Monday, November 25, 2013

Apart ("The Men Who United the States" by Simon Winchester)

The major theme of Simon Winchester's The Men Who United the States is, not surprisingly, unity--a word Winchester himself uses throughout with purpose and precision, if not careless school-boy abandon. And, on one level, his focus on cohesion makes perfect sense:  over 500-plus pages and four centuries of history, Winchester traces the attempts--most successful, some not--to bring areas of our growing and changing nation together, one acre or mountain pass at a time. From the post-Revolutionary era, when small bands of men roamed the uncharted Louisiana Purchase in search of the Pacific Coast, to the 19th and 20th centuries, when inventors spanned the nation not with coaches and canoes but telegraph and telephone wire, this is the ever-growing story of how we strive to bring every last home and family into the grand American web.

However, as Winchester's book moves from the untamed American wilderness to the taming generators and transformers of modern times, something surprising takes shape beneath its narrative surface, and it's not altogether encouraging. In Winchester's first chapter, the United States has no master other than itself:  it is unmapped, unexplored, and unknown.* By the book's closing pages, he's narrowed the focus to the American living room--the new land of discovery, of radios and televisions and wi-fi. We've begun our journey on the most epic of scales--an entire country--and finished in an area measuring three hundred square feet. If this is the story of American ingenuity--of its endless need to explore, invent, harness, advance--it's a bittersweet closing number to what, until then, has been a grand and patriotic opera.

We as a country pride ourselves on our rough beginnings and wholly original national character, and our history was never destined to be like that of our European and Asian ancestors. We did not have emperors or monarchs, nor could we boast vast palatial estates or grand museums; instead, our rulers lived humbly and governed through pragmatism, their humanness a far greater legacy in many cases than their political achievements. Monticello and Mount Vernon would never measure up to Versailles, just as the eras of men like Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln were bound to end with them, not tremble on through sons and grandsons. The American crown was a marked ballot, its palace a home built on the sweat of slaves. The bloodlines of its powerful were one thousand different rivers leading not towards thrones but away from them, into log cabins and onto battlefields and even down the well-walked streets of Chicago.

It's this unpredictability, this wildness, that marks American history as something unique on the world's stage. Our birth and growth as a nation was dichotomous and dirty, and even today the legacies of those men and women who brought forth that new nation are grappled with, studied, shied away from and forgotten, as even Winchester himself points out. Taming the various frontiers of America--the land and water, the air, the engines--meant taming the very spirit of our country and its people, in much the same way grand animals throw themselves at gates and cages, yearning to be free. What happened to America was, in its own way, unnatural, even though it was also necessary and unavoidable at the same time. To see this warm, wild history descend from the Mississippi River and the Grand Canyon into well-furnished living rooms and hand-held devices is somewhat appalling in its own way--a sign that, as a nation, our landscape is not the only aspect of our animal selves that has been tamed beyond rehabilitation. 

The subtitle of Winchester's book--whether chosen by the author himself or prescribed by his publisher, I'm unsure--reads, "America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible." It's that last word--indivisible--that is the curse of Winchester's otherwise enthralling unity hypothesis, for while all of these men--not to mention their work--certainly did help to bring states and homes together, they also moved us towards a contemporary society that, in bringing us all together under the umbrella of Internet and television, also surreptitiously pushed us away from one another. We live one text message, Skype conversation, Tweet, or phone call away from each other--from almost anyone within our nation's borders--and yet we're desperately far away, hidden not behind miles of empty desert, towering mountain ranges, or thundering rivers, but screen names, apps, icons, and anonymous online profiles. We've spent hundreds of years spanning every possible acre of American wilderness, only to find ourselves shut inside our own individual technologies--our own crowning achievements. We've united, certainly, but less as a nation of independent people and more a land of 300 million lonely tribes, divisible by our own choosing.

