My Blind Eyes Were Touched with Light

Patty Duke in "The Miracle Worker"

Patty Duke as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”

Spiritual Sunday

I didn’t know that Helen Keller wrote poetry until I came across “In the Garden of the Lord.” Images of the light of Christ—captured in “Amazing Grace” by the line “Was blind but now I see”—take on extra power when the speaker is literally blind. When Keller talks of her blind eyes being touched with light and then follows it up with an account of touching fruits and flowers and feeling the wind on her face, one gets that she is experiencing God with all her being.

In the Garden of the Lord

By Helen Keller

The word of God came unto me,
Sitting alone among the multitudes;
And my blind eyes were touched with light.
And there was laid upon my lips a flame of fire.

I laugh and shout for life is good,
Though my feet are set in silent ways.
In merry mood I leave the crowd
To walk in my garden. Ever as I walk
I gather fruits ad flowers in my hands.
And with joyful heart I bless the sun
That kindles all the place with radiant life.
I run with playful winds that blow the scent
Of rose and jessamine in eddying whirls.

At last I come where tall lilies grow,
Lifting their faces like white saints to God.
While the lilies pray, I kneel upon the ground;
I have strayed into the holy temple of the Lord.

Posted in Keller (Helen) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump, “FDA Food Police,” & The Jungle



One of Donald Trump’s favorite targets is “overregulation,” and yesterday he went after food inspections and “the FDA food police.” This gives me the opportunity to talk a novel that very tangibly made our lives better. After Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) described what was happening in the meat packing industry, Congress went to work and required rigorous health inspections.

Now Trump wants to turn the clock back. As The Hill reported yesterday,

Donald Trump floated rolling back food safety regulations if he wins the White House in November.

In a fact sheet posted online Thursday, the campaign highlighted a number of “specific regulations to be eliminated” under the GOP nominee’s economic plan, including what they called the “FDA Food Police.”

The FDA Food Police, which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food,” it read.

“The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when,” the statement continued. “It also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities,’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”

“Inspection overkill” was not the problem in 1906. Although Sinclair wanted to alert people to the plight of U.S. workers, he observed that his book created a sensation “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.” Passages such as the following stirred public outrage:

With one member trimming beef in a cannery, and another working in a sausage factory, the family had a first-hand knowledge of the great majority of Packingtown swindles. For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else to chop it up into sausage. With what had been told them by Jonas, who had worked in the pickle rooms, they could now study the whole of the spoiled-meat industry on the inside, and read a new and grim meaning into that old Packingtown jest—that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.

Jonas had told them how the meat that was taken out of pickle would often be found sour, and how they would rub it up with soda to take away the smell, and sell it to be eaten on free-lunch counters; also of all the miracles of chemistry which they performed, giving to any sort of meat, fresh or salted, whole or chopped, any color and any flavor and any odor they chose. In the pickling of hams they had an ingenious apparatus, by which they saved time and increased the capacity of the plant—a machine consisting of a hollow needle attached to a pump; by plunging this needle into the meat and working with his foot, a man could fill a ham with pickle in a few seconds. And yet, in spite of this, there would be hams found spoiled, some of them with an odor so bad that a man could hardly bear to be in the room with them. To pump into these the packers had a second and much stronger pickle which destroyed the odor—a process known to the workers as “giving them thirty per cent.” Also, after the hams had been smoked, there would be found some that had gone to the bad. Formerly these had been sold as “Number Three Grade,” but later on some ingenious person had hit upon a new device, and now they would extract the bone, about which the bad part generally lay, and insert in the hole a white-hot iron. After this invention there was no longer Number One, Two, and Three Grade—there was only Number One Grade. The packers were always originating such schemes—they had what they called “boneless hams,” which were all the odds and ends of pork stuffed into casings; and “California hams,” which were the shoulders, with big knuckle joints, and nearly all the meat cut out; and fancy “skinned hams,” which were made of the oldest hogs, whose skins were so heavy and coarse that no one would buy them—that is, until they had been cooked and chopped fine and labeled “head cheese!”

It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the two-thousand-revolutions-a-minute flyers, and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that ever was in a ham could make any difference. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast. Some of it they would make into “smoked” sausage—but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it “special,” and for this they would charge two cents more a pound.

Be wary of those want to take America back to the “good old days.” We may not like what we’d be taken back to.

Posted in Sinclair (Upton) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Hillary, Witch Hunts Never End



In recently hacked and then leaked e-mails, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was revealed to have confided to his successor Condoleezza Rice that the Congressional Benghazi investigations of Hillary Clinton were a “witch hunt.” Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post says the same thing about the right wing’s health accusations although in a more indirect way: she alludes to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Petri is focused on the conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health, which have long been circulating and which, as her Washington Post centrist columnist Ruth Marcus has complained, actually are a coded way of saying that it takes someone with a man’s stamina to be president. It’s unfortunate that Clinton’s recent bout of walking pneumonia suddenly appeared to give credence to the wingnuts

Petri begins her column by mentioning all of the rumors that have been flying:

Let us suppose, for a moment, that everything we have ever heard about Hillary Clinton’s health is true.

She has had multiple strokes. Also, she has multiple sclerosis.

She depends upon a stool.

She has Parkinson’s. And HIV.

She might or might not have asthma.

She has one year left to live.

There are at least two so-called Hillary Clintons. One is a body double. Both wear adult diapers, which accounts for the shape of their garments, but they are not very subtle about it, so that many YouTube users were able to notice and comment.

She is constantly suffering from seizuresblackouts, falls and collapses.

She has unspecified heart trouble.

She has lupus.

Also, “there’s special needs there” (Rep. Louie Gohmert’s words, not mine) and the only way to help her is through the power of prayer.

(This is probably just one of the many pernicious side effects of taking an extraterrestrial as a lover.)

The fact that Donald Trump regularly cites some of these conspiracy theorists and has hired others that run their columns in their publications means that we can’t laugh them off quite as easily as we might have in other times.

And now, here are Petri’s allusions to Miller’s play:

If we really want to feel at ease about what is going on with Hillary Clinton’s health, as well as about those rumors that her glance can curdle milk, that the cat Socks was her long-term familiar, and that Trump looks the way he does because Clinton once looked at him with the Evil Eye and will not allow his virile member to return to him, there is only one approach to take.

We must test her correctly. She must be placed upon a ducking stool, then weighed against a sack of Bibles, and then we must hear Giles Corey’s testimony against her. We must learn: Does soaking a cake in her urine and feeding it to a dog cause her to cry out in pain? Does her body bear the Devil’s Teat? Does she mutter to herself? Did Abigail see her dance in the glen with the Lord Beelzebub, then fly off into the night with a loud cry?

To give you a taste of the judges, here’s the death pronouncement from Chief Judge Thomas Danforth in Miller’s play. We have been hearing a lot of his harshness and self-righteousness from Hillary’s accusers:

Now hear me, and beguile yourselves no more. I will not receive a single plea for pardon or postponement. Them that will not confess will hang. Twelve are already executed; the names of these seven are given out, and the village expects to see them die this morning. Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering. If retaliation is your fear, know this—I should hang ten thousand that dared to rise against the law, and an ocean of salt tears could not melt the resolution of the statutes.

Back to Clinton. Maybe her recent illness just proves that she’s human. Given the way she kept circling the globe as Secretary of State, how she stood up against relentless Congressional questioning for hour after hour, how she has campaigned relentlessly for months, we may have found ourselves thinking that she did indeed have supernatural powers. Instead we learned that (in the opinion of moderate conservative Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post) Hillary, as a woman, didn’t feel that she had the luxury of calling in sick and so tried to push through. And came up short.

Posted in Miller (Arthur) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Solace for Vets from Sophocles

Antonio Zanchi, "The Death of Ajax"

Antonio Zanchi, “The Death of Ajax”


Here’s a New Yorker story that confirms this blog’s deepest claims for literature: a group has been doing dramatic readings of Greek tragedies in order to reach out to veterans suffering from PTSD.

Robin Wright reports attending a dramatic reading of Sophocles’s Ajax on the eve of 9/11, along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a couple of hundred military officers and veterans and their families. Here’s what she witnessed:

They were rapt when the Emmy-winning actor Reg E. Cathey wailed in agony onstage, as Ajax, a great Greek warrior overcome with guilt, madness, and suicidal rage during the ninth year of the Trojan War. In a blind fury, Ajax slayed all the cows and sheep around him, believing they were the commanders who had betrayed him and his honor. He turned his home into a blood-strewn slaughterhouse. When he came to, he was overcome with shame.

“When a man suffers without end in sight, and takes no pleasure in living his life, day by day wishing for death, he should not live out all his years,” Ajax moaned. Tears flowed down his cheeks—and the play was only a reading. Moments later, Cathey enacted Ajax’s suicide. “No more talk of tears,” Ajax said. “It’s time,” and he lunged onto his sharpened sword.

Wright observes,

The ancient Greeks, who lived in the world’s first militarized democracy, at one point faced war on six fronts. They understood the toxic costs of conflict. Almost twenty-five hundred years ago, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides wrote tragedies about the human spirit shattered, corrupted, and abused by war. Sophocles, who was also a long-serving general, wrote Ajax. Catharsis was so integral to Greek military life that war tragedies were performed during annual theatre festivals for seventeen thousand troops, from lowly cadets to commanders, writes the author and director Bryan Doerries, in his 2015 book, The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.

The article then sets forth the devastating statistics indicating why the plays are still crucial:

Sixty per cent of veterans from the most recent wars now suffer a mental-health issue related to their military service, according to a survey, in May, by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Forty per cent have contemplated suicide—at least once. Twenty veterans kill themselves every day, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported in July, from the first comprehensive study of military suicides. The study scoured fifty-five million veterans’ records, from 1979 to 2014. (Suicides among female veterans increased by eighty-five per cent over that period.) Those figures do not include suicides among active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, which began to increase in 2005.

The idea for the dramatic readings was Bryan Doerries, who runs the group Theater of War and who has translated Ajax and Philoctetes, also by Sophocles. Here’s an account of performing the latter play:

At the 9/11 reading of the plays, David Strathairn, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, portrayed Philoctetes, an injured warrior abandoned on an island by his own forces. “Earth, swallow this body whole, receive me just as I am, for I can’t stand it any longer!” he screeched, pleading. The pain “cuts straight through me. I am being eaten alive.” He depended on “a special herb” to diminish his anguish. 

“Oh, I am wretched!” he lamented. “Death! Death! Death! Where are you? Why, after all these years of calling, have you not appeared?” Unlike Ajax, Philoctetes was saved, after nine years of suffering, albeit mainly because his skills as an archer were needed for war.

Read the article to get a full account of the different responses to the readings but here ‘s one of them:

The first performance was for four hundred marines in San Diego, in 2008. In the public discussion afterward, as Doerries recounted in his book, Marshéle Waddell told the audience, “I am a proud mother of a marine and the wife of a Navy Seal. My husband went away four times to war, and each time he returned, like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into the house. The war came home with him. And, to quote from the play, ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’

At another reading, a veteran reported,

I suffer from combat-induced P.T.S.D.,” he told the audience, choking up. Isolation is a euphemism now for trying to deal with the horrors, agony, guilt, shame, and fear accrued in war. Those who suffer are often like Ajax, he said. “Sometimes we do things that we don’t recall.”

Yet another veteran quoted a line from Ajax at the grave of a friend:

He had spent the afternoon in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the area where those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. He was visiting the grave of a friend. From memory, he cited the lines from Ajax: “Cut my throat right here, right now, add me to this pile. End my suffering.”

There are also passages from Ajax that speak to the suffering of spouses, such as the words of Ajax’s wife, who tries to save her husband but cannot.

Often the most power part of the performances are the conversations that they engender afterwards. The article concludes with Doerries discussing his new appreciation for tragedy:

“It took a hundred performances for me to realize people want to talk about the darkest aspects of the human experience,” Doerries told me. “I had thought tragedies were an extreme expression of pessimism, depicting a world in which we humans barely apprehend the forces upon us—fate, chance, luck, governments, genetics, gods—until it’s too late, and we’ve destroyed ourselves and our families for generations to come.”

But why, then, he asked, did the Greeks hold three days of theatre festivals for a third of the population? “What if the purpose of tragedy is not only to wake us up to the fact that we can make a choice before it’s too late but also to connect us with each other—and understand that we can face it as a community?”

Posted in Sophocles | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prisons, America’s Growth Industry

William Johnson, "Chain Gang"

William Johnson, “Chain Gang”


My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to this disturbing account on “How Prison Labor Is the New Slavery and Most of Us Unwittingly Support It.” She also reminded me about how she had described prisons as the new growth industry in her 2000 novel Leaps of Faith.

Leaps of Faith has proved prescient in a number of ways, including in its exploration of same sex marriage. Now that people in both political parties are finally expressing concern about how many people are incarcerated in America’s prisons, it’s worth looking back at what Rachel had to say 16 years ago.

First, here’s the situation as described by the article:

With 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world. No other society in history has imprisoned more of its own citizens. There are half a million more prisoners in the U.S. than in China, which has five times our population. Approximately 1 in 100 adults in America were incarcerated in 2014.  Out of an adult population of 245 millionthat year, there were 2.4 million people in prison, jail or some form of detention center.

The vast majority – 86 percent – of prisoners have been locked up for non-violent, victimless crimes, many of them drug-related.

And now for something you probably did not know:

American slavery was technically abolished in 1865, but a loophole in the 13th Amendment has allowed it to continue “as a punishment for crimes” well into the 21st century. Not surprisingly, corporations have lobbied for a broader and broader definition of “crime” in the last 150 years. As a result, there are more (mostly dark-skinned) people performing mandatory, essentially unpaid, hard labor in America today than there were in 1830.

The article goes on to cite many of the companies taking advantage of prison labor, including Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, AT&T, and British Petroleum (to clean up its Gulf of Mexico oil spill). It’s a fascinating article.

Leaps of Faith doesn’t touch on unpaid, hard labor but it does discuss the prison boom. Flip, an actor who does temp work to pay the bills, at one point finds work with “TechnoMort,” which

is going into the prison business, the one true growth industry of the new millennium, along with computers, of course. But according to Georgia, my TechnoMort supervisor, who gives me an impassioned first-day orientation, computers are a capital-intensive industry that is unlikely to employ large numbers of human beings, since replacing human labor with machines is the whole point of computers. Whereas prison is a labor-intensive industry that promises to keep thousands if not millions of Americans gainfully employed for generations to come. Which means that if I don’t get an acting job soon, I should probably forget about learning Excel (which Tanya has been telling me to do) and just go get trained as a guard.

“It’s not just the prisons themselves,” Georgia explains earnestly as she leads me to a desk that looks remarkably like the one I had at [my previous job]. “It’s all the satellite industries. It’s been an economic renaissance for upstate New York, it really has. Because even if you don’t want to work as a guard or a cafeteria person or a social worker or a janitor or a—a—“

“A warden,” I suggest helpfully, drawing on my extenstive knowledge of old prison movies. But Georgia looks doubtful.

“Well, of course, they only have one warden per prison,” she says. “So I don’t think that profession would provide all that many jobs, I really don’t. But even if you didn’t work inside the actual prison, you could work for a food servicer company, or the company that does the laundry, or the one that trains the dogs, because all those services are now subcontracted out. And in Texas, and Ohio, and North Carolina, and lots of other places, they have private companies running the whole prison. So it’s not just expanding the public sector. It’s also expanding the private sector. Some of those communities, you go out there and you’ll find that pretty much every single person in town works for the prison.”

Georgia then recommends that Flip apply to work full-time for TechnoMort, sounding like a Donald Trump supporter as she does so:

“Because the salary is fairly good, and the benefits are truly excellent, and also, of course, you’d be performing a public service.” She switches on the computer. “Because,” she continues, “most of those criminals locked up upstate come from right here in New York City, so we should all be grateful that they’re not running around loose. Because otherwise—“

“So we supply the prisoners and they supply the prisons?” I say. “That seems fair.”

She looks at me sharply to be sure I’m not joking, but I try to keep a straight face and apparently I succeed.

