EGO Conference Retrospective, Part Four

(Note from the blog administrator: This is the last in a series looking back at the children’s literature related events at the English Graduate Organization’s annual conference. The first three parts can be found in the archives. Today we are proud to present two responses to the keynote address by Dr. Richard Flynn, both written by undergraduates.)

By De-Lyn Williams

Richard Flynn’s keynote speech, “My Folk Revival”, incorporated an autobiographical approach to cultural history, especially in regards to childhood and adolescence and the ways they were expressed in music and perceived in American society. He voiced his own memories of highly political events like Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and assassination, as well as personal events such as his experience with songs like “Little Boxes”, social gatherings, and family life. In relation to our class’s studies, [Editor’s note: Williams is enrolled in Literature for the Adolescent this semester.] I found several pertinent connections: music, peer relationships, and the idea of “double consciousness.”

In the lecture, Flynn was highly focused on music in his own life as well as the influences of music on popular culture, and he quoted (musically) the lyrics of such artists as The Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. Flynn mentioned these lyrics from “Sugar Mountain” by Neil Young:

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
You’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon.

I believe that, in part, exemplifies a bit of the nostalgia an adult feels when looking back into his or her youth, and  he mentioned with “double consciousness” in which a child may enjoy what is playful and childish while also recognizing it is so (recognizing the difference in the way adults view the world and them). In support of that, Flynn mentioned that he understood the full meaning of “Little Boxes” as satirical of the standardized American ideal that made everyone “just the same” when he himself was only eight or nine years old. In class discussions, we have often tried to look at the perspective of protagonists in adolescent texts to figure out exactly how much young people are (and can be) aware of in their society. For instance, the class was interested in Nilda and whether or not young Nilda truly comprehended “adult” situations (like the prostitution scene) while also arguing that the book should be censored because children “won’t be able to handle it.” While “Little Boxes” and Nilda’s prostitution scene aren’t exactly alike, I think there is something to be said for the capacity of a child and/or adolescent to understand and cope with life being undermined by certain brands of criticism (protect the children, etc.). In my opinion, they can, and Flynn would—at least part—agree with that conclusion.

Flynn spoke of the Kingston Trio as a group that his parents allowed him to see because they thought the band was a “harmless” influence to their young son. The Kingston Trio were “moral gatekeepers” and “rockless” as his parents said, and during the time period in which he saw them (1960s) there was a lot of anxiety about “rock n’ roll” as detrimental to youth (provoking poor juvenile behavior and gangs). Such criticisms were seen in “Coming of Age in Buffalo”, and (as we discussed in class) there was a lot of fear of the “animalistic”, “rock n’ roll” youth which was portrayed well in the movie Blackboard Jungle. Presumably, Flynn’s parents were afraid that he would become like those violent, incorrigible boys through “bad” music and its cultural influences (progressiveness).

Flynn also spoke of his days in the 1970s in which his father kept him “occupied”; He felt alienated from his dysfunctional family, so he sought out a group of “lost boys and girls” who provided a surrogate family to replace his own. Therefore, he raised the value of peer relationships above family relationships. This is a particularly recurring theme in our readings such as the Outsiders and Freedom Writers (though it vacillates between “superficial” and “deep” peer relationships). In either regard, it is apparent that it is the peers who seem to make the parents in Flynn’s lecture (as well as our class discussions) while parents are frequently out of the picture or entirely negative. All of this evidence stands in line with Zuckerman’s arguments from the beginning of class.

Flynn’s lecture was insightful with his own personal experiences with music and growing into an American adult while also touching on many generalized ideas of nostalgia (restorative and reflective), “double consciousness”, and ideas of the child in relation to historical and political events.

De-Lyn Williams is an undergraduate at the University of Florida. This response was written for Marilisa Jimenez’s Literature for Adolescents course. It is shared with permission of the author.

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