*The presence of millions of Native Americans was not a concern to those early pioneers and homesteaders, just as it's not much of a concern to Winchester himself. His book is almost entirely focused on the impact of white, European men and their disregard for cultural respect...something in which American history is, sad to say, not lacking.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Praise ("A Prayer Journal" by Flannery O'Connor)

"Dear God, I don't want to have invented my faith to satisfy my weakness."
--Flannery O'Connor, A Prayer Journal
Were I ever asked to choose the one American author whose writing best represents our country--its promises and lies, its perfections and blemishes, its benefits worthy of praise and its mistakes worthy of shame--I would overlook the obvious choices, the Hawthornes and Melvilles and Twains and Fitzgeralds, and choose Flannery O'Connor, a Southern woman who lived her life away from the public eye and died of lupus at the tragically young age of 39. Thankfully, this task of choosing will never fall on my shoulders, but if it did--if a task like this were ever to exist--O'Connor would be far from a popular or obvious choice. Her works are centered around the brutality and viciousness of human nature, the emptiness of our relationships to one another, and the conflict between what society expects of us and what we're willing to offer. There are no dreams fulfilled in her world, and more often than not America's innocent lambs fall victim to its guiltless wolves; anyone hoping to find peace or prosperity had better look elsewhere.

Nourishing all of this is a heavy current of Catholic dogma, which imbues many of O'Connor's characters with a delusional belief in their own wisdom and superiority that, sadly, does not translate well beyond the walls of their hearts. We mock these characters for their haughty ideas, laugh at them as their worldview becomes increasingly ridiculous-looking, page after page, word after precious, gnawing word. I think of the young man at the end of "Everything That Rises Must Converge" who, not understanding his mother's racism--her inability to accept that African-Americans might have the same things she does, whether it be a physical hat or a metaphysical right--looks down on her as though she were a child in need of scolding or a condescending education. He doesn't understand her, even though he never ties to, so much so that when she walks away from him at the end, he stands in bafflement...all the while, we look down on him for his immaturity and detachment, his need to seem better than what he really is.

Flannery O'Connor is this young man--or at least was, according to a journal she kept during her stay at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was a young woman at the time, not yet 20 years old, and only a few years away from the start of her burgeoning literary career. As the short introduction to A Prayer Journal tells us, O'Connor lived modestly at the workshop, keeping refrigerated items in her dormitory window, and matched skills with the other attendees, most of them men (and many of them assuredly veterans of the war who'd recently returned home). But despite her modesty and anecdotal confidence, her journal reveals a soul tortured by its--her--inability to connect with a God who she simultaneously looked to for blessings and pleaded with for affection. She is a tortured Catholic all her own, one so thoroughly invested in heavenly intervention she seems to offer her workshop stories at the altar in much the same way a mother would offer her child. She believes wholly in God's powers while seeming skeptical of her own...and that struggle, between faith and skepticism--between the infallibility of one and vulnerability of another--haunt her journal's 40 pages, a slimness possessed by depth that could fill volumes.

There are few proper nouns here, and even fewer glimpses into her private life:  it is just Flannery O'Connor and God in these pages, rendered with the same nuance, joy, and confusion that one might use when writing about themselves and a parent, or themselves and a lover. One of the journal's rare moments of personalness comes at the very end--in fact, its second-to-last line--when O'Connor makes a confession of sorts:  "Today I have proved myself a glutton--for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought" (40). Taken on its own, this one statement seems pointless and snarkingly self-punishing; taken with the previous 40 pages, however, we see that O'Connor's "hunger" is possibly--probably--much more metaphorical than we might like to admit. As she writes on page 23, "The desires of the flesh--excluding the stomach--have been taken away from me. For how long I don't know but I hope forever. It is a great peace to be rid of them." In these two short, separate excerpts we see the totality of O'Connor's world--a distrust of all urges beyond the simplest, a relief when rid of them, and a willingness to give in to them and more, all mixed into the same body, the same mind. It is Catholic contradictions at their most pure and poetic, erotic thoughts being lumped into the same category as cookies, both seen as satisfying inner cravings that defy a Christian purity.

