“Invasion had come to the town of Adano.”

So begins A Bell for Adano by John Hersey, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for 1945.  Hersey’s approach to the novel is explicitly didactic from the beginning—prior to this opening sentence, he offers a foreword that explains his purpose in writing the novel, and it’s all the optimism and exceptionalism and spirited nationalism (maybe the best of all these impulses, to be sure) you would expect from an American writing in the flowering of the Pax Americana, a world-altering victory that would usher in a new era, and one in which the Stars and Stripes reigned supreme.

He informs us in the foreword that his interest is in showing us “a good man”, Major Joppolo, an Italian-American tasked with establishing law and order in the Sicilian city of Adano now that it’s under American occupation as the Allies press on into Italy to topple Mussolini.  He informs us, before the story even begins, that Joppolo “represented in miniature what America can and cannot do in Europe,” and eventually claims sweepingly that “he is our future in the world.  Neither the eloquence of Churchill nor the humaneness of Roosevelt, no Charter, no four freedoms or fourteen points, no dreamer’s diagram so symmetrical and so faultless on paper, no plan, no hope, no treaty—none of these things can guarantee anything.  Only men can guarantee, only the behavior of men under pressure, only our Joppolos.”

That’s a lot of weight to hang on a single character in a novel before we’ve heard him speak or seen him step from his landing craft and survey the town he will inhabit.  My initial criticism of this novel is that, stylistically, it proceeds to give every sign of being just that single-minded, presenting Major Joppolo in the simplest possible light and bringing in basically every other character and situation in such a way as to show both how stacked the odds are against his success and yet of course how inevitably he will succeed by dint of his sheer goodness.  On the other hand, this is the sort of criticism I floated about The Bridge of San Luis Rey when it began, in moralistic fashion and aggressively foreshadowing the book’s ending, and that turned out to be a gem of a novel, one of the brighter stars in Pulitzer’s constellation.  Wilder made the style work, and turned the novel’s limitations into a powerful rhetorical device that imbued each of his characters with seriousness and meaning.  So who am I to say yet that Hersey will not do the same?  I only express concern at the outset.

Licata Sicily from Wikipedia

The fictional Adano is allegedly based on this gorgeous Sicilian city, Licata: the panorama (courtesy of Wikipedia) is a wonderful image to carry with me as I read.

Victor Joppolo is middle-aged, steady, almost too classically the picture of the stoic, determined man of justice so beloved by American popular art in the middle of the 20th century (I think of Gary Cooper here, and his many imitators), although I’ll note with satisfaction that Hersey could easily have skewed towards making him a dialect-spouting, excitable caricature of an Italian immigrant, and totally avoids it.  Still, though, I find myself more drawn in the early going to the much more cynical, sharp-minded sergeant who accompanies Joppolo ashore, a Hungarian-American named Leonard Borth, who has traveled the world, it seems, and likes a good joke more than Major Joppolo.  The two of them have to figure out how to control a town full of people they don’t know—half of them ex-Fascists who dream Mussolini will rise again, and the other half Italians who hated Mussolini and Fascism but hardly can be expected to trust a couple of American G.I.s to do much better.  The little I know about this book suggests that the titular bell—and recovering or restoring it somehow for the town—plays a big role in that.  But surely the book will have to cover more than this kind of architectural rescue mission.

There’s not much more to say as yet—as is my custom, I make this first post based on only the first few pages, just to give me something to reference later (either to note happily how spot on I was, or to cringe a little at how far off my guesses flew).  I approach Hersey’s novel right now, thinking that at best I’m reading a pleasant but slightly forgettable “rah rah America” story, and at worst an excessively stereotypical and pig-headed “rah rah America” story.  Above the floor of the worst Pulitzers but well below the altitudes reached by the best.  Time will tell.

1944: Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin

Literary Style:

This book took me less long than the last one, but still much too long—especially because it’s a much better novel, and deserved better from me.  My chief complaint (already described at some length in a previous post) is Flavin’s weirdly circuitous style, that depends so heavily on flashbacks and informing us of sudden, shocking information off-handedly in retrospect that it can be a bit irritating at a plot level.  You can only read passages that go like this—“His mother had arrived by hired limousine, although he didn’t know it at the time.  She looked well when she walked in; so well that neither of them would have suspected this was the last time they saw each other before her untimely death.”—a few times before you start grousing out loud to the narrator.