“There’s a reason the prison industry is growing so fast,” Georgia says sternly. “Society is breaking down. These people have to go somewhere.”

I am trying really hard to keep a straight face.

“Well,” she says, “you live in the city, don’t you? So you know where the criminals come from. The vast majority come from just seven New York City neighborhoods, they really do, which would be all right if they stayed in those neighborhoods, but they don’t, they have to wander the streets and mug and rape and murder the rest of us, so I must tell you that I, personally, am extremely thankful that there are companies like TechnoMort that make it easier for communities—not just in New York, of course, but all over the country—to solve their security problems in the most cost-efficient way possible. Because, believe me, every dollar that they save on construction is a dollar that can go into enforcement and security, which means that once those people are behind bars, they stay behind bars, and I for one feel safer for it.”

This is probably one of the few times when “I’m sorry” actually isn’t the right response to a work-related conversation, so I just nod and try to look impressed. Georgia hurries off, promising to come back and check up on me in half an hour or so, and I look despairingly at the huge stack of forms. All over the country, apparently, city, county, and state officials are thinking about the most cost-effective way to build new prisons. Well, there’s a cheerful thought.

In a promising new development, the Justice Department this past month announced that it will stop using private prisons on the grounds that “the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government.” That’s a small step in the right direction, even if it only will impact 22,000 prisoners. Unfortunately, the directive will not effect state prisons, where most prisoners of America’s prisoners are housed.

It does cast doubt on Georgia’s enthusiasm for TechnoMort, however. Some things you want the government to do.

And you don’t want anyone operating a slave system.

Posted in Kranz (Rachel) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Poems To Mourn a Russian History Prof

Vasily Tropinin, "Alexander Pushkin"

Vasily Tropinin, “Alexander Pushkin”


On Saturday our college had a memorial service for Tom Barrett, our Russian historian who died of cancer last May at age 54. While most of this blog’s readers do not know Tom, I share remarks that my English colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black delivered because they demonstrates how we turn to poetry to make sense of the senseless. Jennifer pulled from Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, and Walt Whitman while her husband Andrew cited a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I start with the Ovid passage–Pythagoras’s reflections on the endless flux of time–because they dovetail powerfully with Jennifer’s talk:

In all creation
Nothing endures, all is in endless flux,
Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by.
And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,
A rolling stream–and streams can never stay,
Nor lightfoot hours. As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies and follows.
Always, forever new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed…
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XV)

And now for Jennifer’s talk:

What is the Grass?

Eulogy for Tom Barrett, Professor of Russian History, by Jennifer Cognard-Black, Professor of English, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

I. All is Dust

 One of Tom Barrett’s favorite Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, once wrote this to a friend about the inevitability of death, even as we humans struggle for life: 

’Tis time, my friend, ’tis time!
For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look—all is dust, and we shall die.

Each of you has a cup of dirt, and I want you to take a moment to pick it up and look at it. I ask that you really look at it. That you note its darkness, its coarseness, the bits of clay and earth and stone that make it up. Touch it. Consider how it feels: cool and soft and grainy and dense. Taste it or smell it. Put a little on your tongue; put your nose down in it. What does dirt taste like?  What does it smell like? “Earthy” is too simplistic. The taste is bitter. It’s fusty, dark, de-composed—a word that means to reverse the action of the verb “to compose,” which is to form, to frame, to fashion. Dirt is un-formed, un-framed, un-fashioned—un-done.

So what does the dirt taste or smell or feel like?
It feels like Tom Barrett.
It smells like you.
It tastes like me.
For we will all go to it, eventually.

This cup of earth is our future. “Look—all is dust, and we shall die.”

 II. Tom 

I’ve never known someone who was more aware of the fact that we humans are walking dirt than my dear friend Tom Barrett. Because Tom lived with a chronic illness for most of his life, he was well aware that his time on this planet was a gift—and so he also understood that we humans need to live large each and every day.

And Tom did live large—with gusto and gratitude.   For one, he loved good food. He and his spouse Liisa held lavish Russian dinners, for which Tom flavored his own vodkas with cardamon and lemon. Indeed, Tom loved good food from almost any ethnic background—Italian, French, Scottish, Southern, and even Midwestern (though not so much the tater-tot casserole). Everything from caviar to collard greens would make Tom pat his belly, laugh his big laugh, and say, “That was fantastic!”

Beyond good food, as all of you know, Tom also adored jazz. He and Liisa would drive to Baltimore or to DC or even all the way to Pittsburgh just to hear a certain jazz musician or combo. Any time spent in Tom’s house was a kind of crash course on the history of jazz, for he was always moving to its rhythms.

Tom also had a passion for film noir and worked hard to get his friends to understand that we needed to feel passionate about it, too. And so Tom and Liisa held Noir Nights. I myself came to appreciate the corniness of the good guys, the oily evil of the bad guys, and especially the slinky femmes fatales in all of their melodramatic glory.

And then, of course, there was Tom’s keen interest in history—particularly Russian history and its popular culture. Tom relished giving his students an understanding of Russia and its culture that went far beyond textbooks. He brought in political cartoons, advertisements, popular novels, comic books, music, and he even wore his ushanka to class so that the students could step inside Russian history and not just learn about it in a cold or sterile way.

Good food, hot jazz, film noir, and all things Russian. In these ways, Tom Barrett lived large.

And yet Tom lived large in other ways, too—not just through the delights of the body and the wonders of the mind, but also by being brave in the face of adversity. He was brave through a long and painful illness. But he was also brave in other ways. When faced with a glaring inequity against someone else—be it friend or foe, colleague or student—Tom spoke out about it. And when he himself was treated unfairly, Tom held fast—knowing that he was on the side of what was ethical and right.

Yes, Tom Barrett lived large each and every day. He laughed and danced and joked and ate and also discussed and argued and stood strong when necessary.

At the dedication of a monument to Pushkin in 1880, another favorite author of Tom’s, the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, gave a speech. In this speech, Turgenev said,

[The] task of a thinking individual…is to go forward, despite the dirt and difficulty of the path, to go forward without losing from view even for a moment those fundamental ideals on which the entire existence of the society to which he belongs is built.

Tom Barrett was someone who—despite the dirt, despite the difficulty of the path—was always going forward. So he lived large; he moved forward…and he loved.

Tom loved completely. He loved his spouse and his children fiercely. He loved his sister and his extended family fervently. And he loved his friends with this same fierceness, this same devotion.

 Tom was the best friend one could ask for. He didn’t really care about what you did—but about who you were. When I was with him, I knew that it was his soul talking directly to mine. That we weren’t wearing any masks. He saw me for who I am, and he let me see him for who he was. His love was real and complete. To again quote Puskin—from a poem called “To My Friends”:

So, play and sing, friends of my years!
Lose very quickly [the] passing evening,
And, at your [carefree] joy and singing,
I will be smiling through my tears.

III. The Grass

Living large, going forward, loving completely.

I want to go back to that cup of dirt you have in your hand. Coming around are cups of grass seed, and I ask you to plant a few seeds in your dirt. Put your seeds deep into this earth, feel what that’s like, something small taking root in your cup—and in you.

It is my hope that, when you leave today, you will take your cup of dirt, and you will put it in some warm, sunny place and water it and watch it grow green. And then, over the next few weeks, you will see in front of you not something symbolic, but something true—that out of death, there is always life. And that the life we all live comes out of those who came before—those who lived large, moved forward, and loved completely.

While you plant your seeds, I will end this afternoon with what I most wanted to say—which are words from Walt Whitman, that great American poet and prophet. These words come from Section 6 of “Song of Myself,” and they speak to the splendid and miraculous power of death to bring life.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any
            more than he.

 I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
            stuff woven.

 Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord…,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see
            and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child . . . . the produced babe of the

 And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men…,

It may be you are from old people and from women, and from
            offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps…

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death…,

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Posted in Ovid, Pushkin (Alexander), Turgenev (Ivan), Whitman (Walt) | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On 9/11, Firemen Ascended Jacob’s Ladder

William Blake, "Jacob's Ladder"

William Blake, “Jacob’s Ladder”

Spiritual Sunday

I’m not entirely sure about this, but I believe that Lucille Clifton wrote her seven 9/11 poems on the day of the attacks and the six days afterwards. In other words, for a week she used poetry as a daily meditation to process what had happened.

clifton-911-poemLucille was a colleague at St. Mary’s College of Maryland when she wrote these poems, and we have posted all of them on plaques around St. John’s Pond, which sits in the middle of our campus. As this is a Sunday in addition to being the 15th anniversary of the attacks, I look at the religious imagery that appears in several of the poems.

The first poem turns on its head what it means to believe that God has blessed America. Often Americans assert that we are blessed because, as a wealthy and safe country, we are “exempt” from the suffering experienced “in otherwheres/israel ireland palestine.” Clifton notes that, with the attacks, we received a different kind of blessing, one that is in line with Jesus reaching out to the wretched of the earth: God has blessed us with the knowledge of what these “otherwheres” regularly experience:

1 Tuesday 9/11/01

thunder and lightning and our world
is another place no day
will ever be the same no blood

they know this storm in otherwheres
israel ireland palestine
but God has blessed America
we sing

and God has blessed America
to learn that no one is exempt
the world is one all fear
is one all life all death
all one

In Wednesday’s poem, Clifton reminds us that Muslims no less than Christians are God’s children. God has multiple names and many tongues. This is not the time to focus on divisiveness, she says, either anger against Muslims or anger against those targeting Muslims. This is a time to pray together under one flag, “warmed by the single love/ of the many tongued God.”

2 Wednesday 9/12/01

this is not the time
i think
to note the terrorist
who threw the brick
into the mosque
this is not the time
to note
the ones who cursed
Gods other name
the ones who threatened
they would fill the streets
with arab children’s blood
and this is not the time
i think
to ask who is allowed to be
american America
all of us gathered under one flag
praying together safely
warmed by the single love
of the many tongued God

Thursday’s poem uses a passage from Genesis (28:12) to honor the firemen who gave their lives. There we read that, while dreaming, Jacob “saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

3 Thursday 9/13/01

the firemen
like jacob’s ladder
into the mouth of

Friday’s poem refers to the historical suffering of oppressed groups and passes along to all Americans an insight Clifton has struggled to learn as an African American woman: victims are not to blame for their suffering. While various rightwing preachers like Jerry Falwell said that the 9/11 attacks were in retribution for America’s toleration of homosexuality, Clifton reassures Americans that we have done nothing “to deserve such villainy.”

4 Friday 9/14/01

some of us know
we have never felt safe

all of us americans

as some of us have wept

is it treason to remember

what have we done
to deserve such villainy

nothing we reassure ourselves

Saturday’s poem invokes Jesus and asks whether there is a higher purpose at work in our suffering. Lucille wonders whether there will be miracles of love in store for us, even as she acknowledges that the intention of “the gods” is difficult to understand:

5 Saturday 9/15/01

i know a man who perished for his faith.
others called him infidel, chased him down
and beat him like a dog. after he died
the world was filled with miracles.
people forgot he was a jew and loved him.
who can know what is intended? who can understand
the gods?

Sunday’s poem is dedicated to Lucille’s new granddaughter, born five days before the attacks. As she looks over the St. Mary’s River that flows by our campus, Lucille is struck by the calm, which is in marked contrast with the attacks. While she is well aware of humanity’s history of injustice and the many reasons to hate—she is “cursed with long memory”—she chooses to love instead.

Her granddaughter, she notes, is born innocent into a violent world. While Bailey will become aware of the bad, however, she will also become cognizant of the good. Buoyed by new life, Lucille talks about how she loves all of the world, despite “the hatred and fear and tragedy.” Ultimately, love trumps all.

6 Sunday Morning 9/16/01
for bailey

the st. marys river flows
as if nothing has happened

i watch it with my coffee
afraid and sad as are we all

so many ones to hate and i
cursed with long memory

cursed with the desire to understand
have never been good at hating

now this new granddaughter
born into a violent world

as if nothing has happened

and i am consumed with love
for all of it

the everydayness of bravery
of hate of fear of tragedy

of death and birth and hope
true as this river

and especially with love
bailey fredrica clifton goin

for you

It so happened that Rosh Hashanah fell upon September 17 in 2001, prodding Lucille to find symbolic significance in the Jewish new year and the supposed anniversary of Adam and Eve. While human evil emerged from the Garden of Eden, so did human love. Lucille writes that “what is not lost” from that original connection with God “is paradise.” In the sweet and delicious image of “apples and honey,” we see that Lucille believes that not all has been lost:

7 Monday Sundown 9/17/01

Rosh Hashanah

i bear witness to no thing
more human than hate

i bear witness to no thing
more human than love

apples and honey
apples and honey

what is not lost
is paradise

And so we continue on, finding something to salvage in even the grimmest of times.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Twain Anticipated Trump’s Crazy Talk



One of the more disturbing aspects of the 2016 election is that Hillary Clinton’s equivocations and white lies, fairly normal in politics, are being equated with Donald Trump’s outright fabrications.

Many Americans seem more willing to tolerate a conman’s blatant disregard for the truth than the careful parsing of a professional politician. Who cares if he denies having made previous statements that are on tape, such as his support for the Iraq War? His very outrageousness, which some describe as his political incorrectness, only boost his brand.

Consider his boast that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Or his bragging that, when he was a businessman, “I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.” By not paying any homage at all to truth (to borrow from La Rochefoucauld’s observation about hypocrisy),  Trump proves that he is not “a politician.”

Despite his outrageousness—or perhaps because of it—Trump is deemed more trustworthy by 15 percentage points than the woman who takes truth telling seriously, even if she sometimes departs from it. The New Yorker’s David Remnick lays out just how ridiculous this is:

“Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President, does not so much struggle with the truth as strangle it altogether. He lies to avoid. He lies to inflame. He lies to promote and to preen. Sometimes he seems to lie just for the hell of it. He traffics in conspiracy theories that he cannot possibly believe and in grotesque promises that he cannot possibly fulfill. When found out, he changes the subject — or lies larger.”

When politics become mere entertainment, a candidate can get away with blatant lying, at least to an extent. To get a sense of how refreshing Trump’s fans find him, I turn today’s blog essay over to Mark Twain’s depiction of a presidential candidate who lays bare his crooked past. Note how much fun the speaker has in dispensing with normal political constraints.

The Presidential Candidate (1879), by Mark Twain

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his night shirt at the point of a shotgun, and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.” These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

i sing of Kaepernick glad and big

San Francisco Colin Kaepernick

San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick


The National Football League’s season begins tonight, but it seems that there been less talk about action on the field and more about San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the National Anthem because of America’s treatment of people of color. This reminded my friend Carl Rosin of E. E. Cummings’s poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” and he sent in the following essay.

By Carl Rosin, English Teacher, Radnor High School

“We almost beat one guy to death to make him kiss the flag,” a patriot in Litchfield, Illinois, told a Chicago reporter in 1940.

So begins Garrett Epps’s Atlantic Monthly article “America’s New Lesson in Tolerance,” which addresses NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s unpopular protest against the American flag and national anthem by linking it with unpopular protests of the 20th century. The erudite Professor Epps, who teaches law and writing at the University of Baltimore, delves into the 1940 Supreme Court case Minersville School District v. Gobitis.

Noting how SCOTUS got Billy and Lillian Gobitas’s name wrong, Epps describes the case of two Jehovah’s Witnesses who “refused to engage in a required flag salute and pledge of allegiance at their Pennsylvania elementary school”:

Lower federal courts supported their right to refuse the pledge. The case, however, reached the Supreme Court in 1940, as German armies were grinding toward Paris. The justices rejected the children’s religious-freedom claim to an exemption from the flag-salute requirement…. In the majority opinion, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that “We are dealing with an interest inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values. National unity is the basis of national security.” The legislature must have the freedom to promote that unity by requiring children to pledge allegiance, he wrote, and religious objections were no defense.

The fascist threat of the era – a legitimate existential threat that dwarfs current-day threats to our nation – seems to have rationalized the decision. The imprimatur of the high court, furthermore, seemed to sanction some shiver-inducing injustices against Witnesses: beatings, looting, burning, torture, castration. One can barely recognize the America in which such things were done.

