The Horror and the Idiocy of War

Bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

Tuesday – Pearl Harbor Day

Today is the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the “day that will live in infamy” and the occasion that brought America into World War II. That war, called by some “the great war” and by documentarist Ken Burns “the worst war” produced some very strange but breakthrough novels, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

It also shaped my father, who was drafted out of Carleton College early in 1942 and spent time in both France and Germany, crossing over the England Channel two weeks after D Day. He was fortunate that, as an interpreter, he didn’t end up fighting, but he did witness Dachau three days after it was liberated. In fact, one of his jobs when he was stationed in Munich was to take Germans through the concentration camp, both to show them what their country had done and to make sure that they didn’t dismiss it as so much American propaganda.

Like many veterans, my father had no illusions about war. He wrote the following poem after my youngest son Toby—called “Mike” in the poem for the rhyme—asked him about his war experiences for a school project. What emerged in his accounting was the mess that war always is. In that way, he shares a vision with Vonnegut and Heller.

My father always hated that his generation was called “the greatest,” so the title he has given the poem is ironic. Idealizing those who serve, he felt, is always an inducement to more war. When he returned to the States in 1945, he became a proud member of the War Resisters League.

“The Greatest Generation”
By Scott Bates

“What was the Second World War like?”
 I am asked by my youngest grandson, Mike,
 Who has just remembered that he has
To write a paper for his English class
 And hopes his grandfather will tell him a story
 Like Private Ryan, full of guts and glory.
 “That’s easy,” I answer—I am the One
 Who Was There, the Expert, the Veteran–
 (Who has read in the paper, by the way,
 That thousands of vets die every day),
 “It was boring, mostly,” I say, “and very
 Gung-ho.” I think. “It was pretty scary.
 And long. And the longer it got, the more idiotic
 It seemed.” I stop. “It was patriotic.”

How to tell the kid the exciting news
 That we survived on sex and booze.
 And hated the Army and hated the War
 And hoped They knew what we were fighting for . . . .
 And I remember my buddy, Mac,
 Who got shot up in a tank attack,
 And Sturiano, my closest friend . . .

It is still going on. How will it end?

“It was people surrounded by dying men.”

“But what was it like?” asks Mike again.

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Les Misérables Aided Civil War Soldiers

Granger, Civil War: Union Soldier


I recently came across someone mentioning Civil War soldiers carrying around copies of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. This sent me to google, where I found a scholarly article by one Vanessa Steinroetter entitled “Soldiers, Readers, and the Reception of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in Civil War America” (in the journal Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History). Apparently, the novel was a tremendous hit amongst both Yankee and Confederate troops. Copies were passed around, both in the field and in prison camps. Often there were group readings.

I was intrigued that Confederate soldiers liked the novel given that Hugo was a slavery opponent, but Steinroetter explains that readers just slid around that inconvenient dimension of the novel, focusing on passages more to their liking. It turns out that people feeling oppressed will respond to narratives about oppression, even if they’re also in the business of oppressing others.

The Hugo passage I had most in mind is what happens to Thénardier, one of literature’s most unscrupulous villains. Attempting to blackmail Marius towards the end of novel with news that his father-in-law, Jean Valjean, is a murderer, Thénardier inadvertently reveals that Valjean is actually Marius’s savior. The “murder victim” that Thénardier saw Jean Valjean carry through the sewers was actually Marius himself, unconscious after being wounded from a street battle. In the interchange, Marius learns that Valjean is also innocent of other crimes he had suspected him of, which leads him to reconcile with the old man.

Grateful to the blackmailer for revealing the truth about his father-in-law, Marius rewards him handsomely. And what does the villain do with his new-found wealth? He traffics in slaves:

Two days after the events which we are at this moment narrating, he set out, thanks to Marius’ care, for America under a false name, with his daughter Azelma, furnished with a draft on New York for twenty thousand francs.

The moral wretchedness of Thénardier, the bourgeois who had missed his vocation, was irremediable. He was in America what he had been in Europe. Contact with an evil man sometimes suffices to corrupt a good action and to cause evil things to spring from it. With Marius’ money, Thénardier set up as a slave-dealer.

According to Steinroetter, a few southerners care enough to register objections. In one edition of the novel, she says, the southern publisher excised the passage, along with two mentions of John Brown:

“A few scattered sentences, reflecting on slavery—which the author, with strange inconsistency, has thought fit to introduce into a work written mainly to denounce the European systems of labor as gigantic instruments of tyranny and oppression.” These passages, the editor added, had “not the remotest connection with the characters or the incidents of the novel, and the absence of a few antislavery paragraphs will hardly be complained of by Southern readers.”

