Mary Trump, Smiley on Nightmare Families


From the moment I learned about Mary Trump’s forthcoming book on the Trump family, I searched for literary equivalents. Dickens’s Bleak House came to mind, but reader Donna Raskin has settled on a far better parallel: Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres. Given the number of people who have found similarities between Trump and Lear (for instance, here), it makes sense that Donna would conclude that a novel inspired by Shakespeare’s play captures the dysfunction described by Mary Trump.

Donna, an adjunct writing professor at the College of New Jersey and a program manager at The Lawrenceville School, is writing her first novel. She recently had a short story published in the Schuylkill Valley Journal

By Donna Raskin

Throughout this current presidency, I have waited for the women closest to Donald Trump to speak up honestly and with courage about his criminally inappropriate behavior. Shouldn’t his wife have left him after she heard him bragging about aggressively grabbing women without their consent or for cheating on her after she had a baby? His wife and daughter’s silent acquiescence has brought to mind the sisters in Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel A Thousand Acres.

A Thousand Acres is an intimate story of one family, begun in the spirit of King Lear. When read against today’s political backdrop, however, it appears an interesting variation on the personality cult that is the Trump family, at least according to niece Mary Trump’s just released Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

In Smiley’s novel, Larry Cook transfers the ownership of his 1000 acres to his three daughters in order for them to avoid paying taxes after his death. The youngest daughter, who has left farm life and become a lawyer, does not agree with the plan and is cut out of the scheme, which instigates the immediate wrath of her father, although she eventually becomes the beloved. Each member of the family withholds secrets from the others, and the family itself hides secrets from the community. The real story, however, is the relationship between the two oldest sisters, Ginny and Rose, who have suffered mightily at the drunken, sexually violent hands (and other body parts) of their father.

Larry Cook, a petty, mean, and impulsive man who rules the family and the town through sexism and arrogance, sees everyone and everything through financial terms and his own needs. The two sisters and their husbands have spent their lives demonstrating their loyalty to a man who has never shown them love or kindness. As Rose observes,

Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction.

This description, so similar to Mary Trump’s of description the president, keeps these sisters silent. Unlike them, however, the niece dissects her uncle’s sociopathic narcissism. As a highly educated psychologist, she has told the details of his parents and grandparents and the story that created the most powerful man in the world: immigrant and absent mothers, angry and scheming fathers, and deathly competitiveness between siblings, as well as (almost as an afterthought) sexism and greed. Like Rose Cook, Smiley’s middle sister, Mary is angry and wants to “bring down” her uncle.

“We’re not going to be sad,” Rose says. “We’re going to be angry until we die. It’s the only hope.” 

Unfortunately, unlike Rose in the novel and Mary in real life, many women (and their husbands) are more than willing to smile politely while observing the horrifying behavior of men in power. Ginny, the eldest sister, has blocked out what their father did and only eventually is able to recover the truth. For much of the novel she is numb, subservient, and a victim of the trauma she has experienced. She describes her silence as “what it feels like to resist without seeming to resist, to absent yourself while seeming respectful and attentive.” 

Like the Trump women until Mary, the Cook sisters understand their role. As Ginny explains,

It was imperative that the growing discord in our family be made to appear minor. The indication that my father truly was beside himself was the way he had carried his argument with us to others. But we couldn’t give in to that—we were well trained. We knew our roles and our strategies without hesitation and without consultation. The paramount value of looking right is not something you walk away from after a single night. After such a night as we had, in fact, it is something you embrace, the broken plank you are left with after the ship has gone down.

Fortunately, Mary has chosen to take control of the narrative. She has owned her anger and she has explained her disgust. Her story is not a surprise to those of us who disagree with the president’s point of view, which is centered around racial (white) and gender (male) superiority. I suspect that, like the townspeople of Zebulon County who continue to support Larry Cook after he calls his daughters bitches and whores at a community picnic, the presidents’ followers will not care a bit about her revelations because they support his behavior. They agree with it.

Nevertheless, as Rose says, “[A]ll I have is the knowledge that I saw! That I saw without being afraid and without turning away, and that I didn’t forgive the unforgivable.”

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Covid Costs Us Loved Ones’ Final Words

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates


A recent Atlantic article on Covid patients dying alone turns to literature to capture one of the ensuing tragedies: they fail to impart their final words. “What the dying have to say must be heard,” Zeynep Tufekci observes:

The paramount importance of dying words has long been recognized across cultures. “When a bird is about to die, his song is sad,” Master Tseng, a Confucian leader, says in the more than two-millennia-old Analects of Confucius. “When a man is about to die, his words are true.” In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates notes how swans sing most beautifully just as they are about to die. That concept of the swan song—one’s last, most beautiful expression—also comes up in Aesop’s fables and in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and was already a proverb by the third century BCE. In Shakespeare’s Richard II, a dying John of Gaunt, hoping the king will come to hear his last words, says:

O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony.
Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain…

I had to think twice about Agamemnon, but I assume Tufekci has in mind Cassandra forseeing her impending death. Because of Apollo’s curse, she is not at first believed by the chorus, but by the end they start to sense that she is saying something of paramount importance:

Chorus: Too plain is all, too plain!
A child might read aright thy fateful strain.
Deep in my heart their piercing fang
Terror and sorrow set, the while I heard
That piteous, low, tender word,
Yet to mine ear and heart a crushing pang.

