Poetry Friday: May Day with Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The combination of May Day (with its many undertones of justice for the downtrodden—whether the moderate justice of the eight hour working day, which May 1 was intended to celebrate, or the more radical justice called for by socialists on this day for most of the last century and all of this present one) with the events in Baltimore (which, thankfully, are tending toward justice, now that we know that there will be serious judicial inquiry into the death of Freddie Gray) make it impossible not to post a poem.  Whether you like it or not, folks, it’s going to be a return to a poem I posted many years ago (with only a little commentary on my part and a response from one of you)—a return to the power and the uninimidated force of thought that was the incomparable Claude McKay, one of the most beautifully and unapologetically honest of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and he’s coming right at you (and me) with “If We Must Die”, which was written in 1919 and published in the also great James Weldon Johnson‘s anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, in 1922.  Here it is:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

McKay pulls no punches in this sonnet, nor should he have to.  The injustices he addresses, while diminished meaningfully by the hard-won victories of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, are with us still—no fair reading of the treatment of minorities in our nation’s major cities can deny that completely (however much some may want to argue about how and to whom blame is to be apportioned).  McKay bolts out of the gate like a thoroughbred—“if we must die” is a brutal attention-getter, and to have the iambic bounce us right from that thought into “let it not be like hogs” is both genius and horrifying.  In the universe envisioned by McKay, death is inevitable, and unless we are careful, it will be an ignominious and panicked death, the death of beasts who have been cornered for the slaughter.  So, he commands, we must choose instead to go down swinging—not in some hip, casual, Tom Petty sense, but in the blood-and-bone sense of a man who knows the grave is in front of him and refuses to be the only one battered at day’s end.

This is unlike many of the sonnets I’ve spotlighted—McKay executes no unexpected turn at the end of the octet, no surprising connection blazing out of a final couplet.  The theme and the tone are sustained throughout.  He is too angry for artifice here—or rather I should say that he limits the sonnet’s grip on him to the mere boundaries of the form.  Inside it, rather than the artful musings and playful rhetoric of a poet in love with words, we see instead the passion of a wounded heart and the determination that words will mean something real.

It may seem odd that I, a literary blogger who doesn’t drift into politics all that often, should offer up McKay and this particular poem of his today.  It might also seem unsettling (even unpleasant) to some of you that I’ve shared a poem that pretty explicitly calls for violence and death—this might even surprise those of you who remember how sensitively and positively I’ve explored pacifism in a beautiful poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  To all of you, I’ll just say this: poetry addresses every aspect of our human condition.  It must speak to our anger as much as to our love; to our moments of violence as much as to our moments of mercy.  In sharing Millay or McKay with you, in neither case am I asking for unquestioning acceptance of what they say—to the contrary, I think poetry is valuable in part because it usually demands that we question what we’re reading.  What I do ask for, though, is that we consistently ask those questions—that we don’t shut out McKay but instead try to hear what he might be saying, and what kind of lived experience might bring him to this sonnet.  That we extend the same courtesy to Millay, and to Frost and Whitman and all the other poets who come our way over the years.

Today, though, let’s concentrate especially on McKay.  Let’s ask ourselves how much violence black Americans a century ago lived through to give this particular black man—an artist and (so far as I know) a man who never in his life struck another man in anger—this poem and these deeply felt passions.  Let’s ask ourselves what about our nation might still inspire that kind of passion: even as we deplore the use of violence by citizens in the streets, we must ask ourselves what kinds of violence (physical and otherwise) exerted by the institutions and authorities in this country might provoke such a response.  I personally want no one to die in the street as McKay envisions, but that desire demands of me not merely that I ask the riots to end, but that I reach behind my nation’s facade of equality and opportunity to wrestle to the ground also that side of America that oppresses the lives of the least fortunate so forcefully that a riot can seem to them like the only way out.

Poetry Friday: Good Friday 2015

As is my custom on two or three Christian holidays in the year, I share today a poem that I think has particular resonance for me in the context of an important day to my faith tradition.  I have tried, as usual, to select a poem that I think will speak to people from other traditions, or having no particular connection to faith at all—in fact, this Good Friday, my poem is not particularly Christian at all.  And in talking about it, I’ll try to say some things that I think might resonate with anyone, in addition to things that may make sense only to other people in my broadly-defined community of faith (and probably one or more things that make sense only to me).  For today’s poem, I’ve picked the work of a very well-regarded poet from the Pacific Northwest (my neck of the woods)—Tess Gallagher—specifically a short poem she wrote entitled “Wake”:

“Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I’d been left behind? In the room’s great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we’d loved in and slept in, married
and unmarried.

