Shallow tales keep rolling out Rather than tough insights, literature on the disabled offers the 'Good Cripple' stereotype.


October 18, 1998|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In this era of identity politics, most minorities find a smorgasbord of books with which to slake the appetite for personal identity literature. Folks outside those groups can sup at the same table, getting a taste for how others live: educational osmosis.

Books - fiction, nonfiction, essays, poetry - create links between one sensibility and another. Books are the most vital cultural tools, bridging chasms riven by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

The exception is the disabled. "Niche marketing" is the publishing buzz phrase of the '90s, but as the clock rolls over toward the millennium, the disabled find themselves stuck in a literary Dark Ages no other minority would tolerate.

African-Americans, for example, would rage - and rightly - if the industry ignored changes wrought by civil rights and relegated black literature to Uncle Tom, "Gone With the Wind" and Steppin Fetchit How-To's with only the occasional pass at Stella's groove or being "Beloved" by Toni Morrison or listening to James Baldwin "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

Yet that is how America's largest minority, the disabled, finds itself depicted still: marginalized to stereotype, as invisible as Ralph Ellison's eponymous man.

The one in six Americans who are disabled can visit local superstores or libraries, now nearly all wheelchair accessible, but they'll find very little comparable literary access within. Publishing has yet to confront realistically the disabled reader, who remains, for the most part, like Hellen Keller standing pumpside waiting for Annie Sullivan to arrive with the key to language and the world it unlocks.

This publishing paradox is as curious as it is frustrating, for books hover ever closer to disability without quite risking the final step toward creating a literary canon. Thus a glance at best seller lists locates numerous tomes on self-health - all aimed at avoiding disabling illness and disease, through everything from garlic to belief in angels.

And disability has made a pass or two in other guises. For more than a year, Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie" (Doubleday, $19.95), the tale of college professor Morrie Schwartz and his battle with ALS, has ensconced itself on the same list, joined recently by actor-turned-disability activist Christopher Reeve's autobiography "Still Me" (Random House, $21.95).

These books each have something to say about disability, but the message might have been excised from a novel penned more than a century ago, "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens (Yale University Press, $25).

The allegorical tale retold each December places at its heart and soul the crippled son of Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim. This child's disability keeps him from all the things young children are wont to do. Yet despite such limitations, he exudes cheerfulness and spirit that encourages despairing adults; his "God bless us, every one," resounds throughout the book like Christmas bells pealing.

Dickens had a heavy hand with his metaphors; Tim's role in "A Christmas Carol" is no exception. The sustaining message that life is not bleak but sublime certainly shakes up Mr. Scrooge. As a seasonal tale, "A Christmas Carol" wields just the right manipulative touch.

But the model set by Tiny Tim, the prototypical Good Cripple, has pervaded - even driven - literature ever since. Despite changes in society that have rendered the disabled more than marginal creatures to be pitied, the disability literature of the '90s bears striking resemblance to that of a century and a half before.

The Good Cripple remains a comfortable model for publishers because it takes no risks. Who can remain unmoved by the crippled and/or dying person imparting wisdom from his/her pallet? The heroic and tragic nature of the battle with the incomplete or failing body has, as Dickens knew, stunning metaphoric power. What it doesn't have is depth or range.

The oracular power of the Good Cripple metaphor certainly resounds in "Tuesdays with Morrie." Morrie has his bits of wisdom to share; a life lived well and thoughtfully over six decades had better leave some legacy. But were Morrie not a dying cripple - and a defining exemplar of the Good Cripple at that - there would be no book.

Morrie Schwartz, former college professor, has little literary heft. Morrie Schwartz, former college professor dying tragically of a degenerative disease that will (and did) eventually suffocate him has all the metaphoric drive of Tiny Tim. From that Morrie we may have much to learn.

Nor would an autobiography of yet another movie star score big with either publisher or audience. But plummet the rich, handsome Superman to earth, snap his spinal cord, thrust him into a wheelchair "driven" by blowing air into a straw and you have a metaphor worthy of Dickens.

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