A GOOD LIFE
I recently read Jonathan Malesic’s essay “Drinking Alone.” (Disclosure: I know Jon personally and teach at his former institution.) While I do not deny the author’s lived experience (how could I?), I am very disappointed by the way the essay implies that his experience in the Valley is the default experience. Perhaps that was not the essay’s intention, but lines like “Living in the Valley was too often synonymous with drinking” leave little space for the reader to consider how the author’s individual circumstances may have played an important role in his perception of Northeast Pennsylvania.
For me, life in the Valley has never been synonymous with drinking, and I am no teetotaler. I have had a number of drinks in this Valley, but I have also spent an enormous amount of time on Little League and soccer fields, at Cub Scout meetings and meet-the-teacher nights, and at home with my family. Those fields and meetings and schools were full of Valley natives, many of whom I now count as friends. In June, I felt the solidarity of many of those people as our sons and daughters, standing six feet apart from each other and wearing masks, graduated from a public high school, which boasted an Ivy League-bound young man as its valedictorian, a state-championship-winning field hockey team, and three hundred young spirits who weathered their strange senior year with grace and grit. That is my lived experience, and it’s part of the Valley as well.
I think the part of the essay that bothered me most was the implication that there is no culture in Wilkes-Barre outside the “culture of drinking.” It’s not glitzy and it’s not hip, but Wilkes-Barre has plenty of culture. There is a robust community-theater scene for an area our size. There is a fabulous (albeit small) concert venue on Public Square. The same Public Square is home every May (except, sadly, May 2020) to Fine Arts Fiesta, a celebration of the performing and visual arts that features local talent, from elementary schoolers reciting poetry, to middle schoolers playing saxophone, to professional artists selling their paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Every year, around Halloween, a local historian does a walking “Ghost Story Tour” of local historical sites. At Christmas, Small Business Saturday is a festive, family-friendly day downtown. None of this is fancy; none of it can rival the museums and cultural institutions of big cities or large universities. And most of it is easy to make fun of and sneer at. But joy, hope, and important lessons are embedded in the culture fabric of the Valley, and I think the essay works to deny that fabric exists.
I, like the author, am an outsider to the Valley; I do not wear rose-colored glasses when I look at it. The opioid problem is real; the economy is not great; there is an undercurrent of sadness for a lot of natives. But it is possible to have a good life here and to belong here, and I wish the essay felt open to that possibility.
Professor of English and Department Chairperson, King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
I work at the very same Wilkes-Barre institution as Jonathan Malesic did, where I am a professor of theatre. I am also a graduate of that institution and have been a resident of Wilkes-Barre for nearly twenty-five years. I grew up in an even smaller crumbling coal town in Central Pennsylvania (much closer to the Yuengling Brewery). My family were Irish, German, and Slovakian immigrants who worked in the mines. I have often heard stories just like the author tells about returning from the mines with a lunch pail full of beer. I finished my undergraduate education in 2000 at the small Catholic college in Wilkes-Barre that the author is very careful not to name, and went on to do my graduate work at Temple University. Then I came back.
Why would I stay in such a crumbling, backward town? Because the people mentioned in his article are some of the most hardworking, honest, faith-filled, creative, and daring people I have ever known. My friends and I started a classical theatre company here on the banks of the Susquehanna. Our mission has evolved into also including the works of regional playwrights, and we have produced well over fifty new works in the past fifteen years. And sometimes, when the curtain falls, we find ourselves at a local pub, one where we are all welcome, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, career path, etc. We have a few pints and discuss everything from Shakespeare to baseball to philosophy.
This area is very easy to malign or to write off as “crumbling.” Do we have our problems? Absolutely. The author points out several issues with drugs, a stalled economy, and a very real malaise in many of our residents. If you are looking for a town with a Whole Foods and a café filled with people grousing about David Brooks, you won’t find it here in Wilkes-Barre. But if you look hard enough, you’ll find something else. You will find a whole class of people who grew up with the lessons of the coal mines, who know the value of a hard day’s work. A great many of those people of my generation who stayed spend much of their time making this place better: opening and running theatres, music venues, organic food markets, cafés, pubs, bookstores—the places where just the kind of conversations the author was yearning for are happening every day. Maybe he just didn’t take the time to look for them.
Chairperson and Production Manager, Theatre and Arts Department
King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
JONATHAN MALESIC REPLIES:
I don’t dispute Jennifer’s and Dave’s accounts of the culture of the Wyoming Valley; they contribute much to it. The student production of Tommy that Dave directed is one of the best things I’ve seen on any stage. But any personal essay begins from individual experience, then proceeds to a larger point. No writer thinks they’re telling the only possible story. I hoped to say how conflicts in my life mirrored conflicts in American society, showing nuances of living in the Valley that outside journalists often miss.
I wrote the essay from love, pain, and regret. I praised church bazaars and said I envy the intense bonds of longtime residents. I didn’t mention other ways I tried to belong, including my beer-league hockey team or the drawings I entered in the Fine Arts Fiesta. I did mock the shallow bourgeois mores I carried from grad school to Wilkes-Barre. The desire to live near a Whole Foods is, ultimately, pretty stupid.
I explicitly mentioned “my academic aloofness” and admitted that “I didn’t try hard enough” to fit in. Maybe I should have said I am not a parent. If I were, my life in the Valley would surely have been different. But I still might have felt like I didn’t belong. Jennifer’s experience is no more universal than mine.
My bigger point concerned the deep class divide in America. Even as comfortable intellectuals like me laugh over our drinks, our abandoned neighbors die alone. How can people on both sides of that divide belong to each other? Much hinges on this still-open question.
Former students who grew up in the Valley told me the essay resonated with their experience. Most left to seek their fortune. I’m proud of them, but it’s tragic they felt they had to leave. The Valley needs people like them. How can local educators and community leaders, aided by national policies, convince them to stay?