There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body’s messages carry farther
in death, my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in its clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.”

Gallagher’s poem is clearly referencing, on one level, the death of her husband, the famous author of short stories, Raymond Carver.  But I think the emphasis on three-ness, especially the three days dead, are adding an intentional layer of Christ imagery that I’ll talk about later on, which may explain why something about this poem catches hold of me today in particular.

There’s a loveliness to this poem on so many levels, despite the deeply sad setting and what I think are obviously very raw emotions for Gallagher even as she looks back at these days from a distance.  One of the things that draws me in is the ambiguity of the language: are the three nights “in the chill of the body” a reference to Carver’s three days lying in state?  Or is it Gallagher whose days are caught in the “chill” of this cold form, incapable of tearing herself away?  Is her proving she’s been “left behind” a reference to her keeping his body in the house, or is her climbing into bed a strangely inverted way of proving this, creating the most intimate of moments in order to prove to herself that intimacy has been lost?  Even the poem’s title is a cipher: a prosaic reference to this as a kind of “wake” like that practiced in many communities (often Catholic families, I think?), a shouted admonition to herself to snap out of the dark reverie she is in, a hopeless plea to her lost love to turn this eternal sleep into something more human and temporary?  The way we take these little moments certainly affects the way the poem delivers its message—and in some ways alters the message itself entirely.

For the non-religious—and for those people of faith whose beliefs about the world do not encompass the idea of a personal afterlife or resurrection—it seems to me the poem is mainly intended.  It offers a vision of death that is, however remote and in some ways unsettling, more a traveler’s passage than a snuffing-out, yet without giving in to any impulse to describe where the passage takes us or what that means.  Carver, lying there dead, can still for a time inhabit his house and his marriage-bed, cold but still bodily present.  Gallagher feels her life drawn out of her into something spare and far away—the icy beauty of that field of frost, and her voice going out via his body into some vast, echoing space.  But that drawing out is not terrifying to her: in a way, it comforts her, as she and Carver go those first few steps into death together.  Somehow grieving and dying become one in that placid image of them afloat and at peace, like lilies in a springtime pond, like cosmic bodies gently adrift in the universe.  The world sinks beneath them and yet simultaneously bears them up.  It is abandoned but not empty.  It is a strange place to which Carver no longer need accommodate himself, and to which Gallagher will return changed, once she rises from that cold embrace.  There are only a few non-religious or areligious poems that give me a sense of death’s inhuman loveliness, and this is one of them (Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” is another).  I hope that, whatever it means to you, it provides you with a sense of comfort about that ultimate frontier to which all of us are borne.

Today, of course, for someone identifying as a Christian (as I do), contemplation of death is particularly important.  What it means to die, and what it might have meant for someone undying to, inexplicably, die.  What it means if death is no longer an end, but instead the opening of a doorway into some other place.  To me, there is more comfort in the poem than Gallagher herself may see or have intended.  She forces herself to recognize the death of a loved one by staying with him far past what a medical professional would deem “the end”.  She responds to death with love, and does not even deny the physical connection between her and her absent husband, wrapping her arms around him one last time.  I think of the cold form of a broken man being carried down from the hill of execution.  Based on the accounts we have, we think most of his friends were gone, but that some few still remained.  His mother was there.  Did they hold him close, any of them?  Did Mary wrap her arms around her dead son and wonder why the angel had lied to her, promised her a triumphant redeemer and yet delivered only a man condemned by his own people to die in ignominy?  Did John, the disciple he loved, wonder where love could go when the loved one passed into death’s arms?  When the enigmatic Joseph of Arimathea lifted the body to place him in a rich man’s tomb, did he remove his fine robes and rings first, to better feel the chill of a fallen Messiah’s stopped blood just once before rolling a stone between them?  I wonder.  Surely they felt, in their own ways, a grief as deep and profound as Gallagher’s.  That night, after lighting the Sabbath candles, I wonder if any of them lay quietly in bed, arms out and face upwards, envisioning themselves adrift and calm on death’s waves with the cold form of Jesus nearby.  I hope they did.

