The April 14th New Yorker in “The Talk of the Town” section under the heading “The Canon: Still Flying” had a short piece by Rebecca Mead about a recent conference sponsored by Columbia University to celebrate Erica Jong’s 1973 novel FEAR OF FLYING “as a feminist classic.” Apparently many women in the audience agreed with this designation, and some did not.
I fall squarely in the group of those who do believe it is a feminist classic. In fact, as I write this, a 1973 copy of the book sits only a few feet away from me in a plastic box with other mementoes of my 20 months of living in Munich, Germany, as the wife of an army officer.
Why is a book published in 1973 part of my mementoes for the time period from September 1970 to May 1972?
It’s because of Jong’s chapter that begins this way: “Before I lived in Heidelberg, I was not particularly self-conscious about being Jewish.”
And, by the time I had first gotten to Jong’s description of living as an army officer’s wife in Germany, I knew I had found a soul sister. She must have lived this experience and not imagined it I told myself – no one could get the description down as well as she could without having been there.
Here are my favorite sentences from this section of the chapter:
“In Heidelberg, we set up house in a vast American concentration camp in the postwar section of town. … Our neighbors were mostly army captains and their ‘dependents.’ With a few notable exceptions they were the most considerate people I’ve ever lived among. ….It was all the more astonishing then when they announced to you that life was cheap in Asia, that the U.S ought to bomb the hell out of the Viet Cong, and finally, that soldiers were only there to do a job but not to have political opinions.”
And she goes on: “Across the way were our other neighbors, the Germans. In 1945, when they were still militarists, they had hated Americans for winning the war. Now, in 1966, the Germans were pacifists (at least where other nations were concerned) and they hated the Americans for being in Vietnam.”
And here’s the best part: “I can still close my eyes and remember the dinner hour in Mark Twain Village, Heidelberg. The smell of TV dinners in passageways. The Armed Forces Radio Network blaring out the football scores and the (inflated) number of Viet Cong killed on the other side of the world.”
Her description of the army personnel buying numerous cuckoo clocks to ship back in their household goods to sell had me in stitches. (My disclaimer: My husband and I never bought a cuckoo clock for ourselves, although several of my letters home are concerned with whether my father’s brother-in-law did or did not want the cuckoo clock sold in the PX European catalog – this seems to have been a major decision worthy of several letters back and forth. Ultimately, he did not.)
The New Yorker article says that FEAR OF FLYING has sold 18 million copies worldwide since its publication. At the conference, one of Jong’s sisters said to Mead: “It was not a novel; it was a memoir, but it was a memoir something like James Frey’s memoir.”
I wrote MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL to describe a very specific slice of women’s social history, just as FEAR OF FLYING describes a very specific slice of women’s social history.
While MRS. LIEUTENANT isn’t a memoir, the novel does portray much that was factual at that specific time in 1970 right after the Kent State National Guard shootings. In retrospect, my novel may owe part of its inspiration to Erica Jong and her – dare I say it even today – “zipless f**k.”