Yesterday marked the biggest day ever for this blog in terms of views, coming at the end of the biggest week ever, and the biggest month ever (despite February’s only being 28 days long)—for the first time in Following Pulitzer’s history, we hit over 1,000 page views in a month. Many of you I know are just passing Googlers looking for help with your homework (much luck to you, since I can’t imagine we’ll be helpful) or folks looking for a good poem (you’ve come to the right place), but there’s a core there of people I know from a lot of different corners of my life: I don’t know what motivates you all to keep looking in back here, especially as I’ve been stuck on the same novel for months (I swear, I’m picking up the pace once I graduate! This is a life goal I am going to achieve.). But I appreciate that you show up here and read what I’ve written, and maybe think about it a little, and occasionally even leave some thoughts of your own. I hope the increased readership means that I’m getting better at putting things up here that resonate for you, and I’ll keep at it. Anyway, most of all I just wanted to tell you I’m glad you stopped by, and even though the next ten days will be grad school hell, I promise there will be a poem late on Friday, and if I can give you any more than that, I will. Cheers to you all, and welcome to March, entering like the lion that you are.
I said in my last post that I’d comment after the awards were over. I’ll make a few comments just as a movie fan and then tie it back to a larger question about reading. First of all, this may have been the most fun ceremony I’ve seen in a while. It felt peppy the whole way through (thanks in large part to the effortlessly charming Anne Hathaway—best hosting performance in a long time, in my opinion), and I felt like most of the jokes landed (major props to Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, who I thought were very funny and had great comic timing/chemistry — if they’re sold on these host duets, which I think usually fall flat, I’d pick the two of them to host the awards in a future year). Secondly, the fact that no one movie blew away the competition suited the year, I think—lots of strong competitors, and no clear champion (though The King’s Speech claims the biggest prize, deservingly, and will get the most press tomorrow morning). Thirdly, I was right in guessing that certain films I loved would go unrecognized—I think it’s most disappointing that True Grit received no awards, since the film was excellent in really all the ways a film can be, and it’s a shame to see it edged out by different films in so many categories. But I’m assured by wise friends that in their opinion these are all deserving wins, and maybe they’re right. I will say that, in every case where I saw the winning performance, I think a good call (if not the best call) was made, and I was really pleasantly surprised that my favorite animated short, “The Lost Thing” (by Shaun Tan, whose graphic novel The Arrival is beautiful and a must-read, in my opinion), won its award, which I had not remotely guessed (I thought either Pixar or the all-star cast of “The Gruffalo” would win).
My larger question about reading: the Academy does something the Pulitzer board doesn’t do. It breaks down movies into elements, and recognizes that some are good in some areas and not in others. Some of us care a lot about visual effects and not a lot about scores, some can be won over by a single great acting performance and others will care more about the wit of the writing. Sure, there’s the “Best Picture” award at the end of the night—the “real winner”, if you will. But I wonder if there’s something to be said for having sub-Pulitzers? Best setting? Best character? What would you think of that idea? And if you think we should have some, what awards should there be? I’ve suggested two, but you might want more, or different, options. If we come up with some ideas, I may try to hold an award like that here on the blog—solicit nominees for “best character of the 1920s and 1930s” or something like it, and see what we get. I would be amused, anyway, and opening it up to all the novels of a decade or two would let a lot of you chime in on books that Pulitzer neglected (perhaps wrongly). I’m curious to see what you put forward, and welcome all ideas.
As an award-following blog (though admittedly I’m “following” awards that are almost a century out of date, at present), it would be hard to let the Academy Awards go by without comment. As it happens, though, I’m a huge fan of the Academy Awards. This is not, it should be pointed out, a popular stance in the Oscar-watching blogs this time of year. This is when Oscar-obsessed film bloggers, their eyes bugging out of their heads, screech about the “middlebrow taste” of the Academy, denounce the “bourgeois” tripe that is likely to get this year’s awards, and lament that the awards aren’t handed out by discerning critics who appreciate film history….people a lot like them. The fact that these critics can’t agree between themselves on which films are “important” never seems to bother them.