And yet, of course, we do, and literature is an especially eloquent reporter. To Kill a Mockingbird, “Strange Fruit,” and Sterling A. Brown’s poignant and under-acknowledged poetic ballad “He Was a Man” (to name just a few literary works) all call out the extrajudicial monstrosity of lynching. Atrocities such as those perpetrated against citizens who are perceived as unpatriotic, meanwhile, are captured by E. E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big.”

The poem, which preceded Gobitis by nine years, may be most infamous for its profanity, which retains its sting even today. It tells the story of a “conscientious object-or,” Olaf, whose refusal to fight for the nation results in his being imprisoned, then tortured, then allowed to die. Complicit in his death are the military brass (“a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride”), brutally conformist soldiers, and ultimately the president. Olaf is the prisoner they

with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl

As he is unbowed, they escalate to cursing and beating him. The savagery increases further, as the officers

egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat

Finally, at the president’s behest, they throw Olaf into a “dungeon,” where he dies.

As shocking as the imagery is, I suspect that Olaf’s reaction shocked the public even more. I cringe to think that his “impoliteness” may have led some to feel that he deserved no better. The first stanza of abuse ends with a demand for compliance, to which Olaf

responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

Cummings challenges us: does profanity directed at the beloved national symbol poison our interpretation of the profane one, innocent though he may be? After the “teasing” (Cummings makes powerful use of understatement) with roasted bayonet, Olaf doubles down on his commitment:

Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

This intensity, emphasized by the diction that alarms censors, escalates the abuse, resulting in Olaf’s death. In the final stanza, the speaker has elevated Olaf to a kind of sainthood. He is the most American of the characters in this condensed tragedy.

Epps describes how the Court corrected its shortsightedness on Gobitis:

By 1943, the court itself repented. The public outcry, the addition of a new justice, and three switched votes produced a new rule. Whatever “free exercise” of religion required, the new majority decided, the salute requirement violated the First Amendment’s twin guarantee, free speech. In a famous passage, Justice Robert Jackson wrote that “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Perhaps because of the reversal, anti-Witness violence subsided. The Court is to be commended, all the more so because World War II was still in progress with the outcome far from certain.

Epps concedes that Kaepernick is not a perfect analogue for the Gobitases. Even if he were, he has no right to expect to be free from criticism or even backlash (within legal limits, that is). That being said, there is cause for concern. The unfettered trolls of the Internet have been making threats that are compatible with what the Witnesses suffered. The fear that disunity engenders is a dangerous force.

For example, consider the passions that were fanned by the Cold Warleading to powerful warnings, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) to the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960). Outsiders fare very badly in both.

These texts call for us, like Miller’s John Proctor, to stand up for principles, as per Martin Niemöller’s classic quotation that begins, “First they came for the Socialists….” The Atlantic’s always-insightful “By Heart” series, in which modern authors discuss literature that inspired them when they were young, features Alexander Maksik lauding the way his boldly non-conformist teacher taught Cummings’s boldly non-conforming poem. Maksik recalls how that teacher and poem “began to turn my apathy into contempt for apathy.”

Those offended by Cummings’s characterization of the U.S. military would probably see the poem not as a hypothetical indictment against the threat posed by dogmatism but as a treasonous accusation against the United States. Indeed, the poem was published the same year that the poet visited the Soviet Union. That may have cost Cummings some sympathy, but poets aren’t in the business for sympathy.

Similarly Kaepernick’s socks, depicting pigs wearing police caps, give a whiff of an ad hominem attack that has soured observers on the seriousness of the protest.

Even if the messengers are compromised, however, the message of Epps’s neatly-stated concluding line reverberates: it is un-American to tell us what to kiss…or what to eat.

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand; 
but–though an host of overjoyed 
noncoms(first knocking on the head 
him)do through icy waters roll 
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed 
anent this muddy toiletbowl, 
while kindred intellects evoke 
allegiance per blunt instruments–
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag 
upon what God unto him gave) 
responds,without getting annoyed 
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but–though all kinds of officers 
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride) 
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse, 
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease 
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat–
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you. 

Further thought: I googled and did a brief database search into a history of protests against and censorship of Cummings’s poem, but, to my surprise, came up empty. Perhaps in the interbellum period, when America was isolationist to an extent that is hard to imagine today, few conflated his anti-militarism and anti-fundamentalism with anti-Americanism. I will ask a librarian friend to check further and will report back what she finds.

Posted in cummings (e.e.), Miller (Arthur) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Schlafly, Model for Atwood’s Serena Joy

Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy in "Handmaid's Tale"

Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy in “Handmaid’s Tale”


Phyllis Schlafly, the individual most responsible for preventing the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, died Monday at 92. I disagreed with Schlafly in almost every respect but I will laud her for one thing: she served as the model for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale.

Serena Joy is the woman who helps establish a repressive society in which women are treated as chattel. The contradiction, of course, is that, in her activist efforts to keep women from gaining power, Serena Joy gains power. The same was true of Schlafly, as Amanda Marcotte of Salon reports:

As Susan Faludi chronicled in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “The woman who opposed the ERA because it ‘would take away the marvelous legal rights of a woman to be a full-time wife and mother in the house supported by her husband’ was a Harvard-educated lawyer, author of nine books, and a two-time congressional candidate.”

Speaking to Newsweek in 1977, Schlafly said, “Women find their greatest fulfillment at home with the family.”

When reporters Susan Fraker and Elaine Sciolino pointed out that Schlafly “has a maid to do the cleaning” and “a secretary to handle her correspondence” — and has a career as a politician and a professional speaker, Schlafly denied the contradiction.

“I certainly do support some type of other interest,” she retorted. “But family demands and concerns have priority. I have canceled speeches whenever my husband thought that I had been away from home too much.”

I should note that Serena Joy is not only based on Schlafly but also on Tammy Faye Baker, a rightwing televangelist. Offred, the protagonist who now works for the family as a “handmaid,” remembers reading a profile about Joy:

She wasn’t singing anymore by then, she was making speeches. She was good at it. Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.

I should add that Serena Joy is not pure Schlafly but also has an element of the rightwing televangelist Tammy Faye Baker.

Michelle Goldberg of Slate points out another irony with Schlafly that Atwood also notes with her character. If Schlafly had not been a woman, she probably would have found her way into Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. As it was, she was shut out.

Something comparable happens to Serena Joy, who marries a prestigious military commander and then finds herself relegated to permanent housewife status:

She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be now that she’s been taken at her word.

Fortunately for Schlafly, she wasn’t able to turn back the clock entirely and return to a 19th century patriarchal society. As a result, she was able to remain an influential figure almost to the end. Her last book, just out, supports Donald Trump as a reincarnation of Barry Goldwater, whom she helped elevate decades ago with her book A Choice, Not an Echo.

Atwood lets us know what might have happened had Schlafly gotten the society that she said she wanted. Here’s Offred again:

Her profile is towards me. I can see that in the quick sideways look I take at her as I go past. It wouldn’t do to stare. It’s no longer a flawless cut-paper profile, her face is sinking in upon itself, and I think of those towns built on underground rivers, where houses and whole streets disappear overnight, into sudden quagmires, or coal towns collapsing into the mines beneath them. Something like this must have happened to her, once she saw the true shape of things to come.

By the end of the novel, Serena Joy is drowning her dissatisfaction in alcohol, and her husband is turning to other women for sexual satisfaction. I don’t know enough about Schlafly to know if anything similar happened with her—perhaps not entirely as she, unlike Serena Joy, had “unfeminine” outlets—but I can’t imagine that those driven by resentment and paranoia ever find true inner peace.

Posted in Atwood (Margaret) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflections on Art for Art’s Sake

Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray

Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray


In my Theories of the Reader class last week I had my students look into the “art for art’s sake” philosophy, a late 19th-century movement that included such figures as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. I had them read Wilde’s preface to Picture of Dorian Gray and an excerpt from his Decay of Lying. We also read excerpts from the trial where Wilde was cross-examined by attorney Edward Carson about both the preface and Dorian Gray.

I find that art for art’s sake discussions invariably become hopelessly tangled. After all, can a love of beauty ever be entirely separated from the other reasons that attract us to a novel, poem or play? Aren’t we also interested in how relatable characters grapple with recognizable issues? Even if one argues that literature’s main goal is a transcendent joy, it can be argued that such joy itself is a pragmatic result, at which point the argument becomes circular.

As the author of a blog claiming that “great literature can change your life,” I must debate with aestheticists. In many respects, my implied antagonists are those who don’t think that literature can change a life—who think that either literature is irrelevant or, at best, should be relegated to a purely artistic realm of its own (which is the view of art for art’s sake proponents). In many if not most of my essays, I am having an implicit debate with “the noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen, the martyrs call the world.” I borrow the phrase from Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse,” where Yeats, like Wilde, is going after a narrowly pragmatic society that doesn’t value poetry.

I’ve concluded that valuing art for art’s sake is not a pure activity but a philosophy that can only be understood as relational or reactive. In other words, such a philosophy arises as a corrective to a society that has lost perspective. If society decrees that only narrowly pragmatic activities have value—that, say, making money is the only thing that is useful—then Wilde is justified in asserting, “All art is quite useless.” He sees art as a means to keep him from getting dragged into the cash nexus.

It’s worth noting that, if art does that, then it’s not useless after all. Wilde is playing with what we mean by useful.

Wilde also fought against art getting dragged into a narrow moralism. There were Victorians who, while they saw literature as valuable, did so only to the extent that it taught moral lessons. This is another kind of pragmatism and it too can damage the artistic enterprise. That’s why Wilde came up with another provocative maxim: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

I’ll discuss in a moment why Wilde doesn’t really believe this. But when he talks about well written books—in other words, beautiful books—he is not defining beauty as a thing in itself but as a counterweight to his crass, didactic, materialistic, industrial capitalist society. Similarly, when I allude, tongue in cheek, to a 1935 DuPont ad slogan in my blog title—“Better Living through Chemistry”—I create an apparent oxymoron that allows me to be pragmatic without being narrowly pragmatic (or so I hope). After all, the playfulness in the title is supposed to gesture towards the unpragmatic playfulness of literature.

Meanwhile, the society that I am addressing is one where students are eschewing the liberal arts, and especially the arts, for “practical” majors like nursing or business or engineering. Many parents want their kids to aim towards lucrative professions in their course selection, and I’m trying to use their own pragmatism against them–which is to say, to give literature a chance. I try to do this in a way that acknowledges the independence of literature, but I must acknowledge the danger that I will reduce literature to something with narrow use value.

The reason I believe Wilde’s pronouncements should be regarded as counterweights rather than as propositions in and of themselves is that Dorian Gray doesn’t bear out the philosophy of its preface. Carson saw Wilde as an immoral libertine for saying that there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral book—in other words, Wilde appeared to put himself above society’s morals—and he argued that Dorian Gray was an immoral book that corrupted young men. Dorian Gray, however, can be seen as having a powerful moral lesson. Indeed, it shows the soul-destroying consequences of trying to live an art for art’s sake lifestyle.

The proponent for such a life style in the novel is Sir Henry Wotton. Among his aphorisms are the following:

Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.


To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

This philosophy has a catastrophic effect on Dorian, who leaves a trail of broken lives and suicides in his wake.

In the trial, Carson read from both the preface and the novel in an attempt to cast Wilde as Sir Henry and young Alfred Lord Douglas as Dorian, the young man corrupted by an older. Wilde, however, saw himself in Basil, the painter who worships Dorian. Whereas for Carson, Wilde was a vile pervert who wanted sex with young men, Wilde saw himself as a soul who longs for beauty and found it in beautiful men. For him, it was Carson who had the dirty mind, and he sought out beauty as a defense. Thus his aphorisms for the preface,

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.


Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

In short, Wilde sought out beauty as a refuge against his sordid society. This may have seemed to be art for art’s sake—a transcendent realm that resided on another plane—but it was actually art for Wilde’s sake. He saw art as a means to keep himself from getting dragged down into the muck of Victorian sexual repression and crass materialism.

This is not the only function for art, however. Other periods have other needs and create other kinds of literature. Art for art’s sake, which seemed a soul saver in the 1890s, appeared as precious and overly refined to later audiences.

Posted in Wilde (Oscar) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Work Makes Us Soar, Money Not So Much

Laura Knight, "Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring" (1943)

Laura Knight, “Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring” (1943)

Monday – Labor Day

As today is Labor Day, here’s a clarifying conversation about the nature of work that appears in Rachel Kranz’s novel Leaps of Faith (2000). The scene involves Rosie, a union organizer, who is trying to establish a union at an urban university (modeled on Columbia University). Jack is a clerical worker and an ideological leftist so they often clash about whether revolution or incremental change is better. Rosie loves her work but the stress is taking a physical toll on her.

The “leaps of faith” mentioned in the title are the conviction, held by several of the novel’s major characters, that significant change can occur even when there’s seems no objective reason to hope. Change includes same sex marriage (note that the novel was written in 2000), various theatrical breakthroughs, and a successful strike. Rosie believes that the university workers can prevail, but she is frustrated by how they hold back from committing themselves and experiences moments of deep doubt. Her conversation with Jack helps her realize some of the internal factors she is up against:

“Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and being,” Jack practically smacking his lips with satisfaction. “This alien essence dominates him, and he enjoys it.”


“Karl Marx,” Jack says, taking a bite of his eggplant Parmesan sub…

“Don’t you just love that?” Jack is saying. “Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and being. Money represents something that used to be this wonderful part of human beings: their ability to work, to accomplish things in the world. Their essence. And then the essence gets alienated, it gets taken away and used against them. So instead of doing good work that they love, they have to go work for money, they have to work for some boss, who makes a huge profit off of their work. And the richer he gets, the more power he has over them, so they’re actually helping him to dominate them.

“And then they want that money. They envy their rich boss, never realizing that they’re the ones who make him rich. But as if that whole process weren’t enough, Marx has to say that they enjoy it.”

“But most people don’t enjoy their jobs,” I say…

“Do you enjoy your job?” Jack says, one of those sudden switches in conversational direction that I never expect from him.

“Oh, I love my job,” I say. “But I don’t have a real job. My job is to change everybody else’s job. Of course I enjoy that.”

Jack laughs. “So you’re exploited, but not alienated,” he says. “Because I think the union takes incredible advantage of you and all the other organizers, as far as I can see, although you obviously work the hardest—“

“No, I don’t. Plenty of other people—“

“Yes, you do. But that’s not my point. My point is, people don’t enjoy their jobs, obviously, except for weird exceptions like you—because face it, Rosie, most people who work as hard as you do are lawyers or stockbrokers or something, and they usually don’t enjoy their jobs, per se, but they do make tons of money. Or else they’re factory workers or nurses or whatever, working double shifts and overtime because they desperately need the money. Which is my point. Or rather, Marx’s point. It’s the money that dominates people, the money they themselves create by working so damn hard and so miserably, and then it’s the money that they enjoy being dominated by.”

“And this is important because—“…

“It’s important because—I mean, Rosie. Why are people so invested in keeping their lives the way they are? Instead of making revolution, I mean, instead of changing everything?”

“Oh, Jack, for heaven’s sake,” I say, which I find myself saying to him fairly often. How can someone with whom I basically agree make my own ideas sound so simple-minded? “It’s hard to change things. It’s dangerous. You could lose your job. Or, if you’re talking about revolution, I don’t know. You could get beat up, or shot, or put in jail, or tortured, or whatever else happens to people who—“…

“No,” Jacks says, “it’s not just because they’re afraid of getting shot that people don’t want to change things. It’s because they actually like things the way they are. They like all the stuff they buy. They like all the stuff they think they’re going to buy. They’d rather have that stuff, or the prospect of it, than to think about how the world could be different.”

“So you basically think people should work all day and then go home and feel so miserable that they’re ready to change everything?”