For resurrection to mean anything to a church founded on it, we have to confront death, I think.  Certainly, for me, if I don’t really engage with what it was like that Good Friday evening, that Holy Saturday morning and all that long afternoon, Easter morning feels superficial, excessively cheery.  Whatever it means to rise again, first we must fall into that cold, dark place, in order to feel the rising.  I am glad for poems like Gallagher’s that remind me how to look with both eyes at death and not rush past it into whatever comfort the ideas of new life and Heaven bring.  Christianity is often tarred with the brush of being too glib about death, too quick to see “oh, but Heaven will be wonderful” as an excuse for all Earth’s sorrows.  I think there can be truth in that, and I want to avoid it for myself, if I can: I am grateful to Gallagher, and all the other writers who have walked right up to the edge of death and peered into it, for helping me see humanity and mortality with clear eyes and a serious heart.

“Sam Braden never talked about his father.”

So begins Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1944.  Flavin is another of Pulitzer’s forgotten names: his Wikipedia article (linked to in that first sentence) is about as barebones as any of the authors I’ve yet encountered, and it appears this was about his only swing of the bat in terms of making a splash nationally with his art.  Combine that with the fact that this novel starts like several of the worst books I’ve yet read—a slow retrospective glance at a Midwestern family in the 1880s that doesn’t have quite the glamour and money they think they deserve/once might have had—and it seems like a surefire recipe for a bad experience.

Except that I’ve read about the first third of the novel already, and the main reason I’ve moved so quickly is that it’s really good.  Not Steinbeck good; not Wharton good.  Maybe not even Stribling or La Farge good (although I’m not at all sure yet). Still, though, it’s clearly better than any non-Steinbeck novel I’ve read in the last three years (which encompasses about a decade’s worth of Pulitzer winners).  For the first time in a while, I’m sort of hoping one or more of you either has read this or feels like jumping in, since I’d love an outside perspective.  First, though, let me offer my own.

The setting jumps around a bit (I’ll explain in a second), but for the first third, it really is based pretty solidly in fictional Wyattville, Iowa, a small Mississippi River town dominated by the large number of descendants from the founding Wyatt family.  The Bradens are poor, based largely on Sam’s father’s severe laziness, but just high enough in status (his father’s East Coast law degree—earned goodness-only-knows-how—gets him the job as “town marshal”) to hob-nob with the Wyatts in certain social situations (but not all of them).  Sam’s the youngest of four kids—ambitious, thoughtful, a little bit of a dreamer and also a good kid who mostly wants his mother to be proud of him.  I’m calling him a kid, but as I mentioned, this book skips around—so far I’ve seen little vignettes of Sam as a much older, fairly successful businessman.  The glimpses don’t normally explain enough to give away important plot points, and quickly there’s usually some event that causes older Sam to remember being young again, and we flop back into a fairly conventional chronological re-telling of Sam’s rise from being youngest barefoot kid of the town’s no-good sheriff to being a man of substance.  There’s something very Dickensian going on for Sam (it’s no coincidence, I think, that Flavin has Sam’s mother give him a copy of David Copperfield for Christmas, and later there’s brief mention that Sam enjoys Great Expectations, maybe enough to make it his favorite novel: certainly there’s a lot of Pip in him).

All of that, though, is only enough to make this a potentially good novel—it has the bones of better works, but that’s never a guarantee.  What I appreciate most about this novel so far is its modernity and maturity, which is most easily encapsulated in Sam’s relationship with his next door neighbor, a girl named Cassie.  Cassie, you see, is a young black woman—two years older than Sam, adventurous with a sunny demeanor—and by the time she hits her teens, she takes a shine to Sam.  He initially resists, but not for long.  Here’s the remarkable thing: Flavin depicts a real series of sexual encounters.  Not in graphic detail (although there are plenty of lines that would make Edith Wharton blush), but honestly—the tension that builds between the two of them before an illicit encounter in an abandoned warehouse in a storm, then the furtive, repeated liaisons when time allows and no one else is watching.  Furthermore, Cassie and her family are depicted as regular folks: generous, lively, decent neighbors.  Although Sam is aware that he needs to keep his relationship with Cassie secret from his white friends (particularly the toffee-nosed Wyatt girl who lives in the mansion and never says a word to him….yeah, like I said, really inspired by Great Expectations), there’s never a hint of his feeling any kind of internal shame about their racial differences, or any condescension to Cassie’s family (beyond a very brief mention of the fact that Cassie has no discernibly “black” accent, unlike her father—a very neutral statement in context, honestly, although perhaps some judgment is implied).  Even when they are discovered and he must be confronted by an adult, it’s Cassie’s father, a black man, who scolds Sam—and the interracial situation is never even remotely addressed, despite the fact that I was absolutely certain, given the time period, that Sam would catch an earful for “traveling outside of his rightful folk” or something like that.  And Cassie’s father is not even as outraged as I would expect a modest turn-of-the-century man to be when discovering the neighbor boy has been shtupping his daughter regularly on the down-low for a year plus.  He does assert several times that it’s shameful what they’ve been doing, but he’s a deacon in his church, and his daughter has turned up pregnant—this seems pretty much par for the course.  And honestly, he spends more time on praising Sam than on shaming him, emphasizing how good a young man he is in most respects, and how proud his mother (then deceased) would have been to see him grow up, and the burden he feels as a man who’s watched Sam grow up to hold him accountable to the values Sam’s mother would have wanted instilled.