And yet Flavin makes it work.  In part he does manage at times to achieve that almost Tristram Shandy effect that I imagine he’s going for, where we move back and forth around some key times in the life of our main character, Sam Braden—the sound of an old iron fence being brought down one afternoon punctuates I don’t know how many chapters late in the book, and it comes to take on a certain significance as he keeps bringing us back to Sam in his study that afternoon.  But more importantly, Flavin has such a sure hand on these characters that, even when I know startling news about them in that narrator’s shorthanded asides, finally seeing that same event play out in real time is still gripping to me.  Even when I know what they’ll say in the end, I like to hear them say it.  Life has distracted me away from this book more than once, but Flavin’s hold on the characters—and on me, the reader—is so strong that I never need to retrace my steps.  I am immediately and vividly right back with them, I remember why we are where we are, and I want to observe them again just as intensely as when I set the book down last.

This really is the book that The Late George Apley set out to be and failed at—a long rambling walk through the life of an almost-great man and his family and friends, that illuminates a lot about America from 1900-1940 and has something left to say to a wartime home front.  Sam is remarkable, with just enough flaws and just enough virtues to be interesting to watch, sometimes a good guy to root for, but never the expression of wish fulfillment or some silly notion about “the ideal American businessman”.  Through his eyes we see poverty, opportunity, race, class, gender—you name it.  Flavin isn’t quite progressive enough to give us a novel that could withstand our modern sensibilities, but this is light years beyond the Pulitzer winners of the 1920s and 1930s, dealing very calmly with interracial romance, religious bigotry, and extreme political and class struggle tensions between characters.  It will never be read and dissected like a Steinbeck or a Fitzgerald, but it ought to be better remembered than it is: the story is expansive, the characters fragile and unpredictable in their humanity, and ultimately more than one scene moved me emotionally to the point that I felt at least misty-eyed.  This is a good novel.

Historical Insight:

A well-thought-out book on this front—it certainly captures the sea change that a small Midwestern river town would have gone through over fifty years, including the rise of the railroads, the impact of two wars and the intervening depression, and ultimately the rise of commercialism and factory production.  Sam is reflective enough (and involved enough in a lot of this change) to help us imagine what this looked like to Americans passing through it, and he has two close friends on opposite sides of this America—a grizzled, American Legion type businessman with a fire for competition and an idealist, leftist newspaper man with no head for numbers or accounting but a passion for the rights of the working poor—whose conversations help draw some of these images out in more detail.  A lot of the story of Sam Braden and his family is about class, too—what America will let you overcome and what it won’t, what money will buy and what it won’t—and given this particular era in American history, that makes a real difference to me as the reader.  This doesn’t quite rise to the level of a novel like my last one by Upton Sinclair, but it’s not trying to: what Flavin wants to do on this front, I think he succeeds with, and it certainly is more than good enough at evoking America in this time period to make me happy with it as a Pulitzer winner.


My unscientific scale calls this “a great read for anyone who enjoys well-developed characters, especially if you like a longer family saga or a historical novel”.  Not among the very best Pulitzers I’ve read, but close behind them, totally worth reading, and a book I’m glad won an award, since I want it to be remembered.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the last word to the author, and let you be the judge of what you find.  Here, late in the story (after World War II has already engulfed America), Sam Braden is writing a letter to his son, Hath:

“He did not mean, he said, to accuse himself uniquely, for it was his generation which much be indicted; he, himself, was no more than a reflection of the world in which he’d lived, not atypical at all.  He could only be convicted of having realized the fruit which his fellow men had coveted, of being a winner in a race in which, as it turned out, there were not any winners, since there were not any stakes—no real reward for winning; but only the winners had a chance to find that out.  He would plead guilty to success—the very same in pursuit of which most people lived and died, never knowing that the stars at which they grasped were fireflies and marsh lights.  And success had this advantage: once in your hand you could examine it and appraise its actual value—a benefit denied to less successful men.

‘Values,’ he wrote, ‘that’s where we have been wrong: bad accounting methods, confusing liabilities with assets; the books are in a mess.  But I think that it is changing—not just for the duration, as many people say.  And I believe in you, Hath, all you fine young men who must suffer for our faults, who must fight and win a war which you had no part in making, and who must remake a world which we have wrecked—I believe that you will not repeat the old mistakes.'”