Cassandra (chanting):
Woe for my city, woe for Ilion's fall!
Father, how oft with sanguine stain
Streamed on thine altar-stone the blood of cattle, slain
That heaven might guard our wall!
But all was shed in vain.
Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell,
And I--ah burning heart!--shall soon lie low as well.

This concluding dialogue is as bleak as anything to be found in literature: Trojan appeals to the gods came to naught and, with the murder of Agamemnon, the Greek victory proves similarly empty. If anything, Cassandra’s words force us to the reckoning found in Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity.”

In one way, however, the Cassandra example undercuts Tufecki’s point, as does the John of Gaunt passage. Richard II, after all, ignores Gaunt, with the result that he loses both crown and life to Henry Bolingbroke. What good are last words if those who hear them simply ignore them?

The same can be said for King Lear’s final words. After he utters them, Albany abdicates and Kent (it appears) goes off to die. Here they are, delivered as he mourns Cordelia:

And my poor fool [dear] is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

I’m on the hunt, then, for literary last words that lead to positive outcomes. Dante’s Purgatorio has instances of deathbed conversions that allow people to escape Inferno, but those presumably can occur with or without witnesses. (It’s enough that God hears them.) What about those that lead to epiphanies or dramatic turnarounds?

My first positive example is death bed advice from someone who doesn’t actually die. Everyone thinks that Henry Fielding’s Squire Allworthy is about to depart this world, however, and the words chart the path Tom Jones must follow if he is to achieve final happiness:

Allworthy then gently squeezed his hand, and proceeded thus: “I am convinced, my child, that you have much goodness, generosity, and honor, in your temper: if you will add prudence and religion to these, you must be happy; for the three former qualities, I admit, make you worthy of happiness, but they are the latter only which will put you in possession of it.

An even better example is big-hearted Pilate’s final words to Milkman after being shot by Guitar in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon:

Milkman moved his hand over her chest and stomach, trying to find the place where she might be hit. “Pilate? You okay?” He couldn’t make out her eyes. His hand under her head was sweating like a fountain. “Pilate?”

She sighed. “Watch Reba for me.” And then, “I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved’em all. If I’d a knowed more, I woud a loved more.”

This moment contributes to Milkman’s (perhaps metaphorical) flight at the end of the book:

Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly. “There must be another one like you,” he whispered to her. “There’s got to be at least one more woman like you.”

The lost boy has found identity and purpose. Pilate’s words are the final articulation he needs.

What if he had missed them because she was in a Covid intensive care unit?

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Hearts Upright & Sound Receive the Seed

Bruegel, Parable of the Sower

Spiritual Sunday

The 18th century poet Christopher Smart, most famous for Jubilate Agno in which he sees his cat as “the servant of the living God,” was noted in his time for working to make Jesus’s parables accessible to all.  His first poem in the collection is “The Sower and the Seed,” today’s Gospel reading.

In it, he raises the question of why Jesus resorts to parables rather than speaking “thy gracious will outright.” The answer: Because the truth “is reserved for you.” God’s mysteries are only for those who have ears to hear.

The collection is entitled The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ Done into Familiar Verse, with Occasional Applications, for the Use and Improvement of Younger Minds (1768) and was aimed at the newly literate middle class as well as children. Challenging the Anglican hierarchy, Smart assures his audience that the “mystic lore” Jesus shares with them may be denied to kings and patriarchs. In line with the newly emerging evangelical movements such as Methodism, Smart was aiming more for an emotional than an intellectual engagement with the Scriptures.

As an aside I note that, in one of the high points of my life, I learned directly from Allen Ginsberg that Christopher Smart was one of his favorite poets. He told me this upon learning that my research specialty is 18th century British Lit. I suspect, however, that Ginsberg was more taken with the long rambling catalogues of Jubilate Agno and the joyous celebration of Song for David than with Smart’s parables.

The Sower and the Seed

By Christopher Smart

‘Twas thus the Light of Light, the Son
Of God , his moral tales begun
Behold, the parable I show:
A sower went his way to sow,
And, as the kindly grain he threw,
Some by the beaten pathway flew,
And there, neglected as it lay,
Fell to the birds an easy prey.
Some upon stony places fell,
Where, as it was not rooted well,
For lack of depth it soon appeared:
But, when the sun the vapors cleared,
It perished by the scorching air,
Because it wanted ground to bear:
And some amongst the thorns was cast,
Which choked them, growing up too fast.
But some upon a kindly soil
Fell, and repaid the workman’s toil
And these an hundred fold increased,
Those sixty, thirty ev’n the least.