In her journals, O'Connor strives for perfection and understanding--the ability to write stories with God's guidance but also for his appreciation--while also dismissing knowledge as something dangerous to achieve, saying, "No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist" (25). This is a paradox of the tortured thinking, a belief that knowing all can only be accomplished through God--or only by God--but knowing all will also make God irrelevant, like a dream dispelled by waking into fact. O'Connor's entire religious life seems mired in paradox, in an inability to reconcile God's demands of her with what she demands of herself, and as a result her journal is a road-map of her soul that doubles back on itself and never fully reaches its destination. Which is exactly the struggle faced by so many of her characters:  an attempt to get from one place to another, whether literal or figurative, and realizing that their destination wasn't the place they hoped it would be in the first place.

And isn't that the story of America itself? We are a paradox, not of rock or river or soil, but of flesh, sweat, and blood. We arrogantly demand others' praise--an acknowledgement that we are the greatest, God-gifted country in the world--while filled border to border with turmoil over our many unresolved moral and ethical issues. We claim to be a united nation "under God," but we are a nation of many gods--some religious, some political, some material--that looks for salvation from beyond without looking first within ourselves, where much of our salvation lies. We celebrate our every progressive achievement, even when there are twenty or thirty nations who've hit that milestone before us; we congratulate those who break barriers and elevate themselves--and, in essence, elevate the collective us--while also looking for ways to bring them back down to our level, lest someone be better than us. We are the old woman in turmoil over what others have, and we are her spoiled son not understanding this hostility. We are the parent and the child in one, and in Flannery O'Connor--the fatherless daughter, the doubting devoted Catholic, the bedless lover--we see ourselves for all that we are, for all that she was.

There are very few instances in which a Flannery O'Connor character finds him- or herself better off in the end; in fact, her characters are almost always worse for the wear as the story draws to its close, and O'Connor's attitude towards this is one of not only acceptance but resignation. Our lives are tortured four-act tragedies, and we are the bit players--the hungry college writers hunched over their journals, praying in words to a God who seems unable--or unwilling--to read them.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Poetry ("Aimless Love" by Billy Collins)


Poetry is pointless.

Allow me to clear this lump in my throat
And begin again:  poetry has no purpose
Other than itself, other than to exist.

Poetry does not slay the dragon or win the wars,
Nor does it fertilize the soil and grow the flowers
And trees from which we taste the fruit and see;

We are born, we cry, we suckle and swing
And totter and walk and speak, and through it all
Poetry stays on its dusty shelves, unaware of us.

Voices read us bouncy little rhymes and rock us
In their arms, and you say this is its first purpose,
But who remembers those rhymes? Who remembers

Wynken and Blynken and Nod once we've been
Cut open because our food will not stay down, because
Even our mother's milk isn't good enough; where are

Those little wanderers and their wooden shoe
When parents become the shadows they cast
Instead of the people they are, and one big house

Suddenly becomes two smaller ones, quiet ones,
Almost like magic giving you the promise of those lines?
Except the magic of those bouncy rhymes isn't

This new magic, which is cold like the air that
Now separates your one bedroom from the other,
And the arms now hold papers of a different kind,

And there are no pictures on these pages, no line breaks
And architectured stanzas. And no rhymes, either. No
AA's and BB's, and certainly no CC's. And these pages

Are colored only at the very top, where a brassy little shape
Is followed by small print and some letters that have nothing
To do with poetry at all. Where is your poetry here?

There is no poetry here now, and that pointlessness is
The point.


Poetry is the ash of so many fires burned,
And you come upon the fossilized cinders long after
The fire-starters have gone to rest for good;

They have already seen everything you will see
And more, for the ideas they had were written down
Lifetimes before the idea of you was an idea at all;

You will fall in love, just as they did, but your love
Will be the tick of a watch against their eternal church-bells
Chiming away in a music that is foreign and discordant to you;

In order to sing their songs, you will need to wait, but
You won't. You will charge ahead, eyes veiled, chest
Scarred by invisible letters announcing your salvation;

If only you could see those letters yourself, could flip
The mirrors in other people's eyes and gaze upon
The mark you bear to all but yourself, then maybe

Your ears would ring with understanding, and slowly
Your hums would begin to sound somewhat musical,
And your heart could find the words that were meant to be--

Not old words, because only the aged and pathetic
Like old words, and you are neither yet, but new words,
New matches to hold to the tinder in your soul.

