IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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…getting pleasure from reading the obituaries…

Going to bat for Pinocchio
I was astounded by the negative reactions (“Letters,” February/03) to Rebecca West’s “The Real Life Adventures of Pinocchio” (December/02). From my point of view, the article was perceptive and engaging.

Joseph Oakes

Rebecca West comments: My article is a very condensed version of a longer essay footnoted to indicate its critical sources. The reading of Disney’s Stromboli as an offensively stereotypical representation of a Jewish gypsy that so displeased Dr. Brunemeier (“Letters,” February/03) is not due to my “own stereotypical thinking,” but is a view (with which I agree) expressed in several pieces of criticism. Robin Allan’s Walt Disney and Europe (Indiana University Press, 1999), for example, notes: “The ethnic reference with its implicit anti-Semitism cannot be ignored.... The Jewishness is marked in facial expression and in conventional views of character; Stromboli is obsessed with wealth.” Critic Richard Schickel is further mentioned as the first to have brought this charge of anti-Semitism in his work on Disney. Cartoon stereotypes are no less disturbing than other forms of religious or ethnic slurs. And as for the “unwarranted and silly” feminist reading, which highlights the issue of the male appropriation of female procreativity, I was emphasizing the way in which the Kubrick-Spielberg film A.I., which is deeply indebted to Collodi’s Pinocchio, brings to the fore this enduring topic—a topic with which many mid- to late-19th-century works of literature grappled, including Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. I regret that Dr. Brunemeier does not believe that a study of books and films that takes into account gender issues is a valid critical approach. Many male and female scholars are not motivated by “grievance mongering” but rather believe in the human and ethical import of analyzing such cultural products as, among other things, expressions of attitudes that both reflect and influence lived life, in which gender and ethnicity play fundamental roles.

Alt Ermal calls the article “a great example of the in-depth analysis of nothing that is produced by the self-important pompous parasites that fill the halls of academia.” Whew! Is exploring the complexities of an enduring and influential classic that continues to have a remarkable afterlife in literature, film, and popular culture the “analysis of nothing”? If so, I gladly join the ranks of Benedetto Croce, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Robert Coover, AM’65, and numerous others who believe that Collodi’s work is far from “just another standard example” of anything. And while I can say “there’s no place like home” in much less than six pages, I have spent my 30-year career as a teacher and literary scholar avoiding such oversimplifications, not because of a sense of “self-importance” but because I love and respect literature and seek to serve its rich intricacies and deep marvels of expression and form in my teaching and critical writing. How sad that Alt Ermal thinks that Collodi’s amazing book can be reduced to a tool-kit plot and a simplistic message that make of Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz, as well as countless other children’s and adult works of art, nothing more than the same old story. I agree that the basic plots are few; I do not agree that literature can be reduced to them.


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