He, to whom God has giv’n an ear,
Let him attend the word in fear.
He spake—and as he made a pause
His scholars came, and asked the cause—
Why dost thou parables recite,
Nor speak’st thy gracious will outright?”
Because it is reserved for you,
He cries, God’s glorious light to view;
But from the race, that have rebelled,
Are heav’nly mysteries withheld;
For those that deathless treasures store
Are sure to reap the more and more,
While him, that makes his little less,
I finally shall dispossess.
I therefore parables devise—
Because, although I made them eyes,
Yet is not their discernment clear,
Nor have they for the truth an ear;
That in the hardened and self-willed
Isaiah’s words might be fulfilled:
“In hearing shall your ears be blest,
And not one word shall ye digest;
And seeing ye your God shall view,
Nor shall ye know him, when ye do
For callous hearts this race have got,
Their ears are clogged, their eyes are not:
Lest, when the season is at hand,
They see, and hear, and understand,
And all at once be converts found,
And I should heal their inward wound”—

But blessed are your eyes, that see,
And ears, that hear in verity.
For many kings and patriarchs too
(So great the grace indulged to you)
And prophets by the word inspired,
Have with all fervent prayer desired
To see the things, which ye behold,
And hear the myst’ries, I unfold,
And all their vows, and earnest suit,
Were premature, and bore no fruit.
Hear, then, and note the mystic lore
Couched in the story of the sower.

When a man hears, not to retain,
The word of Christ’s eternal reign,
Then comes the fiend, and takes away
The grace his heart could not obey.
This is the seed that was implied
As wasted by the pathway side.
But that receiver of the grain
Sown on the stony ground in vain,
Resembles one of cheerful heart,
Who hears and acts a Christian’s part,
By bearing instantaneous fruit,
But having neither depth nor root,
By scourge of power, or worldly loss,
Straight is offended at the cross
He likewise that received the seed
‘Mongst many a thorn, and many a weed,
Is he, that hears the word, and trusts,
But treach’rous wealth and worldly lusts
Choke up his heart with carnal care,
Till all is naught and barren there.

But men of upright hearts and sound
Receive the seed on kindly ground;
The word, which they are apt to hear,
Is to their understanding clear.
These at the harvest we behold
Some bearing fruit an hundred fold,
Some sixty, for the bridegroom’s feast,
And thirty ev’n the last and least.

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Cather’s Handling of the 1918 Flu


In my growing list of literary works that grapple with killer epidemics, I can now add Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1923) after reading New Yorker’s Alex Ross’s review of this forgotten masterpiece. If we overlook it, Ross says, it’s because its “keen-eyed, skeptical exploration of American masculinity…went over the heads of the male-dominated literary community of her time.”

Midway through the novel, the 1918 Spanish flu breaks out amongst new American recruits being transported to the battlefield in the ship Anchises:

The section devoted to the Anchises’s voyage is a strange, hallucinatory, altogether remarkable piece of writing, and it is closely based on the diary of a doctor who made such a voyage himself. In 1919, that doctor treated Cather for the flu, and she persuaded him to let her use his diary. At the beginning, the neophyte soldiers are in boisterous high spirits, singing, cavorting, boasting. Then they begin to fall sick and die, their minds assaulted by delirious episodes that seem all too familiar in the covid-19 era. Cather shows how the ship’s close quarters make it a perfect breeding ground for contagion. “The boys lay in heaps on the deck,” she writes, “trying to keep warm by hugging each other close.”

To the spectacle of misery Cather adds a fine layer of irony. One of the soldiers is a big German-American named Fritz Tannhauser, who, when fever takes over, starts babbling in his native language. “His congested eyeballs were rolled back in his head and only the yellowish whites were visible. His mouth was open and his tongue hung out the side.” Another soldier, known mainly as the Virginian, experiences a violent nosebleed and is dead not long after. The names are chosen carefully. Tannhäuser is the hero of a Wagner opera that experienced mass popularity in America before the First World War. The Virginian was Owen Wister’s best-selling Western novel, from 1902—a founding text of cowboy iconography, and the work of an outspoken racist. Cather casts her subsidiary characters in the mold of heroes, but the flu lays waste to their bodies before they even catch sight of the battlefield

Cather’s soldiers, Ross notes, aren’t even allowed the “tough skinned bravado” that one finds in, say, Ernest Hemmingway’s Farewell to Arms. Instead of the existentialist machismo of the disillusioned Frederic Henry, Cather depicts her protagonist as a naïve or holy fool who (in her words) “died believing his country better than it is.” The book was therefore mocked by Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, and others, but it sounds as though Cather anticipates the kind of soldiers that one finds in, say, Tim O’Brien’s Things Fall Apart.