“Sooner or later people suffered for their sins. The neighbors might forget, but God remembered—“

I know it’s been a while since you heard from me on Journey in the Dark, my current Pulitzer novel.  Truthfully, that’s because it’s been going fine—not outstanding, but a solid reading experience.  I finally realized I was more than 3/4 of the way through and hadn’t posted since my initial post on the novel: apologies!  I’ll try to capture in broad strokes why it’s gone well but not memorably enough to make me say “Ah! I must write about that great moment!” or “AAAHHH!  I MUST write about that AWFUL passage!”

The setup, as I wrote initially, was good.  I thought at the time that I was being set up for some thoughtful exploration of race, in particular, maybe also class.  As it’s turned out, the race element has moved to the back: it’s not so much that Flavin mishandles it as that it’s just not what he’s interested in.  Instead, he’s pretty taken with just exploring the character of Sam Braden: what does it take to be a self-made man, and what kind of people do you encounter along the way?  Flavin does have the consistent habit of taking away tension by narrating the ends of stories in flashback before popping back to tell the middle of those stories in “real time”.  I find it irritating, although less so than when it was the consistent device in The Late George Apley.  I have no idea why that would be so, but it is.  For the most part, though, he’s just tracing all these elements he set up at the beginning to their logical conclusion—what would life be like for Sam’s flighty, dreamer sister who was (probably inaccurately) informed by some posh girls in their small town that she had a voice good enough for opera?  Where would it take Sam’s Estella-equivalent (Great Expectations definitely looms large over big stretches of this novel) childhood obsession, a young woman too beautiful and aware of her talents to really be willing to settle, but also a young woman who seems unsure of what it is she wants in the first place (critically important for anyone afraid of “settling”)?  Where would it take Sam?

It’s taken Sam on a sort of picaresque journey through American capitalism—winning his way into the railroad business (at a very low level) as it’s conquering the West, then flopping into sales in the era when advertising and PR become dominant market forces, shifting then into manufacturing and importing/exporting as the world opens up for American mass-produced goods.  He serves in the army in WWI, watches a business fail and then resurface, and makes the miraculously fortunate decision to give up being a business owner—selling all his shares—a few weeks before the Great Crash in 1929 destroys most of the families he knew.  It’s less politically and historically aware than Upton Sinclair’s novel (Dragon’s Teeth, my long-time nemesis, chronicled extensively here), but in some ways I don’t mind that at all: it lets me focus on Sam as a real person dealing with real issues whose magnitude he can’t always assess accurately.

I chose the title I did for this post because the sentiments—expressed by Sam’s spinster elder sister, Madge—rings so true for so much of the novel.  Without seeming vindictive about it, Flavin certainly ensures that his world is a “just” one, at least by some standards.  People who flout convention will reap the consequences.  Everything catches up to you eventually.  Sam’s relatively consistent devotion to ethical behavior—not totally consistent, but certainly more than a lot of his acquaintances—allows him to escape most of this, so far, but I think I see a reckoning coming.

My only concern at this point is that I don’t see this novel signifying much.  Flavin isn’t trying to make Sam emblematic of much of anything, as far as I can tell.  Other than some vaguely positive (while clear-eyed) assessments of capitalism, maybe some general leanings towards supporting society’s strictures about sobriety, modesty, and fidelity, I can’t see that Flavin is trying to say much beyond the flat details of the story—that America is a place where a Sam Braden can make a life, and a successful one.  If that’s all I get from the book, it certainly will have been a better reading experience than a lot of the things I’ve read.  But I can’t say it will stick with me.  I’m already fading on a lot of details earlier in the novel, without having even reached the end yet.  I think I can understand the Pulitzer committee responding to this well in the moment, but I wonder if, even just a few months later, they realized it didn’t have the challenge and controversy that distinguishes real art (most of the time), and came to regret their choice.

We’ll see.  Sam still has a few chickens to come home to roost yet.  I doubt very much I’ll post again until my review, which hopefully shouldn’t take too much longer.  I’ll ponder the calm tone and simple success of the characterization, as opposed to the relatively slim joys of the plot and its underlying significance, and see what it adds up to, in the end.