“I don’t think people should be miserable,” Jack says. “I think they are miserable. And what they enjoy is being dominated. By television. The things they buy. The money they go out and spend. Their jobs make them miserable, and they go out and spend as much as they can so they’ll feel better, and it doesn’t work, and they have to keep working harder just to stay in place, and it still doesn’t work, and then they think it’s their fault, and they buy some self-help book to tell them why, and it still doesn’t work. And then they fall in love, and that doesn’t work, and then they’re really at a loss—“

“And all that time, they could just be making a revolution.”

“Right,” says Jack. “And then, like you, they’d have jobs they’d enjoy.”

I can’t help laughing. “Jack,” I say, “I’m no different. I watch television. I buy things.” I eat, I think, but I’m not going to say that to him. My life is killing me, if [my doctor] is to be believed, but I’m not going to say that either.

“Well, you’re part of the society you’re living in,” Jack says. “You’re not a saint.” He grins at me, which I didn’t expect. “Thank God.”

A little later in the conversation, Jack lays out his foundational beliefs and then challenges Rosie to do the same:

“I’m a Marxist,” Jack says. “This is my creed.” And he quotes [from The Communist Manifesto], “‘Uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man’—people,” he interrupts himself, making a face, “but the quote doesn’t work if you say ‘people,’ so ‘man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relation with his kind.” Meaning that—”

“I know what it means,” I say, with some asperity. “I have read Marx.”

Jack grins at me again. “So what does it mean?” he says. “In twenty-five words or less.”

“I suppose it means that we can’t have any illusions anymore about how brutal everything is,” I say slowly. “How brutal everything is, and then how we have to be honest about that. About why. We can’t say it’s fate, or God’s will, or destiny, anything solid, anything holy. It’s just—a few stupid people with power lording it over the rest of us. And we help them dominate us, first by working for them and making them rich, and then by buying whatever they want us to buy, and then by believing whatever they want us to believe, and then by telling ourselves that it’s our own idea. And then it is our idea, because if you have something inside you long enough, then it is you, no matter how much you hate it, no matter how sick it makes you—then it is you, and at least part of you does everything you can to hold onto it. And then, to add insult to injury, we enjoy the way they dominate us, we enjoy the little crumbs they throw at us, because what else are we going to do with ourselves. How else are we going to keep on living?!”

Well, I certainly didn’t expect to get this upset.

“But you are doing everything you can to change things,” Jacks says finally. “And that is what keeps you going.”

I point to myself, to my secretly bleeding body, to my exhausted throat, to my, all right, all right, all right, to my weight. “I’m certainly a great advertisement for the cause,” I say with a bitterness that surprises me. “I’m sure anyone who saw me would want to jump right on board.”

“Well, I would,” Jack says softly.

“You don’t count,” I say, blinking back the tears that seem all too ready to intrude these days. “You were already on board.”

There is a long, awkward pause.

“I’m sorry,” Jack says finally, leaning toward me over the table. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” He smiles, a very, very small smile. “See,” he says, “I find it a relief to say the way things are. It makes me feel—I don’t know. Exhilarated. You feel bad about it. But still, you don’t despair.”

I look at him skeptically.

“No, no, what you just did, that wasn’t despair,” he says. “You just feel bad that it takes other people so long to see what you already know. But you don’t give up on them.”

Throughout her writings Kranz asserts that efforts directed toward taking control of our working conditions bring us deep satisfaction. With that in mind, we need to keep fighting the good fight, no matter how hopeless it seems.

Currently she is nearing completion of her next novel, which is about the greatest leap of faith of all: in the late 1850s, when abolitionist movements were falling apart and it appeared that slavery would endure indefinitely, certain activists kept on striving to end it.

Less than a decade later, almost miraculously, slavery would be no more. Kranz challenges us to apply that same hope to our current problems.

Further note: Since it’s on the subject, go here if you want to read a quick account of how much better the Fair Labor Standards Act (1937) made the lives of working class Americans. The efforts of people like Rosie and the ideals of people like Jack meant that there is a ban on child labor, workers no longer have to put in 60-hour days, and owners have social and economic obligations to their employees.

Posted in Kranz (Rachel) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Singing of a Flute Came from the Sea

Anambas Island, Indonesia

Anambas Island, Indonesia

Spiritual Sunday

If summer ends with Labor Day, then poems invoking childhood memories of water and sun seem appropriate. “It may be we shall touch those happy isles,” says a hopeful Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, and Yeats, standing in a city street, hears the Lake Isle of Innisfree “in the deep heart’s core. In that spirit I share Frithjof Schuon’s haunting poem, “The Island.”

Schuon’s message is one that Milton offers up in the final stanzas of Paradise Lost. The Archangel Michael consoles Adam that he need not mourn his departure from Paradise because “[thou] shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.”

The Island

By Frithjof Schuon

Islands of bliss and everlasting youth,
Floating like flowers on an endless sea
And never touched by sorrows from this world:
Such happy islands thou wilt never see.

Behold: what thou hast dreamt of may be real,
It is not elsewhere, it is what thou art
If thou rememb’rest God; then thou wilt find
The golden island in thy deepest heart.

The singing of a flute came from the sea;
The water vanished, and the flute was me.


Posted in Schuon (Frithjof) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Satanic Trump Unleashing Dark Forces

Gustave Doré, Milton's Satan inspiring his troops

Gustave Doré, Milton’s Satan rousing the devils of hell


To the delight of white nationalist David Duke, rightwing provocateur Ann Coulter, and many other members of the alt-right, Donald Trump’s recent hate-filled rant against immigrants indicated that he is not “softening,” as some in the media had thought. Reading about Coulter’s enthusiasm—she called the speech “Churchillian” and tweeted, “I think I’ll watch this speech every night before going to bed so that I will sleep like a baby”—I was put in mind of how Milton’s Sin and Death are energized by Satan’s success in the Garden of Eden. The passage captures how Trump is exciting many of America’s darkest forces.

Sin is Satan’s daughter, having emerged Athena-like from his head (at which point he proceeds to rape her, thereby giving birth to their son Death). Although she is far from where Satan has just seduced Adam and Eve, she senses his victory and is intoxicated:

Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep; whatever draws me on, 
Or sympathy, or some connatural force
Powerful at greatest distance to unite
With secret amity things of like kind
By secretest conveyance.

Just as the alt-right is taking its cue from Trump, so Sin takes her cue from Satan. She will figure out how to make her way across the great gulf of Chaos and Night because of the “felt attraction”:

Nor can I miss the way, so strongly drawn
By this new felt attraction and instinct.

Once confined to the shadows, she will join us on Earth. Or as Hillary Clinton puts it, Trump is “taking hate groups mainstream.”

Sin, in her excitement, turns to Death, who promises to accompany her to Earth. His eager anticipation resembles how the alt-right is salivating over the chance to impose a harsh regimen upon immigrants, Muslims, Hillary, and whomever else it hates. Milton’s Death smells the scent of blood:

I shall not lag behinde, nor err
The way, thou leading, such a scent I draw
Of carnage, prey innumerable, and taste
The savor of Death from all things there that live…

Some commentators have observed that, even if Clinton beats Trump in November—not a certainty—he has unleashed forces that will not be easily contained. The Paradise Lost version of this is the bridge, constructed of “asphaltine slime,” that Sin and Death construct between Hell and Earth. This is the bridge across which all of Hell’s fallen angels, turned into snakes, will travel.

In other words, whatever happens in November, Trump has opened the gates of hell, and we will be dealing with the consequences for years to come.

I find this such a dispiriting prospect that I must remind myself that Paradise Lost ultimately projects a happy ending where love triumphs over hate. To be sure, it takes a while–the arc of justice bends slowly–but the Archangel Michael assures us it will happen:

Add virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come call’d Charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

To be sure, this is a vision of inner Paradise. Milton had just seen his Puritan commonwealth crumble and was retreating from the world. We, on the other hand, can continue to work towards a more perfect union. I like to think that most American are charitable toward their immigrant neighbors and that, out of this spirit, we will create a nation happier far.

But we’ll have to battle a lot of snakes first.

Posted in Milton (John) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Politically Incorrect Okay for Hemingway?

Still from "The Sun Also Rises"

Still from “The Sun Also Rises”


I share today a thoughtful essay on political correctness by Carl Rosin, a wonderful high school teacher who has appeared previously on this blog. Carl uses The Sun Also Rises to complicate the debate over Donald Trump’s attacks on political correctness. As Carl points out, one of the most positive characters in Ernest Hemingway’s novel is politically incorrect, but that doesn’t excuse the ways in which Trump stigmatizes women and minorities. The main issue is one of respect, which Bill Gorton demonstrates and Trump does not.

Carl left a software engineering job to become a teacher and has won various awards, including local and regional awards and also the PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) national award for high school teaching.

By Carl Rosin, English Teacher, Radnor High School

A few months ago, a 22-year-old San Francisco-based supporter of Donald Trump engaged Atlantic Monthly writer Conor Friedersdorf in an extended conversation that focused on political correctness. The young man wrote that his support for Trump expresses his

resistance against what San Francisco has been, and what I see the country becoming, in the form of ultra-PC culture. That’s where it’s almost impossible to have polite or constructive political discussion.  Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend. There is no saying, “Hey, I disagree with you,” it’s just instant shunning. Say things online, and they’ll try to find out who you are and potentially even get you fired for it. Being anti-PC is not about saying, “I want you to agree with me on these issues.” It’s about saying, “Hey, I want to have a discussion and not get shouted down because I don’t agree with what is considered to be politically correct.

“I feel like I have to hide my beliefs,” he continues. Although he concedes Friedersdorf’s point that President Obama has vociferously opposed PC (e.g.,  here and here), he argues that

Under President Obama, our national dialogue has steadily moved towards political correctness…, but with President Trump, I think our national dialogue will likely move away from being blanketly PC. Even though, as you pointed out, Obama has criticized PC speech, he doesn’t exactly engage in un-PC speech like Trump does. I don’t expect a President Trump to instantly convert people, but when you have someone in the Oval Office giving decidedly un-PC speeches and announcements, I think that would change the discourse, don’t you?

The young Trump supporter’s assertion – one that seems to be shared by observers from Clint Eastwood to Frank Luntz– is that many Americans want to see and perhaps follow in the footsteps of someone who “walks the walk” by eschewing the self-censorship so often disparaged under the term “political correctness.” Clive Crook, in an op-ed for Bloomberg, lays it bare:

The fact that he’s outrageous is essential. (Ask yourself, what would he be without his outrageousness? Take that away and nothing remains.) Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they’re superior — the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It’s a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.

The content itself, these commenters suggest, may not really be important. Perhaps it is the style itself that has the greatest appeal: a bluntness, a perceived plain-spokenness, even the mythically democratic and anti-aristocratic coarseness that no less an icon than Alexis De Tocqueville observed in many 19th-century Americans (as opposed to artifice and scriptedness – terms that at least some pundits use often to describe Hillary Clinton’s style).

I tend to focus on content, so I was surprised and intrigued by this perspective. As a teacher of literature, I found myself thinking of Ernest Hemingway, the original straightforward, no-nonsense writer who doesn’t care what you think.

More specifically, these thoughts sent me back to Bill Gorton, one of the memorable characters in Hemingway’s finest novel, The Sun Also Rises (1925).

But first, a brief meander through Hemingway’s Modernist ethos, which is especially appropriate given the fact that structure and style are key aspects of the connection being investigated here.

Modernism offers a rich literary landscape, populated by Joyces and H.D.s and Woolfs and Stevenses and Eliots; Hemingway’s version of the Modernist ethos relies strongly on form. Many Modernists took on the concept that we should question assumptions (about art) that “sustained” previous generations of viewers/readers. Hemingway, for one, took action in the development of his well-known and oft-parodied spare form. He recast an artistic tradition of elegant prose and authorial authority into something plain that doesn’t try to do what it cannot. For instance, land is beautiful, and because language cannot make it so, it shouldn’t try.

I’m thinking specifically of a scene in The Sun Also Rises when narrator Jake Barnes and his buddy Bill Gorton go fishing in the Spanish mountains. They have not invited their problematic friends. Hemingway puts the following description in Jake’s voice:

It was a beech wood and the trees were very old. Their roots bulked above the ground and the branches were twisted. We walked on the road between the thick trunks of the old beeches and the sunlight came through the leaves in light patches on the grass. The trees were big, and the foliage was thick but it was not gloomy. There was no undergrowth, only the smooth grass, very green and fresh, and the big gray trees well spaced as though it were a park.

“This is country,” Bill said.

154 mostly Anglo-Saxon words in six sentences; only 9% of the words are polysyllabic (average word = 1.1 syllables), and nearly every word might be used comfortably by an average third-grader. Three-quarters of the verbs are in the passive voice. Nothing fancy/poetic here. Repetition, concatenation, simple vocabulary, to-be verbs, run-on sentences: prototypical Hemingway prose. I love the lack of an adjective in Bill’s comment.

(I took a quick look at some typical Obama and typical Trump paragraphs of similar length. Guess which one is more like Hemingway in style? I digress….)

Now to Bill Gorton, a secondary character but one who is in line with much of Hemingway’s moral code. He is also the king of the politically incorrect statement.

Bill’s very first conversation with Jake features him using the word “nigger” 14 times on a single page in chapter 8, as he rambles drunkenly about a prize-fight he saw in Vienna. He is also dismissive and sarcastic about religious believers, reserving special vitriol for Catholics and Jews. In chapter 9, he complains to a priest on the train,

“When do us Protestants get a chance to eat, father?”

“I don’t know anything about it. Haven’t you got tickets?”

“It’s enough to make a man join the Klan,” Bill said. The priest looked back at him.

His anti-Semitic remarks, of which there are many, generally target Jake’s difficult friend Robert Cohn. Bill rails about Cohn’s “Jewish superiority” and even refers to him as “That kike!” in chapter 15.

Not omitting sexual orientation, he manages to slur both male and female homosexuals in chapter 12.

Bill uses uncouth language and says racist things, but somehow he is still a good person – possibly the best human in the novel. The black boxer he slurs is clearly someone he respects; Bill compliments the man effusively and helps him out of an unfair jam. His anti-Semitism, equally distasteful in vocabulary, is set off against that of another character, Mike Campbell, who rockets past the realm of inappropriate speech to truly distasteful excess in his mistreatment of Robert Cohn. This is literature: we partake in the dialectic of perceiving a well-crafted, multifaceted character.

I didn’t fully appreciate Bill when I first encountered this novel, in part because of the offensive vocabulary. He has grown on me tremendously through repeated readings, however. He embodies a particular intensity, an honest and unfiltered commitment, that the novel promotes thematically.

Along the way, language must be sharpened to draw our attention to the sordid ways in which manners and so-called “civilized” patterns lure us into the kind of lull that brings on existential crisis. Bill himself muses, “After a while you never notice anything disgusting.” Hemingway opposes the kind of sensitivity that obscures a greater truth. Indeed, Bill is a true, supportive, generous, loyal friend to Jake and others who need and deserve one. He works, unlike the more flawed characters (Cohn, Campbell, even the mercurial Lady Brett Ashley). He is funny and straightforward, even as he speeds past the brink of coarseness. In many ways, he epitomizes An American.

So should we, on the basis of Bill Gorton, follow Trump’s advice and jettison political correctness? Examining the two reveals their differences.

For one thing, Bill is revealed as decent despite his crudeness, not because of it. Mike Campbell, the aforementioned foil, makes many similarly crude statements, and yet Mike’s character comes off as profoundly negative. Mike, cuckolded and embittered but not facing his crisis head-on, ferments into a nastiness that sounds a bit like some of Trump’s more infamous tweets. Mike, although a veteran himself, disrespects others and selfishly destroys medals borrowed from another veteran. He does not work but borrows excessively, continuing to spend and gamble promiscuously until he is “stony” and cannot cover his tab. He then borrows from his fiancée, Brett, leaving her with so little that Jake has to rush off to rescue her. Bill, by contrast, is gentlemanly with women, works hard (so he can vacation heartily), lives within his means, and interacts with friends openly and with surprising sensitiveness. Impoliteness itself is not an indicator of merit.