If the sensitive protagonist hadn’t died on the battlefield, his mother later realizes, he may well have killed himself when confronted with the gap between his ideals and reality:

A year or two after the end of the war, Claude’s mother thinks of how some homecoming soldiers are unable to reënter reality, and die by their own hand. “Some do it in obscure lodging houses, some in their office, where they seemed to be carrying on their business like other men. Some slip over a vessel’s side and disappear into the sea.” Mrs. Wheeler takes a thin comfort in the sense that Claude might have suffered the same fate: “One she knew, who could ill bear disillusion . . . safe, safe.”

 In reading Ross’s review, I’m reminded on one explanation for why the Spanish flu disappeared from historical consciousness despite having killed 50 million people worldwide (675,00 in the United States). Dying of the flu, when compared with dying on the battlefield, seemed effeminate and almost shameful. We’re seeing comparable sentiments towards sickness today from certain authoritarian strong men, such as Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro. Wearing masks is for sissies.

In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Porter Mansfield also has a soldier die before being shipped to the front. Fighting an illness can indeed be like fighting a war, and at one point Trump talked about becoming a wartime president in the battle against Covid. He even discussed invoking the War Powers Act, presumably with an eye toward producing personal protective equipment, tests, and testing centers.

Since then, however, he has waved the white flag of surrender, preferring to think the illness will go away if we just ignore it. He doesn’t even bother to thank frontline workers anymore. Willa Cather is never been one to indulge such men. If you want to see real heroism, check out her strong female protagonists in Song of the Lark, O Pioneers!, and My Antonia. They don’t talk big but their staying power and their toughness show us what it really takes to surmount adversity.

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A Fable about Cancel Culture


A recent open letter published by Harper’s and signed by a distinguished list of writers, academics, political columnists and others has me thinking of a fable my father wrote in the 1960s or 1970s. At the time, the issue was political correctness, which is why the poem seems timely. Except for the mimeograph imagery, that is.

The Harper’s letter worries that rightwing intolerance is leading to leftwing intolerance. The following excerpt sums up the concerns:

The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

“The Recalcitrant Sheet of Mimeograph Paper” is about a piece of paper that remains blank rather than surrender to the operator’s agenda. It refuses to allow its backside to be “tattooed” with “the decadent artifacts of a worn-out bureaucracy.” Consider it a member of the Trump Resistance.

In its rebellion, however, it falls into a different kind of conformity so that, by the end, it is citing the famous finale of The Communist Manifesto. Its threat sounds no less “sheeplike” and bureaucratic than the docile conformists and blank imbeciles who were its former compatriots.

Before proceeding with any discussion of cancel culture, caution is required. The right is far more likely to use force when it exerts pressure. Trump’s cancellations, backed up by federal power, are far more severe than any virtue shaming that we see on the left, and there have been far too many instances of police literally canceling black lives that made white people uncomfortable.

For that matter, look at all the Republicans who have been driven from the party for voicing doubts about Trump. Look also at those who sell their souls or remain silent to avoid such a fate. Nothing close to this is happening on the left.

We should remind ourselves that “political correctness,” while weaponized by the right, was initially used by liberals to call out their own excesses. In other words, they were willing to engage in self-criticism in the way that the right seldom is. It was in this spirit of introspection that Barack Obama recently called out those leftists who self-righteously excoriate others to prove how woke they are. This is not how you build effective coalitions and bring about needed political change, he warned.

Both the Harper’s letter and Scott Bates’s poem should be read in this light. It’s okay to be “muddied” by allies who are less enlightened than you. It’s okay to vote for the lesser of two evils. The stakes in the upcoming election are too serious to be sidetracked by purity battles.

The Recalcitrant Piece of Mimeograph Paper
By Scott Bates

A Sheet of Mimeograph Paper refused to go through the machine
No no it cried
Set me apart
Must I serve as fodder for a Mimeograph Moloch
To the docile conformity and blank imbecility of my sheeplike compatriots
My purity sullied
My innocence destroyed

Will you track up my candor with your muddy feet
No no I protest
I refuse
Let me be crumpled into cabbage

Peeled into carrot strips
Abandoned with the used kleenices holey hermit sacks outcast chewing gum wrappers and all the other paper pariahs of your so-called civilization
Before you tattoo my backside with the decadent artifacts of a worn-out bureaucracy

They fed it through the machine
It came out blank
They fed it through again

At last it spoke
Dear Sirs it said
Pursuant to your request of long standing
And in full cognizance of the numerous difficulties involved
I am authorized to inform you at this time
You have nothing to lose but your chains

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Le Guin on Differing Disaster Responses

Ursula K. Le Guin


As I’ve looked at different countries coping with coronavirus, a passage from an Ursula Le Guin science fiction story comes to mind. In “Nine Lives” she suggests that culture helps explain why some countries respond better to catastrophe than others.

