Can Lit Save American Democracy?

Walt Whitman


Like many people, I’ve been reexamining what makes American democracy work and how to keep it going. The Atlantic has run many articles on the subject, and one in the October issue particularly hit home. Hillary Yoni Appelbaum worries that “in recent decades, Americans have fallen out of practice, or even failed to acquire the habit of democracy in the first place.”

Appelbaum calls for increased civic participation and describes the damage caused by sitting on the sidelines. For instance, she notes a startling fact about Donald Trump’s support during the GOP primaries:

But among those who seldom or never participated in community activities such as sports teams, book clubs, parent-teacher associations, or neighborhood associations, Trump led 50 to 24 percent. In fact, such civically disengaged voters accounted for a majority of his support.

So how does one motivate citizens to become civically engaged? In 1871 Walt Whitman said that the arts needed to step up their game.

Writing when the United States was still trying to pull itself back together after the Civil War, Whitman describes a crisis of self belief that we can relate to today:

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, …nor is humanity itself believ’d in. 

Whitman believes that literature holds the key:

I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences….Our fundamental want to-day in the United States, with closest, amplest reference to present conditions, and to the future, is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known…

Whitman, of course, made his own literary contribution in Leaves of Grass, especially the magnificent celebration of our diversity in Song of Myself. Some argue that this is the most important American poem ever written and it certainly calls for us to acknowledge the full variety and complexity of ourselves as an immigrant nation. Literature and the arts, Whitman says, will consolidate “the nationality of these States” and allow each one to step into its potential:

The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.* As the top-most claim of a strong consolidating of the nationality of these States, is, that only by such powerful compaction can the separate States secure that full and free swing within their spheres, which is becoming to them, each after its kind, so will individuality, with unimpeded branchings, flourish best under imperial republican forms.

Earlier in the essay he writes,

Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy.

When I look at American literature today, I see “native authors” who, if not “higher in grade than any yet known” (how would one judge?), nevertheless make rich contributors to the American mosaic. To choose just a few at random, I think of Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Richard Russo, Philip Roth, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Strout, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Philip Levine, Lee Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Natasha Tretheway as authors who help us understand better what it means to be American and what it means to be human.

Any civic reclamation project would be given a great boost by a full bath immersion in American literature.

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Trump Lying, Modern Day Shout-Boasting?

Illus. from “Life on the Mississippi”


I was just explaining to my very smart brother at the university of Iowa—David teaches finance there—about the various literary con artists that Donald Trump resembles. When I mentioned the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, he said he thought Trump was more like the keelboat shout-boasters. I was instantly impressed.

That’s because these boasting contests very much resemble the boasting we hear from the president. He has the highest IQ, his response to Hurricane Maria rates an A+, he saved the American economy, he has been the most productive U.S. president in history, his inauguration crowds were the biggest ever, and so on. The fact checkers have been going crazy over all the false claims, and journalists, policy makers, and others wonder why people can’t see through all the falsehoods.

But seeing him engaged in shout-boasting would explain why his fans go along. No one believes the boasters either. They just love their effrontery.

The episode, which appeared originally in Life on the Mississippi, was meant for Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s publisher dropped it from the latter, worried that people would think they were getting the same book twice. In recent years, Twain scholars have argued for its inclusion in Huckleberry Finn.

Here’s a sampling of a shout-boast brawl that breaks out on a raft:

Then [one of the contestants] jumped up in the air three times and cracked his heels together every time. He flung off a buckskin coat that was all hung with fringes, and says, ‘You lay thar tell the chawin-up’s done;’ and flung his hat down, which was all over ribbons, and says, ‘You lay thar tell his sufferin’s is over.’

Then he jumped up in the air and cracked his heels together again and shouted out—

‘Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!—Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing! I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear! Cast your eye on me, gentlemen!—and lay low and hold your breath, for I’m bout to turn myself loose!’

All the time he was getting this off, he was shaking his head and looking fierce, and kind of swelling around in a little circle, tucking up his wrist-bands, and now and then straightening up and beating his breast with his fist, saying, ‘Look at me, gentlemen!’ When he got through, he jumped up and cracked his heels together three times, and let off a roaring ‘Whoo-oop! I’m the bloodiest son of a wildcat that lives!’