The only European system of labor I can recall from the novel is the factory in which Fantine works and which, because it is run by Jean Valjean, is benign. (Fantine is fired, unbeknownst to him, because it is discovered she has had a child out of wedlock.) In other words, it’s a stretch that Hugo is going after European systems of labor. From a slavery apologist, however, the chattel slavery of the south is more humane than the “wage slavery” of the north. When Hugo doesn’t agree, he is accused of a “strange inconsistency.”

Hugo’s other two allusions to the American slave system can’t be explained away any better. Contra the publisher, they are deeply connected to the characters and incidents of the novel. Les Misérables is about tyrannical systems, and the first mention of Brown is in connection with the glorious heritage that the French Revolution, which has inspired fights against tyranny around the world. John Brown’s battle at Harper’s Ferry is included in the list:

[Paris] is superb; it has a prodigious 14th of July, which delivers the globe; it forces all nations to take the oath of tennis; its night of the 4th of August dissolves in three hours a thousand years of feudalism; it makes of its logic the muscle of unanimous will; it multiplies itself under all sorts of forms of the sublime; it fills with its light Washington, Kosciusko, Bolivar, Bozzaris, Riego, Bem, Manin, Lopez, John Brown, Garibaldi; it is everywhere where the future is being lighted up, at Boston in 1779, at the Isle de Léon in 1820, at Pesth in 1848, at Palermo in 1860, it whispers the mighty countersign: Liberty, in the ear of the American abolitionists grouped about the boat at Harper’s Ferry…

To be fair, Washington and “Boston in 1779” occurred before the French Revolution. But otherwise, yes, the French Revolution did have an outsized influence on world history.

The other reference occurs when Marius and his fellow revolutionaries are fighting a doomed street battle against federal troops. Hugo compares them to Brown and calls them sublime:

Even when [such idealists] miscarry, they are worthy of veneration; and it is, perhaps, in failure, that they possess the most majesty. Victory, when it is in accord with progress, merits the applause of the people; but a heroic defeat merits their tender compassion. The one is magnificent, the other sublime. For our own part, we prefer martyrdom to success. John Brown is greater than Washington, and Pisacane is greater than Garibaldi.

Whether they were reading the edited version or not, however, Confederate soldiers found much else to identify with. For instance, Steinroetter cites Brian Temple’s account of how prisoners at a notorious Delaware camp were inspired by the novel to escape. (I believe Jean Valjean pulls off five escapes in the course of the novel.):

Many of the imprisoned Confederate soldiers at the Fort Delaware prison also read Les Misérables, as Brian Temple explains. Since “the prisoners were not allowed to have any books that dealt with military strategy, military history, or geography,” they often had to make do with “books on religious topics and novels” instead. And Hugo’s novel was one of those read by many soldiers at this Union prison.32 Ironically, though, such reading material did not always prove as harmless as the guards hoped, as at least one prison break owed its success in part to Hugo’s novel and its “vivid delineations of the wonderful escapes of Jean Valjean, and of the subterranean passages of the city of Paris.” Paralleling Valjean’s strategy, Kentucky cavalry officer Thomas H. Hines, along with a Confederate general and five others, managed to escape by digging holes in their cells and escaping through the “air chambers.”

I also like Steinroetter’s theory that one prisoner, this one a northerner in the notorious Andersonville prison, identified with Hugo’s excruciating description of the Paris sewers. Here are his diary observations:

[Hugo] justly points out and criticises fallacies and foibles of society; the coarseness, licentiousness and materiality of royalty; suggests economy in correcting customary waste in cities, and in disposing of refuse that goes into the sea which should enrich the soil; contends that such methods of sewage disposal is unsanitary and unjust; illustrates good and bad practices in a way proverbial. The work is not sensational, but philosophical; not a “yarn” but a social teacher.

Steinroetter notes,

One could easily speculate that Northrop’s praises of the novel’s suggested improvements to urban sanitation and waste disposal were influenced by the appalling living conditions at Andersonville.

