Famous for Being Faithful

From Desperados Waiting for a Train
Jerry Jeff Walker

Famous for Being Faithful

Kindred Spirits
Asher Brown Durand

The song is about the friendship between a young boy and an old man. The boy is, I imagine, as energetic as you would expect any young boy to be and the old man less energetic than you would expect most old men to be. Yet the boy hangs around with the old man. The title, “Desperados Waiting for a Train” lends an aura of western romance to the relationship. The boy and the old man are not doing anything, just as desperados “casing” the train station in preparation for a robbery do not appear to be doing anything. But the boy and the old man are friends and the friendship makes the sedentary passing of time worthwhile.

The painting idealizes the friendship between Thomas Cole (a friend of Asher Durand who did the painting) and the poet William Cullen Bryant. It imagines a meeting of the two friends in a real place that was important to both. The “place”, the Kaaterskill Falls region of the Catskill Mountains, though, is not painted as it was but as it was remembered many years after Durand had visited the region. The occasion for the painting was the recent death of Thomas Cole. Cole is credited with establishing the Hudson River School of painting, of which this painting is one of the most famous representatives.

The painting was done as an act of friendship on the part of Durand for his friend Thomas Cole and is a remembrance of him. The painting in turn commemorates Cole’s friendship with Bryant. The Hudson River painters, in turn, pursued a friendship of sorts with the environment of Upstate New York (though this love of landscape was exported to other parts of the United States and the world). I suppose that in part this is what friendship is, a commitment between two people that is experienced in the real world, with all the pressures and beauties that the real world brings with it.

The setting of the painting is beautiful; it captures a wilderness, even if it is a wilderness romanticized by memory. Danger and unpredictability are aspects of a wilderness. It is in times of danger and the unpredictable, especially the unpleasant side of the unpredictable, that a friendship is tested. Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is better to be faithful than famous.” This is especially true of friendship and where this is not true that friendship has likely become tainted with exploitation on the part of at least one party to the relationship.

William Wordsworth
Benjamin Haydon

There are many examples of literary friendships, some of which did not remain friendly. Joyce’s treatment of Sylvia Beach comes to mind as well as Hemingway’s treatment of just about every literary friend who helped him get his first books published. One of the most productive literary friendships was that between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. These two men essentially began the Romantic Movement in England with the publication of their book Lyrical Ballads. The friendship had its strains and eventually came apart. As the two paintings suggest both these poets had a melancholy side to them and melancholia can put a strain on a friendship. Coleridge also had other problems that made him a difficult friend.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Stories help us to define values and concepts. One of the ways we come to understand the true meanings of words and the ideas and values those words stand for is through the stories that we read. We see friendship defined in Huck’s relationship with Jim, a friendship that should never have happened inside the culture from which it evolved. When Huck says he is willing to go to Hell rather than betray a friend he is not speaking figuratively. He has been raised to believe that he will literally go to Hell if he continues to help Jim and does not turn him in to the authorities. Define Hell however you will, are there many in your life that you would risk that consequence to protect.

Huckleberry Finn comes from the literary tradition of the picaro and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a picaresque novel. A picaro is street urchin who must survive by his wits. He is inventive, resourceful and shrewd. The tradition began (or at least it was given its own name as a literary genre, though I think the type is probably older) with a Spanish novella by an anonymous author called La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes. Lazarillo had few friends and survival depended on trickery, “street smarts”, and persistence, many of the same qualities we find in Huck Finn. Huck, on the other hand, is rich in friends. There is Judge Thatcher, Tom Sawyer, and the Widow Douglas, all willing to do most anything to help him out. It is Tom, in fact, who gets Huck to go back to the Widow Douglas’ house to live. Tom is forming a gang of robbers and Huck can only become a member by letting the Widow Douglas make him respectable.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Honoré Daumier

Another famous friendship from the picaresque tradition is that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In the painting Don Quixote is seen in the foreground and Sancho seems to be missing, but if you look carefully you can see Sancho off in the distance hurrying to catch up. Of the two it is Sancho that is the most like a picaro, but neither the Don nor Sancho are young urchins. Quixote takes to living by his wits in order to make the world nobler; a place where folks like Lazarillo can live more honestly and more humanely. Sancho watches out for Don Quixote and keeps him from getting into too much trouble, or helps the Don escape when he has gotten into too much trouble. The two are technically master and servant, though Sancho is perhaps, more an apprentice than a servant in that he is Don Quixote’s squire and a squire is a knight in training.

