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A Look at Thebes's Place in American Fiction (1962-2010)

Michele Valerie Ronnick

Thebes exists as an entity in the geography of the U.S. as the name of towns in IL, GA, and AR. But this Greek city also exists as a place in the imagination of 4 successful American novelists who used aspects of  the myth and history of  Thebes to devise their plots. My paper will trace those elements.

1) Glendon Swarthout,  Welcome to Thebes (Random House, 1962) 33 year-old Sewell Smith, war hero and successful author whose creative powers have faltered, returns to his hometown, Thebes, located at the junction of the Ionian and Button rivers near Grand Rapids, MI. He is haunted by memories his father’s mysterious death which he plans to investigate, and the subsequent insanity of his mother. Thebes, with its own outdoor Greek theater and a ‘welcome sign’ standing on 3 columns, is Smith’s stage. When Smith finds that  6 venerable pillars of the community are debauching an 8th grade girl, his plans for vengeance will take his life.

2) Robert Heinlein, To Sail Beyond the Sunset (G. P. Putnam, 1987) The title of this science fiction novel, taken from Tennyson’s Ulysses, presages the book’s theme-time shattering travel. The protagonist’s  (Maureen Johnson) hometown is Thebes, MO. As a teenager Maureen lusted after her father, and will marry someone like him. No form of sex is taboo to her, not even her husband’s intercourse with their daughters. Maureen’s son travels back in time, and  like a young Oedipus, he falls in love  and marries his mother. After joining her relatives in a  polyamorous group wedding, the novel ends with Maureen’s words: “And we all lived happily ever after.”

3) Stephen Hunter, Pale Horse Coming (Simon & Schuster, 2001) It’s 1951 and  the protagonist, Earl Swagger, an Arkansas State Police officer, has gone to the Thebes State Penal Farm in Thebes, MI  to rescue Sam Vincent, a white attorney who has gotten into trouble while trying to locate an inmate for his client, Davis Trugood. The prison, located on the former Boverite  Plantation, has a history of cruelty, and after a period of imprisonment there, Swagger returns with 7 gunmen to destroy it. Pollution overhangs the  area. While valorizing racial purity, Thebes  is  befouled with disease (e.g. unethical medical experiments on blacks).  The plot pivots on  the reunion of  2 estranged brothers. Trugood is the  mulatto brother of Warden Cleon Boverite. After a tremendous battle, Thebes will be purged of evil.

4) Gregory Maguire, The Next Queen of Heaven (HarperCollins, 2010) Maguire has made his career by putting popular tales into modern dress. It is the end of 1999, and the populace of Thebes, a small town in upstate New York, is engulfed in a miasma of fear over Y2K. Holy madness has  overwhelmed the protagonist, Leotina Scales, whose name evokes not only the lion’s head and snake tale of the sphinx, but also the blind visionary Oedipus. Shaken by the AIDS epidemic is Thebes’s gay community, and a group of gay musicians, form a veritable Theban band, as they work to present a cabaret show in a Manhattan nightclub.

All four authors perceive their fictional Thebes as backwater Boeotias whose resi-dents, past and present, are bound in complexes of intergenerational and transgressive sex, lust for power, and moral & physical pollution. Many succumb, but a few manage to vindicate themselves or someone close to them. Nowhere in almost 50 years of American fiction does Thebes appear as a wholesome or desirable place of origin or domicile. Nevertheless, the best of these modern Thebans strive for equilibrium and  justice.

Session/Panel Title

The Matter of Thebes

Session/Paper Number

17.4

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