And then there’s the prisoner who identified with the mistreated child Cosette:

James Parks Caldwell, a Northern-born Confederate held prisoner in an Ohio prison on Johnson’s Island, wrote in his diary on January 15, 1864, that “water carrying is a great bore, and has procured me the Soubriquet of Cosette.” Caldwell, who also refers to one of his friends as “Gavroche,” a street urchin from Hugo’s novel, uses the character of Cosette, who is forced to carry water and perform other menial tasks in the book, as a half-serious stand-in for his own status as a prisoner.

One soldier, the brother of novelist Henry James, reports using the novel to prepare himself for battle.

For instance, the brother of Henry James, Garth Wilkinson “Wilky” James, who served in two Massachusetts regiments, including the 54th, during the war, appears to have sought out the novel’s description of the Battle of Waterloo deliberately in preparation for an upcoming military engagement. As James wrote in a letter sent in the spring of 1863, “Today is Sunday and I’ve been reading Hugo’s account of Waterloo in ‘Les Miserables’ and preparing my mind for something of the same sort. God grant the battle may do as much harm to the Rebels as Waterloo did to the French.” Not only did the French novel strike James as immediately relevant to the Civil War, but his comments show that an American soldier could seek and perhaps find comfort and guidance from parts of a novel during the war.

His last comment is important. To cope with the madness of war, soldiers used the novel to frame their experience in a way that gave it meaning. Otherwise, the experience is just too grim.

One other interesting note: Apparently communal readings of the novel increased a sense of troop solidarity:

[C]ommunal novel reading often helped to create a sense of camaraderie among soldiers. In her memoir, Pickett [wife of Major General Pickett] describes that Les Misérables was quickly integrated into the communal reading practices of the soldiers in her husband’s regiment, who formed groups with a designated reader. Many of them also annotated the copy of the book that they passed around, scribbling notes about their own lives and thoughts in the margins and on the flyleaf that visibly linked the book’s action to their own lived experience. The novel, it seems, had the ability to unite them into actual, not just imagined, reading communities.

I don’t begrudge southern soldiers finding comfort where they can. I’m struck, however, that they could not apply this great novel about human tyranny to their own treatment of African Americans. Versions of the Thénardiers’ treatment of Cosette were happening in plantations across the south but readers apparently refused to see it.

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When the Maker of the Stars Was Born

Van Gogh, Starry Night

Spiritual Sunday

Here’s an Advent poem by Madeleine L’Engle that directs us to sing, even when we don’t feel like it. “We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,” the poet tells us. If Christ’s Light of Love “would not go out,” then we can respond in kind.

First Coming
By Madeleine L’Engle

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

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Sin, Death, and a Pro-Covid GOP

William Strang, Milton’s Sin and Death at the Gates of Hell


As we watch the GOP evolve into a pro-Covid party, I find myself thinking about how Satan unleashes Sin and Death upon the world in Paradise Lost. Think of the pair as the Delta and Omicron viruses, encouraged to journey to Earth to make humankind’s lives miserable.

Satan in the scenario would be the GOP, interested only in tearing down, not in building up. “For only in destroying I find ease to my relentless thoughts,” is how Satan puts it at one point. Once Adam and Eve disobey God, he sets Sin and Death upon humankind to do their worst.

Lest you think calling the GOP a pro-Covid party is overblown, consider what is going on. Hoping that voters in the next election will reward them if they sow enough chaos, vaccinated Fox News commentators persuade their viewers not to get vaccinated; former White House physician and now Congressman Ronny Jackson claims that the omicron virus is a hoax; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis punishes school systems for requiring masks; Texas Governor Greg Abbott tries to forbid businesses from requiring masks; red states give money to workers who are fired because they refuse to be vaccinated; a Fox commentator compares Dr. Fauci to Nazi doctor and “angel of death” Josef Mengele; and the GOP as a whole links up with crazies in the anti-vax movement. As a result, Covid deaths in red states are five times higher than those in blue states while 140,000 children find themselves bereft of parents or primary caregivers. By any objective measurement, Republicans have become a party of death.

Early in Paradise Lost, Sin and Death can be found in Hell. (Sin is Satan’s daughter, whom he raped after conceiving her so that Death is simultaneously his son and grandson.) Sin senses that their time has come the moment the humans bite into the apple and tells Death to get ready to travel. He says he’ll follow her anywhere:

Go whither Fate and inclination strong
Leads thee, I shall not lag behind, 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…

Milton compares Death to a vulture anticipating an upcoming battle. Think of him as sniffing out all the unvaccinated:

So saying, with delight he snuffed the smell
Of mortal change on Earth. As when a flock
Of ravenous fowl, though many a league remote,
Against the day of battle, to a field,
Where armies lie encamped, come flying, lured
With scent of living Carcasses designed
For death, the following day, in bloody fight.
So scented the grim feature, and upturned
His nostril wide into the murky air,
Sagacious of his quarry from so far.