The truth is, it’s really hard to agree on matters of taste—a fact even the ancient world was familiar with, given that “de gustibus non est disputandum” is handed down to us from those good old days. The fact that film critics think they’re better qualified to pick award-winners than the people who actually make great films is not surprising…but it’s also a bit irksome, from my perspective. I’m not saying the actors and directors and cinematographers are automatically more qualified to have an opinion—I just think their opinions shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. People are always too willing to enshrine their personal opinions as “facts about the world”, rather than points of view. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to express themselves clearly, but bashing other opinions (or, just as bad, explaining why people are “duped” or “following their hearts and not their heads” or whatever other excuses you make for why “your” movie won’t win) feels cheap to me.
All this talk about the Oscars, of course, has an important parallel with the Pulitzers, awards that (unlike the Oscars) are not generally chosen by those who work in the field, but also awards that (like the Oscars) often face the charge of being “middlebrow”, “boring”, and “safe”. I don’t know, but wonder, what the novelists, essayists, and poets of the 1920s would have done if they’d had the Pulitzers to hand out. Sure, we dream that they’d have picked a lot of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But I wonder if Tarkington wouldn’t have been just as successful.
I’m rambling, though, and I want to fixate on a couple of things about this year’s Oscars. First of all, this vitriolic atmosphere on the Internet is about the only sour thing for me about this year’s awards. I’ve seen 9 of the 10 Best Picture nominees (couldn’t watch James Franco cut his arm off—I’m sure it was a great film, honestly, but I just couldn’t bring myself to see it), and a wide range of other films: at least one nominee in every category but makeup, foreign language film, and documentary short subject, and a total of 24 films (feature and short). And I’ve really enjoyed all but 2 of them, which is an astounding record in my opinion—I’ll admit that I can’t find anything to praise about a live-action short called “The Crush” (I have to believe there were better options), but I could even list off some good things about the other film I didn’t enjoy (“The Kids Are All Right”—I’m sorry, people, I don’t see what everyone was talking about). And the other films were astounding, moving, thoughtful, gripping, funny…frankly, if liking these films makes my taste “middlebrow”, then may my forehead stay where it is forever. Sure, I preferred some to others (and would be disappointed if some nominees beat out others, since I think there are some truly deserving winners this year), but I just can’t tap into this Internet anger—anger that’s primarily directed against what I think is likely the best film I saw this year, “The King’s Speech”, because it’s expected to defeat the film the critics call my generation’s movie, “The Social Network” (which, frankly, was also really good).
It’s caused me to wonder if people are more irrational about movies than books. I mean, I can get pretty outraged about a bad book (some of you read my review on this blog of The Able McLaughlins….a review that, in all honesty, I probably should have reined myself in on more than I did). And so can other people I know. But I feel like I’ve seen (and participated in) louder and more diametrically opposed arguments about movies than ever about books. There’s something a lot more emotional about these disagreements. But am I right? Or am I just reacting to this Oscar catfight with a misguided (and inaccurate) view of the conversations we have about books? And if I’m right, why is it that we get more fired up about films (denigrating those we hate and worshiping those we love)? I’m not arguing that people love films more than books in general—I’m saying that when people disagree about the merits of a film, they’re more passionate than when they disagree about a book. And I might be wrong.
I’ll probably say a bit more after the Oscars. For now, let me tell you to track down and see a couple of films that probably will get little attention tomorrow, since I think they’re worthy of more praise than that. Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” is unlike the movies you normally see, because it’s essentially about good people who do their best to enjoy regular lives—actors who inhabit people, not roles, and who make you want to hang out with them in their backyard or go out to garden with them. It won’t blow your mind, but as an exploration of love, and luck, and friendship, it’s pretty great. And though the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” got some deserved good press, it’s gotten lost in the buzz for other films, and frankly I think it’s right up there with the best films I saw this year—fantastic dialogue, moving music, unbelievably gorgeous cinematography (which I hope is recognized: Roger Deakins is amazing), and wonderful performances spearheaded by a little girl named Hailee Steinfeld who you’ve never seen before (but who strikes me as having the presence and maturity to remain talented through the awkward transition years of her late teens). Lastly, this year’s Live-Action Short Films are really pretty great—whether you like romantic comedy (“God of Love”), touching coming-of-age (“Wish 143”), or a serious take on the genocide in Burundi (“Na Wewe”), each of these will do more for you in 20 minutes than a lot of films can in 5 times that length. Comcast will show you all 5 for $5 through OnDemand, and maybe poking around the Internet will find you links to them too (or perhaps you can buy them on iTunes). No one watches short films anymore, I know: watch these to discover what you’ve been missing.