Since the three countries responding the worst to the Covid pandemic have been democracies with authoritarian leaders—or in America’s case, a wannabe authoritarian leader—mismanagement may explain more than culture. (The other two countries are Russia and Brazil.) Nevertheless, let’s try applying Le Guin’s theory.

In “Nine Lives,” resource depletion has led to world-wide famines, forcing humankind to mine for uranium on far distant planets. Amongst those sent into the mines include two engineers (a Welshman and an Argentine) and a “tenclone”—which is to say, ten men and women who have all been cloned from scientific genius John Chow. Working as a team, the clones are far more efficient than regular human beings.

The story explains how the Welshman survived the famine:

The United Kingdom had come through the Great Famines well, losing less than half its population: a record achieved by rigorous food control. Black marketeers and hoarders had been executed. Crumbs had been shared. Where in richer lands most had died and a few had thriven, in Britain fewer died and none throve. They all got lean. Their sons were lean, their grandsons lean, small, brittle-boned, easily infected. When civilization became a matter of standing in lines, the British had kept queue, and so had replaced the survival of the fittest with the survival of the fair-minded. Owen Pugh was a scrawny little man. All the same, he was there.

It’s ironic, in light of this observation, that U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson initially opted for a survival of the fittest response to Covid, banking on the country developing herd immunity rather than working to minimize deaths. I believe that, after catching the coronavirus himself, he backed off of this policy.

Europe’s other social democracies have taken the fair-minded approach and watched their Covid rates go steadily down. Brazil, Russia and America, by contrast, have opted for Social Darwinism. Trump’s latest announcement that “we need to live with it” would mean accepting, as inevitable, hundreds of thousands more deaths. (Trump doesn’t mention this consequence of his approach.) As the president sees it, real Americans don’t get sick. In fact, if they make his reelection harder, they’re not real Americans.

Under Trump we’ve gotten the worst of all possible worlds. First we opted for fair-minded (everyone was to settle in place) and then for survival of the fittest (much of America opened up too soon). We squandered the sacrifices under Option A by moving too quickly to Option B.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden—pretty much any semi-competent president—would have done a better job. All would have listened to the science and developed national strategies for providing personal protective equipment, mandating masks and social distancing, and setting up widespread testing and tracing. We therefore can’t entirely blame American culture for its status as the world’s top coronavirus hot spot. Trump and his GOP enablers have a lot to answer for.

Nevertheless, culture enters in, both America’s libertarian streak and its penchant to dream. There are indeed ways in which the American Dream has been predicated on a denial of reality: hopeful immigrants threw themselves into impossible projects and occasionally (but far from always) triumphed. It is our glory and, in this instance, our downfall.

Through the clones, who see themselves as a community rather than as individuals, we may get insight into communitarian East Asia’s effective response to Covid. People there have no difficulty following mask orders or social distancing orders.

To be sure, the always fair-minded Le Guin also sees problems with communitarian responses.  In the story, a mining accident kills nine of the ten clones. This leads the other two engineers to reflecting upon cloning—or, for our purposes, upon collectivism:

Pugh nodded. “It might be wiser to separate the clones and bring them up with others. But they make such a grand team this way.”

“Do they? I don’t know. If this lot had been ten average inefficient E.T. engineers, would they all have got killed? What if, when the quake came and things started caving in, what if all those kids ran the same way, farther into the mine, maybe, to save the one who was farthest in? Even Kaph [the one survivor] was outside and went in. . . . It’s hypothetical. But I keep thinking, out of ten ordinary confused guys, more might have got out.”

In other words, individualism has its advantages. Then again, those who regard wearing masks as a dictatorial imposition imperil us all.

In “Nine Lives,” the surviving clone must learn to form a new kind of community. In this way, he provides a good lesson for America today that goes beyond culture: while we feel far more comfortable within our own tribes, we must learn to work with people unlike us if we are to survive and flourish. America’s culture of “e pluribus unum”—out of many, one—has never been an instinctive part of who we are but it is foundational to our hopes as a nation.

Kaph begins exploring this other way of being once he learns that a “twelveclone” will be showing up—which is to say, a self-sufficient group that will not include him as a member. Is joining the Welshman and the Argentine an option?

“Do you love Martin?”

Pugh looked up with angry eyes: “Martin is my friend. We’ve worked together, he’s a good man.” He stopped. After a while he said, “Yes, I love him. Why did you ask that?”

Kaph said nothing, but he looked at the other man. His face was changed, as if he were glimpsing something he had not seen before; his voice too was changed. “How can you . . . How do you . . .