The way Mike and Bill interact with Robert Cohn is instructive. In the chapter 13 scene that follows the first bullfights, Mike sneers viciously at Robert, seeking to unman him by equating him to the castrated steers. Every member of the group has also criticized Robert, but upon witnessing this scene, Jake reports, “We were embarrassed.” When Mike’s attack intensifies, Bill “stood up and took hold of Cohn” to lead him away from the conflict. Bill’s words can be harsh, but when it comes to the decisive moment when character is rendered, his actions reveal a human kindness.

Trump’s statements, in contrast, do not show him opposing sensitivity that obscures a greater truth. The candidate marries outrageousness with inaccuracy and stereotyping, not unpleasant truths. This is where style has to cede ground back to content. Fact-checking websites have made it clear that Trump is uniquely dismal in adhering to the truth.

Trump regularly is applauded for identifying political correctness as the source of what’s wrong with America, and it is true that Bill Gorton also takes arms against patterns of speech that would someday be called “PC.” But Bill’s actions demonstrate that his opposition to customary deference and politeness does not interfere with his trustworthiness, consistency, and loyalty. Setting aside any judgment on Trump’s political positions, his personal, political, and business histories do not offer convincing evidence that he is trustworthy, consistent, or loyal.

Finally, in the context of the novel, while it is true that recognizing and “checking” privilege may not figure into Bill’s actions, they are central in Jake Barnes’s character arc. Jake, rendered impotent by a war wound, laments being unable to pursue a long-desired romance with Brett. In an unusually introspective passage, Jake triggers his movement toward a greater acceptance of his lot. This involves recognizing that his perspective wasn’t the only one worth valuing:

I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came.

Sensitivity and empathy help us develop toward our more mature selves. Even in Hemingway.

That said, it defies a plain reading of Hemingway to cite him in defense of political correctness. Language can obscure the truth and oversensitivity can create its own breed of intolerance and divisiveness. Blaming political correctness for the nation’s ills, however, creates a straw man out of PC’s excesses, concealing the fact that thoughtful, respectful, polite discourse can lead to personal and national progress. It is hard to discern between appropriate self-control and inappropriate self-repression, but we can do it. As Bill Gorton advises, “Never be daunted.”

Posted in Hemingway (Ernest) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Doctors Need Lit To Stay Human

Goya, "Order and Disorder"

Goya, “Order and Disorder”


Earlier this summer I came across this New York Times article about “Reading novels at Medical School.” Daniel Marchalik, M.D. , a urologist who also heads the literature and medicine track at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, uses literature to help his interns handle the pressures of medicine and maintain a healthy perspective on life and death. 

For instance, an Emily Dickinson poem helps the hospital’s interns acknowledge both their own grief and that of their patients. The poem begins with the kind of grief that one might encounter in a hospital ward but then expands beyond to include a generalized human depression and aching heart. I quote the first five stanzas as the most directly applicable to a doctor-patient relationship: 

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes—
I wonder if It weighs like Mine—
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long—
Or did it just begin—
I could not tell the Date of Mine—
It feels so old a pain—

I wonder if it hurts to live—
And if They have to try—
And whether—could They choose between—
It would not be—to die—

I note that Some—gone patient long—
At length, renew their smile— 
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil—

I wonder if when Years have piled— 
Some Thousands—on the Harm— 
That hurt them early—such a lapse
Could give them any Balm—


Literature is vital for doctors, Marchalik argues, because medical routines can become deadening:

The students are here [in the book group] after long days in class and on the wards because they have discovered that medical education is changing them in ways that are unsettling. I remember that uneasiness well. My own medical education began with anatomy lab. The first day with the cadaver was unnerving, but after the first week the radio was blaring as we methodically dissected the anonymous body before us.

Two years later, on my first clinical rotation, I discovered that it does not take long to acclimate to the cries of patients as I hurried past their rooms, eager not to fall behind in a setting where work must be done quickly and efficiently. This practiced detachment feels necessary, a form of emotional and physical self-preservation. But with little time to slow down, ignoring our own thoughts and feelings quickly hardens into a habit.

Marchalik also mentions leading a discussion of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,  and he recounts an experience that is familiar to literature teachers: the work elicits a response that he does not anticipate. The story, he notes is about

a depressed middle-aged Tokyoite’s attempt to retrace his past in order to understand how his life became so empty. We talk about the main character’s colorless perception of the world, and why his mind feels so inaccessible to us.

I receive an email from a student later that evening. He, an aspiring psychiatrist, tells me the story of a much-admired college mentor. “I heard last week that he committed suicide. I am still crushed,” he writes. “He was diagnosed with depression but seemed to be doing great.” If he so misjudged his teacher’s state of mind, he worries, how will he make it as a psychiatrist?

Another novel, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, gets Marchalik’s group talking about the ethics of animal testing:

The novel is narrated by a woman whose “sibling,” we later discover, is a chimpanzee who was raised with her as part of a human-chimp experiment. We used the book to think through real-life examples like the Silver Spring Monkeys — a series of gruesome primate experiments that both galvanized American animal-rights groups and led to breakthrough scientific discoveries.

A third-year student talked about the three years he spent working with rhesus macaques. Research from his lab led to breakthrough discoveries about memory and behavior and contributed to therapies such as deep brain stimulation. “Doesn’t that answer the ethical questions?” he asked.

Another student talked about studies that she worked on for several years before starting medical school. “Have you heard of professional testers?” she asked the room. “People whose only source of income is volunteering for different studies, mostly college kids and immigrants? Shouldn’t we be talking about human research also?” For me, the discussion proved transformative. I walked into that class firmly supporting animal research and walked away still supporting research but no longer eating meat.

Meanwhile, a novel about a dystopian future in which people are raised to be organ donors elicited this response:

As I’m walking out of the classroom at the end of the evening, a third-year student approaches me to tell me he’s been thinking more deeply about his experience of being an unrelated organ donor to his step-uncle, a man he barely knew. “It’s been on my mind since we read Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ last month,” he says. “I want to write about it. I don’t even know how I feel about it, and I need to figure it out.”

Even when the novels don’t have direct application to medical issues, Marchalik says, they serve a vital function:

Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind. We examine cultural conventions and conflicting perspectives, and reflect on our own preconceived notions about life and work. Reading attentively and well, we hope, will become a sustaining part of our daily lives and practice.

More proof that literature is a vital resource in our survival packs.

Posted in Dickinson (Emily), Fowler (Jaren Joy), Kazuo Ishiguro, Murakami (Haruki) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Trump Echoes Marc Antony

Sir John Soanes, "Marc Antony Reading the Will of Julius Caesar"

Sir John Soanes, “Marc Antony Reading the Will of Julius Caesar”


Over the weekend Mark Thompson of The New York Times compared Donald Trump’s speaking style to that of Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and said that this gives him a rhetorical advantage over Hillary Clinton. His speaking technique conveys a sense of authenticity, which is how Antony is able to turn the tables on the far more sincere Brutus.

Here’s Thompson’s argument:

It may feel like a new phenomenon in contemporary American politics, but the “I just want to tell it like it is” maneuver is a familiar one in the annals of rhetoric. It’s what Mark Antony is up to when he says to the Roman crowd in “Julius Caesar,” “I am no orator, as Brutus is; / But, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man,” in the midst of his “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech, one of the most cunning displays of technical rhetoric, not only in Shakespeare, but in the English language.

Rhetoric is the language Rome’s elite used to debate; by denying that he knows the first thing about it, Mark Antony is in effect tearing up his gold membership card and reassuring his plebeian audience that, though he may look rich and powerful, he is really one of them.

Thompson observes that the authoritarian Italian president Silvio Berlusconi used this technique to great effect, so it’s not surprising that Trump would gravitate to it as well:

Nearly four centuries after Shakespeare wrote those words, Silvio Berlusconi successfully struck the same pose in modern Italy. “If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,” he told the Italian public. “All I’m interested in is what needs to get done.”

But for all its protests, anti-rhetoric is just another form of rhetoric and, whether Mr. Trump is conscious of it or not, it has its own rhetorical markers. Short sentences (“We have to build a wall, folks!”) that pummel the listener in a series of sharp jabs. This is the traditional style of the general (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) or the chief executive, a million miles from the complex and conditional — and thus intrinsically suspect — talk of the lawyer/politician. Students of rhetoric call it parataxis and it’s perfect, not just for the sound bite and the headline, but for the micro-oratorical world of Twitter.

In contrast to Antony, Brutus makes a nuanced case, drawing a distinction between the valiant Caesar who is his friend and the ambitious Caesar who is angling to become a dictator:

If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honor for his valor; and death for his ambition. 

At first the crowd is persuaded by Brutus, but Antony then cunningly bypasses Brutus’s nuanced reasoning by appealing directly to the mob’s pleasure center. Brutus is dismissed with a sarcastic wave of the hand:

But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

Clinton may not be the noblest Roman of them all but, like Brutus, she goes in for fine distinctions. As a result, she comes across as an inauthentic politician and lawyer, so much so that her equivocations and white lies seem worse than Trump’s outright fabrications. Thompson notes,

In many ways, her problem at the mike is the opposite of Mr. Trump’s — cerebral, calculated, stripped of all spontaneity and risk, her style epitomizes what fans of “tell it like it is” bluntness think of as untrustworthy.

He also cautions that, while Clinton may be currently leading in the polls, “authenticism” has recently registered some significant victories:

Authenticism scored a victory in Britain’s vote on European Union membership, and authenticist anti-politicians and ultra right-wing parties are polling strongly in many European countries. It would be wrong to assume that any one election will see it off this time.

Root for Brutus.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

On Forgetting Old Students

Jude looks up his old teacher Philottson

Jude looks up his old teacher Philottson


Classes begin today and I am certain to undergo an embarrassment that occurs every semester: I will fail to remember the names of certain former students, including students that I taught last semester.

It’s become so predictable that I now warn my classes that it will happen. “Just give me a couple of hints and you will come flooding back to me,” I tell them. Sometimes the hint I need is the essay that they wrote for me, which I can often remember in meticulous detail. Faces and names, unfortunately, are a different matter.

Therefore, I found myself empathizing with Phillotson, Jude’s old teacher in the Thomas Hardy novel, when Jude looks him up years later. Jude only had a few night classes with this teacher, yet Phillotson lit a divine spark within the boy. Here’s the scene of their separation:

“I shan’t forget you, Jude,” he said, smiling, as the cart moved off. “Be a good boy, remember; and be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can. And if ever you come to Christminster remember you hunt me out for old acquaintance’ sake.”

And now here’s their encounter some 20 or so years later when Jude does in fact hunt him out:

“I don’t remember you in the least,” said the school-master thoughtfully. “You were one of my pupils, you say? Yes, no doubt; but they number so many thousands by this time of my life, and have naturally changed so much, that I remember very few except the quite recent ones.”

“It was out at Marygreen,” said Jude, wishing he had not come.

“Yes. I was there a short time.” 

Jude and Phillotson go on to become adult friends and then rivals, but the old teacher can never fully appreciate how large he loomed in Jude’s young life.

But that’s okay. Teaching is such a hit and miss operation that we never know who we are touching and who escapes unscathed. Teachers are a bit like Queequag in Moby Dick, who constructs the coffin that eventually, as a life buoy, saves Ishmael. We don’t know what impact our teaching will have—it sometimes feels like we are throwing a box randomly into the sea—but it means everything to the person who grasps hold of it.

What we can do is make every effort to reach out to our students. Then, regardless of whether we remember them or not, we won’t be surprised to learn that we made a difference in their lives.

Posted in Hardy (Thomas), Melville (Herman) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

When Christianity Becomes a Money Cult

The Money Cult

Spiritual Sunday

Last week I listened to a fascinating Sam Seder interview (on The Majority Report) with Chris Lehmann, author of a new work entitled The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (2016). In his book Lehmann seeks to explain how it is that certain Christian denominations are embracing capitalism and singing the praises of wealthy people such as Donald Trump, despite Jesus’s admonitions about the money changers, the eye of the needle, the rich man in hell, “render unto Caesar,” “the last shall be first,” etc.

Among other things, Lehman has an explanation for the apparent hypocrisy that enrages Howard Nemerov in his poem “Boom!” It’s not hypocrisy, he says, but something more complicated, albeit still disturbing.

Lehmann sees himself building on the work on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which he says needs updating and revising in light of how “prosperity theology” has flourished in America. Weber believed that 17th century Calvinists, with their belief in predestination, strove for material success to reassure themselves that they were amongst the elect and not the damned. This isn’t logical—if one’s fate is already decided, one can’t alter it—but it makes psychological sense. It’s human nature to want to tilt the playing field.

In his groundbreaking Rise of the Novel (1957), Ian Watt made a powerful case that Puritan uncertainty led to the British novel. Figures like Daniel Defoe scrutinized their lives meticulously for signs that they were amongst the elect, and their detailed journals morphed into novels. Think of Robinson Crusoe, for instance, whose constant fears about damnation lead to intense self-examination and incessant work. The result is a transformed island.

The old view of the American Puritans—that their faith declined with the material success of the republic—is wrong, Lehman says. Instead of American religion becoming secularized, he asserts that “the market was sanctified.” This continues on today and America remains a very religious nation. Even though church attendance has declined in the mainline denominations, the pews are full in the giant megachurches that preach a “theology of abundance.”

In these churches, the “frank celebration of wealth” has become a spiritual virtue. Those who attend these churches are charged to envision their “materially striving selves” as “their better spiritual selves.”

Lehmann says that this tendency has always present in certain strains of American Christianity. He particularly singles out Mormonism and American Gnosticism. The latter, which Harold Bloom has described as America’s major contribution to Christianity, preaches “a highly distilled and militantly individualistic version of the solitary Puritan encounter with the divine.” Seeing the individual soul as “tragically marooned in an alien and fallen created world,” American Gnostics

elevate themselves above the grubby demands of merely social existence, preferring to project their cosmic identities into a drama of redemption beyond history, in which they are reunited with the true, transcendent, and hidden God who authored their heroic destiny.

Lehmann notes that such a vision leads easily to “the Narcissistic Personality” and self-infatuation and allows “all manner of cultural evasions of unpleasant facts, from the cult of the redeemer nation to the smiling assurances of the prosperity gospel.” He describes the results as a money cult:

What sets the Money Cult apart is how closely the content of this potent American offshoot of Protestant faith now mirrors so many of the baseline assumptions of consumer capitalism. In this curious vision of a world turned upside down, America’s long-standing quest for the purified and restored version of true primitive Christian worship has produced the hulking megachurch and the spectacle-driven piety of the televangelist age. The social ethic of the New Testament–under which the poor were the true heirs to the planet, and early Christians held all property in common–has morphed into the prosperity gospel, which deems worldly success a direct sign of divine favor, and translates the ministry of Jesus into a battery of business stratagems and motivational slogans.


Today’s meritocrats insist with their own religious fervor that material reward gravitates naturally, by dint of a self-evidently benign spiritual force, to the most deserving most talented, and best-educated class of achievers, who have stayed faithfully attuned to the market’s higher dictates.

So Nemerov was responding to something deep in the American psyche after reading an Associated Press article about President Eisenhower’s pastor linking wealth and spirituality. I love where the poet compares backyard barbecues to burnt offerings and wonder whether he has in mind Jeremiah 6:20: “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me” (6:20). After all, he sounds at times like he’s channeling the prophet:


By Howard Nemerov


Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP) –President Eisenhower’s pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of “unprecedented religious activity” caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.”

These fruits of material progress,” said the Rev. Edward L. R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, “have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached.”

Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it’s just one
religious activity after another: the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second, and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling-stations
are full, God’s great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
When Damien kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week’s vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.

But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit, and Thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnak and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folks we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners and
disposable diaperliners, people of the stop’n’shop
‘n’pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee,
if Thee will keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name’s Sake, Amen.