Greetings all—it’s only a smidge past midnight, but I still feel bad posting Poetry Friday on Saturday. It was a busy week. In any case, this week for a class project I briefly toyed with the idea of using some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and although that didn’t pan out I remembered how much I liked his work and decided to post some of it here. Like almost all of his work, this is a poem that didn’t appear until well after he had died (the man was shockingly humble—a fascinating life story, if you know nothing about him): it first appeared in 1918 in “Poems”, a posthumous edition put out by his friends. It is entitled “Inversnaid”:
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
This is a poem that, once I had read it aloud, I couldn’t get the sound out of my head. I memorized it (maybe the first poem I ever voluntarily memorized) and still recite it to myself sometimes, especially out-of-doors on blustery days. Once I had chosen it for today’s poem, I asked myself if it had some kind of deep meaning, or if it was just Hopkins using the extraordinary sounds of his poetry (based on some of the Old English poetic styles but also his own invented style called “sprung rhythm”) to describe a cool natural scene. I think the last stanza comes closest to any kind of philosophical statement, but even there it seems to me that it’s largely just the poet’s natural exuberance about the beauty of nature—he’s been staring at this gorgeous stream and pool and stand of trees, and he can barely contain how glorious it is and how desperately it’s needed. Hopkins suffered deeply from depression (his “dark sonnets” are excruciatingly beautiful and tragic), and I think being next to a pool that “rounds and rounds Despair to drowning” was even more invigorating for him than it would be to the average person. But this still isn’t a very “deep” reading. What do you think—is the surface reading I’m getting the only thing that’s there? Or is there some cool symbolism here I’ve jumped past?
The title’s not as ambitious as I promised, of course, but sometimes it’s best to keep one’s hubris below the fold. In case you’re lost right now, I posted to this blog several days ago two “poems” for Poetry Friday: one of them a short ode to Abraham Lincoln by Vachel Lindsay, and the other was the full text of Lincoln’s remarkably brief speech given after he took the oath of office for the 2nd time, in March of 1865. I acknowledged going in that calling it a poem was daring but defensible. I commented afterwards that by Monday I’d explain why I think it’s his best speech—better even than the Gettysburg Address—and perhaps the best speech ever given. I’m going to make that attempt now. I want to say at the outset that I recognize this is an unresolvable question. I’m not even sure that I’d agree with me on this 100% of the time—there are a lot of great speeches in the world, and in different moods they affect me in different ways. So all I’m really doing is trying to explain why this reaches me, why I think it deserves higher acclaim than it gets, and why at the very least it is one of the great prose poems that expresses America at her noblest and best. I’m not including the whole text here (as it’s accessible by scrolling down a bit), but will quote from time to time.
I want to start with his humility. This is a public address on an immensely important occasion. Lincoln has been re-elected by a country that knew his first election had caused the war. His dedication and unconventional thinking had helped steer a course to victory. As recently as the fall of 1864, leading up to the election, it was unclear if the war could end in any reasonable time, and many Northerners thought suing for peace would be best. But startlingly by March 1865, the war is essentially over. Lee is weeks away from surrendering at Appomattox. The Union is victorious. And Lincoln begins this triumphant opportunity by telling the crowd he doesn’t want to talk long. He calls the course of the war “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all” and refuses to predict anything about its imminent conclusion. He’s a man who literally had been sneaked into the capital through the shadows for his first inauguration because there were mobs waiting to kill him, and he’s unwilling to take a bow until the last shot is fired. He would rather not linger on the stage. Nothing he has to say is important. This is characteristic of him—the Gettysburg Address is in exactly the same vein—and there is something pure and unfeigned about his shyness. He recognizes the greatness of his time and the inability of any human being to look prominent by comparison. In the modern era, where politicians never pass up a chance to give a long stirring speech with lots of applause lines, where our leaders look for chances to declare victories with banners and fanfare, Lincoln is a mystery.
Lincoln acknowledges the contrast with March 1861, noting the anti-Union forces at the start of the war (though saying nary a word about their personal hatred of him, or their attempts to do him violence). And then the first of the great moments in the speech arrives: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” Lincoln uses 19th Century American language the way Shakespeare used Renaissance English—their command and confidence, in both cases, is really beautiful. In one sentence, that slips by us like a rider in the night almost before we can hear it, Lincoln draws the lines between North and South in a way that does not demonize, but does distinguish. The irony in that sentence—of the peoples who would have rejected war had there not been a more terrible evil to conquer—is at just the right level for me. Lincoln was an unwilling warrior—strangely, the President we most associate with a war was, as far as I can tell, one of our least warlike and most pacifist leaders—and the phrasing of that clause “would accept war rather than let it perish” must be exactly what he said to himself the night that Sumter was fired upon. It’s how he justifies to himself the years of blood and smoke that follow—the death and horror that live in those four slow syllables, “and the war came”.