Yeah—racially and sexually progressive.  Or at least the attitudes towards race and sex of the central characters would not be totally out of place in a novel written and set in the 2010s—which is astonishing in 1944.  If Flavin keeps it up, this will win my personal award (which I talked about a long time ago, I think during a terribly racist stretch in Scarlet Sister Mary) for being the earliest American novel I’m familiar with to treat race in a decent and non-embarrassing fashion.  Add to that the fact that, in what is maybe even more evident to me after my long sojourn with Upton Sinclair, Flavin can write a real character.  Sam in particular is incredibly complex—single-minded in some things (like his pursuit of the Wyatt girl, or his ambition to make something of himself), but undecided and malleable in others (for instance, when, as a child, he gets an unexpected gift of cash, he wavers back and forth between buying himself a sled or buying his mother a gift—the balancing act feels very natural).  And most of the townsfolk are distinguishable from each other and operating with sensible motivations in response to the outside stimuli we would expect them to: these feel like real human beings grappling with a world that’s as simultaneously marvelous and malevolent as the real world is.

The dialogue doesn’t have a ton of sparkle to it, and the narration falls a little flat at times.  The jerks back and forth between the main, chronological storyline and these “flash-forwards” to an older, wealthier Sam don’t always work very smoothly and can be a little disorienting.  And again, this book at times drags so much out of Great Expectations (seriously: there is a scene where Sam arrives at the Wyatt house on an errand and sees the Wyatt girl he likes playing with a rich young boy, who he hates immediately and wants to fight….it’s like Pip and Estella are both ill and we’re watching their American understudies) that it can feel a little needlessly redundant.  All of these criticisms are valid, and unless Flavin can master them, will keep this novel out of the highest levels of the Pulitzer stratosphere.  But there’s so much else to like right now, I’m rooting for him to take this as far as it can go—there’s a real “American success story” planted inside Sam Braden, and Flavin seems ready to set the story in the real America.  Again, if you’ve read this before (or have time to grab a copy), please hop into the comments—this one has me wanting to talk it out!

1943: Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair

Literary Style:

It’s been two years since I wrote one of these reviews.  Of course, right after I reviewed the 1942 novel, In This Our Life, we found out we were expecting our little daughter, so there’s a reason this stretch of my life was so devoid of Pulitzer reading time.  Still, I’m glad to finally finish this one, and with the momentum I picked up, I’m already close to 1/4 done with 1944’s selection (post on that upcoming, probably tomorrow or Monday), so I hope this is the longest gap I ever hit between reviews here at FP.

Of course, it wasn’t all my daughter’s fault.  Upton Sinclair’s book is maddening in its first half—slow-paced, shallow, crammed full of characters that are hard to distinguish, formless, seemingly aimless.  If not for the blog, I’d have given up all hope of sticking with it entirely.  But that would have been to miss out on some good story-telling, it turns out.  The last half of the book succeeds at least in being gripping and page-turning, and to some extent in digging deeper into characters, by shedding most of what makes the first half bad.  Once the Robins are endangered by the rise of the Nazi state, and one in particular is imprisoned in a concentration camp (n.b.: not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz, since we’re still only in 1933-1934…that’s not to say anything about the camp is less than horrifying, but I think we do tend to conflate “concentration camp” with “extermination camp” in casual usage), Lanny Budd and his wife Irma become our central focus.  Sinclair mostly forgets his jabs at wealth and class, or else figures out how to work them into a more thoughtful examination of the character of Irma in particular, whose wealth and class have a real bearing on her willingness to risk on behalf of some Jewish in-laws who’ve run afoul of powerful German capitalists.  The stakes are high, and the book gets far more up close and personal with the gruesome, dehumanizing violence of the Nazi agenda that I would have guessed.  I expect that Sinclair’s fearlessness in depicting these horrors probably worked to his advantage in the voting for that year’s Pulitzer—a novel that makes Hitler and his henchmen look this blandly evil, written by a noted American propagandist, must surely have felt “right” to a lot of people on the board.

