OK, you’re Paul Simon. You and Art Garfunkel have become an overnight sensation when your song “The Sound of Silence” became a number one hit on Billboard without your even knowing that it had been re-recorded and re-released. You’ve hurried back from England to reunite with your partner and rush to the studio to record some more songs so that your new smash can be made into an album. Problem: you need more songs. Solution? You use some songs that you’ve had stored up. And you write a couple more, like “Richard Cory.”
Most people don’t know it but Simon was an English major at Queens College, obtaining a degree in English literature (even fewer know that he briefly attended the Brooklyn Law School). So it’s only natural he would reach into his knowledge of poetry to help him come up with material for the album they were hastily putting together.
Given that Simon’s audience was in the process of becoming disenchanted with the Vietnam War and distrustful of the “Establishment”, the wealthy, and the elder generation it’s only natural that he would choose the Edward Arlington Robinson poem “Richard Cory”. Written during the depression that followed the Panic of 1893 it portrays a man who seems to have it all: wealth, education, manners, and the admiration of all those around him. And those who envy him haven’t enough money for meat and cursed the bread they did have (many were forced to live on day-old bread in those depression years). But despite all this success Cory calmly goes home one day and commits suicide with a gun. The reader is compelled to see that all Cory’s advantages didn’t matter and that he lacked something essential. Maybe it was the senselessness of excessive wealth (consider the Book of Ecclesiastes “All is vanity and a striving after wind”). Maybe it was loneliness. Maybe it was boredom or depression. We don’t know… but we’re challenged to ask.
Simon, using his English literature experience, brought “Richard Cory” into the 20th Century. It begins the same way, although Simon embellished it a bit. Cory isn’t just rich, he “owns one half of this whole town”. He’s so wealthy he can lavishly give to charity. He knows all the right people. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the pampered only son of a rich banker. The press follow his every move like a latter-day paparazzi. For his amusement he throws unbelievable parties and indulges in orgies.
Yet he still commits suicide with a gun.
And the singer of the song? He works in Cory’s factory, hungry and poor, furious at fate for his poverty, bitterly envious of his “boss”. But unlike the poem the singer seems to have a death wish because he still wishes he were Cory even after Cory has killed himself.