“Mr. Pickwick’s Reception”
Sol Eytinge, Jr

Sam Weller is another famous friend who doubles as his friend’s servant. He looks after Mr. Pickwick in much the same way Sancho looks after Don Quixote. Like the Don, Mr. Pickwick is a man in great need of someone to save him from himself and that is a task that Mr. Weller performs very well. Both Sam Weller and Sancho Panza are paid for their services (or at least promised payment at the end of the adventure) but both do what they do not for the paycheck but out of friendship. Those who have read both The Pickwick Papers and The Lord of the Rings will recognize a bit of Sam Weller in Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s friend. Both Sam and Samwise are full of worldly wisdom and useful aphorisms (most of which have been learned from a wise parent) to fit most any situation. Though there is not a “cockney” district in the Shire Samwise would probably feel right at home in the markets of Covent Garden.

This tradition of the resourceful servant reaches a pinnacle of sorts in the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse, though neither Jeeves nor Wooster were likely to regard the other as a friend. What Sancho and the Sams did out of friendship Jeeves performs as a professional service. Wooster can fire Jeeves at a moments notice (and does on a few occasions) and Jeeves is free to leave at a moments notice. Jeeves also performs his duties with a bit more sophistication than do his more rustic counterparts. One gets the impression at times that Jeeves not only surpasses his master in common sense but in education as well. Jeeves also embodies the essence of literacy in that not only is he knowledgeable, but he can put that knowledge to practical and effective use.

Curly’s Sweater
The Three Stooges

This film shows friendship taken to another extreme. The Three Stooges, it is clear, are good friends. The Marquise de Sevign said, “True friendship is never serene.” The Three Stooges live out this principle in each of their films. They stick together through thick and thin and a great deal of choreographed abuse. Whatever the hardship, they endure it together and that after all is a large part of what friendship is, enduring together. Robert Frost in his poem “Provide, Provide” suggests the only friends that can be relied upon are those that are bought and can be paid for on a daily basis. The Stooges suggest not only that friendship is not a commodity, but that it willingly endures suffering (largely of their own making) and sacrifice.

Making Gentle Waves
E. H. Shepard

For me, though, friendship is seen at its most exemplary in the children’s book The Wind in the Willows. Ratty and Mole are kindred spirits that endure much together, much that is pleasant and much that is trying, especially on behalf of another friend, Mr. Toad. The author of the book, Kenneth Grahame, would be celebrating his 150th birthday this year if he were still with us. To acknowledge this Katherine A. Powers devoted her column, A Reading Life in last week’s Boston Globe to the book and to two new editions of the book. The two new printings are annotated editions of the story and they sound colorful and interesting, even if, according to Powers, they miss the meanings of some of the commonplaces of Edwardian daily life that are found throughout the book. It is the friendship, though, that makes the book remarkable for me. Friendship is something everyone craves and needs but real friends are often difficult to come by. As a result the story resonates.

C. S. Lewis in his book, The Four Loves, discusses the role of love in our daily lives and the life of the culture(s) in which we live. In it he describes each of the four Greek words for love. One of the four loves, phileo, is friendship. According to Lewis this is the most unnecessary of loves, in that it does not have any “work” to do, society and its institutions do not need friendship in order to survive, as a society needs well behaved, well brought up, and well provided for children in order to survive. Friendship exists for no other reason than the relationship itself.

I am not certain that this is entirely true, but it does underscore an aspect of friendship and that is whether the relationship is like that of Ratty and Mole or that of The Three Stooges, all parties are free to leave whenever they choose but for however long the friendship endures, they choose not to. But what is more, the friendship is only a friendship as long as it is pursued out of a love for the other and not out of a sense of duty (though that may enter in from time to time). There can be no obligation in a friendship, only desire.

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11 thoughts on “Famous for Being Faithful

  1. I love studying the friendships that are described in the various books I read. I find it interesting to compare literary friendships to those in real life. Friends such as Samwise Gamgee interest me the most. They do not tell their friends exactly what they want to hear, they are looking out for their friends best interest. Frodo and Samwise remind me of Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione. They are always looking out for each other, even when Ron was mad at Harry in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”. The friendships in fiction novels are not real but they are still interesting to study. They show every different kind of friendship at its best and worst.

  2. I enjoyed reading about the different friendships in literature. In my opinion, friendship is something that a lot of people take for granted. When somebody reads a book that has a strong theme of friendship, the reader often understands what a true friendship is like. My favorite example that you used was Huck’s relationship with Jim. Although Huck believed he was going to Hell for being friends Jim, Huck stayed true in their friendship. Friendship should be about the connection that two people make, not about their outward appearance.

  3. In life it is said that if you have at least one friend you are all set. It does not matter how many friends you have, but the worth of each friend. Friendship is something many of us value and cherish. When we have a relationship where we are able to trust someone with our deepest secrets and thoughts that is something special. Unfortunately you do not find that in everyone. It is always interesting to discover and observe relationships and freindships in many of the novles we read. There are so many friendships, with so many different characteristics. When reading through a novel it is easy to tell which friendships are true and which are simply not real. It is one thing to be someones frined becasue you care about that person, but it is completely different to be someones friend becasue of their possessions or their popularity. MAny times in books you see jealousy between frindships, I will never forget the book a Separate Peace, where Gene is so jealous of Finny he ends up killing him. True genuine friendship does not contain jealousy or popularity. It is likeing someone for who they truely are and never giving up on them.