Then the man that had started the row tilted his old slouch hat down over his right eye; then he bent stooping forward, with his back sagged and his south end sticking out far, and his fists a-shoving out and drawing in in front of him, and so went around in a little circle about three times, swelling himself up and breathing hard. Then he straightened, and jumped up and cracked his heels together three times, before he lit again (that made them cheer), and he begun to shout like this—

‘Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the kingdom of sorrow’s a-coming! Hold me down to the earth, for I feel my powers a-working! whoo-oop! I’m a child of sin, don’t let me get a start! Smoked glass, here, for all! Don’t attempt to look at me with the naked eye, gentlemen! When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales! I scratch my head with the lightning, and purr myself to sleep with the thunder! When I’m cold, I bile the Gulf of Mexico and bathe in it; when I’m hot I fan myself with an equinoctial storm; when I’m thirsty I reach up and suck a cloud dry like a sponge; when I range the earth hungry, famine follows in my tracks! Whoo-oop! Bow your neck and spread! I put my hand on the sun’s face and make it night in the earth; I bite a piece out of the moon and hurry the seasons; I shake myself and crumble the mountains! Contemplate me through leather—don’t use the naked eye! I’m the man with a petrified heart and biler-iron bowels! The massacre of isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction of nationalities the serious business of my life! The boundless vastness of the great American desert is my enclosed property, and I bury my dead on my own premises!’ He jumped up and cracked his heels together three times before he lit (they cheered him again), and as he come down he shouted out: ‘Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the pet child of calamity’s a-coming!’

These boasters may have been based on the semi-legendary figure of Mike Fink.To see Trump operating out of this tradition helps explain why not everyone dismisses him as a pathological liar. Of course he doesn’t believe everything he says, one imagines his supporters saying. He’s just engaged in modern-day shout-boasting.

So bow your neck and spread, America, for the pet child of calamity’s a-coming!

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Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter

Isidor Kaufmann, “Yom Kippur”

Spiritual Sunday – Yom Kippur

For today’s post about Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement (or the Sabbath of Sabbaths), I turned to the luminescent blog Velveteen Rabbi for assistance. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat finds three magnificent poems that capture the spirit of the holy day, one of which I share here.

As people will do this coming week, the Jewish Stanley Kunitz looks back over his life and reflects upon it. He realizes he is not who he was although he can detect some bedrock of identity, “some principle of being,” “from which I struggle not to stray.”

The poem plays off of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” although, unlike Frost, Kunitz doesn’t regret his choices. To be sure, he is tempted to regret them. When he looks back he sees the smoke of “abandoned campsites” visited by “scavenger angels,” which doesn’t suggest a triumphant march forward.

Although he may have been been committed to these campsites at one time or another—though he may even have assumed a tribal identity based on them (say, on a relationship or a job or a cause), now his tribe is scattered.The image of a scattered tribe would be particularly poignant a Jewish poet.

So how does the heart reconcile with all these losses. In “The Road Not Taken,” Frost imagines that, in the future, he will obsess about his past decisions, perhaps not in a good way. Kunitz acknowledges the potential for bitterness:

In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.

But, as is appropriate for Yom Kippur, he uses this reflection in a positive way. The “manic dust” becomes the cloud that God used to guide the Israelites in the wilderness. In a dramatic turn that remind me of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” (Eliot writes, “Because I do not hope to turn again,” Kunitz, “Yet I turn, I turn”), the speaker exults. The stones, while they bruise the feet, nevertheless become precious. The vision he gets from the nimbus cloud is to “live in the layers, not on the litter.”

I like Barenblat’s analysis of this advice:

[H]ere is what I think it means, or at least, what it meant to me this year as we approached Yom Kippur. “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Embrace the different layers of your story, embrace all the different selves you have been and will be. Open your heart to the you of childhood, the you of young adulthood, the you of maturity, the you of old age. Don’t take the path of living “on the litter,” on the trash-heap of the broken aspirations you’ve discarded. Go deeper than that.

Barenblat informs me that the poem’s final image is very much consistent with the Yom Kippur message. I turn to Wikipedia to make sure that I get it right:

According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God (bein adam leMakom) and against other human beings (bein adam lechavero). The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt (Vidui). At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.

