You Dared, Bob; Thank God You Dared
John S. Simmons
In my undergraduate years, as I was just beginning to sense the personal impact of literature, I began a reader's love affair with the poetry of T.S. Eliot. That sentiment led me to commit to memory, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It was almost thirty years later that I met Jerry Renault and witnessed him opening his locker at Trinity School, which revealed a poster inscribed with, "Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?" We now know that Jerry dared and failed, but the true message I gleaned from that incident, that novel, and the whole panoply of writings by Robert Cormier, was that to dare in life as well as art is to fulfill one's raison d'être.
In the decades before Robert Cormier began to produce his young adult novels, the style of the great majority of texts in that genre was narrow and predictable. Sequences were regular and dominated by outer action. The thoughts and feelings of narrators were clearly identifiable. Interior monologues, unexpected flashbacks, and other such stylistic ventures were minimal. But with the publication of The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After the First Death, Bob Cormier changed all that. He presented young adult readers with narratives that challenged them even as they intrigued and sometimes frightened them. Simultaneously, he provided upper-grade teachers with texts that involved students in an intellectual/emotional struggle-a struggle that was well worth the fight. It is no exaggeration to state that Cormier changed the landscape of approaching fiction for teachers and readers everywhere. And the path on that landscape led upward.
Back to Jerry Renault and the poster in his locker. The Eliot quote encapsulates a telling theme that Cormier introduced to the YA reading audience: the struggle between the individual and those institutions that are creatures of our culture. In this author's most memorable works, the individual's jousts with ostensibly benevolent, but often sinister, social instruments end in defeat. The playing out of those contests is replete with pathos, fear, and stark realism. Empathetic readers most often combine admiration for the individual's courage with an inescapable realization that the powers of the institutions are insuperable. The author, however, has created an engrossing human drama in each of these adversarial engagements. Readers of all ages admire and suffer with the Jerry Renaults, the Adam Farmers, the Ben Marchands, the Kate Foresters, the Barney Snows, the Buddy Walkers, et al, as they fight the odds-and go down. In contrast with the melodramatic, often contrived endings of earlier YA novels, Bob Cormier provided a refreshing-and riveting-change of pace.
In his persuasive 1959 doctoral study of the young adult novels of his era, Stephen Dunning labeled the great bulk of them "consistently wholesome and insistently didactic" and further stated that they avoided taboos with painstaking care. Robert Cormier, however, dared to disturb that universe; he saw the teenage years for what they truly are, and described them in kind. As a result, The Chocolate War stands as one of the most censored books in 20th century American fiction, with I Am the Cheese close behind. Moreover, sexual episodes, violence, cruelty, murder, criminal activities by religious agents, suicide, and above all, pain and suffering, abound in his novels. A measure of the author's status is the ongoing conviction by most of his critics that these inclusions are not there to titillate, to disgust, or to sensationalize. Instead, they contribute to the tell-it-like-it-is human perspectives their author has created.
The symbolic tales of Robert Cormier will undoubtedly last for a long time and affect readers far beyond the hamlets of central Massachusetts. For all you have dared, dearest Bob, we the teachers, young readers and observers of the human predicament owe you; you have blazed new trails in our sensibilities and have left us lastingly in your debt.
Dunning, A. Stephen. A Definition of the Role of the Junior Novel Based on Analyses of Thirty Selected Novels. Unpublished Dissertation. Florida State University, June, 1959.
John S. Simmons is a professor of English Education and Reading at Florida State University. He served as Robert Cormier's host during the author's visit to schools in north Florida in the late 1980s, and has often worked in defense of Cormier's books when issues of censorship have emerged, including the case discussed by ReLeah Lent and Gloria Pipkin in this issue.
Reference Citation: Simmons, John S. (2001) You Dared, Bob; Thank God You Dared." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 2, p. 8