Lincoln begins to walk directly into the topic of slavery, unblinking, fully aware that his Maryland audience is tense about the end of the war because it will bring with it an end to slavery—slavery which had been legal in the Union state of Maryland throughout the war. He does so because he wants to show them that the course of history gives them no alternative. He reminds them that both sides tried their best to avoid this outcome—to seek, in his beautifully phrased prose, “an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding“. But it could not have been. Lincoln here reveals a personal perspective on slavery, in saying that it “may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces“, but he immediately steps back from this as a policy statement: they are not to judge, lest they be judged themselves. There is a wonderful balance here, in which Lincoln simultaneously reminds the audience that the Bible and their faith has been used by both sides against the other, while using the language of the Bible and of faith himself to present his own perspective on the war, a perspective he knew in his heart was “right” in a way the Confederacy could not be.
We are not far into the speech—a handful of sentences, really—but are already past the half-way point, and everything from here on out is shocking. Lincoln accepts the war as a punishment to both the North and South for slavery: he presents this simply enough, but think of the even-handedness of this. He does not present the North as the white knight, having vanquished the iniquitous Southern villain. Both sides are brothers, kinsmen in a house that must suffer for its sins. Lincoln, who grew up and lived in an emancipated North, believes so firmly in the unity of his country that he will not excuse the North for having allowed the South to go its own way for so long. Think of the daring of that from any political leader at any time—the willingness to share blame equally between your friends and your foes—and then think of a President doing this on the day of his triumphant inauguration, on the brink of victory after a long and bloody war. The kind of character it takes to say this is remarkable.
And then he says “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” The epic scope of this overwhelms me every time, and sometimes pushes me to the brink of tears when I read it. The Civil War had been the country’s bloodiest conflict—over 600,000 Americans dead, hundreds of thousands more wounded and maimed for life. Every community in the country had felt loss, every neighborhood had at least one young man who would not come home (and many who came home were never the same). And at this moment, when that long national nightmare seems at an end, when the light is beginning to dawn, Lincoln looks squarely in the eyes of his nation and tells them that this war has been the mercy of God. That the evils they have undeservedly visited upon a whole race of human beings are so terrible that only the destruction of the American society, only an ocean of spilled American blood, could expiate their guilt. At a time when he could easily have saluted his followers for their victory “in the cause of freedom”, he instead looks back on the gruesome past of a country built on the backs of an enslaved people and can hardly believe that divine justice will allow his land to escape with a mere million casualties. His bravery in facing this truth has never, I think, been paralleled by any national leader in the history of democracy.
And I haven’t even gotten yet to the best sentence he ever penned. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” The war is on the verge of ending, but as he continues to remind them, it is not quite over yet. So, how does he envision the next four years? Retribution against the traitors who destroyed his country? Punishments that ensure no such rebellion will ever again arise? No, he reaches out into the bleeding wounds of the South with charity and not malice—with a love that aches for his American brothers and sisters even as they continue to deny his leadership, even as a few of them are plotting to kill him and his closest friends in a night of assassinations. Lincoln reminds his people, as both a benediction and a call to service, what work they are engaged in: not the work of warfare, of brutal force and blood. There has been enough of that—a necessity forced on Lincoln by the war he could not avoid, but not the path of his choosing. No, the work for Americans is to bind up the nation’s wounds, the whole nation’s and not merely part of it. To care for soldiers and for those left behind by the dead, regardless of the color they wore as they fell or the flag they saluted when they enlisted. To take every step, to leave no stone unturned, until the nation is at peace with the world and at peace with itself.