That’s not to say it is obvious to me, taken as a whole on its literary merit, that this ought to be a prize-winning novel.  I don’t have personal experience with the other likely contenders from that year (maybe one of Steinbeck’s less well-known titles, The Moon is Down, or Lloyd Douglas’s big popular success in historical fiction, The Robe? It’s hard to say), but Sinclair’s novel has at least as many weaknesses as it has strengths.  Certainly as a work of literature (which is all I consider in this section of the review) it is weakly executed in narration, characterization, and consistency of tone—of all the many characters I’m asked to keep up with, only two really feel alive to me.  If you like a well-written novel (and not every reader cares; I happen to, but I’m not judging people who are more taken by setting, plot, etc.), this will fall short of the mark.

Historical Insight:

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The strength of the book, as I have said all along (more so recently), is Sinclair’s unflinching look at the desperate state of Europe in the 1930s through the eyes of a lefist American (Lanny Budd, ostensibly, although really most of the actual commentary/insight is expressed by our allegedly 3rd person narrator, a thinly-veiled Upton Sinclair).  Given the second half of the book, really the deepest looks are aimed into the crumbling Weimar Republic in Germany, and how the cruel peace imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 planted the seeds of revolution that Hitler would grow into a garden of his own devising, and for his own purposes.  We see the violence of the Nazi state, the duplicity with which Hitler used real revolutionaries to seize power (only to double-cross those same revolutionaries when they threatened his ability to win over the powerful tycoons who ran big business in Deutschland), even down to the minute details like Goebbels’s wife being the highest ranking Nazi woman (given that Hitler and Göring are bachelors in 1933) or Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, being a homosexual (a fact blandly commented on by the characters who know it: while no one could call this a gay-friendly narrative, it’s strikingly devoid of homophobia, especially given the era).  Lesser insights are given into French and English politics and social movements of the era.  In fact, if I have one complaint, it’s a damning one (for a Pulitzer winner)—Sinclair barely explains anything about America at all.  He’s poised to comment—Lanny and Irma are heirs to various American businesses and fortunes, and have extensive ties on that side of the Atlantic.  They even visit on one or two occasions, but Sinclair sweeps them back to Europe before they can really engage with the Great Depression, the right-wing unrest in the States that in some ways mirrored Nazism/Fascism on the European continent, Roosevelt’s surge into leadership and his bold actions in pushing through his 100 Days of the New Deal.  I’ve certainly enjoyed revisiting the 1930s—as a history major, most of this is review for me, but some of it is new and all of it is interesting.  I just wish it was telling me something more about America.

Rating:

On the unscientific scale, I give this a “If you are interested in the time period, like a good pot-boiler, and aren’t fussy about writing style”.  As someone who is interested in the 1930s (and likes a thriller at least some of the time) but IS fussy about style, I’m pretty ambivalent about this one.  I wouldn’t recommend it too widely, but I did find myself liking the last third, especially, and am much more positive about it now than I was only a month or two ago.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the author the last word in the review, choosing a passage I think shows some of the better side of what I read (although, in this case, it’s showing some of the worst sides of a character’s personality).  The context is a conversation from late in the book (but not the end), in which Lanny and his wife, Irma, are arguing about what to do for the member of the Robin family imprisoned by the Nazis.  Irma’s character is finally being developed—we can see some of this emerge as the narrator explains her reactions to her husband, and I think this is a good example of Sinclair actually working out how someone different from him sees the world.  It’s also not devoid of his moralizing—none of his narration is—so if you don’t mind that, you might be great with this book, and if it really irritates you, this novel will not work for you.

Anyway: Lanny has just gotten news identifying the camp to which this poor Robin was taken, and has announced to his wife his determination to save the prisoner—she has attempted to put her foot down, but Lanny has dismissed her attempts to stop him:

“So Irma had to give up.  She had told him what was in her heart, and even though she would break down and weep, she wouldn’t change; on the contrary, she would hold it against him that he had made her behave in that undignified fashion.  In her heart she knew that she hated the Robin family, all of them; they were alien to her, strangers to her soul.  If she could have had her way she would never have been intimate with them; she would have had ehr own yacht and her own palace and the right sort of friends in it.  But this Socialism business had made Lanny promiscuous, willing to meet anybody, an easy victim for any sort of pretender, any slick, canting ‘idealist’—how she loathed that word!  She had been forced to make pretenses and be polite; but now this false ’cause’ was going to deprive her of her husband and her happiness, and she knew that she heartily despised it.

