The humility of Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen appeared on “Oprah” quite some time ago, but I taped it and watched it recently.
He was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for literature and the guy who declined Oprah’s invitation to appear on his show with his third novel, “The Corrections,” a maneuver that seemed like professional suicide.
Turns out, talent has more to do with success than getting caught up in celebrity. I like listening to writers, as though they might tell me some secret I have overlooked; some information that will keep me on track to a goal I have an innate understanding of.
Franzen called himself a mid-western egalitarian while he sat quietly, seemingly uncomfortable with the audience’s applause and adulation. An egalitarian is someone who believes in the equality of all people, more specifically on political, economic, and social terms.
His latest book, “Freedom,” earned him a trip to the White House and a 20-minute chat with President Obama, Franzen’s hero.
What struck me as Oprah ogled, and her audience grasped their chests in adoration and appeared dizzy with awe, is Franzen’s disinterest in fame and his discomfort with celebrity. Obama isn’t Franzen’s hero because Obama is the president of the United States, but because he is the man he is.
I get confused with the concept of celebrity. I’ve written about this before. It’s a word that has been around since the 1600s, derived from ceremony that earlier societies were quite fraught with.
The 17th century was the time of Samuel De Champlain founding Quebec City, the beginning of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Pilgrims arriving at Cape Cod, the death of William Shakespeare, and the birth of Bach, Isaac Newton, and ice cream.
All these folks certainly were important in terms of what they accomplished, no argument from me on that, so I suppose celebrity fits.
Think of the celebrities we worship and follow today. I doubt there is a single individual in today’s headlines that would make me weak at the knees.
I think Sidney Crosby seems an especially-gifted athlete with heart. I find Ellen’s brand of happiness quite contagious. But if I were sitting in the bleachers of life, I would stand and do my own personal version of the wave for those ordinary folk doing extraordinary things.
When I see someone bucking the odds and striving to do better, when everyone tells them they can’t or they shouldn’t or what if they fail, then I know I am in the presence of someone worthy of celebrity.
When I see a teen-age boy with pants just barely clinging to his hips, and a ball cap on his head at an angry angle, stoop to pat a cat on the street, I feel hopeful. When I watch a flash mob on YouTube expressing some idea of doing better or shining a light in a dark corner, I feel elated.
There are small business owners who put their back against the economy and keep striving to keep their community humming and vital. There are people bringing casseroles to the homes of the recently bereaved.
There are foster parents and drivers for the Cancer Society and the Red Cross, and those who deliver Meals on Wheels. There are strangers shovelling out strangers’ cars and blowing the snow from each other’s lanes—any act of spontaneous selflessness and kindness.
Those are the moments of celebrity, those are the things that fill me with awe and make me feel weak.
When someone screams until they almost collapse when a singer comes on stage or an actor strolls by, or a talk-show host gives him/her an iPhone, I feel the urge to take shoulders in hand and shake firmly.
We are a society of celebrity worshipers, whipped into a frenzy of consumerism, modelling our lives after those who enjoy a life of ridiculous excess.
So when I see small communities rallying together for survival, with heart, doing small, unwitnessed acts of kindness, those are the things with star power; those are the things that endure and I’m glad for the word egalitarian.
It’s a great word.

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