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Lost Boys and Recovered Classics: Literary and Social Memory in Lorenzo Carcaterra's Sleepers (1995)

  • CHRISTOPHER P. WILSON

Abstract

This essay explores the interplay of literary and social memory in Lorenzo Carcaterra's prison and revenge memoir, Sleepers (1995), in particular its appropriation of Alexander Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (1844–45) as both a literary template and a political marker. Monte Cristo is the central text in Carcaterra's rewriting of a long tradition of “bad-boy” narratives depicting juvenile dispossession, crime, and redemptive vigilantism. The essay also traces the transatlantic routes of Dumas in modern US popular culture, especially in Albert Kanter's Illustrated Classics, in light of Antonio Gramsci's theories of popular narrative and law.

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1 Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 130–31.

2 Kaplan, Justin, “Treasure and Vengeance,American Scholar, 72 (Spring 2003), 140–42.

3 See Gramsci's comments in Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, trans. William Boelhower (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 349–50. On Gramsci's intuitive connection of Monte Cristo to early fascism, see the editors' comments on 342–43. All further page citations of Dumas come from The Count of Monte Cristo (MC) (New York: Modern Library, 2002).

4 Despite public assertions by his publisher that Carcaterra had delivered a confidential file corroborating his claims, the Manhattan District Attorney's office said it had no record of such a trial, and cast doubt on the idea that an assistant DA would have been assigned to one. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York, meanwhile, both disclaimed the role of the priest and said that school records showed Carcaterra could not have been in juvenile detention. Hell's Kitchen locals arose to say Carcaterra's story was either an outright fabrication or a conflation of his own boyhood with that of genuine gang members. For summaries of these controversies see Bernard Weinraub, “‘Sleepers’ Debate Renewed: How True Is a ‘True Story’?” New York Times, 22 Oct. 1996, C15; David Stout, “A Hell's Kitchen Tale is Doubted and Defended,” New York Times, 7 July 1995, C3; and Robert Dominiguez, “He Must Have Been a Pretenda,” New York Daily News, 3 Nov. 1996, 4.

5 Debates about recovered memory and courtroom testimony, often revolving around the work of Elizabeth Loftus, are well summarized in Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan (New York: Harcourt, 1994).

6 In a fine discussion of the sexual politics of Levinson's film, Joe Wlodarz argues (“Rape Fantasies: Hollywood and Homophobia,” in Peter Lehman, ed., Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture (New York: Routledge, 2001), 67–80) that the film's recuperation of Father Bobby “redirects the crime of pedophilia” away from the Catholic Church itself (ibid., 72).

7 Along with his fiction, newspaper and magazine work, and screenwriting, Carcaterra has been a managing editor for the CBS weekly series Top Cops in the early 1990s, a producer for NBC's Homicide, and a writer and producer for NBC's Law & Order (“Lorenzo Carcaterra,” at http://www.lorenzocarcaterra.com/biography.htm). According to this website, Sleepers was “[s]old to 30 foreign countries” after its run as a New York Times bestseller, and is now in its 28th printing in the US, having sold over 1·1 million copies. The film has reportedly earned $400 million worldwide.

8 Iwona Irwin-Zarecka, Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 7. By social memory, I mean to refer to the social constructions of communal and political membership that are actively shaped by personal and communal memory work, including material processes (e.g. the publication of a “lost” text). Here and below, my use of “template” and “memory-holder” reflects Susan Engel, Context Is Everything: The Nature of Memory (New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 2000), 57, 93 ff.

9 Page-number citations in parentheses in the text refer to Carcaterra, Sleepers (S) (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995).

10 Revenge scholarship occasionally reverts to an uncritical or “rote” notion of memory. Avengers are often said to carry an original wrong with them always, as vengeance proposes itself, characteristically, as expressing a methodical symmetry in relation to the original crime. More recently John Kerrigan has suggested that the logic of revenge often involves deformations in the structure of obligation and its retelling. John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

11 On reverse-telescoping see John Kotre, White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves through Memory (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 107. On Nietzsche see Kerrigan, 277.

12 On this missing episode see David Coward, Introduction and notes to The Count of Monte Cristo (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 1129 n. 1063.

13 Douglas Munro, Alexandre Dumas Père: A Bibliography of Works Translated into English to 1910 (New York: Garland, 1978); John Henry Raleigh, “Eugene O'Neill and the Escape from the Chateau d'If,” in John Gassner, ed., O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 7–22; Myron Matlaw, “English and American Dramatizations of Le Comte De Monte-Cristo,” Nineteenth Century Theatre Research, 7 (Spring 1979), 39–53.

14 William Boelhower, “Adjusting Sites: The Italian-American-Cultural Renaissance,” in Boelhower and Rocco Pallone, ed., Adjusting Sites: New Essays in Italian American Studies (Stony Brook, NY: Filibrary Series, Forum Italicum, 1999), 59–72, 63; on generic memory see Kotre, 88.