It wasn’t just love of herself.  It was love of Lanny, too.  She wanted to help him, she wanted to take care of him; but this ‘class struggle’ stepped in between and made it impossible; tore him away from her, and sent him to face danger, mutilation, death.  Things that Irma and her class were supposed to be immune from!  That was what your money meant; it kept you safe, it gave you privilege and security.  But Lanny wanted to throw it all away.  He had got the crazy notion that you had no right to money; that having got it, you must look down upon it, spurn it, and thwart the very purposes for which it existed, the reasons why your forefathers had worked so hard!  If that was not madness, who could find anything that deserved the name?”

“I cannot believe that God is still alive.”

Well, we’ve hit the intense portion of Dragon’s Teeth.  Hitler is bringing down the hammer on the Jews of Germany, and it’s striking just the characters that have been sitting in its shadow this whole time—in particular, arms dealer Johannes Robin, who has been insisting to Lanny Budd that he knows how to handle the Nazis and stay on their good side.  And it really is the first part of the novel that works (although not without its issues).  I’ll try to say why without giving up too much of the plot, given that I’m nearing the end of the novel—close enough that this may well be my last post before writing a review.

One of the problems with Upton Sinclair’s novel, in my estimation, is that it’s the 3rd novel in an incredibly long series of books on Lanny Budd (Sinclair will wrap up with the 11th book in the series in the early 1950s).  In works of this kind, an impossible number of characters are floated because the author needs to keep everyone hanging around in case they become useful again.  Then add to this the fact that the novels are really just Sinclair’s pretext for being able to opine about world events, and you have to add in all the real people he needs them to interact with—Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring both make extended cameos in this section, for example.  The result, for much of the book, is a sea of names marching in and out, and if you can’t remember the difference between Zoltan and Zaharoff, neither of whom have actually appeared in a scene in hundreds of pages but both of whom will be referred to casually by their last names multiple times in situations where context cannot possibly help you, dear reader, work out who in the heck they are….well, let’s say it’s been frustrating and leave it at that.

But in this scenario, suddenly the world has telescoped down to something very small—really it’s just Lanny and his wife Irma, making their way into Hitler’s Germany to try to secure the freedom of Lanny’s Jewish relatives (in-laws via his sister’s marriage to one of the Robin boys) without either endangering them further or risking their own lives too hastily.  Upton is forced to spend a lot of time with the two of them, to the exclusion of the parade of other characters who (for various sensible reasons) can’t really gallivant into Nazi Germany on a whim.  So we actually get to know them, and to understand how differently they see the world.  And we get to see them try to “play” the Nazis and lose terribly, since fundamentally a man like Göring—monstrous, lacking all conscience and utterly unrestrained by what little was left of law and decency in the Nazi state—held all the cards and knew it.  In the end, they must leave at least one innocent man in Germany because they cannot secure all the freedoms they wanted, which gives cause to Mama Robin’s despairing borderline atheism that provides me with the post’s title.  I’m at the point where they’re now exploring their options for another German rescue, while simultaneously trying to work out how to care for everyone they know in need during a massive worldwide depression.  It’s exciting, page-turning stuff, and it makes for a fairly rewarding experience.

And yet.  The two things that still bug me are the things that will bug me to the end—they’re not accidental on Upton’s part, they’re almost integral to his project, and so even now at his best, they’re in the way.  The first is that almost all the characters are cardboard—they exist to drive the plot and to allow him to make meaningful commentary as the narrator.  Mama Robin is an excellent example—he gives her a couple of heart-breaking lines (like the one I quote above), but he never really deals with her grief.  She agrees to leave Germany with some of her loved ones despite the fact that she’s leaving someone else behind she loves dearly….how can she do that?  What toll does it take?  It has no bearing on Upton’s project and so he literally doesn’t deal with it at all.  When (most of) the family is reunited, he brushes it off with some narrative sentence like “there were many tears, but they eventually subsided” since he couldn’t care less, really, how these characters feel or what they’re going through.  Not unless their feelings can be plumbed for some trenchant political commentary.

And the second issue is that he still doesn’t really like Lanny and Irma, and has made the colossal error of making them his central characters.  In the hands of another author, we might not notice or care, but he really can’t help being snide about them, Irma especially, and it’s irritating.  He hates her naivete and the inherited wealth that made it possible, and now, while he is at least (to his credit) letting her voice her opinions, he makes it clear how vapid and heartless a woman like her really is, without even meaning to be.  And that would be fine—it really would (I think of how Fitzgerald treats Daisy Buchanan)—except that it distracts him from really developing her character much beyond what is needed for the immediate purposes of the plot (Lanny fares only a little better), and since he’s only given the two of them a vital task to do now, at the end and in the heart of a terrible crisis, the sliver we get of their personalities is necessarily limited and therefore frustrating.

Really, again, it goes back to the issues I raised in my last post.  The Holocaust is such rich and tragic emotional territory than any artist worth his salt (and a few unworthy of it) can turn a little paint-by-numbers story into something that feels very profound and significant just by setting it in Nazi Germany with some major Jewish characters.  Upton has at least chosen to make this situation the central focus of the story, at last, and so is getting all he can out of it.  I just feel that his frequent boredom with the characters, combined with his condescension and his political agenda, leaves the story short of what it could have accomplished.  The novel’s reputation with me is getting better—I can’t deny I’m riveted by what’s going on, and I desperately want to know how this turns out.  I just feel that, given the reputation of the author, and the high praise implied by the awarding of a Pulitzer, I deserve something better than a potboiler with some stock characters and an author who plainly thinks he’s smarter than me, maybe than everybody else.  If the whole book were like this section, it would be worth recommending (maybe as an airplane read), but since I had to slog a ways to even get here, I’m not sure what to make of it yet.  We’ll see how this last stretch goes.

“Then Göring, President of the Reichstag, declared the session adjourned, and so a great people lost their liberties while rejoicing over gaining them.”

There’s a conventional wisdom about Holocaust movies and the Academy Awards—namely, that if you can just manage to set your movie in that ghastly genocidal event somewhere, the overwhelming emotions associated with it will lend your film a gravity and importance that it might not deserve, and earn you some nominations/awards you otherwise wouldn’t get.  And there’s some truth to it.  For every Schindler’s List, which is a truly great movie, there’s a The Reader or The Pianist (arthouse films that, set in almost any other historical era of oppression and violence, probably wouldn’t get quite the notice), and then the occasional Life is Beautiful, a film that almost no one likes as well in retrospect as they did when it came out, a film that (for many of us) really cheated its way into our hearts by dialing up our emotions to 11 but without giving the subject matter the depth of understanding it deserved, now that we think about it.

Welcome to the rise of Nazi Germany, then, in the hands of Upton Sinclair, because that’s right, dear readers, James is back on the Pulitzer trail and half-way through the 1943 winner of the prize, Dragon’s Teeth.  I’m making more headway now, and it’s time to come up for air and share a few thoughts with you all.  Sinclair’s approach to the novel is still not totally successful for me, but somehow the story is becoming more and more engrossing.  Yet, if I step back to think about it, I worry a little that it’s a Life is Beautiful phenomenon.  The story is set in such an urgent and important time period in German and Jewish history, and several of our main characters (though not the protagonists) are German Jews, and it can be easy to get swept up in the power of what the actual lives of those characters would have been that I don’t think as much about whether Sinclair’s work with them is actually successful writing.  And it’s hard to say exactly where I stand.

Sinclair does some things well—the quote that serves as the post’s title is a nice example.  He does great with these sweeping movements of history, noting what the famous real-life people are doing, sneaking notes about their intrigues and scheming into conversations wherever he can, and moralizing extensively about them in the voice of the narrator—“The Germans gained an empire and lost their souls”, stuff like that—without it being remotely tied to any individual character’s perspective on the situation.  Much of it feels like just a memoir written by a thoughtful and aggressive partisan, which really it is: Sinclair’s perspective on the gross errors made by Americans and Western Europeans in the 1930s which had led to the position the world is in as he writes, engulfed in the second world war, the war they’d sworn to avoid in 1917 and yet had somehow planted the seeds of in the very peace they signed in 1919.  Honestly, I’d rather read his memoir.  He’s much better at dicing up the leftist movements into factions and explaining how they thwarted each other, or examining the ways in which Fascism could present itself as respectable in so many different lights, than he is at writing meaningful dialogue or constructing characters we care about as people.  Sinclair, in other words, could easily have written half of The Grapes of Wrath—the non-Joad chapters, in which Steinbeck told the story of the people and their movements and what it all signified—but would have found even the worst Joad chapter hopelessly above his reach.  That’s my impression as it stands now.

And it’s such a shame, because he sets himself up beautifully.  We’re in 1933, and Hitler has seized power—Jews are fleeing the German Republic as it loses the very name of “republic”, and some of our central characters are among them.  I’ve just read about how the young German Jewish musician, Hansi Robin, fled with his wife across the border into France (with the Budds’ assistance), and then played the music of his people with tears in his eyes before a crowd as an act of political protest once the abuses of the Nazi party against Jews in Germany are starting to make the news.  And it really is powerful, right up until I realize that the character I’m sympathizing with is a guy I personally am constructing.  I’m piecing him together from some of the movies I mentioned, and some stories I’ve read, and the words of a couple of Holocaust survivors whose stories I was privileged enough to hear in person, more than a decade ago.  If I knew nothing about this era other than what Sinclair is giving me, I’d have almost no emotion to bring to the table—unless he has a violin in his hands, I literally cannot even tell one Robin brother from the other, let alone remember which one is socialist and which one communist.

The result is difficult to characterize.  The art of the West is now well steeped in Holocaust memories and events—most potential readers could bring a rich palate of emotions to these chapters just as I can, and get something out of them that Upton never put in.  So, does that make this a good reading experience?  But then every time I try to really grab hold of someone—to ask myself who this American heir to a munitions manufacturer, Lanny Budd, really is, or what I think his rich wife, Irma, really thinks about the power struggle in Germany—I realize they’re just paper people.  I turn them in my hands to try to see them better, and they are so thin that they disappear to me almost entirely.

So, am I enjoying myself?  I’m getting something from the reading, that’s for sure.  At least some of it is new to me—Sinclair knew the politics of leftist movements internationally very well, and I’m sure I can trust those details in the story.  Much of it resonates with other non-fiction books I’ve read, maybe most centrally Erik Larson’s (he of The Devil in the White City: if you haven’t read Larson, you need to hunt something down) In The Garden of Beasts, which is about a real American family, a wealthy one, that came to Germany when the paterfamilias was appointed ambassador to the new Nazi state, and his adult kids came piling along with him to meet these fresh-faced young Aryans and learn more about the young German empire as it was being reborn.  It’s exactly the book Sinclair wants to write, truthfully, and the fact that I’ve read it means that I really can add dimension to some of the conversations he’s supplying.  The novel itself isn’t terrible—it’s just sloppy, because he doesn’t really care about these people as people.  They’re there solely to serve Sinclair’s agenda, like characters in a Dan Brown novel, who are there only to help Dan tell us his latest “insights” into world religion or history or whatever he thinks he’s an expert on this year.  Now, again, as I said earlier, I think Sinclair is fascinating, and I’d have read his memoir about the 1930s with interest—he’s well ahead of Brown in that regard, for me.  So I forgive him more, I think, for the fact that this is more a piece of propaganda, combined with a bit of a scolding tone aimed at the middle-class folks who should have listened more to people like Upton Sinclair in the ’30s, than it is a work of art.  That’s the way it feels now, at any rate: we’ll see if the last half can move me from this position at all!

Poetry Friday: Olav Hauge

I’ve been investing time in my Pulitzer novel this week—remember that? Upton Sinclair and Dragon’s Teeth? well, if you don’t, never mind that; the blog’s leitmotif will return soon, is all you need know at present—and so this will be brief.  In keeping with that brevity, I turn to one of the best modern poets at getting something alive and enticing into a short verse, Norway’s Olav Hauge.  Here is his “Don’t Give Me the Whole Truth,” which appeared in a collection by that name in 1985:

“Don’t give me the whole truth,
don’t give me the sea for my thirst,
don’t give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.”

Hauge takes a strange tack in this poem, and one that, for that reason, intrigues and draws me in.  Unlike plenty of poems that are desperate for truth, Hauge—a little world-wearier, perhaps, a little wiser—asks for something short of revelation.  He just needs satisfaction, not excess; happiness, not ecstasy.  Not the ocean, but that grain of wind-borne salt.  Not a fortune, but the unexpected coin.  Not a forest, but the shade of a single slender tree.  Like a prayer, he offers it to us, like a whispered hope.  Do not ask for the whole world; just that corner of it where you can find a roof and a bed, a smile to return to and a simple meal on the table.  As winter gives way to spring, it sounds about right to me.