Are you feeling as spiritually clogged as I am by this accumulation of material things and in need of some purifying fire. I turn again for aid to Dinah Morris, the preacher from George Eliot’s Adam Bede that I quoted last week. I didn’t get into the tough love part of her sermon in that post but, with Lehmann and Nemerov showing how we are twisting the Gospel, I feel the need for it now. Dinah, earnest soul that she is, has none of Nemerov’s cosmopolitan irony but gives the message to us straight:

“See!” she exclaimed, turning to the left, with her eyes fixed on a point above the heads of the people. “See where our blessed Lord stands and weeps and stretches out his arms towards you. Hear what he says: ‘How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’…and ye would not,” she repeated, in a tone of pleading reproach, turning her eyes on the people again. “See the print of the nails on his dear hands and feet. It is your sins that made them! Ah! How pale and worn he looks! He has gone through all that great agony in the garden, when his soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death, and the great drops of sweat fell like blood to the ground. They spat upon him and buffeted him, they scourged him, they mocked him, they laid the heavy cross on his bruised shoulders. Then they nailed him up. Ah, what pain! His lips are parched with thirst, and they mock him still in this great agony; yet with those parched lips he prays for them, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Then a horror of great darkness fell upon him, and he felt what sinners feel when they are for ever shut out from God. That was the last drop in the cup of bitterness. ‘My God, my God!’ he cries, ‘why hast Thou forsaken me?’

“All this he bore for you! For you—and you never think of him; for you—and you turn your backs on him; you don’t care what he has gone through for you. Yet he is not weary of toiling for you: he has risen from the dead, he is praying for you at the right hand of God—’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And he is upon this earth too; he is among us; he is there close to you now; I see his wounded body and his look of love.”

Then, focusing on the jewelry worn by one of her women listeners, she launches into an attack on vanity and consumption:

“Ah, poor blind child!” Dinah went on, “think if it should happen to you as it once happened to a servant of God in the days of her vanity. SHE thought of her lace caps and saved all her money to buy ’em; she thought nothing about how she might get a clean heart and a right spirit—she only wanted to have better lace than other girls. And one day when she put her new cap on and looked in the glass, she saw a bleeding Face crowned with thorns. That face is looking at you now”—here Dinah pointed to a spot close in front of Bessy—”Ah, tear off those follies! Cast them away from you, as if they were stinging adders. They ARE stinging you—they are poisoning your soul—they are dragging you down into a dark bottomless pit, where you will sink for ever, and for ever, and for ever, further away from light and God.”

Unlike the proponents of prosperity theology, Dinah does not see poverty as evidence that we are spiritual failures:

“Dear friends,” she said at last, “brothers and sisters, whom I love as those for whom my Lord has died, believe me, I know what this great blessedness is; and because I know it, I want you to have it too. I am poor, like you: I have to get my living with my hands; but no lord nor lady can be so happy as me, if they haven’t got the love of God in their souls. Think what it is—not to hate anything but sin; to be full of love to every creature; to be frightened at nothing; to be sure that all things will turn to good; not to mind pain, because it is our Father’s will; to know that nothing—no, not if the earth was to be burnt up, or the waters come and drown us—nothing could part us from God who loves us, and who fills our souls with peace and joy, because we are sure that whatever he wills is holy, just, and good.

“Dear friends, come and take this blessedness; it is offered to you; it is the good news that Jesus came to preach to the poor. It is not like the riches of this world, so that the more one gets the less the rest can have. God is without end; his love is without end—”

     Its streams the whole creation reach,
     So plenteous is the store;
     Enough for all, enough for each,
     Enough for evermore.

Riches are finite, God’s love in infinite. We need to remember that.

Further thought: I’ve written more positively about American Gnosticism in a previous post about Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, both of whom I see working within the tradition. As with most traditions, there is a light and a dark side.

I remember my dissertation advisor, J. Paul Hunter, warning about the dark side–the danger of solipsism–when he talked about Robinson Crusoe. When Crusoe thinks that earthquakes are sent from God to deliver a message to him, he is putting himself at the center of the universe. It’s interesting how Crusoe doesn’t seem to need other people whereas, in real life, a man stranded on a desert island by himself for 18 years would go mad. In America’s case, too much focus on the self  undermines the community.

Posted in Defoe (Daniel), Eliot (George), Nemerov (Howard) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Walmart Practices a Tom Sawyer Economy

Norman Rockwell, "Tom Sawyer"

Norman Rockwell, “Tom Sawyer”


Thanks to Tom Sullivan over at the Hullabaloo blog, I have a new way of seeing Walmart’s business practices. Because of the way the retail giant gets taxpayers to support its workforce, it can be described as practicing a “Tom Sawyer economy.” I have in mind, of course, the famous scene where Tom gets the other boys to whitewash his fence for him.

Sullivan quotes a Forbes article on how Walmart gets society to cover its costs:

Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report published to coincide with Tax Day, April 15.

Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state-level progressive groups, made this estimate using data from a 2013 study by Democratic Staff of the U.S. Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“The study estimated the cost to Wisconsin’s taxpayers of Walmart’s low wages and benefits, which often force workers to rely on various public assistance programs,” reads the report, available in full here.

“It found that a single Walmart Supercenter cost taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year, or between $3,015 and $5,815 on average for each of 300 workers.”

Sullivan notes that Walmart has also externalized the cost of theft prevention. It has an out-of-control theft problem, but rather than hire more people to watch over its items, it relies on the police. As a result, police forces around Wamarts often find themselves pushed to the limits. Shannon Pettypiece of Bloomberg Business Week told NPR about her interviews with various police forces:

“The constant calls from Walmart are just draining,” says Bill Ferguson, a police captain in Port Richey, Fla. “They recognize the problem and refuse to do anything about it.”

Pettypiece added,

Walmart says they’re trying to do things like put more employees at the door. They’ve been trying to invest in theft prevention technology, devices they can put on merchandise or more, you know, visible security monitors. The police complaint is that they’re not moving fast enough, and they’re not moving far enough.

And I talked to one retail analyst who thinks Walmart needs to add an extra quarter million part-time employees in its stores to really have the employee presence out on the floor that would deter theft. And for Walmart, that’s going to cost them billions of dollars to fix this problem like some people would like to see.

If this is a Tom Sawyer economy and Walmart is Tom, then we taxpayers are Ben Rogers and the other suckers. Ben is the first to see Tom at work and is astounded at what he sees:

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticized the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

“No—no—I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence—right here on the street, you know—but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

“No—is that so? Oh come, now—lemme just try. Only just a little—I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly—well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it—”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say—I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here—No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard—”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with—and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

Come to think of it, this captures how, time and again, many state and local governments give corporations large tax breaks to locate there. The companies devour the apple and pocket the goodies as we whitewash their fence–which is to say, construct infrastructure, provide services, and staff schools. They show little gratitude for these amenities, however, and depart as soon as they find a sweeter deal elsewhere. We, meanwhile, are left with weather-beaten boards and unemployed whitewashers.

Of course, we could force companies to pay their way and to return the tax monies if they up and leave. Guess which of our two political parties would like to see that happen.

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Welcome Class of 2020 (and Others)

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

Letter to an Entering College Class:

As you prepare to enter into the classes, the residence hall life and social life, the activities, the sports teams, and the other opportunities that St. Mary’s College of Maryland offers, it’s useful to look at the university ideal and why colleges are set up as they are.

I could go back to Plato’s Academy, founded 2500 years ago, but I’m going to focus instead on the chateau of Michel de Montaigne, the 17th century French writer famous for his reflective essays. Montaigne was an active military man, but at a certain point he retired from the service and withdrew into a tower that housed his library. While there he reflected upon the world, writing essays about everything from revenge to sexual impotence to his cat. His “essais,” loosely translated as “attempts,” changed the way we see writing.

The idea of college as a safe place to reflect upon the world continues today. In our case, college is a bucolic retreat, a school set in a beautiful natural setting where one can escape from what William Wordsworth described as “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world.” We seek to offer you a congenial space where you can engage in higher order thinking.

But that being said, it is also true that the so-called “real world,” with all its problems, can’t be entirely shut out. This invariably comes as a shock to us. After all, weren’t we promised a safe space?

Fortunately, St. Mary’s offers you intellectual tools for understanding what the world is as it is. In your history classes you will study instances of conflict throughout the ages.  In your psychology classes you will study why people behave the way they do. In your sociology and anthropology classes you will study why societies are constructed as they are. In your biology classes you will study genetic imperatives. In your Cultural Perspectives classes you will study how cultures very different from your own operate.       

And that’s not all. In “the St. Mary’s Way” we have a code that calls upon us to respect and listen—really listen—to each other.

To be sure, we don’t always live up to our ideals. After all, we ourselves come from this real world and bring with us many of its anxieties, fears, insecurities, and prejudices. That’s only to be expected. But because we have these ideals, we have a framework for working through our issues.

Someone who speaks powerfully to this matter is Lucille Clifton, whose poems you have undoubtedly seen as you’ve walked around campus. Lucille, as we all called her, taught at St. Mary’s for almost twenty years, and she has long been one of America’s most beloved poets. This is in large part because she sympathizes with people going through tough times. Clifton has poems that help large women feel better about their big hips, abuse victims better about their bodies, and women in general feel better about biologically induced mood swings. People of color experiencing racist attacks have found solace in Lucille’s poetry, and she has also helped us experience the perspective of autistic children. Lucille’s poems have appeared on California billboards and New York subway trains to sustain people.

Lucille understood that honest conversations, difficult though they are, in the end make us better able to create a world that will honor us all. Once we step beyond our fear and our anger, we begin to see the full potential of each human being. At that point, we can begin looking for ways to support him or her.

St. Mary’s can’t entirely build a Montaigne tower to protect you from this world. Even though we have a requirement—Experiencing the Liberal Arts in the World—that is designed to alert you to how you can apply your training to the outside world, and even though we have an active Career Center to help you transition into that world, ultimately there will be shocks along the way. The world is a challenging environment.

Our role is to give you the tools you need to develop your own ways of understanding it and finding your way through it. You will “learn how to learn,” and we will also provide opportunities for you to practice what you are learning in a variety of situations, whether in a class, a student organization, or just a casual lunchroom conversation. If you add these to your life’s toolkit, you’ll be okay.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille), Montaigne (Michel de), Wordsworth (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Teachers, Don’t Nip Their Buds

Vincent van Gogh, "The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin)," 1888

Vincent van Gogh, “The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin),” 1888


The children and teachers in our Maryland county public schools started school yesterday so here’s a William Blake poem to mark the occasion. Think of it as a protest against bad schooling rather than against all schooling. After all, education at its best taps into our natural love of learning and enlivens rather than deadens. A good teacher is worth his or her weight in gold.

Blake, however, saw many M’Choakumchilds (to borrow the figure from Dickens’s Hard Times), which is why he inveighs against people and systems that nip young buds before they can blossom. “The Schoolboy” appears in Songs of Experience and shares themes with “The Chimney Sweeper” (“They clothed me in the clothes of death,/And taught me to sing the notes of woe”) and “The Garden of Love” (“And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, /And binding with briars my joys and desires”). The image of the bird in the case, meanwhile, shows up in “Proverbs of Hell”: “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a Rage.”

May all of us who are teachers keep our eyes on the prize–which is to nourish young people.

The Schoolboy

By William Blake

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

Posted in Blake (William) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lochte, White Privilege, & the Giving Tree

The Giving Tree


I’ve never liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, where a tree takes masochistic delight in her lifelong devotion to a boy who, when he becomes a man, exploits her and ultimately reduces her to a stump. A classic enabler, she is “happy” regardless of what he does to her. Having read the story meant that I could appreciate a recent Alexandra Petri column in The Washington Post. Petri sees a version of the man in Ryan Lochte, the American gold medal swimmer who played to the hilt the role of the ugly American in the Brazil Olympics. She also applies the story to Brock Turner.

As you probably know, Lochte vandalized a gas station bathroom, which drew the attention of the police. He later claimed that he had been robbed at gunpoint, but the story fell apart fairly quickly and something resembling the truth came out. Brazil, which is fighting against Western stereotypes, was offended, and the whole affair left a stain on what was otherwise a stellar U.S. performance in this year’s games.

For his part, Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman but received a six month sentence because the judge felt sorry for him. Many observed that he would have received a harsher sentence had he been poor or a person of color.

Petri titles her column “Ryan Lochte and the Privilege Tree.” In her version of the parable, Lochte commits one outrage after another but is always protected by his privilege. She makes clear how, if he were black, he would not receive such a tolerant reception. Here’s a sampling. The gun incident, of course, is an allusion to Tamir Rice, the Cleveland 12-year-old who was shot by police while playing with a toy gun:

One day the boy was hungry. “Tree,” said the boy, “I am hungry.”

“I know what to do,” the tree said. “Go to the corner store and steal some candy and run back here to me.”

And the boy did. He filled his pockets with candy and ran back to the tree as quickly as he could. The man who owned the store chased after him, but when he saw the boy beneath his tree he shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him, and the theft did not go on his permanent record. (For, after all, he was just a boy.)

The boy grew older. “Tree,” said the boy one day, “I am bored.”

“I know what to do,” the tree said. “Pluck one of my branches and carve it into a toy gun and wave it around. That will amuse you.”

And the boy did. And the tree sheltered him under its thick leafy canopy of privilege and everyone who saw him shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him, and no one even thought to telephone the police. (For, after all, he was just a boy.)

Petri’s story concludes with the ending of white privilege, which forces Lochte to face up to consequences:

And the boy grew very old and so did the tree. One day the boy heard his tree creaking in the wind.

“What is the matter, tree?” the boy asked. “Are you all right?”

“No,” the tree said, and shivered. “I am not. Trees like me should be for children, not grown men. Look.” And the tree pointed, and the boy saw for the first time that there were not many trees like his still standing. “I ought to have been cut down long ago.”

“Cut down?” the boy asked, and for the first time in his life the boy was frightened. “But then what will happen to me if I do something wrong?”

The tree shrugged. “The same thing that happens to everyone else,” it said. And the tree groaned and fell.

And the boy saw that the world was not quite so wonderful when you could not shelter anywhere better than a Reasonable Doubt Shrub (which is nice, but nothing like a Privilege Tree). And the boy saw that it was not he who was wonderful, but his tree, which had protected him for so long, without his realizing it. And the boy, at last, grew up.

Some say.

I believe that Trumpism and the rise of the extreme right are, above all, the result of a white temper tantrum over the browning of America. Petri points out that white privilege may not be around too much longer to protect those who have long taken advantage of it.

Posted in Silverstein (Shel) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Stoned Girls and Boys

The Opioid Epidemic


Like many Americans, I have been dismayed by reports of the opioid epidemic that is breaking out across the country, often in rural areas. As the Department of Health and Human Services reports,

More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involve an opioid. And since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin) nearly quadrupled. From 2000 to 2014 nearly half a million people died from drug overdoses. 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

It’s hard to believe that the situation is worse even than it was in the early 1990s, when the problem was associated with urban communities. At the time, Lucille Clifton wrote a couple of powerful poems about how drugs were taking over the lives of young black men and women.

Clifton is appalled at how a people that survived slavery and Jim Crow segregation would fall prey to opiates. Both “memo” and “white lady” play with that irony.

In “memo,” addressed to famed Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (who founded the Mississippi Peace and Freedom Party), she contrasts images of rock solidity (“a wall in the hall of justice,” “a brick building a Mississippi/building freedom/into a party”) with images of cold and inert rocks (“stoned girls and boys”):


               to fannie lou hamer

fannie for this
you never walked
miles through the mud
to register the vote
not for this
fannie did you stand
a wall in the hall
of justice not for these
stoned girls and boys
were you a brick
building a Mississippi
building freedom
into a party not
this party fannie
where they lie eyes
cold and round as death
doing to us what even
slavery couldn’t

In “white lady,” meanwhile, Clifton invokes segregated society’s deepest taboo—young black men desiring white women—to describe the seductive lure of cocaine. This attraction, she says, will chain our sons “in the basement of the big house” (prison) while walking “our daughters out into the streets” (as prostitutes looking for a fix).