On their way to Earth, Sin and Death encounter Satan, who is returning to Hell, mission accomplished. Sin thanks him for all he has accomplished:

O Parent, these are thy magnific deeds,
Thy trophies, which thou view’st as not thine own,
Thou art their author and prime architect…

To which Satan essentially replies, “Have at it”:

                                      [O]n your joint vigor now
My hold of this new kingdom all depends,
Through Sin to Death exposed by my exploit.
If your joint power prevails, th’ affairs of Hell
No detriment need fear, go and be strong.

So Sin and Death—or as I’m calling them today, Delta and Omicron—travel on to Earth to go and become strong. “What thinkst thou of our empire now,” Sin asks upon arriving, to which Death replies,

To me, who with eternal famine pine,
Alike is Hell, or Paradise, or Heaven,
There best, where most with ravine I may meet…

God, looking down upon this s—show, remarks,

See with what heat these dogs of Hell advance
To waste and havoc yonder world, which I
So fair and good created…

Our own fair and good country could be Covid-free if everyone got vaccinated. Unfortunately, Covid has friends that are prepared to keep that from happening.

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Carter Captures Trumpian Unreality


I’ve been struck, in America’s current political moment, by how much Republicans love their newfound superpower—which is, that they can misbehave however they want without suffering consequences. In fact, only responsible Republicans these days find themselves reprimanded by their peers, whether for engaging in good-faith negotiation on a bipartisan infrastructure bill or investigating the January 6 insurrection. For everyone else, the parents have left for the weekend so all hell can break loose.

What makes this possible is a “news” network that makes things up, a past president who lies incessantly, and donors who reward outrageous behavior. If reality is whatever we say it is, then there’s no accountability. The situation reminds me of the world that novelist Angela Carter creates in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1973).

I once taught the book in a British fantasy class and found it so unpleasant that I vowed never to assign it again. Now, however, it has the ring of truth. The villain is the 19th century German author E.T.A. Hoffman, who wrote The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and other works of fantasy and gothic horror. In Carter’s novel, Hoffman is the creator of city-wide illusions. Once he gets to work, no one can tell what is real and what is fake.

The changes start imperceptibly, just as Trumpian reality did. Narrator Desiderio, who believes in Reason, is one of the first people to notice

how the shadows began to fall subtly awry and a curious sense of strangeness invaded everything….And the Doctor started his activities in very small ways. Sugar tasted a little salty, sometimes. A door one had always seen to be blue modulated by scarcely perceptible stages until, suddenly, it was a green door.

When the unreality plague is at its height, anything is possible. Here’s a small sampling:

The sense of space was powerfully affected so that sometimes the proportions of buildings and townscapes swelled to enormous, ominous sizes or repeated themselves over and over again in a fretting infinity. But this was much less disturbing than the actual objects which filled these gigantesque perspectives. Often in vaulted architraves of railway stations, women in states of pearly, heroic nudity, their hair elaborately coiffed in the stately chignons of the fin de siècle, might be seen parading beneath their parasols as serenely as if they had been in the Bois de Boulogne…Sometimes the river ran backwards and crazy fish jumped out to flop upon the sidewalks and wriggle around on their bellies for a while until they died…It was, too, the heyday of trompe l’oeil for painted forms took advantage of the liveliness they mimicked. Horses from the pictures of Stubbs in the Municipal Art Gallery neighed, tossed their manes and stepped delicately off their canvases to go crop the grass in public parks. A plump Bacchus wearing only a few grapes strayed from a Titian into a bar and there instituted Dionysiac revelry.

Will this doesn’t sound too bad, there are darker illusions as well:

Frequently, imaginary massacres filled the gutters with blood and, besides, the cumulative psychological effect of all these distortions, combined with the dislocation of everyday life and the hardship of privations we began to suffer, created a deep-seated anxiety and a sense of profound melancholy. It seemed each one of us was trapped in some downward-dropping convoluted spiral of unreality from which we could never escape. Many committed suicide.

“Downward-dropping convoluted spiral of unreality from which we could never escape” pretty much describes the Trump years.