But Pugh could not tell him. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s practice, partly. I don’t know. We’re each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”

By the end of the story, Owen invites Kaph to join a new kind of community:

Kaph sat in the small yellow aura of the lamp seeming to look past it at what he feared: the new clone, the multiple self of which he was not part. A lost piece of a broken set, a fragment, inexpert at solitude, not knowing even how you go about giving love to another individual, now he must face the absolute, closed self-sufficiency of the clone of twelve; that was a lot to ask of the poor fellow, to be sure. Pugh put a hand on his shoulder in passing. “The chief won’t ask you to stay here with a clone. You can go home. Or since you’re Far Out maybe you’ll come on farther out with us. We could use you. No hurry deciding. You’ll make out all right.”

Pugh’s quiet voice trailed off. He stood unbuttoning his coat, stooped a little with fatigue. Kaph looked at him and saw the thing he had never seen before, saw him: Owen Pugh, the other, the stranger who held his hand out in the dark.

Regardless of our culture, we’re all in the dark during this pandemic. What can we do about it other than hold our hands to strangers?

Metaphorically, of course.

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Flowers for Algernon, Parable on Aging


I have an interesting tennis situation that is reminding me of Daniel Keyes’s science fiction novel Flowers for Algernon. To understand why, a plot reminder is useful.

Charles Gordon, who has an IQ of 85, works in a plastic box company until he is selected for special surgery that will make him smarter. When his IQ rises to 185, he realizes, by studying the progress of a mouse that has undergone the same surgery, that the change is only temporary and he will revert back to his initial state. The novel is a tour de force in point of view so that we see Gordon’s prose change with his intelligence, progressing and then regressing in a bell curve.

Tennis has been my sports passion since I was 11, when I received lessons from Sewanee coach Gordon Warden. Over the subsequent years, however, I took few lessons because I was comfortable with my tennis community. If I got too good, I figured, I would outstrip my partners. (Also, for many years I could not afford lessons.) For those who know tennis, I was at a 3.5 level, although I was competitive with 4.0 players.

My decision changed when I retired and saw how much better my game could become. I have therefore been taking lessons every other week with Sewanee’s current coach, John Shackelford, who upon first seeing my game informed me that I had a Ken Rosewall forehand. It took me two years to unlearn this 1960s style and develop a topspin more in accord with modern tennis practice and new racquet technology. Every lesson I am excited to learn new things, from swinging volleys to violently sliced second serves to attacking strategies at the net. I generally play once or twice a day (following Covid protocols, of course) and can report significant improvement.

In Keyes’s novel, however, not everything goes well. As Gordon becomes more intelligent, he outstrips his special ed teacher, with whom he has fallen in love. He experiences such scenes as the following:

I am very disturbed. I saw Miss Kinnian last night for the first time in over a week. I tried to avoid all discussions of intellectual concepts and to keep the conversation on a simple, everyday level, but she just stared at me blankly and asked me what I meant about the mathematical variance equivalent in Dorbermann’s Fifth Concerto.

When I tried to explain she stopped me and laughed. I guess I got angry, but I suspect I’m approaching her on the wrong level. No matter what I try to discuss with her, I am unable to communicate. I must review Vrostadt’s equations on Levels of Semantic Progression. I find that I don’t communicate with people much anymore. Thank God for books and music and things I can think about. I am alone in my apartment at Mrs. Flynn’s boardinghouse most of the time and seldom speak to anyone.

Nothing so extreme is happening with me, of course. For one reason, I’m not improving that much. I can’t hold a candle to members of Sewanee’s championship tennis teams, either the men or the women, and I have plenty of partners who are at my new level. Sewanee, because it has indoor as well as outdoor courts (although Covid has currently closed the athletic center) is a tennis Mecca.

And yet, there are groups of friends who no longer ask me to play doubles with them—and with good reason, given how I skew the results. I no longer play in a Monday Night mixed doubles league set up by a long-time friend.

Will I decline like Charles Gordon? Aging will take its own toll (I am 69), and as I regress I can imagine some of my new partners—those currently in their forties—looking around for other competition. In Flowers for Algernon, Gordon starts panicking once he realizes that decline is on the way. My goal is to age gracefully.

Indeed, one aim of my lessons is to learn how to put less wear and tear on my body. I have always been a quick and energetic player—I run constantly, reluctant to give up on any ball—but with better racquet work, decision making, and placement, I can play a more sedate game. I am gradually learning the wisdom of a defensive lob. I am also learning (though it pains me to do so) that’s it’s okay to concede certain points, say a wicked drop shot when I am on the back line.

I’ve always seen tennis as a metaphor for life. Keyes’s novel, while it focuses on an individual with special needs, touches on how even the healthiest of us are only temporarily abled. As his IQ plummets back to its original 68, Gordon chooses not to return to his old workplace because he doesn’t want to experience the pity of his fellow workers. One could say that he rages against the dying of the light.

I’m hoping that I will accept the inevitable decline, enjoying tennis at whatever level is available to me. I’ll report back from time to time on how I’m doing.