A deeply committed mother, Clifton says she is willing to do anything and pay any price to get these children back. African Americans have paid and paid, the way that free Blacks in slave times would sometimes buy their relatives, yet still find that they owe more. The poet wonders if the debt will ever be cleared:

white lady

(a street name for cocaine)

wants my son
wants my niece
wants josie’s daughter
holds them hard
and close as slavery
what will it cost
to keep our children
what will it cost
to buy them back.

white lady
says i want you
let me be your lover
run me through your
feel me smell me taste me
love me
nobody understands you like
white lady

white lady
you have chained our sons
in the basement
of the big house

white lady
you have walked our daughters
out into the streets

white lady
what do we have to pay
to repossess our children

white lady
what do we have to owe
to own our own at last

Today it isn’t only African Americans who are asking this question.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kranz & Muriel Spark on Insulting the Aged

Young lady or old woman?

Young lady or old woman?


My novelist friend Rachel Kranz is currently visiting me, which means that we are having long conversations about the impact of literature on readers’ lives. Rachel, who in addition to being a writer is a 61-year-old poker player, alerted me to her latest post on her Adventures in Poker blog about what it means to be addressed as “young lady” at the poker table.

The post, Rachel says, was inspired by a passage from Muriel Spark’s lacerating novel Memento Mori, which centers on a group of elderly women confined to a government nursing home in postwar England.  You can predict how Rachel feels about the “young lady” appellation once you know the plot of the book. Miss Taylor, a dignified and intelligent woman who can’t live on her own any longer because of her health problems, must submit to the humiliating routine of the home, in which every patient is called “Granny” rather than the more dignified “Miss” or “Mrs.” Just because they are called “Granny,” however, doesn’t mean that the patients are accorded special respect. Instead, they are treated like children, called “girl,” and patronizingly told how young they look:

I share Rachel’s post below but first here’s a passage from Memento Mori to give you a taste of the indignities that the patients undergo:

A year ago, when admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally. A nurse brought an injection.

            “You’ll be better now, Granny Taylor.”

            “Thank you, nurse.”

            “Turn over, Granny, that’s a good girl.”

            “Very well, nurse.”

            The arthritic pain subsided, leaving the pain of desolate humiliation, so that she wished rather to endure the physical nagging again. . . .

            Miss Taylor spent much time considering her position. The doctor’s “Well, how’s Granny Taylor this morning? Have you been making your last will and test—“ would falter when he saw her eyes, the intelligence. She could not help hating these visits and the nurses giving her a hair-do, telling her she looked like sixteen. . .

And now for Rachel’s post:

Young Lady and the Cool Kids: Insults Disguised as Pleasantries

By Rachel Kranz

Travel back in time a few weeks with me…

“Hello, young lady!” the dealer sings out to me.

He’s an elegant African-American man, probably in his early sixties, who approaches our table with a flair that makes me think of New Orleans—theatrical, authoritative, assured, a practiced friendliness that insists nevertheless on dignity, respect, and zero doubt about who is in charge of the table.

I am a white woman of 61, in my usual tournament getup—disheveled, despite my best attempts at looking classy and put-together, with what’s supposed to be a perky short haircut, a clingy blouse under a loose open shirt (“Yes, I have boobs, but we don’t have to make a big deal of it”), and the kind of energy that gets me through 14-hour tournament days and often causes people to assume I’m ten to fifteen years younger.  Which makes me at least 46—that is, somewhere between middle-aged and old.

“Neither young nor a lady,” I sing back with my most charming smile—my standard rejoinder, and one that usually gets the knowing laugh I am going for.

Usually, too, the dealer acknowledges my request so I can stop talking about sexual politics and concentrate on my game.

Not this time.  “I have to call you something,” he insists, smiling broadly.

“Why not Rachel?” I suggest, my smile equally broad.  “That’s my name.”

“But I’ve got all these people to take care of,” he says, somehow managing to start the shuffle while gesturing dramatically to my eight colleagues.  “I’ll never remember that.”

“‘Hey you?’” I offer.  “‘Gorgeous’?  Just, ‘lady’?”

He shakes his head.  “That’s not polite,” he insists.  Clearly, this is now a power struggle—okay. Big guns coming.

“Look,” I say.  “You know how some people don’t like to be called ‘boy’?  Well, that’s how I feel about ‘young lady.’”

He keeps smiling while dramatically turning his face away from me and pretending to smoke a cigarette:  “Whew!  Wow.  Okay.  Whew.” 

One of the young men at the table looks at me—I think, belligerently, but after both he and the dealer have left, the table tells me he wasn’t being hostile, just confused.

“So what do you want to be called?” the young man asks, belligerently-or-genuinely-depending-on-your-perspective.  “Old lady?”


Two more minutes of political education and we are finally back to the game.  The problem is, if I don’t say anything, “young lady” continues.  If I do say something, it becomes a thing—though usually not this much of a thing.  Either way, as my former coach would point out, it’s energy that belongs on poker, not politics.  What sucks about being a woman of my age at the table is that my gender and age make me by definition an outsider—someone who doesn’t belong, who maybe even can’t belong.  The cool kids are all young, mainly white, almost all guys.  The women among them are often dating cool guys; a lot of the guys are friends with each other.  At the very least, they’re potential partners, potential friends, roommates, study partners.  And then there’s me.

Don’t bring out the violins just yet.  I’m enormously lucky to have the resources to show up at these tables, to study with a coach, to travel to Vegas and Florida and Barcelona.  I’m an outsider in most things I do—the lefty who writes novels, the theater artist who plays poker, the gadfly, the arguer, the nudge. That’s a Yiddish word, pronounced noodge, and I suppose the quickest definition I can give you is Allen Kessler—someone who keeps seeing problems that other people miss, deny, or would prefer to ignore and who won’t let up until some kind of solution is found.  Yeah, we’re annoying—but if you like that 250-500 level, you can thank Allen, and if you like votes for women, gay marriage, the 40-hour work week, or integrated drinking fountains, you can thank all the nudges throughout history who kept saying, “I don’t agree,” “No, you can’t,” and “Neither young nor a lady.”

Or so I would like to believe.  Of course, I don’t do it for “the cause”—I do it because “young lady” burrows right into my skin and stays there like some smiling, infectious tick, swelling with my stolen blood until finally I have to grab a lighted candle and burn the damn thing off.  For someone my age, “young lady” means, “Young is good and old is bad, so out of politeness, we’ll pretend you’re young even though you’re obviously old.” It means, “You’re so old and ugly and asexual, we’re going to elaborately ignore it by talking to you as we would a 12-year-old.”  It means, “You don’t belong here, so we’re going to jokingly act as though you do.  Don’t you appreciate that?  Or would we rather call you what you are—old lady?”

am old, obviously, if by old you mean 61, as opposed to 41 or 31 or 21.  It’s only when “old” is a dirty word—unattractive, senile, set in your ways—that it becomes an insult.  “Young lady” hurts because you can’t imagine it being used to indicate a drop-dead gorgeous woman of any age, let alone a woman of any presence or authority.  Angela Bassett is three years younger than I am.  Can you imagine calling her “young lady”? Jessica Lange is six years older—who would ever call her “young lady?” Meryl Streep? Susan Sarandon? Grace Jones?

If I stretch my imagination, I can just barely imagine a sexy, playful version of “young lady”—just barely—but most of the time, it’s an insult disguised as a pleasantry.  As this particular dealer pointed out, he was actually older than me (at least, he said he was), but I’ve been called “young lady” by guys in their twenties or thirties, which is even more insulting, an even clearer statement that I’m completely disqualified from ordinary social circles—no longer cool, interesting, sexual, or even normal, but rather someone who has to be treated with the kind of condescension and fake friendliness normally reserved for children.

Guys, if you’re still with me, try this.  Think of some quality about yourself that you believe makes you unattractive or undateable to your preferred gender.  Is it your height?  Your weight?  Your bank balance?  Your equipment? Which quality seems to disqualify you from being one of the cool kids, the attractive people, the desirable ones?

Now invent a nickname that zeroes in on that quality—by insisting on its “flattering” opposite.  Giant?  Hardbody?  Tycoon?  Magic Mike?  Pick the most humiliating term you can—the one that means, “This is all we see about you, and all we’re ever going to see.  And once we see it, that’s it.  You’re permanently undateable, uninteresting, and uncool.”

Now imagine, say, one dealer in ten using this nickname every time he comes to the table.  And nobody says anything, nobody says, “Oh, no, this is one terrific, sexy guy—this is one fierce player—this is somebody hot and interesting and fun.” No one is shocked, because they see you that way too.

Well, that’s how I feel about “young lady.”  Hey, I’ve never been one of the cool kids, and I’m probably not about to start now.  But I can at least refuse the name that says, “You are the opposite of cool.”  I can hope that by refusing that name, someone takes a step back—maybe at the table, maybe at home—and says, “Huh.  Maybe there’s another way of seeing—another set of categories—another possibility.” I can demand a name that affirms the truth I know: that my vitality, my sexuality, my presence have become not weaker with age, but stronger.  Neither young nor a lady—that’s me.

Posted in Kranz (Rachel), Spark (Muriel) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Finding God within Our Hearts

Dinah Morris in "Adam Bede"

Dinah Morris in “Adam Bede”

Spiritual Sunday

 I reread George Eliot’s Adam Bede this past summer for the first time in decades and fell in love again with the itinerant Methodist preacher Dinah Morris. I share today her sermon on the Hayslope village green, which we watch through the eyes of a stranger.

It’s particularly interesting to read Dinah’s sermon at a time when church attendance in the United States is dramatically dropping. I don’t know if this is because people are turned off by the politicization of religion, as this Salon article argues, or for some other reason, but I find it sad that people are losing access to the spiritual nourishment that religion can provide. We need people like Dinah to help us get back in touch with the divine. Here’s the first half of Dinah’s sermon:

“A sweet woman,” the stranger said to himself, “but surely nature never meant her for a preacher.”

Perhaps he was one of those who think that nature has theatrical properties and, with the considerate view of facilitating art and psychology, “makes up,” her characters, so that there may be no mistake about them. But Dinah began to speak.

“Dear friends,” she said in a clear but not loud voice “let us pray for a blessing.”

She closed her eyes, and hanging her head down a little continued in the same moderate tone, as if speaking to some one quite near her: “Savior of sinners! When a poor woman laden with sins, went out to the well to draw water, she found Thee sitting at the well. She knew Thee not; she had not sought Thee; her mind was dark; her life was unholy. But Thou didst speak to her, Thou didst teach her, Thou didst show her that her life lay open before Thee, and yet Thou wast ready to give her that blessing which she had never sought. Jesus, Thou art in the midst of us, and Thou knowest all men: if there is any here like that poor woman—if their minds are dark, their lives unholy—if they have come out not seeking Thee, not desiring to be taught; deal with them according to the free mercy which Thou didst show to her. Speak to them, Lord, open their ears to my message, bring their sins to their minds, and make them thirst for that salvation which Thou art ready to give.

“Lord, Thou art with Thy people still: they see Thee in the night-watches, and their hearts burn within them as Thou talkest with them by the way. And Thou art near to those who have not known Thee: open their eyes that they may see Thee—see Thee weeping over them, and saying ‘Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life’—see Thee hanging on the cross and saying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’—see Thee as Thou wilt come again in Thy glory to judge them at the last. Amen.”

Dinah opened her eyes again and paused, looking at the group of villagers, who were now gathered rather more closely on her right hand.

“Dear friends,” she began, raising her voice a little, “you have all of you been to church, and I think you must have heard the clergyman read these words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.’ Jesus Christ spoke those words—he said he came TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. I don’t know whether you ever thought about those words much, but I will tell you when I remember first hearing them. It was on just such a sort of evening as this, when I was a little girl, and my aunt as brought me up took me to hear a good man preach out of doors, just as we are here. I remember his face well: he was a very old man, and had very long white hair; his voice was very soft and beautiful, not like any voice I had ever heard before. I was a little girl and scarcely knew anything, and this old man seemed to me such a different sort of a man from anybody I had ever seen before that I thought he had perhaps come down from the sky to preach to us, and I said, ‘Aunt, will he go back to the sky to-night, like the picture in the Bible?’

“That man of God was Mr. Wesley, who spent his life in doing what our blessed Lord did—preaching the Gospel to the poor—and he entered into his rest eight years ago. I came to know more about him years after, but I was a foolish thoughtless child then, and I remembered only one thing he told us in his sermon. He told us as ‘Gospel’ meant ‘good news.’ The Gospel, you know, is what the Bible tells us about God.

“Think of that now! Jesus Christ did really come down from heaven, as I, like a silly child, thought Mr. Wesley did; and what he came down for was to tell good news about God to the poor. Why, you and me, dear friends, are poor. We have been brought up in poor cottages and have been reared on oatcake, and lived coarse; and we haven’t been to school much, nor read books, and we don’t know much about anything but what happens just round us. We are just the sort of people that want to hear good news. For when anybody’s well off, they don’t much mind about hearing news from distant parts; but if a poor man or woman’s in trouble and has hard work to make out a living, they like to have a letter to tell ’em they’ve got a friend as will help ’em. To be sure, we can’t help knowing something about God, even if we’ve never heard the Gospel, the good news that our Saviour brought us. For we know everything comes from God: don’t you say almost every day, ‘This and that will happen, please God,’ and ‘We shall begin to cut the grass soon, please God to send us a little more sunshine’? We know very well we are altogether in the hands of God. We didn’t bring ourselves into the world, we can’t keep ourselves alive while we’re sleeping; the daylight, and the wind, and the corn, and the cows to give us milk—everything we have comes from God. And he gave us our souls and put love between parents and children, and husband and wife. But is that as much as we want to know about God? We see he is great and mighty, and can do what he will: we are lost, as if we was struggling in great waters, when we try to think of him.

“But perhaps doubts come into your mind like this: Can God take much notice of us poor people? Perhaps he only made the world for the great and the wise and the rich. It doesn’t cost him much to give us our little handful of victual and bit of clothing; but how do we know he cares for us any more than we care for the worms and things in the garden, so as we rear our carrots and onions? Will God take care of us when we die? And has he any comfort for us when we are lame and sick and helpless? Perhaps, too, he is angry with us; else why does the blight come, and the bad harvests, and the fever, and all sorts of pain and trouble? For our life is full of trouble, and if God sends us good, he seems to send bad too. How is it? How is it?

“Ah, dear friends, we are in sad want of good news about God; and what does other good news signify if we haven’t that? For everything else comes to an end, and when we die we leave it all. But God lasts when everything else is gone. What shall we do if he is not our friend?”

Then Dinah told how the good news had been brought, and how the mind of God towards the poor had been made manifest in the life of Jesus, dwelling on its lowliness and its acts of mercy.

“So you see, dear friends,” she went on, “Jesus spent his time almost all in doing good to poor people; he preached out of doors to them, and he made friends of poor workmen, and taught them and took pains with them. Not but what he did good to the rich too, for he was full of love to all men, only he saw as the poor were more in want of his help. So he cured the lame and the sick and the blind, and he worked miracles to feed the hungry because, he said, he was sorry for them; and he was very kind to the little children and comforted those who had lost their friends; and he spoke very tenderly to poor sinners that were sorry for their sins.

“Ah, wouldn’t you love such a man if you saw him—if he were here in this village? What a kind heart he must have! What a friend he would be to go to in trouble! How pleasant it must be to be taught by him.

“Well, dear friends, who WAS this man? Was he only a good man—a very good man, and no more—like our dear Mr. Wesley, who has been taken from us?…He was the Son of God—’in the image of the Father,’ the Bible says; that means, just like God, who is the beginning and end of all things—the God we want to know about. So then, all the love that Jesus showed to the poor is the same love that God has for us. We can understand what Jesus felt, because he came in a body like ours and spoke words such as we speak to each other. We were afraid to think what God was before—the God who made the world and the sky and the thunder and lightning. We could never see him; we could only see the things he had made; and some of these things was very terrible, so as we might well tremble when we thought of him. But our blessed Savior has showed us what God is in a way us poor ignorant people can understand; he has showed us what God’s heart is, what are his feelings towards us.


Posted in Eliot (George) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Selling Your Child on Idealism



Here’s a poem to give you an end-of-the-week jolt. Parents will recognize the speaker’s dilemma: we want to nurture our children’s idealism, even though we ourselves know there are reasons to worry. I love the concluding analogy, which casts the parent as a fast talking realtor.

