California in the 1980s
Hempel’s writing, particularly her stories in Reasons to Live, evoke a lifestyle that is Californian in nature. Despite the fact that they were written in New York, most of her stories take place on the West coast, including “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” Hempel frequently uses cultural references as touchstones for her readers, knowing they will understand what a “Marcus Welby” hospital looks like, or that country singer Tammy Wynette recorded a song called “Stand by Your Man.” In doing so, she places her writing firmly in a modern, American context. Marcus Welby, MD, a television show starring Robert Young, aired from 1969 to 1976, would be remembered by almost anyone who had been in college during the early 1970s, as the narrator and her friend were. This American setting is further reinforced by her references to California beaches, the narrator’s convertible, and a Malibu restaurant that serves “papaya and shrimp and watermelon ice.” In the works of contemporary authors Bret Easton Ellis, Joan Didion, and others, a similar California landscape is presented, often with the intention of painting a portrait of a culture that is concerned only with outward appearances and only with the moment—two characteristics that many would say are indicative of American culture in the late twentieth century.
Hempel’s vignette regarding the chimpanzee who learned sign language evokes the study regarding Koko, a gorilla who learned sign language in the early 1970s at Stanford University. Koko’s ability to communicate in American Sign Language with human beings was not only an important scientific breakthrough during that time, but she also became a sort of folk hero, especially for those who had always suspected that animals possessed intelligence. By placing a similar story within “In the Cemetery,” Hempel further plays upon her readers’ familiarity with current events.
Other references made by the narrator in the story serve as a type of shorthand. A reader familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose book On Death and Dying was published in 1969, will understand the characters’ discussion of her stages of grief. Using such a tactic allows the author to accomplish a great deal with few words, effectively relying on the reader’s knowledge of contemporary culture. Lastly, by referring to American jazz singer Al Jolson in the title, Hempel helps establish the story’s American context even before it begins. In the United States, and particularly in California, places often come to be identified with their connections to the rich and famous. Thus, the cemetery where the narrator’s friend is “moved to” is not notable for its name, but for the fact that a famous person, Al Jolson, is buried there.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Amy Hempel, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.