15 On these antecedents generally see esp. Mailloux, Stephen, “The Rhetorical Use and Abuse of Fiction: Eating Books in Late 19th-Century America,boundary 2, 17 (1990), 133–57; and Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (New York: Verso, 1987). Especially relevant here is the famous juvenile avenger series featuring Deadwood Dick, “Prince of the Road,” himself the victim of childhood abuse and dispossession. On cryptomnesia see Kotre, 107.

16 I have discussed Twain's readings of Dumas in “‘The Mulatto in the Iron Mask’: Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas,” in Christophe den Tandt, ed., Reading without Maps: Cultural Landmarks in a Post-canonical Age (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2005), 319–36. See also Ron Powers, Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001).

17 Monte Cristo had originally been the March 1942 issue (No. 3) in what Kanter originally called his Classic Comics series, and underwent some thirteen re-printings before being revamped and reissued as a second Classics Illustrated edition in 1956 (with ten printings thereafter). See Sawyer, Michael, “Albert Lewis Kanter and the Classics: The Man behind Gilberton Company,Journal of Popular Culture, 20 (Spring 1987), 118; and William B. Jones, Jr., Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002). On the cheap and serial-reading antecedents of these comics see esp. Denning, 34–41; cf. Coward, xv–xvi.

18 Cf. Coward, xx–xxi.

19 Kanter was certainly not above a little rewriting and self-imposed censorship or editorializing; see Jones, 17, 33, 38–39.

20 Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, 355; Eco, The Role of the Reader; Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 60 ff.

21 Eco, 122–24.

22 Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

23 This claim, which is repeated in the film, led some to charge that Sleepers' material was lifted from T. J. English's The Westies: Inside the Irish Hell's Kitchen Mob (New York: Putnam, 1990); see Dominiguez, “He Must Have Been a Pretenda.” Whether or not this was so, the West Side Gang has roots extending back into the early twentieth century.

24 See, for example, Steven R. Donzinger, ed., The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996), 42 ff.; Elliot Currie, Confronting Crime: An American Challenge (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 77 ff.; or the many recent reports of juvenile prison abuse provided by the website for Human Rights Watch, “Human Rights Watch: Juvenile Justice,” at http://www.hrw.org/children/justice.htm.

25 Carcaterra writes in passing in the Modern Library edition that Dumas was “half-black” (xvi). For an important exception to this neglect – an essay which suggests how African Americans read Monte Cristo as a parable of the passage from slavery to freedom – see Michel Fabre, “International Beacons of African-American Memory: Alexandre Dumas Pere, Henry O. Tanner, and Josephine Baker as Examples of Recognition,” in Genevieve Fabre, ed., History and Memory in African-American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 122–29; on US receptions of Dumas's blackness see my “‘The Mulatto in the Iron Mask.’”

26 “Cold-case” investigations often express the social desire both to “stop time” and to nullify a statute of limitation. See Wilson, Christopher P., “The Time of the Crime: Cold Case Squads and American Social Memory,Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, 28 (2004), 497518.

27 On the neoconservative movement of which this claim is part, see Harcourt, Bernard E., “Reflecting on the Subject: A Critique of the Social Influence Conception of Deterrence, the Broken Windows Theory, and Order-Maintenance Policing New York Style,Michigan Law Review, 97 (Nov. 1998), 291389; David Garland, “The Limits of the Sovereign State: Strategies of Crime Control in Contemporary Society,” British Journal of Criminology, 35 (Autumn 1996), 445–71; and Sheldon Wolin, The Presence of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). As Wolin has observed, “the complexity” of current neoconservative politics “lies in the paradox” that, in recent years, state power has often been enhanced by those who “publicly professed an abhorrence of state power” (ibid., 185). On how victims'-rights advocacy is reinforced by popular melodrama see Wendy Kaminer, It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995); and Rapping, Elayne, “Television, Melodrama, and the Rise of the Victims' Rights Movement,New York Law School Law Review, 43 (1999–2000), 665–89.

28 As, famously, in James Q. Wilson and George W. Kelling, Jr.'s “broken windows” philosophy; cf. Harcourt.

29 Levinson's casting choices speak volumes on this point. Like Eastwood in Mystic River, Levinson chooses former child actors for key roles – including Kevin Bacon and Jason Patric, the latter a star of the cult film The Lost Boys (1987), itself a satiric rewrite of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

30 On this point about Dantes's betrayers, cf. Coward, Introduction and notes to The Count of Monte Cristo, xxi. On the desire of victims'-rights advocates for powers in court see Kaminer, 84.

31 On this blurring of criminal and civil dispositions in victims'-rights advocacy see Frank J. Weed, Certainty of Justice: Reform in the Crime Victim Movement (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1995).

Most recently, he is the author of Cop Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in Twentieth-Century America (2000). The author would like to thank Mary Crane, Jim Smith, Andrew Sofer, and Lad Tobin for their expertise and support.

Lost Boys and Recovered Classics: Literary and Social Memory in Lorenzo Carcaterra's Sleepers (1995)

  • CHRISTOPHER P. WILSON

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