.

A little while later comes this beautiful sentence: “The Church rocked through time—a cradle, an ark—to rhythms of sorrow and joy, marking the passage of man.”

Then comes a passage meant to give nonbelievers pause:

There are people who tell me today that they are not religious because they consider religion to be an evasion of life. I hear them, their assurance, and do not bother to challenge the arrogance of a secular world which hasn’t courage enough to accept the fact of old age. And death. I know people who speak of death with timorous euphemisms of “passing away.” I have friends who wouldn’t think of allowing their children to attend a funeral for fear of inflicting traumatic scars. For my part, I will always be grateful to the Church that took me so seriously and exposed me so early, through the liturgy, to the experience of life. I will always be grateful to the parish priest who forced a mortician to remove an elaborate arrangement of flowers from a coffin: “Don’t hide it!”

But Rodriguez also has something to say about liturgy itself. (Secular readers can take a breather here; hold onto your hats, progressive Catholics!) The liturgy he grew up in was the pre–Vatican II liturgy, the Latin Mass. He finds that the English Mass is “A ritual that seeks to feed my mind and would starve my somewhat metaphorical soul.” Rodriguez reminds me of Thomas Merton, who wrote that he was a “progressive who loved tradition,” when he writes, “In all things save the liturgy I was a liberal. From the start I despised the liturgical reformation.” Perhaps some readers will be able to relate to the following passage, as I could:

I go along with the Kiss of Peace, but paradoxically I feel isolated sitting in half-empty churches among people I am suddenly aware of not knowing. The kiss signifies to me a betrayal of the older ceremonial liturgy. I miss that high ceremony. I am saddened by inappropriate music about which it is damning enough to say that it is not good enough, and not even the best of its authentic kind—folk, pop, quasi-religious Broadway show tunes. I miss the old trappings—trappings that disclosed a different reality. I have left church early, walked out, after hearing the congregation spontaneously applaud its own singing. And I have wondered how the Church I loved could have changed so quickly and completely.

And yet Rodriguez keeps going to Mass because he has realized, he says, that it is the Mass appropriate for Catholics who live in a secular society. “I suspect that the reason I despise the new liturgy is because it is mine. It reflects and attempts to resolve the dilemma of Catholics just like me.” He says, basically, that in a non-Catholic world the new Mass seeks to say you “are part of a community of believers.” It stresses community, because that community no longer exists. We all go our separate ways into a secular world after Mass.

Despite his revulsion at the new liturgy and his own doubts, Rodriguez continues to believe. He echoes the words of Saint Peter: “Lord, where else would we go?” “If I should lose my faith in God, I would have no place to go to where I could feel myself a man. . . . Though [the church] leaves me unsatisfied, I fear giving it up, falling through space.” “Even in today’s Catholic Church,” he adds, “it is possible for me to feel myself in the eye of God, while I kneel in the presence of others.” Secular institutions cannot provide what “the temple and the mosque and church” can, he says. Then he warns, presciently, that secular institutions “deny their limits” and “pretend there is no difference between public and private life. The worst are totalitarian governments.” He winds up this third essay with the heartfelt lament: “If God is dead I will cry into the void.”

The fourth essay, “Complexion,” as Lopate writes, “starts out as a rumination on being dark-skinned in a Mexican-American culture that valued lighter skin tones, then shifts to a preoccupation with what it means to be manly.” Rodriguez grows up wondering if education was “making me effeminate” and “fascinated by the braceros, the Mexican field workers, who carried themselves with such stolid, confident masculinity.”

The penultimate essay, “Profession,” explores Rodriguez’s academic career and deepens his reflections on affirmative action, which, he says, does nothing for lower-class minorities who are still stuck in ghettos in inferior schools. While people like Rodriguez—who were, he writes, in no way underprivileged (unless you count the racist insults endured along the way)—are offered lucrative positions, nothing is done to improve inner city schools.

Things come to a head when a Jewish colleague has to move across the country, leaving behind a wife and young daughter, to take the only job he has been offered. Rodriguez, on the other hand, has been offered numerous plum positions, including one at Yale. The Jewish colleague notes they are about equal in their scholarship, then adds, “Once there were quotas to keep my parents out of schools like Yale. Now there are quotas to get you in. And the effect on me is the same as it was for them.” Afterwards, Rodriguez turns down all his job offers and goes back home to become a freelance writer, a decision his parents cannot understand.

The last essay, “Mr. Secrets” (his mother’s nickname for him), explores the writing of the book we are almost finished reading. His mother asks him to not write of their personal lives in his essays. But he has to, even though she does not understand why. Growing up, he says, “I was exposed to the sliding-glass-door informality of middle-class California life,” but only at the homes of his friends, where parents walked around in pajamas and robes and joked with their guests. His parents were much more formal. Rodriguez writes fascinatingly about the act of writing itself: “I write very slowly because I write under the obligation to make myself clear to someone who knows nothing about me. It is a lonely adventure. Each morning I make my way along a narrowing precipice of written words.”

In a new afterword, Rodriguez briefly surveys highlights of his life since the initial publication of Hunger of Memory. He dedicates the book to his lifelong editor, Bill Goodman, who read one of his American Scholar essays and encouraged him to write a book. He speaks of people of all races he has met who have said that he told their story in Hunger of Memory. He also includes an observation about class and identity that especially moved me: “So, it is still not possible to call a white working-class teenager in Appalachia a ‘minority,’ but it is acceptable to use that term to describe the white upper middle-class Hispanic.”

This is a beautifully written book wherein Rodriguez tells the truth about himself and his education. For this he has been called “self-hating” by progressives and co-opted by conservatives. He does not take a political position, but, as a practicing gay Catholic who supports same-sex marriage, one gets the general impression that he is more progressive than conservative. In the end, however, he is perhaps best understood as a writer who has forged his own path and who knows that truth does not abide by party lines. ♦

Frank Freeman’s work has been published in America, Commonweal, Dublin Review of Books, and the Weekly Standard, among others. He lives in Maine with his wife and four children, dog, cat, and four chickens. He hopes to have his books published some fine day. 

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