  4. Friendships are an important aspect of life. You could have friends that you’ve known your whole life and you grew up with, or meet new people who you bond over commonalities. There are various friendships that can be found through out literature. One of my favorites is the friendship between Tom and Jim in the story “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. Tom stayed true to Jim, even when the whole time he thought he was doin something wrong. Society disapproved of their friendship, yet they remained close, which proves to be a strong relationship. Friendships aren’t about what others think of the two of you togehter, it’s about how you act with each other, if you can trust your friends, etc.

  5. Like a soulmate, everyone is meant to have friends. There is someone out there for everyone no matter how mean, or disorganized, or disgusting a person. Out there is someone’s best friend. In order to surive we need them, people crave human contact and could not live in isolation. Some people have friendships that last a lifetime while others have only short friendships. Studying friendships is interesting because you see the different relationships between people and how they react to each other. The characters in books portray the many friendships that people can have and it’s an interesting thing to read.

  6. As i was reading this rotations blog about friendships i noticed that there are alot of books that are based on the same friendship values/ have same friendship story lines. For example the song Desperado Waiting For The Train, you wrote how a young boy has a great friendship with an old man. This reminds me of the book Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. There is a young girl named louise and she has a powerful friendship with an old man that she met. She really loves this guy and they drew very close as friends. I never really thought and looked at books on how some of them are so similar. Another example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Tom shouldn’t even be friends. Huck is white and Tom is black; very similar, in the book Summer of My German Solider, a jewish girl named Patty takes care of a Nazi German Soilder and they become friends when they should not. Huck says he is willing to go to Hell rather then betray his friendship with Tom, Patty is willing to let everyone around her hate her and her family disown her for her friendship. I really find this interesting because you have to fingure there is only so much people can write about until it all kinda sounds the same. I liked this blog.

  7. Friendships are a very interesting relationship to observe. There are all different types, as seen in many of the novels that we have read. Some people have one best friend while another may have a hundred not so close friends. Also some friendships last a lifetime while others only last a short period of time. Either way friendship is essential to life. One can not live in isolation or without someone to confide. This has actually been proven to be unhealthy. Human beings by nature need interaction. Friends do not only provide interaction but they are someone who is there for you and they care about you. The bond between friends is particularly special.

  8. There are many different kinds of relationships but friendship is the most unique. Friendships are formed randomly under any sort of conditions. People long for friendship, they need it to survive. A friend is someone you can share your thoughts and feelings with, someone you can trust with all your heart. A true friend is someone who should be greatly valued because they are there for eachother through everything. To have a good friend, you need to be a good friend. It is important that friendship is incorporated into literature because it is the basis we live by each day, a better understanding of friendship leads to a better understanding of life.

  9. I agree that friendship is a really valuable thing to have, and a rare thing to come by. A true friend will always be there for you, and a friendship like this was demonstrated in the book The Wind in the Willows because the friends always accept each other, no matter what. It’s important that literature shows all different kinds of relationships because there are so many varieties. There are good relationships and bad relationships and true relationships, and a good relationship is something that everyone longs for.

  10. I most certainly agree with the idea presented that friendship is based upon desire, not obligation. We choose our friends based on who we enjoy spending our time with, and we label our best friends those that we enjoy spending our time with most. When I think about the connection my best friend and I share, its goes above and beyond the connection I share with any other friend of mine. Though I have many other close friends, I desire the relationship I share with her most. This is similar to the situation described at the opening of this blog. For some reason, the little boy desired to be friends with the old man. As unlikely as the combination of the two seems, something between them had sparked due to sole desire.
    Feeling happiness in the fulfillment of such desire is crucial to a person’s overall satisfaction as an individual.

  11. The old man/ young boy relationship discussed in the song reminds me of a novel we read in tenth grade, “Jacob Have I Loved.” The main character, Louise, is frustrated with friendships, as her more popular sister gets all the attention. Her only acquaintance is a neighborhood boy, but there is such a vast difference between their personalities (she is serious, he is constantly cracking jokes) that there seems to be a disconnection between the two. One day, Louise finds an old man who mysteriously moves in, called The Captain. The two eventually develop a powerful relationship. It is stated that Louise loved the Captain, and is implied that she viewed him in a sexual way. In this case, friendship gave Louise something important: a way to step out of her sister’s shadow. So, friendship can exist for more than the sake of the relationship. It saved Louise and her sister’s relationship, and made Louise feel good about herself.

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