Poetry Friday: Sherman Alexie

It’s time to explore the poetry of my new home—much as I went to Carl Sandburg to see Chicago through a poet’s eyes, I must find some Inland Northwest poets to help me understand this land.  And so, where else to start but with a son of the people whose land this is, who have possessed and been possessed by it for many centuries, long before my great-grandfather homesteaded here or my car rolled up with boxes in the back to make a home.  If you know Sherman Alexie, you know what we’re probably about to dive into.  And if you don’t know Sherman, a native man from the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe, born on the Spokane Indian Reservation at Wellpinit, well, buckle up.  Whatever else it may be, ahead of us we can certainly expect to be confronted by truth.  From his collection, The Summer of Black Widows, this is “The Powwow at the End of the World”:

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam
downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific
and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon
waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia
and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors
of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River
as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives
in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire
which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

Sweet, terrible fire.  And words I need to hear.  There is something reminiscent here of many great poems I’ve read, including some I’ve discussed here—Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” occurs to me, and Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again“—but of course it is also entirely its own, hot with the passion that has boiled in him all his years.  As challenging as it can be to confront, it’s also important to face his relentless demands that forgiveness not be cheap, that injustice be met not with platitudes but with redress and righteousness, that the only way to do good is to undo evil.  The imagery is powerful for me because it pairs the very tangible and real—the solidity of the dam at Grand Coulee, the shattered reactors at a broken Hanford—with the fantastic and the mythical—an Indian woman (and there is something deeply powerful, I think, in his insisting that it be a woman) titanic enough that the weight of her shoulder can shatter acres of concrete, a salmon charged with lightning who calls the tribes home for the dance that ends time.  I find that I encounter these juxtapositions often in the work of Native American writers—I think culturally (at least in many tribes) they are better able to see the unreal through the lens of the real, especially seeing something numinous and immanent in the natural world around them.

There is something communal about his anger, the feeling that a whole community, a whole nation, must be restored by this amazing chain of events.  But there is also something so personal—the salmon must come to him, who waits alone in a secret place.  He alone will see the lightning bolt which falls at his feet and no one else’s—when the lost ones come home, they will come to him.  And for me that only enhances the power of the piece—this is a lament in broad strokes for what the Spokane people lost and deserve to have restored to them, but it is grounded in the very personal accounting Sherman feels of what the broken tribe costs him, and of what America owes him personally to make this right.  I enjoy, too, that the piece ultimately dwells on the elation of reunion, the exuberance of dance and ancient stories—ultimately what will satisfy this outcry is not the scent of burning towns or the vision of oppressors brought low.  It’s not about revenge in the end for him: it’s about what will be restored, not about what will be destroyed.

It would be easy to tune him out, I suppose—to say that this is all big talk but in the end not very realistic.  But I think we have to grapple with the enormity of what Sherman wants us to see, whether or not we really think we could do all he demands, breaking apart the structures of American society in his people’s valleys and plateaus and leaving them to dance.  He recognizes this is apocalypse—that the justice he is demanding can only be depicted in the context of a final day, of the judgment and conclusion of this living, standing at the threshold of what will follow.  It doesn’t mean his pain is imaginary, nor that we can pretend that justice is unimportant until some last call where we can hurriedly set things right before we are called to account.  The rhythms of his verse surge up against us again and again like waves, like salmon who will not be denied the river no matter how the falls rage them backwards.  They will swim until they are victorious or perish in the attempt.  I can feel that strain in his verse, and that determination.  I’m glad I’m having to wrestle with it, what it means and what it will mean in the future—and especially what I may have to do about it.  Poetry should unsettle us, and this poem certainly unsettles me, even as it introduces me to a home it is not ready to welcome me to.  I am grateful for that, and for Sherman, tonight.

Poetry Friday: Armistice Day

It has been another delay here at Following Pulitzer—apologies to all of you who wish I would be more consistent (and thanks for your continued interest).  As it happens, I think a transition is coming that may free up more time for me to read and to write—a job change that will mean another cross-country move like the one I blogged through in 2011—but I’ll say more about that another day.  Today is a day about other people, and not me.

I call it Armistice Day in the title intentionally, because sometimes I think we are too quick to forget today’s origins.  It began less as a holiday to honor those who serve their country (great as that sacrifice often is, and humbling as it can be to the vast majority of us who do not serve), and more specifically as a holiday to honor the day the guns fell silent; the day a world, at long last, chose peace.  It is a somber day in every country scarred by World War I except ours—a day for wreaths laid at cenotaphs and salutes to absent comrades, a day for meditative silence and serious consideration of the toll that war exacts from all who touch it.  Here, I think we are often so caught up in the desire to celebrate veterans that we end up celebrating the trappings of war, thundering cannons and soaring jet engines, the flash of brightly shining medals and gun barrels as men and women in dress uniform march out at halftime or before the anthem.  It makes me uneasy.  As much as I honor those who serve, and know that there have been dark moments in the world’s history where, without that service, much that is good would have been lost… it is hard to see all that pomp and wonder if it dulls us to the cost of war.  Certainly my generation easily remembers how blindly and foolishly we were led into conflict—a conflict that was easy for many to support because our families would not supply the lives it took to do whatever it was we did in the Middle East.  Flags and salutes once a year (or twice, really, with Memorial Day) feels like cheap grace to me—an annual payment that costs people like me very little, much less than it would cost us to face the reality of the sacrifices we have demanded, and often unwisely.  Much less than it would cost us to find a way of diminishing the chances that any young person will have to make those sacrifices next year, next decade, and beyond.

The real costs, of course, are borne by those who do not return from battle, and those who love them.  Today is their day, and if a flag or a salute eases their burden, I will hoist the standard and stand at attention for as long as I am asked.  I know what I believe, and what I feel obligated to do—that’s why I always say what I do, each November 11.  But it is important to remember that today is not about me.  Today is theirs, and will ever be.  For them, I offer Laurence Binyon‘s ode, “For the Fallen”:

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is a music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted:
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end they remain.

Poetry Friday: Independence Day with Emma Lazarus

For this Poetry Friday, which falls on a holiday here in the States—and not just any holiday, but the most fireworks-laden and brass-band-in-the-park bedecked of them all, Independence Day—I’m keeping it short and sweet.  There are a lot of hymns to patriotism and ruminations on America in poetic form, but one sonnet seems to me just the right one to ponder a little as we prepare for cookouts and parades and sparklers lighting up the night.  This is “The New Colossus”, by Emma Lazarus, published in 1883:

"Liberty Enlightening the World", perhaps better known these days as "The Statue of Liberty"

“Liberty Enlightening the World”, perhaps better known these days as “The Statue of Liberty”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lazarus wrote this little poem as part of a fund-raising effort in connection with the impending arrival of an immense statue, a gift from the French government, Bartholdi’s “La Liberté éclairant le monde” (or “Liberty enlightening the world”).  This little sonnet in some ways reshapes American identity, in that it changes the character of the lady who stands in New York’s harbor, and in doing so changes something important about America’s symbolism about itself.  As conceived, the statue was a monument to the American Revolution, which had only succeeded with the support of the French—it was an ode to American greatness, to achievement.  And then along comes Emma Lazarus to tell us we misunderstand the work, before it is even completed and standing on American soil.

“Not”, she begins—“Not”, because before we can hear her real voice we must unhear the misconceptions we have already taken on board—“Not like the brazen giant”, the Colossus of Rhodes, this will be no statue to honor military triumph, she tells us.  She sees the statue not as an emblem held aloft from the American shore: if she did, surely Lazarus would describe Liberty as a sunrise figure, no?  Her torch held aloft at the eastern edge of the continent?  But Lazarus sees her at the “sunset gates”, she sees her from the Old World, from the boats that came by the hundreds, the refugees teeming across the Atlantic by the thousands, peering and squinting into the sunset to see that torch held aloft that proclaimed a journey’s end, and a new beginning.  An apocalyptic figure, Liberty is mighty, she cages lightning for a beacon, and yet most importantly, her name is no warrior’s slogan, no epithet worn by a hero of battle.  She is Mother of Exiles.  The torch does not drive off the foe—it welcomes the world.  Her eyes are not piercing or stern, but mild.  She is a gentle god, a pillar of strength that shields more than it threatens, that guards more than it goads.

And then Lazarus executes the turn from octet (first 8 lines) to sestet (last 6) perfectly—we no longer hear the poet, but now simply the voice of Liberty herself.  She rejects all that glitters, the “storied pomp” of the Old World, the shimmering jewels on the crowned heads of a Europe then in its absolute ascendancy, a handful of empires who then held under subjection most of the surface of the Earth.  “Give me your tired,” she says, send me those you cannot abide and who cannot abide you.  Turn out those who have found emptiness with you, that they will find plenty with me.  Cast out the weak that I may teach them to be strong.  She does not glamourize them—they are “huddled masses”, “wretched refuse”, “homeless”.  It will not matter.  If they enter under her lamp they will find a home.  You know these words, of course.  Years later, some of them were carved on a plaque that can be seen by all who visit Liberty in New York.  She is forever the exiles’ mother, the welcomer of the “tempest-tost”—and because she is so fully identified with the United States, in a way we will wear that badge, as well, forever until the statue crumbles into the harbor.

We can be cynical, of course, and undercut the poem’s naivete.  The Land of Opportunity denied opportunity to many.  Even as many immigrants found success here, many other found failure—some sank into inescapable poverty here, others returned broken to the poverty they had left at home.  Liberty was a welcome sight but for some arrivals, her face would be the last welcoming one they would see for some time.  And yet…

And yet what is today for if not for appealing to the better angels of our nature?  If America has not always lived up to the promise in Lazarus’s poem, surely that promise was kept for many, at least—among them a butcher from Schleswig-Holstein and a tailor from central Sweden, who found homes here and enough success to raise families and see grandchildren born, not knowing that the years would lead, among other places, to me sitting here now writing this.  Lazarus’s sonnet can inspire us as well as disappoint us; it can call us to live out our duty to the world’s bedraggled.  These sentiments are not wholly welcome to all Americans these days, and of course they never really were universally American sentiments.  We have always had anti-immigrant sentiment, though I fear our current predicament is deeper and more pernicious than most of what’s preceded it.  The news is full of talk, much of it by people who would call themselves patriots, but in whose anti-immigrant phrases and attitudes I find not very much to call “American” in the way that Liberty herself is American.  I am sad for them, and about them, but I do not give up on them.

Today, let them come to Liberty Island to sit at the feet of Bartholdi’s masterpiece.  Let them read the words of Lazarus and ask themselves what it would mean for us to embrace our identity as the Mother of Exiles, the home of the world’s cast-offs.  Let them look into our country’s past and see not just rich men signing a Declaration, but the generations of the poor and the homeless who passed beneath that torch, had their papers stamped at Ellis Island, and declared a kind of personal independence from all that had held them down back home, and all they had left behind.  This land belongs to them, too, and to the many who have not yet come to our shores, but for whom Lady Liberty will someday mark a turning point in their lives.  So today I honor them all, past, present, and future, who have come here with nothing: may America richly reward you for placing your hopes in her hands.

Poetry Friday: 1943 and the frontier

After a week off—we had guests in town, including my two youngest nephews, which had me more than busy enough to skip Poetry Friday—we return to the poetry of 1943, and I have to say I love this week’s piece.  Veteran readers of this blog will remember my excited discovery last year of the work of the American poet Stephen Vincent Benet, when I happened upon his book-length poem John Brown’s Body and shared both an excerpt of his invocation and a paragraph of his comments on reading poetry.  Benet has a sturdy American voice: not flashy like Fitzgerald or as punchy as Hemingway, but far more resonant than a word like “plain” can capture.  I advised you then to read his work aloud in a simple speaking voice—not like a politician giving a speech, but like a person talking calmly about something they care about.  I think that advice should hold here, because yes, we’re back to Benet and he’s just as good as I remember.

This time, it’s another epic poem, which Benet again styles after the great poets in that tradition, complete with an opening invocation to some nameless muse who can inspire his song.  The poem, Western Star, looks deeply into the idea of America as a frontier, and into the lives of the people who took what they thought of as “wilderness” and made it a country.  For all its good intentions, it is of course missing an important part of the story—Benet’s work is not as sensitive to the stories of native peoples as it ought to be, and the whole “claiming the frontier/wilderness” theme is definitely locked into a white European settler’s way of seeing and understanding the natural landscape.  Especially on Columbus Day weekend, I think it’s good to remind ourselves that we need to hear the stories of people who have not been given much of a voice in American conversations, and sometime between now and Thanksgiving I’ll be making a sincere effort to bring one or more Native American poets into the mix.  But I also don’t want to let that reality turn us away from hearing the voices of those people who crossed an ocean and spread throughout a continent: we don’t hear them much either, not as the people they were, instead sweeping them up into abstract phrases like “westward movement” and “manifest destiny”.  For many of us, these are the people we come from—farmers, trappers, people who would found a city and move on before its histories could record them, people who never really stopped moving all their days.  So I hope you can hear them in the lines below, and I encourage you to read aloud and let Benet’s voice speak a little of their strength into your Friday.  This is the invocation for Western Star, by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Not for the great, not for the marvelous,
Not for the barren husbands of the gold;
Not for the arrowmakers of the soul,
Wasted with truth, the star-regarding wise;
Not even for the few
Who would not be the hunter nor the prey,
Who stood between the eater and the meat,
The wilderness saints, the guiltless, the absolved,
Born out of Time, the seekers of the balm
Where the green grass grows from the broken heart;
But for all these, the nameless, numberless
Seed of the field, the mortal wood and earth
Hewn for the clearing, trampled for the floor,
Uprooted and cast out upon the stone
From Jamestown to Benicia.
This is their song, this is their testament,
Carved to their likeness, speaking in their tongue
And branded with the iron of their star.
I say you shall remember them. I say
When the night has fallen on your loneliness
And the deep wood beyond the ruined wall
Seems to step forward swiftly with the dusk,
You shall remember them. You shall not see
Water or wheat or axe-mark on the tree
And not remember them.
You shall not win without remembering them,
For they won every shadow of the moon,
All the vast shadows, and you shall not lose
Without a dark remembrance of their loss
For they lost all and none remembered them.

Hear the wind
Blow through the buffalo-grass
Blow over wild-grape and brier.
This was frontier, and this,
And this, your house, was frontier.
There were footprints upon the hill
And men lie buried under,
Tamers of earth and rivers.
They died at the end of labor,
Forgotten is the name.

Now, in full summer, by the Eastern shore,
Between the seamark and the roads going West,
I call two oceans to remember them.
I fill the hollow darkness with their names.

There’s a real loveliness to Benet’s writing about America because you can tell he loves the people, like Steinbeck’s treatment of the principal characters in The Grapes of Wrath, I think.  And this, his poem about the forging of the American identity, opens with his clarification that this isn’t an epic about the heroic figures normally  featured in this kind of work.  He sets aside the possibility that this could be a story of the “marvelous”, of the “wilderness saints”.  Instead, he turns his attention to the vast numbers of people who went through their lives unremarked, and he analogizes them to the land and the things growing in it—like seeds that grow and are cut down, like the forests that were laid low to clear the fields.  I like the way Benet’s love for the land and his admiration for the people who inhabited it fuse them together in this extended metaphor, and I find the lines themselves really peaceful.

I also like the confidence in his lines, the way he repeats that we “shall remember them”, that somehow his poem has already won us over, that we cannot look at our world in the same way again.  And Benet has a reason to be confident, because his phrasing is so smooth and so vivid throughout, whether he’s dropping alliteration sweetly into a line like “the balm / where the green grass grows from the broken heart”, or he’s just using words to paint pictures like something out of a 19th Century master’s gallery, such as the scene where “the night has fallen on your loneliness / and the deep wood beyond the ruined wall / seems to step forward swiftly from the dusk”.  And then the rhythms start to feel like singing, especially “this was frontier, and this, / and this, your house was frontier” which sounds so much like Shakespeare, like “put out the light and then put out the light” or “fair is foul and foul is fair”, where the words play with each other and with us as they circle around.

And then come two couplets I just can’t do without.  First, “They died at the end of labor. /  Forgotten is the name.”  All the hope and toil of centuries wrapped up in that pair of simple phrases—the agony of dying before the dream is realized, the tragedy of being lost to even memory.  Sure, the taming of the rivers and blazing of the trails are American narratives, but these are too.

And then, I know it’s an exaggeration, but can there really be a better couplet in 20th Century verse than “I call two oceans to remember them. / I fill the hollow darkness with their names.”  There’s something bordering on reverence, on holiness, in Benet’s dedication, and the image soars.  He’s pulling together allusions to as many great texts as he can—evoking Revelation with the idea of the sea “giving up its dead” back into the light, drawing on Melville too, I think, and the idea of memory and the sea in Moby Dick, and then the hollow darkness fills like the opening of Genesis with the names of those he refuses to leave aside forgotten.

Benet is not, as I said, a flashy poet.  No one is going to recite Benet as the climactic scene in a movie; no one is going to print lines from his work and post them on their dorm room wall; nothing in his work is eligible for a cross-stitch sampler.  He’s direct and even prosaic, but never simple enough to really condense him into a pair of lines (as much as I’ve just tried to do that).  But he reminds me of what I love about America, and maybe especially the West (a frontier I grew up in without realizing how much of a frontier it was until I left it), and he makes me think.  I hope he does the same for some of you.