A one point in the battle to hold on to a determined reality, the city’s Minister of Determination worries that illusions of past mistresses will lure real people into impregnating them, thereby creating “a generation of half-breed ghosts [that] would befoul the city even more.” I think of those once reasonable Republicans who have interbred with Trump’s fantasies (say, over a stolen election), thereby rendering themselves unrecognizable.

The narrator, like many of us gazing in horror at a Trumpified America, describes reacting with a mixture of fascination and dread:

Then, we—that is, those of us who retained some notion of what was real and what was not—felt the vertigo of those teetering on the edge of a magic precipice. We found ourselves holding our breath almost in expectancy, as though we might stand on the threshold of a great event, transfixed in the portentous moment of waiting, although inwardly we were perturbed since this new, awesome, orchestration of time and space which surrounded us might be only the overture to something else, to some most profoundly audacious of all these assaults against the things we had always known.

Hoffman’s infernal desire machines, it turns out, operate by mechanistically tapping into our inexhaustible “eroto-energy,” thereby creating images that we cannot resist. While this means that, on one level, our dreams come true, it’s also the case that we are no more than Pavlovian dogs. Hoffman has but to mix some sights, sounds and colors, ring a bell, and we salivate. In fact, he becomes weary of his project, even though it brings him immense power, prompting the narrator to comment, “I would have hated him less if he had been less bored with his inventions.”

Conservative Never Trumper Tom Nichols has described America as “an unserious nation threatened by millions of spoiled, stupid adult children,” and I wonder if Carter’s novel gets at this reality. (Being English, she could also be getting at the fantasies that prompted large numbers of Brits to vote against their well-being and for Brexit.) Desiring their fantasies, large portions of the American electorate thrill to Trump tickling their pleasure centers, and even though he resorts to the same tired act over and over, for some it works every time.

Maybe this is a rich country problem, where bored people (some of whom flew their planes to Washington to participate in the January 6 insurrection) seek thrills to give their lives meaning. Why settle for mere technocratic competence when you can get a show every day? Whereas Joe Biden listens to scientists and tries to get everyone vaccinated, Trump and his cult tout bleach and ivermectin and conspiracy theories and the thrill of flaunting death.

These spoiled, stupid adult children, unlike actual children, have a fully developed frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex (responsible for the executive function), which means they have no excuse. Tell them what they want to hear and they’ll follow you anywhere.

In the novel, there are only two characters who have a fighting chance against Hoffman—Desiderio, whose imagination is balanced with his love of Reason, and the Minister of Determination, who has no imagination at all, being a colorless bureaucrat who believes in order. While Trump riled up those with vivid imaginations, his coup attempt was thwarted by a number of Republicans who were no more than good bureaucrats. It was secretaries of state and election supervisors that saved our democracy by simply running a matter-of-fact election.

Unfortunately, Trump and his followers are trying to unseat them, replacing them with people who are susceptible to the former president’s infernal desire machines. Trump’s eroto-energy has enough of a hold over enough Republicans that future elections are in doubt.

In the novel, Desiderio triumphs, although only barely, and we should all hope that, between Enlightenment Reason and bureaucratic competence, we will defeat Trumpism. But I worry that, because a technocrat like Joe Biden can’t put on a Trump-like show, maybe some of his drop in popularity is attributable to nostalgia for the circus of the last administration. As I look back at 2016-20, I relate to Desiderio looking back at the days when Hoffman’s desire machines ran unchecked:

In those tumultuous and kinetic times, the time of actualized desire, I myself had only the one desire. And that was, for everything to stop.

I became a hero only because I survived. I survived because I could not surrender to the flux of mirages. I could not merge and blend with them; I could not abnegate my reality and lose myself forever as others did, blasted to non-being by the ferocious artillery of unreason.

We’ve been bombarded by this ferocious artillery for some time. May we resist its flux of images.

Further thought: Carter wrote her novel in 1973, when the left-leaning counterculture was engaged in its own assault on norms and conventions. Have we come full circle, with anarchy now coming from the right? From a historical point of view, it’s a fascinating turn of events.

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When a Novel SHOULD Disturb


In response to a recent post on how “Great Novels Tell Uncomfortable Truths,” reader David Rothman, himself a novelist, alerted me to the problems he has encountered getting an uncomfortable novel about Congolese child soldiers published. This despite selling six earlier books to publishers. Novels can sometimes break through where news stories cannot, but they have to at least see the light of day.