Good Bones

By Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Jon Stewart Resembled Jonathan Swift

Jon Stewart


It’s been just over a year since Jon Stewart left the Daily Show and I find myself still needing him. It hasn’t helped that Stephen Colbert left Comedy Central soon afterwards, and Gary Trudeau now writes Doonesbury only on Sundays. The talented Larry Wilmore, meanwhile, has just been fired, and Trevor Noah hasn’t yet shown than he can replace Stewart. While John Oliver and Samantha Bee are wonderful, they can’t make up for that daily dose of comic sanity that I had become dependent on.

I once wrote that John Stewart was our Jonathan Swift, a high compliment as I consider Swift to be the greatest satirist ever to write. When Stewart delivered his penultimate show, on August 5, 2015, I thought that he sounded very much like Lemuel Gulliver looking back at the impact of Gulliver’s Travels.

 For nostalgia’s sake, watch the piece here. Stewart looks at a series of headlines written about his shows over the years, all of them using the word “eviscerate.” As in “Jon Stewart eviscerates CNN” or “eviscerates Fox pundits” or “eviscerates anti-immigration protesters” or “eviscerates the Bush family.” “I feel like what we’ve built here is a monument to evisceration,” Stewart says.

Then he goes back to check whether, as a result of his satire, his targets are still “walking around with a belly full of viscera.” He appears shocked and amazed that it is business as usual with all those he has attacked. His satire appears to have made no difference.

I once wrote in another post–this one about right wing talk show host Laura Ingraham that the greatest satirists are not afraid to go after themselves. (I wrote this to disagree with someone who saw Ingraham as a Swift.) Great satirists realize that satire threatens to make them “holier than thou,” and both Swift and Stewart–but not Ingraham–go after the pride of the satirist. Swift said that his satiric pen started spewing venom whenever he encountered someone puffed up by pride, and he would sometimes identify himself as the culprit.

So in memory of Stewart, here is Swift—or rather Gulliver—expressing shock and amazement that Gulliver’s Travels hasn’t accomplished all that his publisher promised it would accomplish:

I do, in the next place, complain of my own great want of judgment, in being prevailed upon by the entreaties and false reasoning of you and some others, very much against my own opinion, to suffer my travels to be published.  Pray bring to your mind how often I desired you to consider, when you insisted on the motive of public good, that the Yahoos were a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by precept or example: and so it has proved; for, instead of seeing a full stop put to all abuses and corruptions, at least in this little island, as I had reason to expect; behold, after above six months warning, I cannot learn that my book has produced one single effect according to my intentions.  I desired you would let me know, by a letter, when party and faction were extinguished; judges learned and upright; pleaders honest and modest, with some tincture of common sense, and Smithfield blazing with pyramids of law books; the young nobility’s education entirely changed; the physicians banished; the female Yahoos abounding in virtue, honour, truth, and good sense; courts and levees of great ministers thoroughly weeded and swept; wit, merit, and learning rewarded; all disgracers of the press in prose and verse condemned to eat nothing but their own cotton, and quench their thirst with their own ink.  These, and a thousand other reformations, I firmly counted upon by your encouragement; as indeed they were plainly deducible from the precepts delivered in my book.  And it must be owned, that seven months were a sufficient time to correct every vice and folly to which Yahoos are subject, if their natures had been capable of the least disposition to virtue or wisdom.  

In other words, all these people are still walking around with bellies full of viscera. Oh, where have you gone, Jon? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Posted in Swift (Jonathan) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is Your City Dying? Bring in Poets

House Poem, House Permutation, Pittsburgh-Burma House, and Jazz House

House Poem, House Permutation, Pittsburgh-Burma House, & Jazz House


A few weeks ago I stumbled across an article about how the arts, including literature, are resurrecting decaying cities. It makes sense to me but it came as a surprise to The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who spent three years with his wife visiting and revisiting cities with interesting stories:

I am a philistine, who has not really cared about the state of the arts. Give me research centers and “makerspaces” with 3‑D printers, plus a factory or two, and I’ll tell you how I feel about a town. Perhaps the topic on which I’ve most changed my mind through our travels concerns the civic importance of local arts, and the energy being devoted to them across the country.

Pittsburg has seen one of the most impressive comebacks, and writers have played a role in that. Here’s Fallows’s account:

The arts initiative that struck us in Pittsburgh was bottom-up and frugally operated, rather than a big foundation project. It is known as the City of Asylum project, and its goal is to revive a run-down area of Pittsburgh and make it a haven for persecuted writers from the rest of the world. In the 1990s Henry Reese, the founder of local telemarketing and coupon-book firms, and his wife, an artist named Diane Samuels, became interested in the cause of oppressed novelists, poets, and journalists. By 2004, they had organized and opened the only independently funded U.S. branch of the City of Asylum movement, which was already strong in Europe. (There are two other such cities in the United States, but they are run by universities; Pittsburgh’s is on its own.) They put up some of their own money, and ran fund-raisers and recruited donors for more, so they could buy a series of rowhouses in the once-seedy Mexican War Streets district of Pittsburgh (the streets are named for battles and generals from that war) for their writers and artists to stay for periods of months or years.

One of the first was a long-imprisoned dissident poet from China. He decided to turn his house into public art, covering it with poems in large Chinese characters. A Burmese writer and her family came, and painted the exterior of their house with landscapes and “dreamscapes.” Strolling down the streets is like being in a graffiti-covered part of town, but one where the style, palette, and theme vary building by building, and the decorations have been done carefully and proudly rather than on the fly. The program has steadily expanded, still locally funded; in the past decade more than 250 poets, writers, musicians, and artists from around the world have put on public performances in Pittsburgh. They have, through the arts, enhanced the city’s international reputation and, more important, given it an expanded conception of itself. Plus, the Mexican War Streets district has become a tourist draw.

Fallows concludes his article with a prediction that the arts will pull us out of our national malaise, just as the country emerged successfully from an era of gross inequality over a century ago:

When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various “laboratories of democracy” were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.

Here’s empirical evidence that literature and the other arts, intangible though they are, have what people desperately need.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trump as Melville’s Confidence Man



 One of the most memorable lines for me from the National Democratic Convention was New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg saying about Donald Trump, “I am from New York and I know a con when I see one.” Since then, I’ve been reading Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man to see if it will give me insights into the nature of Trump’s con.

I’ll be turning to the novel a number of times during this election season, but let me start with this. Melville helps explain why, as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times puts it, “One persistent narrative in American politics is that Hillary Clinton is a slippery, compulsive liar while Donald Trump is a gutsy truth-teller.” In a recent NBC poll, only 11% of voters chose to describe Clinton as “honest and trustworthy” (as opposed to 16% for Trump).

Even the idea that Clinton and Trump are in the same category Kristof finds to be preposterous. “If deception were a sport,” he writes, “Trump would be the Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y.”

A study by Politifact of presidential candidates since 2007 bears Kristof out. Clinton is second only to Obama in truthfulness, finishing ahead of Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders. Trump, on the other hand, leads everyone in lying, even Michele Bachman and Ted Cruz. One of the characters in The Confidence Man explains why we may find ourselves surprised by Hillary’s high rating.

Melville’s novel is about a flimflam artist who boards a steamboat and dons a series of disguises to bamboozle the passengers. At one point he goes to work on the ship’s barber, who has put a “No Trust” sign—meaning no credit—in his window. The confidence man convinces him to start trusting people, after which he wriggles out of paying for his shave.

The barber helps us understand how Trump makes his lies compelling, even getting at the way the Trump’s flamboyant hair gives him confidence. (The barber also gets at Trump’s underlying insecurity–without such hair, the barber says, a man is shamefaced and fearful.) We also learn why Clinton’s careful word choices damage her as much as Trump’s “pants on fire” “four Pinocchios” fabrications. Responding to the question, “how does the mere handling of the outside of men’s heads lead you to distrust the inside of their hearts?”, the barber replies,

[C]an one be forever dealing in macassar oil, hair dyes, cosmetics, false moustaches, wigs, and toupees, and still believe that men are wholly what they look to be? What think you, sir, are a thoughtful barber’s reflections, when, behind a careful curtain, he shaves the thin, dead stubble off a head, and then dismisses it to the world, radiant in curling auburn? To contrast the shamefaced air behind the curtain, the fearful looking forward to being possibly discovered there by a prying acquaintance, with the cheerful assurance and challenging pride with which the same man steps cheerful assurance and challenging pride with which the same man steps forth again, a gay deception, into the street, while some honest, shock-headed fellow humbly gives him the wall!

And then the passage that explains Clinton’s problem:

 Ah, sir, they may talk of the courage of truth, but my trade teaches me that truth sometimes is sheepish. Lies, lies, sir, brave lies are the lions!”

So there you have it: Trump tells brave lies whereas Hillary engages in sheepish equivocations.

The follow-up passage has relevance to the Trump campaign as well. When the confidence man accuses the barber of participating in a fraud, the man replies, “”Ah, sir, I must live.”

This sounds very much like the ghostwriter who wrote Trump’s The Art of the Deal and now, according to Jane Mayer’s remarkable New Yorker article, is wracked with guilt. Like the barber, he says that he did it because he had bills to pay:

Around the time Trump made his offer, [Tony] Schwartz’s wife, Deborah Pines, became pregnant with their second daughter, and he worried that the family wouldn’t fit into their Manhattan apartment, whose mortgage was already too high. “I was overly worried about money,” Schwartz said. “I thought money would keep me safe and secure—or that was my rationalization.”

What happens when we dance with a professional confidence man? We get conned. Why are we surprised?

Posted in Melville (Herman) | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

On Walls: A Letter to the Incoming Class

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

The tower of Michel de Montaigne


I’ve been asked to write an essay for the in-coming St. Mary’s College of Maryland class about “the importance of intentionally promoting civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas in these challenging times.” During orientation, students will be divided up into groups and asked to devise a short list of principles they’d like to have guide campus conversations and exchanges, including on social media. This essay is meant to serve as a spur.

I’ll be polishing this as it need sharpening. I’ve drawn on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the poetry of Lucille Clifton

 On Walls: A Letter to the Incoming Class

If you’ve paid any attention to America’s political developments over the past year, you know that there’s been a lot of talk about walls. GOP nominee Donald Trump has proposed both a literal wall to keep out Central American immigrants and a bureaucratic wall to keep out Muslim immigrants. Unfortunately, the wall talk hasn’t stayed confined to the political sphere but has been seeping into high schools and colleges. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof talks about the following incident in his hometown high school in Forest Grove, Oregon:

But in the middle of a physics class at the high school one day this spring, a group of white students suddenly began jeering at their Latino classmates and chanting: “Build a wall! Build a wall!”

The same white students had earlier chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Soon afterward, a student hung a homemade banner in the school reading, “Build a Wall,” prompting Latinos at area schools to stage a walkout.

This essay is not only about about Donald Trump, however, because it is not only rightwing conservatives who construct walls. Whenever people prematurely judge others and refuse to enter into dialogue with them, walls go up. If the right is often guilty of stereotyping, the left is often guilty of stereotyping the stereotypers. Another New York Times columnist, David Brooks, has accused the Left of “moral preening,” asserting their moral superiority by labeling others as racist, sexist, or homophobic. Those who smugly believe that they are right and others are wrong have also set up walls.

It’s worth recalling that the primary purpose of walls is to keep us safe, and safety has a special meaning in higher education. Students must believe that they inhabit a safe space where they are free to explore ideas, relationships, identity issues, and the like. Walls have long been associated with higher learning. In 1571 Michel de Montaigne renovated and redecorated a special tower, which housed his library and into which he withdrew to pioneer a new literary form, the reflective essay. A number of ancient colleges were surrounded by walls and today, to choose one example, Columbia University has walls that separate it from the rest of Manhattan. The “ivy league” colleges owe that moniker to the ivy that climbed up the walls of colleges like Harvard and Princeton.

Sometimes, as in the case of St. Mary’s, there’s not a literal wall but the idea is the same: students need a bucolic retreat to retire to in order to explore ideas. It can seem like a violation of the very spirit of a college when the world’s fractious battles intrude. Shouldn’t we do everything to keep that fractiousness at bay?

But colleges, of course, are made up of people who come from this other world. In fact, if we work too hard to keep that world out, we don’t prepare ourselves to face it. If we admit only those people who get along because they resemble each other, and if we suppress any differences in the name of harmony, the walled enclosure can become a trap. You will hear a lot about the “St. Mary’s Way” and “St. Mary’s nice,” but if the Way and the niceness are maintained only by pushing under disagreement, there can be no exploration. Worse yet, a university education threatens to become irrelevant.

The key is to develop a community where people can have disagreements while respecting each other. We need healthy interchanges in college and, if we practice having them in college, there’s a good chance they’ll transfer to the society at large.

Two literary authors who explore these issues are the 18th century novelist Daniel Defoe and the 20th century poet Lucille Clifton, whose poetry we see posted around campus.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one of the great works about walls. Crusoe, of course, is shipwrecked on a desert island, and the first thing he does once he establishes himself on the island is build a fortress. His walls become more and more elaborate, even though there is nothing on the island itself that can harm him.

Then, however, there is a development that is a version of what you will be experiencing as you move into your residence halls: Crusoe gets a roommate.

This is how it happens. Crusoe discovers that his island is a place where cannibals sometimes come to kill and eat their victims. Crusoe saves one of these cannibals and names him Friday. Although Friday is deeply grateful for the rescue, Crusoe initially doesn’t trust him and retreats behind a wall. Here’s the description.

I made a little tent for him in the vacant place between my two fortifications, in the inside of the last, and in the outside of the first.  As there was a door or entrance there into my cave, I made a formal framed door-case, and a door to it, of boards, and set it up in the passage, a little within the entrance; and, causing the door to open in the inside, I barred it up in the night, taking in my ladders, too; so that Friday could no way come at me in the inside of my innermost wall, without making so much noise in getting over that it must needs awaken me; for my first wall had now a complete roof over it of long poles, covering all my tent, and leaning up to the side of the hill; which was again laid across with smaller sticks, instead of laths, and then thatched over a great thickness with the rice-straw, which was strong, like reeds; and at the hole or place which was left to go in or out by the ladder I had placed a kind of trap-door, which, if it had been attempted on the outside, would not have opened at all, but would have fallen down and made a great noise—as to weapons, I took them all into my side every night. 

Eventually Crusoe overcomes his prejudices and decides to trust Friday, taking him into inner sanctum. To be sure, by 21st century standards there’s still a lot to be desired. Crusoe thinks that he is morally superior to this cannibal, even though he himself has been a slave trader. He is oblivious to the fact, so anthropologists tell us, that Friday would have come from a culture as complex as his own. Yet because Crusoe and Friday develop their relationship, there is a possibility for growth. At one point Friday even manages to shake Crusoe’s confidence in some of his Christian beliefs. Once you start opening yourself to people who are different from you, all kinds of things are possible.

The other author I look at, Lucille Clifton, taught at St. Mary’s for a dozen or so years and was one of America’s most beloved poets.

Lucille was intensely aware of the walls that discrimination sets up and she called them out whenever she saw them. She was fond of saying that her job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable—which is to say, using the language of walls, to comfort those who felt shut out by walls and to render uncomfortable those who were ensconced safely behind walls.

Sometimes in her poetry she calls out whites who want for students of color not to make them uncomfortable:

as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with

At other times, such as in “wishes for sons,” she utters a wish fulfillment for men who fail to sympathize with menstruating women:

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.

But she doesn’t only limit herself to whites and to men. There are any number of Clifton poems where she calls out the whole human race, including herself. In one poem she speaks up for cockroaches and worried about her own desire to have them dead:

cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.

when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country

and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.

it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.

i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.

now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.

Lucille was essentially arguing for a true liberal arts experience: step out of your own perspective and into that of others. If you are walling yourself off from people–or insects–unlike yourself, then you are limiting your understanding. St. Mary’s offers you the challenge of facing up to your discomfort, seeking to understand the reasons for it, and moving beyond it.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille), Defoe (Daniel) | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete