I JUST WANT TO BE SMART LIKE OTHER PEPUL
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
My library was recently awarded the We the People Created Equal Bookshelf under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. Amongst the 21 books that came to our library was both an English language and Spanish language version of the classic speculative fiction novel, Flower for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
Back on September 7th, Ted Balcom asked “Do We Neglect Authors Once They’re Dead and Gone?” and I tried to address that issue with Mary Roberts Rinehart only to discover a major lack of racial sensitivity in The Circular Staircase.
Tangentially, Keyes’ novel about Charlie Gordon does not use our contemporary sensitive words for people who are challenged. Instead, Charlie is a mentally retarded thirty-two year old man who is driven to learn. While he attends Alice Kinnian’s classes at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults, he is recommended by her for a radical experiment to raise his low IQ. Hopefully, this novel can still be appreciated despite the language that is now viewed as not sensitive.
This novel uses the language of its time and it has a rather interesting history on its own. The original idea for this novel came in a short story written by Keyes for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, published in 1959, while Keyes was a high school English teacher. The short story went on to win a Hugo Award at the World Science Fiction Convention.
It was first filmed in 1961 when “The United States Steel Hour” produced “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon,” with Cliff Robertson as Charlie, from a screenplay written by the author and James Yaffe. Robertson so liked the role he retained the rights with the hope to turn it into a major motion picture.
Keyes went on to expand the short story into the novel we are all most familiar with and managed to win a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1966.
The film, with a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, was made in 1968 and again starred Cliff Robertson as Charlie with Claire Bloom as Alice. Cliff Robertson won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal.
Is this novel still popular enough to host a book discussion? Our library can answer yes for when we received the grant we decided to kick off the celebration with two book discussions: one for young adults and one for everyone.
This was the first young adult book discussion our library has ever had. We got nine to sign up and six to show up. Our discussion was led by Dr. Edwin Block, professor of English at Marquette University, who is our twice-annual Greendale Reads discussion leader. Dr. Block wrote specific questions for middle school aged attendees and had a very successful discussion. The reason why seems to lie in the universal feeling we all have that something in us is wrong and a magic silver bullet can cure it.
In the case of Charlie, it is his intelligence. He says, “I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me.” What person, especially a middle school aged reader, cannot relate to being viewed as different?
What stayed with me the most while reading this novel again was the incredible loneliness a person can experience if they view themselves as an outsider. Flowers for Algernon is not a happy book to read and its message is a warning not a solution to problems that still plague us as humans today.
Two days after the young adult discussion, we had twelve sign up and eleven attendees at the all-purpose discussion on the book. While that night Dr. Block had slightly different questions, we found ourselves drifting back to the issue of what did the kids say.
The adults were able to discuss issue with less restraint that the young adults including the issues of Charlie’s blossoming interest in sex. Ultimately, I would judge that both groups got something out of the discussions and came away favorably impressed with this classic.
While I hate to see this novel confined to either the world of science fiction or limited by being tagged a young adult novel, I think it fits in both categories. However, I also believe this is a novel that has universal appeal and should work with any book discussion that wants to tackle its tough issues that still resonant in our world today.