In probing the reasons for Drone Child’s current challenges., David encountered the problem of self-censorship—which is to say, teachers who are afraid of how administrators might respond if they assigned the book or even purchased it for the school library.

Fortunately, one can self-publish, and Drone Child is now available on Amazon. But David’s experience still raises troubling questions. I invited him to tell his story, which you read below. In addition to writing novels, David is a former poverty beat reporter, has written several books of non-fiction, advocates for libraries, and publishes the ebook site. His previous novel was The Solomon Scandals. . He is reachable at

Guest Post by Novelist David H. Rothman

While electric cars may be our future, fewer Americans might be able to afford them because the Chinese have cornered so much of the market for the cobalt used in batteries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, as reported in a recently published New York Times series, is a major source. But we should care about the Congo also for humanitarian reasons, given that the country is torn apart by conflict minerals and intertribal rivalries. This on top of the Congo’s crime and poverty!

Now, suppose a novel might prod at least a few voters out of their apathy. My novel Drone Child tackles the issues. In it, a pair of 15-year-old twins flee their village to escape gun-worshipping rebels who make children kill their own parents. Child has sex and violence. But how could one write about wars in the real Congo—the rape capital of the world—without them? 

Child also comes with a sympathetic, upbeat hero who belies the “s-hole country” stereotypes. Lemba not only survives but prospers. He ideally can serve as a role model for some disadvantaged young people of all races, even though he himself offers a caveat on page one of his war memoir: “Of course, I was lucky—fate could easily have flattened me. All I could do was try.”

Two Congolese have vetted Drone Child, one of them a civic leader and a winner of a prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship sponsored by the U.S. State Department. They believe it is both highly readable and authentic enough to merit publication in the DRC itself. A Congolese war refugee who lived out real-life nightmares similar to those of the protagonist agrees.

As the author I’m hardly disinterested, but shouldn’t Drone Child at least have a chance to beat the scary odds and reach the right readers—especially bright young people able to identify with the techie brother and his gifted songbird of a sister? Child even comes with a downloadable discussion guide for book clubs, schools, and libraries. An author’s note delves into facts vis-à-vis fiction. 

In my book, soldiers cut off and eat a woman’s arm. It happened in the real Congo, complete with a promise to dine on her husband’s heart. Holocaust histories can come with graphic references to lampshades made of white human skin. Shouldn’t we care regardless of the races and countries of the victims? And how about some of the most timeless plays and novels? If Romeo and Juliet can die suicides and Macduff can behead Macbeth and a mother in Beloved can kill her baby—well, must we be so protective of delicate minds?

Unfortunately, many say yes. As one retired high school teacher told me, “I’d have been fired if I taught your book.” She loved Child but could vividly picture herself broke and begging on the streets if she shared her enthusiasm with 12th graders. Mind you, this was in a liberal state. A former substitute in Texas more or less told me the same.

By contrast, one of my fact-checkers in the Congo said Child was just right for schools there. No, I won’t condemn U.S. teachers based on the just-given examples. My sample is far too small, and of course, teachers are simply captives of administrators, who are themselves answerable to politicians. As if that is not enough, some educators have received death threats for the books they’ve taught. Is my book worth a teacher or librarian risking his or her life?

Let’s also remember some other nuances. There is a difference between a book being compulsory reading for 10-year-olds—and no, I’m not calling for Child to be—and its simply being available in a school or public library for high school seniors or adults. Education Week has just run an excellent interview with Jennisen Lucas, the president of the American Association of School Librarians in which she explores some of the subtleties of the censorship controversy.

I’ll keep an open mind. Still, if nothing else, the reactions of the retired teacher and the former substitute hint of the challenges ahead for Child in schools and libraries amid the current censorship mania

One other reason could be that the book is self-published—hardly an accident, considering the aversion of some publishers and agents to my subject matter. The publisher of my first novel, The Solomon Scandals, rejected Child. A Yale-educated lit grad working for the Washington City Paper had praised Scandals for the “same dark zeal Hammett held for Frisco or Chandler had for Los Angeles.” But the publisher apparently considered the zeal in Child itself to be too dicey. 

“It sounds incredibly important and meaningful (and wow that opening scene, that’ll stay with me), but I’m afraid that by the sound of it, it’s going to be a bit too thematically dark for me right now,” one New York literary agent wrote. At least she was gentle with me. Another agent, whom I’d known for years on a mutual first-name basis, suddenly went formal with a “Dear Mr. Rothman.” Publishers and agents should serve as gatekeepers, but could this avoidance of “thematically dark” topics at times get in the way of books legitimately exploring topics about which more Americans should know as both humans and citizens? De facto self-censorship?

Alex Haley’s Roots is said to have been rejected 200 times. At least partly due to the book business’s genteel racism (still around despite reforms), more than a few publishers have spurned Black-written novels that would go on to become best-selling classics. Commercial reasons undoubtedly were among those given. But what’s the cart and what’s the horse? Could kowtowing to American racism be another form of censorship?

Regarding Amazon, I’m of mixed mind. Thank goodness it can help me bypass censors and self-censors. On the other hand, Amazon so far has failed me as a marketing tool. Child went on sale there earlier this year with a less enticing cover and a different title, but another challenge is that few customers now care about the Congo and child soldiers. (I base this on the number of searches for related terms and ad-response statistics.) Racism at work?

In response, we should be pushing for more books encouraging Whites to empathize with people of color, both here and abroad. Publishers, librarians and others should be trying harder to enlarge the universe of readers among minorities. The very books that most offend bigots at times may be useful in doing what Child may do for certain young people of all colors—provide them with positive role models.

Amazon’s big goal is to cater to the consumer-reader, but that philosophy isn’t necessarily good for books that address disturbing social issues, including novels. Robin Bates got at what we lose when he criticized a guest MSNBC commentator for asserting that the fuss over Toni Morrison’s book was

overblown because Beloved is only fiction. In saying so, he underestimates the disruptive potential of novels. Indeed, Beloved is meant to disturb readers, Black as well as White. Great literature is often great because it disturbs.

I’ll leave it for others to decide if Drone Child is great or even just good, but I would never deny that my book disturbs, as well it should—given the atrocities happening today in the Congo.

Posted in Rothman (David) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Poetry Soothes Our Restless Feelings

Samuel Carr, Reading by the Fire


“The Day Is Done” functioned as the introduction to an anthology that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow compiled in 1844 called The Waif. In it, he declares that one purpose of poetry is to soothe us when we are feeling sad and depressed.

But only certain poems can perform this function. Longfellow prefers “some simple and heartfelt lay” over “the grand old masters.” He wants “some humbler poet, whose songs gushed from his heart” over poems that feature “mighty thoughts.” Many of the poems in The Waif are anonymous, and one doesn’t find Shakespeare’s intricate sonnets, Milton’s lofty pastorals, Dryden’s imperious verse, Pope’s witty couplets, or the high Romantics’ soaring lyrics in the collection (with the exception of one quieter-than-normal Percy Shelley poem). Instead, there are mostly poems of the kind that Longfellow himself wrote.

What I appreciate about “The Day Is Done” is how Longfellow is modeling reading practices for his audience. If you sit down before the fire with a book of poetry and lose yourself in it,

the night shall be filled with music
   And the cares that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
   And as silently steal away.

Here’s Longfellow’s introductory poem:

The Day Is Done
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is done, and the darkness
   Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
   From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
   Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me,
   That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
   That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
   As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
   Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
   And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
   Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
   Through the corridors of Time.

For, like strains of martial music,
   Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor;
   And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
   Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
   Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labor,
   And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
   Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
   The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
   That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
   The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
   The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music
   And the cares that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
   And as silently steal away.

Further thought: The last two lines are the most famous. I remember coming across a comic parody of them when a child that I still remember to this day:

A man approached a weighing machine
To-wards the close of day
A counterfeit penny dropped into the slot
And silently stole a weigh.

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Yes, Virginia, Books ARE Dangerous


Washington Post satirist Alexandra Petri has a brilliant essay—one of her very best—about why books are disturbing. She pretends to agree with those conservative school boards and politicians but, in the process, actually makes their case for them: books really are dangerous. In other words, rather than being defensive about books, Petri goes on the offense.

As her article makes clear, if you are disturbed by literary power, you’ll want to ban pretty much all fiction. Or all fiction except for those works that are (to use her adjectives) stale and bland.

I could imagine the authorities in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 using her article to make their book burning case:

This is no good. Such books are bad. Maybe all books are bad, not just the challenged ones. Books follow you home and pry open your head and rearrange the things inside. They make you feel things, sometimes, hope and grief and shame and confusion; they tell you that you’re not alone, or that you are, that you shouldn’t feel ashamed, or that you should; replace your answers with questions or questions with answers. This feels dangerous to do, a strange operation to perform on yourself, especially late at night when everyone else in the house is sleeping.

