The literature of rejection

In a Nov. 17 New York Times’ story on the Zapruder film – part of the media’s extensive commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – film critic A. O. Scott quotes novelist Don DeLillo’s observation about the role that different media, specifically film and television, played in capturing the fatal shootings of JFK and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

“Oswald’s death became instantly repeatable,” DeLillo observed in a 1983 interview with The Paris Review.  “It belonged to everyone. The Zapurder film, the film of Kennedy’s death, was sold and horded and doled out very selectively. It was exclusive footage.”

Couldn’t the same be said of the two men and doesn’t that offer an insight into the why of JFK’s assassination?

There was something sold, horded and doled out very selectively about JFK – not only in the mystique of the Kennedy pedigree but in the ironic detachment of his personality, which some biographers have said was a defense mechanism against demanding parents and which lent him an air of mystery. He was cool in every sense of the word, unlike brother Bobby, who ran hot in his shirtsleeves with the crowds pressing in on him with even more heat.

Now contrast that with Oswald, for whom no crowds pressed. He was a little man in every sense of that word – sweaty, overeager, a bit rabbity – not a demigod made for the loftiness of the big screen but an everyman whose Thoreau-vian life of quiet desperation was captured in the end on the small screen, a medium available to virtually everyone.

Except that Oswald cast himself on a great stage, and that ultimately proved tragic – for him, for JFK and his family and for the rest of us as well.

Oswald belongs to what I call the “literature of rejection,” and if I had the talent and temperament to do so, I would teach a course on it. (Since I don’t, I’ve made it a crucial moment in “In This Place You Hold Me,” the second in my “The Games Men Play” series of novels.)

Here’s how “the literature of rejection” works: Take any number of literary characters – Achilles in Homer’s “The Iliad,” Lucifer in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.” Add any number of dictators (Hitler), assassins (Oswald, John Wilkes Booth) and terrorists (Osama bin Laden).

What do all these men have in common? (For they are invariably men, since women have neither shown the inclination to large-scale violence nor had the power to carry it out.)

They’ve all been rejected by someone, and, as a result, they’ve all displayed a disproportionate rage at that rejection.

Achilles, dissed by his commander Agamemnon, sets in motion a sulking wrath that engulfs friend and foe alike. Cast out of Heaven, Lucifer creates Hell everywhere.  Heathcliff wreaks vengeance on the adopted family and sister-lover who spurn him.

Hitler – failed artist and priestly candidate – unleashed a hatred fed by Germany’s defeat in World War I on millions but most unforgettably on the six million Jews he shoved into the gas ovens. Bin Laden was the child of his Saudi Arabian father’s only non-Saudi wife and was later used and cut loose by the U.S. after the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan. Talk about your daddy issues.

They all suffered some rebuff of the self, and they all had the kind of aggrandized egos that could only be assuaged by calamity on the world stage.

John   Wilkes   Booth in a photograph by Alexander Gardner, circa 1865, the year he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

John Wilkes Booth in a photograph by Alexander Gardner, circa 1865, the year he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

In discussing Oswald, it’s instructive to look at John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, who was quite different from Oswald but like him in one fatal way. 

Handsome, charming and talented, Booth was a popular actor in his day, specializing in action roles onstage, squiring around a variety of female admirers and earning about $20,000 a year at a time when the dollar was backed by the gold standard and there was no income tax. In this he was unlike Oswald, who was so rudderless that he failed as both a Marine and a defector to the Soviet Union.

But like Oswald, Booth yearned for a bigger arena, in his case one in which he would star as the savior of his beloved South, which was being oppressed by the “tyrannical” Lincoln. In a sense, they both succeeded. Just as Oswald’s name is inextricably linked with JFK’s, Booth’s is with Lincoln’s.

Today, lots of people still know who John Wilkes Booth is. Fewer know about his brother Edwin, the greatest American actor of the 19th century. And fewer still know that Edwin once saved the life of a young man who fell in the space between the train and the platform at the Jersey City station.

The young man was Robert Lincoln, the president’s oldest son.

What’s the difference between a Booth saving a Lincoln and a Booth destroying one?  It’s the difference between JFK and Oswald and it lies in the understanding that being a hero isn’t the same as playing at one.