And that is how you will continue, as a fire-starter just like
All those pyromaniacs who came before you, thumb stained
With sulfure and eyes blighted by the brightness of the flames

Until you have lived long and loved enough to fill volumes,
And you become a dust indistinguishable from the rest.
But that day is far in the future, and your thumbs are clean.


Poetry is vast and barbaric, like the wild country,
Like ourselves,

And just like the animals of our buried nature
We glance into the reflections

Of the lakes and ponds and pools of cool rainwater
And shudder.


Poetry is a joke, but please
Don't lose the whole thing.

We must remember that humor--
Little tummy rumbles, little shakes--
Keep the mind from becoming
A lazy old man afraid of labor.

He must be choked awake,
And then he must be told a joke--
Something quick and simple, the words
Easy to avoid stumbling over, and

If his stomach bounces and face flushes,
Good--his mind is ready for other things,
Bigger things.


Poetry is vital truth, and vital truth
Is the shadow on the wall when you can see
Nothing but shadows anymore.

Poetry will not be the one to hold your hand,
To set the quilts against your chin, to warm your legs
Or drip pharmaceutical life down your throat; instead,

Poetry will be there to whisper all the truths
You already know, like why she left, or why
You could never crack eggs the right way, or why

The dogs all looked at you funny, every one;
These are the truths of your life that matter most,
The absences and judgements and small failures,

Because life is too short for the big truths, the ones
They talk about on TV and in skinny, empty books,
The ones you avoided, afraid the answers were just like

Those dogs you owned--simple, easy, and somehow
Still totally incomprehensible.


Strip away your Sunday clothes--these lines
Are not your destiny. Abandon them before
They abandon you, and refuse to look back;

We do not have to wait to understand the poet
And his fire because the matches are ours,
The tinder is fresh, the kerosene smell strong;

We do not have to wait for rimshots to make clear
That there's more than just poetry here, and we
Can throw open our arms to flowers and swords

And cut lowly fruit from the lowing trees.
Must we really wait so long to hand our mirrors
To the young and show them what they already see

And explain that our mirrors are only to borrow, not
To keep, because we too need to look up into the light
Now and then and remind ourselves to stop and see?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pairs ("This Land That I Love" by John Shaw)

Drawing connections between two historical figures, especially two who never met, is a dubious act on the part of any writer, regardless of how similar their lives or legacies may be. Earlier this year, Lynne Olson attempted to conflate a relationship between Charles Lindbergh and Franklin Roosevelt in order to personify the United States' conflicting emotions over isolationism; instead, she managed to write a book that was interesting in its own right but one that ultimately failed to link the primary men to each other in any substantial way. Similarly, the last few years have seen books hoping to contrast Truman and Eisenhower, Nixon and Eisenhower, Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, Douglas and Lincoln, Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, James Madison and James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, not to mention James F. Simon's trilogy on conflicts between presidents and chief justices. And while these latter examples are much more understandable, given that the subjects actually knew one another on a professional if not personal level, the fact remains that contrasting two historical figures for the sake of a common narrative--one that needs to be painted into history rather than wrung from it--is disingenuous.