They are an insidious and deadly poison. Years after you read them, they come back and bother you late at night. They clang around inside your skull. They make strange things familiar to you and familiar things strange again. They have no respect for the boundaries of your dreams. They put turns of phrase into your gut where you digest them slowly and regurgitate them where they are least expected.

They make you cry, show you despair in a handful of dust, counterfeit life in strange ways and cheat you with shadows. Nothing happens in them at all, or they take you to hell and take you back out of it. They teach you how to fold a paper airplane or what is the wrong dress to wear. When people in them do things that are wrong, you are just as upset as you would be if you knew them.

Petri gives a pass to a few books, those which are “less threatening” because they lack integrity.

Some of them, of course, pose less of a risk. They take you nowhere; they contain only stale, bland, erroneous facts; they are full of people you dislike, and you understand them less when you put them down than when you started. These are less threatening. Their illusions are less complete.

These are books that don’t sink as deep. If we dislike the characters, it’s not because they’re bad like Uriah Heep or Inspector Javert but because they’re—well, stale and bland. We’re not as invested in them and, as a result, “the illusions are less complete.”

Petri fully acknowledges all the mixed feelings that come with reading:

Let me tell you about something that a book did: It convinced me that the things inside it were true; it told me so many lies that I started to believe it. I loved it; it infuriated me; I broke its spine in half. Books have taken me into dark woods and the bellies of whales and spat me out dazed and blinking into my own living room and knocked me around backward and forward through time and delivered me gossip from the distant past and facts from the recent present.

I heartily agree with her summation:

Books give you recipes for living, and some of the recipes are good and others taste foul the first time you try them. You read them with friends and come away with entirely different ideas of what has happened. They are uncontainable, uncontrollable, except if you never open them.

So yes, books are dangerous. Come to think of it, so are relationships. Avoiding either could well lead to quieter lives. Or as Thoreau puts it, lives of quiet desperation. As Petri, referring to the Virginia school board that reversed its ban, puts it,

You are right to be frightened of them, and it is very bad they are being brought back. You will realize they are much too dangerous when you think of all they can do.

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Create Holy Sparks for All Humankind

Chagall, American Windows (1977), detail

Spiritual Sunday – First Day of Hanukkah

To commemorate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah or Festival Festival of Lights, which is early this year (November 28-December 6), I share two poems. For those who need an explanation, Wikipedia tells us that

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday which celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the larger Syrian army. It also celebrates a miracle that happened during this time, where just a day’s supply of oil allowed the menorah in the rededicated Temple in Jerusalem to remain lit for eight days.

Both poems play with light imagery. In the first, Marla Baker connects Hannukah with the creation story, including God endowing humans

with capacity
To distinguish dark from light, with capacity
To create holy sparks, see into the shadows and
Shine light where it is dark.

“And You saw that it was very good,” she concludes.

A Hanukkah Prayer for a Time of Darkness
by Marla Baker

Creator of All,
In the beginning You made the night sky luminous with the light of the moon and the stars and
You made the daytime bright with the light of the sun and
Saw that it was good.

And You created human beings in Your own image, with capacity
To distinguish dark from light, with capacity
To create holy sparks, see into the shadows and
Shine light where it is dark.
And You saw that it was very good.

Creator of All and Rock of Ages,
In the time of the Maccabees once more You worked a miracle of light,
Permitting our ancestors to rededicate holy space.
And it lasted eight days and eight nights.
Creator of All and Rock of Ages,

In the dark of night, at the darkest time of year
We light candles in remembrance of the miracle,
One more each night until there are eight.

Creator of All and Rock of Ages,
Too many lights have been extinguished.
The world has grown too dark.
Creator of Light and Dark,
Teach us once more to see into the shadows,
To shed our light in all the dark corners and to
Create holy sparks for all humankind
So that once more we can say
It is very good.

Similar imagery can be found in Mark Strand’s “The Coming of Light.” Again, the Genesis story is invoked, especially the line, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The coming of love, the coming of light and the coming of life are all seen as one and the same. Stars gather in the heavens and, below, “candles are lit as if by themselves.”

Even in this time of darkness, when all seems bleak, “dreams pour into your pillows.”

The Coming of Light
by Mark Strand

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

Posted in Baker (Marla), Strand (Mark) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a 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.

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