It’s not the greatest speech ever if you want to inspire modern people to action—it’s not timeless in the way that some speeches are (Martin Luther King comes to mind as a better example). But as a speech of its time, especially of that particular context of the 2nd inauguration at the end of a difficult war, I think it shows an unmatched willingness to confront the truths no one would have asked to hear. Lincoln is a great leader and a great man because of what he manages in speeches like this one—to humbly and simply put before the nation the truth about itself, that America has never lived up to its ideals, that America has built itself on injustice and exploitation, that in facing hardship America is only facing the consequences of fate and divine retribution that would befall any nation so unwilling to do what is right. And he says all of this without condescending, without pulling rank or moral authority, and without shifting the focus away from what is most important—that revenge is unthinkable and that peace will only come from kindness and goodness, from the open love offered by a charitable heart. Lincoln is our greatest President, and this is his greatest speech, because he shows us that under all his canny political instincts (there’s no denying he was skilled, and crafty at times) his devotion to truth and justice is unflinching even when it aims the sword at his own heart. How our nation was fortunate to elect, not once but twice, a man who ultimately refused to glory in victorious battle, refused to keep honest criticism from his allies, refused to take vengeance on those who threatened the safety of himself, his family, and the nation he swore to protect, I cannot possibly imagine. If he were a politician in the United States today, he might never rise above the office of local dogcatcher. That is our century’s shame, and should be all the incentive we need to re-examine our politics.
This is an immense post, and may well be rambling (though I hope not). I think at the very least it conveys my enthusiasm for Lincoln and for this speech, and I hope I did so in a way that touches you also, even if not in the same way. If you’ve never read anything by him, I urge you to track down whatever you can—even in short letters to people he was unacquainted with, the character and the vision I’ve been praising are very evident.
Today, for the three day weekend, I offer two works of poetry. One is a short poem about Abraham Lincoln by Vachel Lindsay. The other is a longer poem by Abraham Lincoln that he gave as his 2nd Inaugural Address, in March of 1865, a few weeks before he died. He didn’t call it a poem, of course. Maybe you won’t either. But if you don’t think it’s poetry, I’d like to hear why. For me, it does all that poetry does, and can do.
First, Vachel Lindsay’s “Lincoln”:
Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all,
That which is gendered in the wilderness
From lonely prairies and God’s tenderness.
Imperial soul, star of a weedy stream,
Born where the ghosts of buffaloes still dream,
Whose spirit hoof-beats storm above his grave,
Above that breast of earth and prairie-fire—
Fire that freed the slave.
I chose this today largely because it opens with just what I would say to you, to any of you, to all Americans. Would that we could raise the Lincolns in ourselves this year, not because he was a saint or a demi-god or a man who could do no wrong, but because more than maybe any other American before or since, Lincoln perceived who we were and who we could be, and lit the pathway there. Lincoln, as Lindsay interprets him, is about frontier and fire, about optimism and energy. Lincoln, despite his many faults, managed to tell America more about itself than it had ever known—he saw in the founders’ documents a call to a nobler destiny than they had forged. And he said it to us in the simplest possible language, so that even when his words have grown tired with overquotation and overapplication they still claw their way through to us and shake us awake to ourselves. In the passage below, I hope that happens for you. Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address:
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
I think it will take a whole post to say why I think this is perhaps the best speech he ever gave (better than the more famous Gettysburg Address), and why it may be the best speech ever given, especially if I consider how much he gets done in how few words (what you see above is the entirety of his remarks). So I will try to write that post on Monday, on Presidents’ Day, and I hope that between now and then a few of you will offer your reflections here in the comments.
La Farge is proving to be a really sound story-teller—someone who uses very sparing characterizations and minimal descriptions of setting to create a sort of stage for the play to enact on. It is very staged, and wouldn’t appeal to everyone: maybe most of all the Pulitzers so far it reminds me of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, although Wilder was interested in philosophy, and I think La Farge is interested more in identity. Slim Girl is a slippery figure through the section I’ve just read, in which she accompanies her husband to be with his people—a tense visit in which his family may order him to reject her, in which the truths she’s kept hidden will be revealed. She doesn’t know how Laughing Boy will react, and is taut as a wire for chapters at a time. The whole way, I keep revising my opinion of her. Is she calculating—her love for Laughing Boy a convenient affection that adds some believability to her acting the part of the lovesick wife—or sincere? How close to the edge of the precipice is she willing to walk, and is it because she loves danger, because she wants to be caught in her misdeeds, or because she can’t work out how to back down? It’s nice to have a more complex character again…someone who is in a few small ways reminiscent of Ellen Olenska from Wharton’s masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, as a woman returned to a culture that has cast her out, who wants and does not want to be a part of it again.
La Farge is, in my opinion, shockingly sensitive to the culture given his time period. His characters speech patterns are a little too halting, but very human and believable. Here’s a long passage of Laughing Boy explaining himself to his old friend, Jesting Squaw’s Son, upon seeing each other for the first time since Laughing Boy’s hasty (and, frankly, transgressive, within his culture’s norms) marriage:
“I do not think you will know what I am talking about, but you understand me. I want you to know. I have been down Old Age River in the log, with sheet-lightning and rainbows and soft rain, and the gods on either side to guide me. The Eagles have put lightning snakes and sunbeams and rainbows under me; they have carried me through the hole in the sky. I have been through the little crack in the rocks with Red God and seen the homes of the Butterflies and the Mountain Sheep and the Divine Ones. I have heard the Four Singers on the Four Mountains. I mean that woman.
It sounds like insane talk. It is not. It is not just because I am in love. It is not what I feel when I am near her, what happens to my blood when she touches me. I know about that. I have thought about that. It is what goes on there. It is all sorts of things, but you would have to live there to see it. I know the kind of thing my uncle says. It is not true. We are not acting out here, we are pretending. We have masks on, so they will not see our real faces.”
Maybe the book has blinded me with my sympathy for Laughing Boy, but I don’t think so—I think that’s an example of a really thoughtful portrayal of a Native American (from a white man in 1930). He uses the metaphor and myth of the Navajo, but in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitative to me: Laughing Boy is trying to tell his friend what it is like to be in the kind of world-altering, immersive love that he’s in, and he uses spiritual language to aim at it. He admits going in that his friend doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but hopes he will understand him: isn’t that a great phrase? It reminds me of Chief Bromden’s “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.” There’s a surprising subtlety to Laughing Boy (given the usual portrayals of minorities in the fiction of this era), and what’s equally heartening is that he’s not an uncomplicated “good” character. He cheats store owners to give his friends a laugh. He admits to deceiving his family because he can’t trust them to trust him. This isn’t some kind of “noble savage” narrative, and that’s its own kind of relief. La Farge thinks there’s a real complicated story to tell in this setting of cultural tension and he’s brave enough to try.
I think I belabor the point about this novel’s thoughtful examination of minorities, and I want to step back and say why I do. It’s certainly in part because fiction in the 1920s (Pulitzer-winning fiction) is more racist than I’d expected. But I think in a larger sense it’s because I’m looking for the seeds of the civil rights movement in this country—for the sign that we’re going to grow up and stop being afraid of skin color and accents, the sign that America will learn to be America. Part of this journey is me trying to find a country that frustrates and inspires me in equal measures, and the country I’ve been finding so far is deeply confused (borderline deranged, honestly) on the topic of race. Minorities are either invisible or heartless savages or brainless dupes or thieving children, and regardless there’s no evidence from even the best of writers (Wharton and Cather, who had it in them to do this) that there was an interest in leaping into the unknown and trying to honestly see the world through the eyes of a character who doesn’t share the author’s race. La Farge’s attempt to do this isn’t just good because it’s pleasant to read fiction without retching at the racism—it’s good because it tells me that, decades before the real progress begins but many, many decades later than it should have begun, Americans were starting to show a willingness to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective. I think we’re still very bad at that—though honestly, I’m not sure that most of the “civilized” nations are a lot better (look at issues of race and ethnicity in much of Europe, for example). But because of who America is and what the promise of America represents, we intentionally set the bar higher for ourselves. We said that all are created equal, and that we were willing to die for that principle. Many Americans have—not just Washington’s men at Valley Forge or Grant’s in the Wilderness, but women and men throughout the country in the 1920s and 1930s who were lynched because of their unwillingness to defer to the racist boundaries that had been laid down around their lives, and more still throughout the rest of the 20th Century. Maybe even today. It would be good—good not in the bland everyday sense of that word (like “this sandwich is good”) but in the real, sturdy, enduring sense of the word (like “goodness and mercy shall follow me”)—to see that these dead shall not have died in vain, as Lincoln said. It would be frivolous to say that a simple little novel about the Navajo is what they died for. But it appears to me as the first real literary flickering of the hope that would tear down the Jim Crow laws and spark civil rights movements in every minority community in the United States for half a century. That’s the reason I can’t stop dwelling on it—because it’s one of the highway signs I’ve been looking for on the road to America. This is a good novel, and I’m intentionally cutting back on the details I’m giving you. It’s because I want you to read it, and I hope you will.