So ridiculous has this trend become that book subtitles have begun to follow the same tedious format, almost like a publishing-house MadLibs:  an interesting, attention-getting title is followed by "[Person 1], [Person 2], and [Conflated Historical Narrative]." Simply choosing two important figures who were alive at the same time and tagging on a connection that is knee-deep in lofty sociological importance, one that is both impressive in its surface weight but vague and unmeasurable beneath the surface, seems now like the go-to formula for historical nonfiction, as evidenced by some of the lengthy, comma-heavy titles that have appeared in the last few years.*

One of these is John Shaw's This Land That I Love, which is subtitled "Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems." On the surface, Shaw's premise seems perfectly fine:  Berlin and Guthrie were two musicians who were alive at the same time--though one man would end up living almost twice as long as the other--and wrote music that captured specific eras and moods. The two anthems of Shaw's subtitle--"God Bless America" by Berlin, "This Land is Your Land" by Guthrie--have there roots in dark moments in American history, written to celebrate the United States amid the horrors of war, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression. Beneath the surface, however, we begin to find flaws in Shaw's arrangement. It doesn't seem to matter that Berlin and Guthrie never met, or that there's very little evidence that either man even knew of each other's existences other than a parody of "God Bless America" written by Guthrie himself. Suddenly, these seemingly compatible historical figures seem somewhat less complementary. 

Even more, the entire narrative Shaw is attempting to construct--that Berlin and Guthrie, the authors of two unofficial American anthems, were more similar than their styles and music let on--is never actually followed through. Much of Shaw's book is devoted to elements of music history that are only loosely connected to Berlin and Guthrie's music: blackface, ragtime, minstrel shows, Teddy Roosevelt, tenement poverty in New York City, the Civil War, the error of "folk" music, Marian Anderson, Tin Pan Alley, and so on. Sure, each is important in its own way to understanding the men, their lives, their inspirations, and the styles of music they embraced throughout their lives...but in that case, the focus should be primarily on the men rather than historical divergences. The title and subtitle tell us this is the story of two men and two songs; Shaw seems intent on writing about anything besides those topics.

Furthermore, Shaw's book takes this disturbing trend even further than his compatriots by introducing himself into the narrative. On the surface, this doesn't seem like much of a problem; after all, he's the writer and researcher, so it's only natural that he will sometimes find himself dead-center in the action, especially when he's uncovering previously unpublished lyrics to the subjects' most famous songs. (A little personal reflection at this point would be understandable, even forgivable, if also a little pointless.) However, Shaw crosses a sacred boundary in historical writing by introducing his own opinion into the narrative, almost as though it were evidence of something much greater. Discussing the musical lineage of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Shaw begins a new paragraph by saying,

I love "The Star-Spangled Banner." I share the eighteenth century's assessment of John Stafford Smith's melody--it's great. The story behind Key's lyric is stirring, and I love its celebration of freedom and courage. Being a fan of Robert Herrick, rock and roll, and Woody Guthrie's party songs, I enjoy the celebration of sex and alcohol in the Anacreontic Society's theme song as well. (Shaw 77)

Shaw's fanboy gushing is beyond embarrassing, and it contributes not at all to our understanding of the two men, their music, or their connections to one another. Had this been the only instance of Shaw breaking away from his responsibilities as a historian--and an impartial one, as writing such as this requires--it could have been overlooked, but This Land That I Love is littered with instances like these in which Shaw cannot restrain himself from letting his readers know just how important all of this is to him.

Which is great--a writer should love what they're writing about, and Shaw clearly--obviously--does. But he loves it in the same way an annoying cinephile loves movies, a bibliophile loves books, or a patron loves a specific artist and their work:  a passion that makes him or her feel instantly superior. Shaw cannot keep himself from telling us just how much better he is than us, simply because he knows "The Star-Spangled Banner" better than we do, that it means more to him than it does to us. It's an attitude that gives him permission to interrupt history with his own meaningless interjections and asides, as though this retelling of history will be made all the better with his additions. In the process, however, we see that his book is little more than a sketch. There is very little story here, very few ideas that haven't been presented elsewhere, and anything new--a new lyric, a revision, an interpretation--is nothing more than scaffolding for a house that will never be built.

*A small sampling:  Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War; America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union; Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World; What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States; Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and The Election that Saved a Nation; The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism; and so on, on and on. Not to bemoan historical connections--after all, history is little more than millions of these intersections of people, placed, events, ideas, and so on--but this sort of thing seems incredibly lazy on the part of book editors and publishers.