Barenblat notes,

At the end of the poem, Kunitz writes, “no doubt the next chapter / in my book of transformations / is already written. / I am not done with my changes.” I can’t think of a better sacred text for Yom Kippur, when our liturgy tells us that the next chapter in our book of transformations is written and sealed on our hearts. None of us is done with our changes.

Here’s the poem:

The Layers

By Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned campsites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Previous Yom Kippur posts:

A Ninth Century Prayer for Yom Kippur

Adrienne Rich Reflects on Yom Kippur and Conflict

Disordered Souls Thirsting

Believe in the Utter Sweetness of Your Life

A Pure Heart to Speak without Fear

Entering the Days of Awe

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More People Reading Poetry

Sir John Lavery, “Miss Auras: The Red Book”


The Washington Post yesterday had a good news-bad news story about literature: The good news is that more people are reading poetry than ever before. The bad news is that fiction reading is down.

First, the good:

The share of adults reading poetry grew by an astounding 76 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to a newly released study from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Some 28 million adults reported reading poetry in 2017.

The results are even more dramatic for young people. The percentage of poetry readers age 18-24 doubled during that period.

The bulk of the article focuses on the reasons for this increased interest. I’ve talked in the past about literature providing a powerful counter to assaults on truth. (Salman Rushdie is particularly eloquent on this subject.).Young people especially appear hungry for authenticity:

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, who teaches at Princeton University, wonders if the unsettled tenor of our times is drawing people, especially young people, back to verse. “In my teaching of undergraduates, I see them turning to the art form in their attempts to grapple with questions related to forced migration, shifting gender norms, the environment, mental illness and technology — along with old standbys of love, loss and the changing of the seasons.”

Smith continues,

Poetry, which breaks from the shorthand vocabulary of tweets and sound bytes, offers them a necessary recourse to depth, strangeness, vulnerability and imaginative possibility. Poetry also invites them to take their time, to move slowly, to process things gradually, which is an impulse counter to the breakneck pace at which so much else occurs.

Other reasons given in the article are:

–the rise of social media and technology platforms promoting poetry;

— the NEA’s outreach activities to publishers, writers and schools;

— the success of spoken word and performance poetry; and

— the fact that “establishment American poetry is finally looking and sounding like America: people of color, queer people, people with disabilities and activist poets are telling about their own lives and struggles and joys.” (This from Sarah Browning, who heads a national poetry and social justice organization called “Split this Rock.”)

The article ends with the bad news:

Sadly, the good news about poetry in the NEA report is not part of a general increase in reading. The share of adults who read any books not required for work or school remained about the same as in 2008. And, more alarming, the percentage of people who read novels or short stories “is now lower than in any prior survey period.” The NEA promises to address this issue in a forthcoming study.

I look forward to that study. In the meantime, it appears that we turn to poetry, in part, to push back against the endless manipulation of reality.

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Baldwin on Making Education Relevant

James Baldwin


Teachers desiring inspiration as they launch into a new year should check out New Yorker essay that appeared a year ago. An English teacher explains how a Baldwin essay propelled him to use classroom literature to address pressing social issues.

As Clint Smith saw it last September, here’s the dilemma that teachers face:

Students have returned to school after a summer of political and social tumult. In August, white supremacists and neo-Nazis brazenly marched across the campus of the University of Virginia; one shot at a counter-protester, and another mowed down a crowd with a car, killing a woman who had showed up to oppose their hate. A few weeks later, the White House announced that it would be rescinding the protections set in place by President Barack Obama’s daca program—a move that left eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants uncertain about their futures. Many teachers are wondering how to address these events in their classrooms. Should they incorporate potentially contentious issues into their lessons? Should lessons be pushed aside to tackle the urgent matters of the day?

Regular readers of this blog know how I would respond: literature has always addressed the most “urgent matters of the day” and can continue to do so if we think of poems, plays and novels as living documents. In other words, the lessons shouldn’t be pushed aside but redirected. Smith says that Baldwin’s 1963 essay “A Talk to Teachers” shows how American history can be taught so that we come to a more honest reckoning with it:

“I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him,” he writes, adding, “I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality, that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.”

Smith says that, after reading this essay, he “altered my approach, placing less emphasis on the standardized tests and using literature to help my students examine their world”:

I realized that rigorous lessons were not mutually exclusive from culturally and politically relevant ones. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar did not have to be sacrificed in order to make room for a discussion on community violence. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man did not have to be abandoned in order to tackle immigration. “A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.

Smith links to his own New Yorker essay on the applicability of Invisible Man to our times, and it’s a work I too have turned to it time and again—how it could be used to process the killing of Trayvon Martin, the DACA kids hiding in the shadowsthe excesses of the rightwing Congressional “Freedom Caucus,” the white backlash against Barack Obama, and even whitesplaining.

 I wish Smith had been more specific about how he taught Julius Caesar, but scenes of community violence can be found in the stabbing of Caesar and the mob killing of the innocent poet Cinna. Following the Boston Marathon bombing, I invoked the play on how not to respond to terrorist attacks.

Smith concludes,

“A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.

The most quoted line from “A Talk to Teachers” may be this one: “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” A teacher, Baldwin believed, should push students to understand that the world was molded by people who came before, and that it can be remolded into something new.

One cannot always know how a work will touch upon issues students care about—a fair amount of serendipity is involved—but, by listening to one’s students and listening to the work, one will find many occasions to bring the two together. Then the world will become larger and genuine learning will occur.

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Lucius Malfoy, Voldemort Enabler

Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy


The satiric website McSweeney’s has the measure of those Republicans who complain about Trump while embracing all that he makes possible for them. What are we to make of the anonymous White House staffer who wrote to The New York Times or of Congress members like Bob Corker, Ben Sasse, and Susan Collins who complain but never do anything? They are like Lucius Malfoy had he complained about Valdemort. Since the Death Eaters are obviously supposed to run everything, why can’t Voldemort clean up his act and stop embarrassing them.

The starting point for Thea Raymond-Sidel’s satire is Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse saying “that he thinks about leaving the GOP every morning.” But it could have been those in the White House who, so the Times editorial writer assures us, are protecting us from Trump crazy as they can pass the good stuff (ruinous tax cuts, reactionary judges, comprehensive deregulation). Or Sen. Corker, who admits the truth of Bob Woodward’s damning revelations about the White House but shrugs his shoulders with resignation, as though he’s helpless. Or Majority Leader Paul Ryan, who shakes his head in sadness.

If they were really interested in protecting us, why didn’t they stop the Muslim ban, the forced child separations, and the reversal of clean energy measures?

In the McSweeney piece, Lucius Malfoy wonders what it will take to make the wizarding world great again:

Every morning, when I wake up, I think about what it would be like to leave the Death Eaters. To walk up to the Dark Lord and say, “I’m through. This organization is not what it used to be. We used to stand for something — a pure Wizarding race, a fully, proudly insular society, the great black hope of the magical world. But now I just don’t know anymore.”

The leadership has lost sight of the purpose of our movement. This wasn’t about separating children from their families, or sorting people into categories — this was about Us: The Purebloods, the protectors of the magical community, our bloodlines, our livelihoods. We are the descendants of Salazar Slytherin, the party of Gellert Grindelwald, guardians of purity and alliteration. We believe in the promise of a fulfilling magical life for all wizards born with three magical grandparents. And we believe we deserve to live freely, out in the open, with our superiority ablaze for all Muggles to see.

And who is to blame for what has gone wrong. Not the Death Eaters’ vision of the world. No, sir, the problem is the Death Eaters’ leader:

But it has become increasingly clear that the leader of this organization doesn’t care about that. He just cares about taking shots at the Order, about fulfilling some prophecy, when we’ve already won! He’s living in my house, using my wand, just talking to his snake and spending all of my gold while we hunt down his precious Harry Potter. All he talks about is killing that boy and taking over that school, stewing up there in my office, by the way.

So what is Malfoy going to do about all of this? Exactly what members of the GOP have been doing:

Tomorrow, I will serve him as if nothing has happened, as if I had never had these subversive thoughts that I have shared with the Daily Prophet. But every day I will wake up with the conviction that something is deeply, terribly wrong within the Death Eater organization. That we have strayed down a dark path and we cannot turn back. That our values have been co-opted (so easily! It is astonishing) for something so mean and loud and ugly.

But I am not a quitter. I will fight to fix the Death Eaters from within — I will fight every day, I promise you. But, very quietly, I pray that one day a hero will come and vanquish it, so that I may instead fight him, because I am far more comfortable with that.

Incidentally, to read class politics into the Harry Potter books is hardly stretching things. One of my political science students made a compelling case, in a fantasy class I taught, that the Death Eaters stand in for old money folk who desire a return to the old class ranking system.

One other literary thought. A popular theory about the anonymous White House staffer is that we’re witessing Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that mystery, as I’m sure you know, everyone on the train has an alibi for the murder because everyone on the train collaborated in the murder. In other words, the column was collectively written.

Given that the staff member sounds like pretty much any Republican enabling with Trump these days. I’m open to the idea.

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The U.S. Open as a Toni Morrison Novel

Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka after the blow-up


I must confess to having very mixed feelings about the Serena Williams-Naomi Osaka match. For much of the U.S. open finals, I thought I was seeing a young Serena Williams stepping onto the stage. One reason the actual Serena Williams lost her cool was because she didn’t have answers for Osaka’s game. The 20-year-old was playing Serena’s game better than she was playing it. I was rooting for Serena and felt bad for her, but I couldn’t help but thrill to Naomi’s performance.

Then the blow-up happened and I felt like I was in the middle of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula.  The novel contrasts two women, a quiet, dutiful one and a transgressive scandalous one. Although once the best of friends, class differences push them apart. Nel becomes a respectable wife, Sula a scandalous woman, and in a climactic development Sula steals Nel’s husband. While we seek to understand and sympathize with Sula, it’s never easy. Yet after she dies, Nel realizes how much she misses her.

Morrison doesn’t let us sentimentalize Sula and we can’t sentimentalize Serena either. She’s the greatest woman tennis player ever, but her fierce competitiveness has also gotten her into trouble. I’ve read many columns defending her actions and I agree with them only to a point. It’s true that women aren’t allowed to get as angry as men on the tennis court (or elsewhere in sports), and it may well be that the ref would have been more tolerant of male outbursts. Perhaps Carlos Ramos was intimidated by a fierce black woman and overreacted in the way that white police officers react to black men, with results we know all too well. Maybe a woman ref would have defused the situation better.

That being said, however, Carlos Ramos is famous for docking points from other well-known players, including Nadal and Djokovic. He’s had run-ins with both as each pushed certain boundaries, especially with regard to time violations.

And technically he wasn’t wrong in his calls. Serena’s coach had in fact been trying to coach her—it didn’t matter whether she saw him doing so or not—and smashing a racking is an automatic penalty. Serena blew up when, after finally having broken Osaka’s serve, she surrendered the break right back. Serena’s serve has been the greatest weapon in the history of woman’s tennis, and it’s understandable why she would feel unnerved when suddenly it was no longer producing the expected results. At that point in the match, Serena resembled a chess player who, upset when the game appears to be getting out of hand, knocks the board over.

Martine Navratilova, who admits that a double standard exists about men and women acting out, nevertheless faults Serena for her antics. No one, neither women or men, should behave that way, Navratilova says. For one thing, it’s not fair for the other player. It says a lot for Osaka that she stayed cool and finished out the match as she did.

Dutiful readers often prefer Nel in Toni Morrison’s novel while rebellious ones go for Sula. But in the end, each woman needs the other. As a woman of color, Osaka will find her road much easier because of Serena, who has made racist haters seem small. Serena, meanwhile, may come to appreciate how the next generation model themselves on her.

It hurts, of course, when they beat her in the process, and competitors often don’t behave well in those situations. Sula resents Nel for having an easier time of it and finds a way to disrupt her marriage, as Serena robbed Osaka of the full pleasure of her Open victory. But after Sula is gone, Nel realizes that Sula fought battles that she herself didn’t have the courage to fight and that she is the better for it.

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Troy and California’s Fires

Oldenburg, “Aeneas Escaping from Troy”


So much is going on in the United States these days that, unless you’re from California or Oregon, you may not be aware that fires continue to rage there. Add the Delta Fire to the Carr Fire and the fires that decimated the Mendocino area. It’s terribly depressing.

I thought of the devastation recently while rereading Virgil’s account of the Greeks sacking Troy, the first time I have looked at the Aeneid since I was a teenager.