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Looking Back at Past Covid Posts

Michiel Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City


For today’s post, I look back at my posts about Covid-19, beginning in February 16. I am neither a medical doctor nor a scientist, but literature made it plain to me where we were headed. Given that I knew many of these works well, I fault myself for not having written about the virus earlier.

Feb. 26, 2020 – Stephen King describes how pandemics spread in The Stand. Many Americans didn’t listen.

March 4, 2020 – Hand washing works better for people threatened by Covid than it does for Lady Macbeth.

March 10, 2020 – Bocaccio provides guidance for dealing with plagues in The Decameron.

March 13, 2020 – In this light-hearted lyric, Scott Bates suggests curling up with a good book, which is always a good piece of advice in dark times.

March 15, 2020 – Thomas Nashe’s “Litany in Time of Plague” provides healthy plague responses.

March 16, 2020 – Albert Camus captures how people respond to pandemics in The Plague.

March 17, 2020 – Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” describes the same kind of plague denial that many Americans have been engaging in.

March 18, 2020 – Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about the 1918 flu epidemic, gave us a glimpse into our own immediate future.

March 19, 2020 – Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year features many unsettling parallels with our current situation.

March 23, 2020 – Those who were living in the lull before the Covid storm should have heeded the warnings set forth in Jonathan Swift’s “Description of a City Shower.”

March 24, 2020 – In their first coronavirus relief package, Senate Republicans followed the lead of Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh in Candide.

March 25, 2020 – Charlotte Bronte and Dickens, drawing on first hand experience, provide advice on how to handle epidemics.

March 26, 2020 – In IT Stephen King shows how Americans close their eyes to horrific truths, thereby predicting how many Americans would respond to Covid-19.

March 27, 2020 – As American Covid deaths mount up, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight teaches us how to grieve.

April 1, 2020 – Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal may have been meant, in part, as an April Fools’ joke. Certain Republicans seem bent on making their own version of it real.

April 4, 2020 – The approach that fundamentalist millenarians have taken to the pandemic is captured in Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel Station Eleven.

April 6, 2020 – New Yorker Governor Andrew Cuomo channeled Henry V’s “St. Crispin’s Day speech” when thanking the National Guard for stepping up and building overflow hospital space in mere days.

April 8, 2020 – Trump dealing with Covid-19 can be compared to the Ministry of Magic trying to deal with Voldemort.

April 10, 2020 – With Covid-19 exposing the wealth gap in new and dramatic ways, Orwell more than Dickens provides a way forward.

April 13, 2020 – In “Keeping Quiet,” Neruda offers us a powerful challenge in the face of the pandemic: what if the entire world were to observe a moment of stillness?

April 14, 2020 – There’s a special place in Dante’s Inferno for people who steal money from the funds allocated to Covid relief.

April 15, 2020 – Insensitive employers have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of employees during the pandemic. Toni Morrison calls out such types in Song of Solomon.

April 16, 2020 – As Covid threatens the U. S. Postal Service, it’s worth revisiting Thomas Pynchon’s novel on that institution.

April 17, 2020 – Trump handling the pandemic can be compared to Captain Queeg or to the captain in a recent David Eggers novel.

April 20, 2020 – Poets since the author of Oedipus have grappled for meaning in times of pestilence. I take a quick glance here at Sophocles, Virgil, Defoe, Porter, Camus, King, Mandel, Atwood, and Erdrich.

April 21, 2020 – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Margaret Atwood’s Oryk and Crake trilogy help us understand why some during our pandemic are suspicious of scientists.

April 27, 2020 – A good case can be made that Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was shaped by the 1918 flu pandemic.

May 1, 2020 – Low-wage workers are taking the brunt of Covid-19. On International Workers Day, it’s good to revisit Shelley’s stirring poem about collective action.

May 5, 2020 – Rita Dove explains how beauty can be found even at times of mass death.

May 6, 2020 – Although America’s president, Trump too often incites rebellion against elected officials trying to keep their states safe. In this way, he plays the double game also played by Gide’s immoralist.

May 7, 2020 – We have blundered into catastrophe the way that the Light Brigade, as described by Alfred Lord Tennyson, blunders into cannon fire.

May 8, 2020 – Some in the GOP have expressed a willingness to write off old people as the cost of doing business during the pandemic. As an old person, I cite Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Mary Oliver in my desire to stay alive.

May 11, 2020 – My Sewanee students found hope in Beowulf when exploring ways to confront the coronavirus pandemic.

May 18, 2020 – Donald Trump follows the Queen Jadis approach (from C. S. Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew) for handling the Covid pandemic: when threatened, destroy everything.

May 20, 2020 – We think it bad when we’re quarantined for a few weeks. Count Rostov in A Gentleman from Moscow is quarantined for over 30 years.

May 21, 2020 – Oscar Wilde says that a mask tells us more than a face. During the coronavirus pandemic, we can tell a lot about people by whether or not they choose to wear masks.

