Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Century of Robinsons

During my lifetime I count one dancer, one actor, a baseball player, one boxer, a movie character, song-writer and 2 poets named Robinson. I can think of no other name appearing eight times as a public person. And that doesn’t include Robinson Crusoe; wrong century and Friday voted him down anyway. Nor do I include Marilynne Robinson whose novels hold a special place in the canon however she belongs mostly to this century. In the sports’ world I can think also of John, David, Brooks and Frank who also didn’t get short-listed. And then there is Smokey whom I know nothing about.

All my Robinsons, like the rest of us, are a mixed bag containing multitudes stretching across the spectrum. Just when you think you know them, you see another side that doesn’t fit.

Admittedly the actor Edward G. was the stage name of Emanuel Goldenberg. I’ll never forget that voice to say nothing of his face which he unmasked in over one hundred movies.  He did a few light films but was mostly menacing figures you wouldn’t want to double-cross. Over his 57 year career he was probably most famous in the 30s as Little Caesar on the screen.  Robinson was a highly cultured man, noted off-screen as an art collector yet his perfect diction was somehow convincing as a mob boss.

Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) in the Graduate whom Jesus loved more than she could know was the iconic figure of a bourgeois, suburban woman desperately clinging to youth. . Perfectly-coiffed but morally impoverished she was a stand-in for the fifties generation lost in the iconoclasm of the sixties.

Bill (Bojangles) Robinson tap-danced his way from minstrel shows to vaudeville to Broadway and then to Hollywood. He broke the racist taboo against mixed couples by dancing with Shirley Temple. His famous routine was dancing up and down stairs. And his life suffered the same ascent and descent. He took a lot of criticism as an Uncle Tom type in movie roles yet was active politically against segregation.

Jackie Robinson is arguably the greatest American athlete ever. Baseball was his weakest sport having excelled in varsity football, track, and basketball at UCLA. He is celebrated for his forbearance against the Jim Crow mentality of mid-century America. Yet I celebrate him for his skills on the field and fierce competitive spirit.

(Sugar) Ray Robinson is generally regarded as the greatest boxer, pound for pound, that ever fought.  His was champ in two divisions over his fifteen year career. Even when defeated he emerged from the ring looking better than his opponent.

Earl Robinson was never a household name except in my house. He wrote some songs in the forties which could serve as anthems for this country, Ballad for Americans, Joe Hill and The House I Live In. He also wrote the music for my favorite World War II film, A Walk in the Sun. Blacklisted in the 50s he is one of those lost voices in these times. His nephew is Alan Arkin.

Edwin Arlington Robinson was a poet in the early part of the century and winner of three Pulitzer Prizes. His two poems much anthologized are Miniver Cheevy and Richard Cory. In the latter he writes of a gentleman, rich, imperially slim and schooled in every grace…to make us wish we were in his place…til one summer night put a bullet through his head. He seemed to know well the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote of.

The other poet of the 20s and 30s who fell out of favor among many critics by the 50s was Robinson Jeffers. He was a proto-environmentalist who built a stone house and tower on the coast of Carmel where he wrote of the rugged Big Sur coast in rather tragic terms. Jeffers opposed our entry into World War II. He was a self-described anti-humanist as if his preference for the natural world rendered Man and civilization a destructive element.

My Robinsons were all complex people of distinction, some forgotten, some still revered, even the fictional one. All signify, in their way, some of our pressing issues as yet unresolved.     

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