Many Californians have a sense of what it was like for Aeneas to awaken to the Greeks sacking his city. The passage may lead us to recall California’s mudslides as well as its fires:

Meanwhile the city is confused with grief, on every side,
and though my father Anchises’s house is remote, secluded
and hidden by trees, the sounds grow clearer and clearer,
and the terror of war sweeps upon it.
I shake off sleep, and climb to the highest roof-top,
and stand there with ears strained:
as when fire attacks a wheat-field when the south-wind rages,
or the rushing torrent from a mountain stream covers the fields,
drowns the ripe crops, the labor of oxen,
and brings down the trees headlong, and the dazed shepherd,
unaware, hears the echo from a high rocky peak.
Now the truth is obvious, and the Greek plot revealed.
Now the vast hall of Deiphobus is given to ruin
the fire over it: now Ucalegon’s nearby blazes:
the wide Sigean Straits throw back the glare.
Then the clamor of men and the blare of trumpets rise.

Especially vivid is the reflection of devastation in the Sigean Straits (the Dardanelles). Aeneas escapes with his family (except for his wife), but most of the Trojans do not. California is paying its own price.

Another great quotation: This from a fabulous Russian novel that a friend introduced me to. It was submitted for publication in 1960 but confiscated and only appeared decades later. The scene involves the Battle of Stalingrad:

It seemed impossible to escape from the liquid fire. It leaped up, hummng and crackling, from the streams of oil that were filling the hollows and craters and rushing down the communication trenches. Saturated with oil, even the clay and stone were beginning to smoke. The oil itself was gushing out in black glossy streams from tanks that had been riddled by incendiary bullets; it was as though sheets of flame and smoke had been sealed inside these tanks and were now slowly unrolling.

The life that had reigned hundreds of millions of years before, the terrible life of the primeval monsters, had broken out of its deep tombs; howling and roaring, stamping its huge feet, it was devouring everything round about. The fire rose thousands of feet, carrying with it clouds of vaporized oil that exploded into flame only high in the sky. The mass of flame was so vast that the surrounding whirlwind was unable to bring enough oxygen to the burning molecules of hydrocarbon; a black, swaying vault separated the starry sky of autumn from the burning earth. It was terrible to look up and see a black firmament streaming with oil.

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1960)

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Welcome Stranger to This Place

Michel Angelo Immenraet, “Jesus and the Woman of Canaan”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s gospel reading is one of my favorites, in part because it shows us Jesus’s steep learning curve. It’s also particularly relevant as the Trump administration once again steps up its draconian measures against people seeking asylum.

Time reports on the latest Trump move:

When a June 20 executive order ended the practice, the Administration sought to detain immigrant families together. Those efforts have so far been thwarted because of a longstanding court agreement that requires the government to release immigrant children after 20 days in detention.

On Thursday, the Administration filed proposed regulation to terminate that court order, known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, and detain entire families for the duration of the legal proceedings that determine if they can stay. The rule, which will published on Friday, would also allow the federal government to transfer family units to facilities that are not “state licensed,” which is currently required. The government says licensing requirements have limited its ability to use family detention.

Now for Mark 7:24-30:

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Jesus at first sounds like those who claim that immigrants are taking American jobs, but in his case the prejudice represents the ritual taboos that comprise his world view. After the woman’s compelling analogy, however, he sheds centuries of religious practice in a moment, seeing God even in a Gentile. Under the power of love and concern, his vision becomes revolutionary.

I don’t like for my Sunday posts to be negative so I turn to a poem with a positive spin: heaven awaits us if we open our arms to those seeking asylum. “We reap not, what we do not sow,” Blake tells us, and if we were to welcome the strangers rather than treat them like criminals, the harvest would be plentiful.

Blake uses the image of a pure maiden, which contrasts dramatically with the contorted faces of those who would construct walls. Innocence would bloom on the cheek, honor would twine around the brows, and “the jewel health” would adorn the neck.

Welcome stranger to this place,
Where joy doth sit on every bough,
Paleness flies from every face,
We reap not, what we do not sow.

Innocence doth like a Rose,
Bloom on every Maidens cheek;
Honor twines around her brows,
The jewel Health adorns her neck.

How is that as a positive incentive for inclusivity and acceptance?

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


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