May 28, 2020 – Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, which opens with an epidemic, is good reading during our current one.

June 12, 2020 – In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift shows how it’s possible to normalize abhorrent behavior and shut one’s eyes to human suffering—in our case, to 130,000+ Covid deaths.

June 23, 2020 – When given the choice between protecting their followers and feeding their egos, Trump and Lear play from the same script.

June 25, 2020 – Trumpists are willing to expose themselves to disease and death to prove their loyalty to their leader. Tolstoy describes similar behavior in War and Peace.

June 26, 2020 – Trump is no better at handling reality than Don Quixote, although for far less benign reasons.

June 29, 2020 – The spy/scout in M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavilions about the British in 19th century Afghanistan has the same success in warning the British army about impending disaster as our scientists and health care workers have been with Donald Trump.

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The Glory of the Coming of the Lord

Raphael, St. Michael Vanquishing Satan

Spiritual Sunday

This July 4th weekend, marked on the one hand by Donald Trump’s celebration of the Confederacy and on the other by tens of thousands protesting racism, seems an appropriate time to revisit some of American history’s most influential song lyrics. In “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julie Ward Howe declares the cause of abolition to be a sacred cause, with the Union allied with Christ (“the Hero, born of woman”) to crush the Satanic forces of slavery (the serpent).

To convey that it is an apocalyptic struggle, Howe draws on Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Book of Revelations. I borrow from a very useful blog post by one Monsignor Charles Pope for the Biblical allusions.

The opening image comes directly from the Book of Revelation:

An] angel came out of the temple, crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud [Jesus], “Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe.” So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven who also had a sharp sickle……“Use your sharp sickle and cut the clusters from the earth’s vines, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it into the great wine press of God’s wrath. (Rev 14:14-19)

Jeremiah also uses the image of crushing grapes:

God will thunder from his holy dwelling and roar mightily against his land. He will shout like those who tread the grapes, shout against all who live on the earth. The tumult will resound to the ends of the earth, for the LORD will bring charges against the nations; he will bring judgment on all mankind and put the wicked to the sword,’” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 25:30-31)

Msgr. Pope also finds allusions to Isaiah and to Luke:

Yet again Scripture is alluded to by the hymn in reference to the terrible swift sword which is from Isaiah: In that day the LORD will take his terrible, swift sword and punish Leviathan, the swiftly moving serpent, the coiling, writhing serpent. He will kill the dragon of the sea (Isaiah 27:1). And the Book of Revelation 19:15 also speaks of the word coming forth from the Lord’s mouth like a sword: Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. And in the fateful lightning the hymn alludes to Luke 17:24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.

Yes, the Lord is coming in judgment on and for his people. Injustice will be avenged and holiness disclosed.

My favorite image–“the beauty of the lillies”–Msgr. Pope traces to the Song of Songs:

The lily is a symbol of purity in the Scriptures. In the Song of Songs is the beautiful praise by the Bride for her groom: I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he browses among the lilies (Song of songs 6:3). A sea a clear and calm as glass is described as surrounding the throne in heaven (Rev 4:6; 15:2). We are transfigured by Christ’s glory for we are made members of his body (Eph 5:30). Hence, when the Father sees Christ he also sees us, transfigured as it were in Christ’s glory.

We too are called to walk in Christ’s footsteps. We are to carry our cross as he did (eg. Lk 9:23) and if necessary to die for others. As his cross made us holy, our cross can help to make others free. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church (Col 1:24). Clearly Howe is appealing here to Northern Soldiers to be willing to die in order to free the slaves.

Anyone feeling anxious about invoking God to help you crush your foes has legitimate reasons for concern. God has been yolked to any number of causes, some of dubious righteousness (Islamic and Christian terrorists, for instance). An interesting article in Atlantic notes Americans have used the song for good and for ill:

The totemic poem has guided the United States through many military trials. The “Battle Hymn” epitomizes the strengths of this nation: its optimism, and its moral courage. It’s a song of agency, of action, a call to sacrifice together for the cause. The soldiers who march to the “Battle Hymn” have helped to liberate millions.

But there is a dark side to the “Battle Hymn” and the American way of war. The righteous zeal of America’s war effort can excuse almost any sins—like killing hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians. When Americans loose the fateful lightning, they have no moral guilt, for they are the tools of God.

And in conclusion:

The “Battle Hymn” is America. Its words are carved into the narrative arc of the American story. Nowhere is this truer than in wartime. The heat of idealism and wrath forges how we fight, inspiring our better angels, and condoning our gravest acts.

I therefore share Howe’s lyrics with the caution that poetry designed to spur people to action often bypasses the process of introspection, which is one of literature’s strengths. I can’t argue with the specific cause in this instance—slavery might have continued for decades without the Civil War—and people going into battle need all the strengthening they can get. Just don’t look for subtlety and nuance.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

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  • 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.

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