Tuesday, August 09, 2005

George and Helen Papashvily

Short biography of Helen Papashvily: George and Helen Papashvily

When I was in school, most American literature textbooks featured an excerpt of "Anything Can Happen Here," a memoir of a Georgian immigrant, George Papashvily, as told to or through his wife Helen.

While Eastern European immigrants were hardly new by the 1940s, his book made the best seller list and was turned into a movie starring Jose Ferrer and Kim Hunter. For two or three decades afterwards, it was the rare junior or high school literature textbook that did not contain one of his funny and touching stories. Usually the common themes were how strange and marvelous it was to be in America, how diverse and kind Americans were, and although one might be occasionally impoverished, things would always sort themselves out for a fellow with a work ethic and his wits about him.

I don't remember ever hearing any of my teachers ever saying they liked his book, in fact I don't remember ever being required to read any of his excerpts. Somehow they never made the assigned reading list, and very few of us actually enjoyed reading all the textbook on our own.

Perhaps it was the whiff of the low middle-browness of Papashvily's stories and his unabashed optimism and patriotism that the teachers found embarrassing. Then again, his mangled and funny syntax could have been the reason: he was hardly a sterling example to young students of English back in the sentence diagram era. Finally, his yarns, while fun, did rely on a healthy amount of incredulity from a reader not well acquainted with Mark Twain's works.

Whatever the reason, I don't think many people would recognize the name today (in fact, I've only known one other person my age who has read him). One thing I'll say about him and his stories: years later when going through the works of another Georgian, G.I. Gurdjieff, I was reminded of George Papashvily, and decided that Georgian memoirs like their national dish of lobio beans was a treat best consumed liesurely and with a great deal of salt.

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