I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
Before I finally weaned myself off reality television, I used to fantasize about a new kind of Bachelor franchise. Instead of tanned and muscular milquetoasts courting a bunch of taut-bodied ladies who work in sales, there would be a handsome if anemic-looking lad in a chambray shirt courting young women with tattoos and/or glasses, library cards and/or sewing machines, their bodies either skinny-flabby or heavy and lush. On this show, no one would have their teeth bleached and capped, and no one would fly in a helicopter. Instead of talking about their commitment to love, contestants would discuss their passions as software developers, artists, or political scientists, and talk about books and current events. It would be Alterna-Bachelor, and I’d tune in every week.
Unfortunately, no such show has arrived, and so, at the end of July, when something about the web-based project 40 Days of Dating appeared on my Tumblr dashboard, I was hungry for a new kind of romance narrative.
If you missed it, 40 Days of Dating was created by two New York-based designers, Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman. As the site explains: “Two good friends with opposite relationship problems found themselves single at the same time. As an experiment, they dated for 40 days.” They devised six rules, which included seeing each other every day, visiting a couple’s counselor once a week, and, of course, documenting everything.
(If you haven’t already visited the site, I’ll wait while you do so. See you in, oh, fifteen hours…)
The first time I found 40 Days of Dating, the entire experiment hadn’t been posted yet. That first afternoon, I scrolled through the days updated so far, slobbering them up as fast as I could, until — suddenly! — there were no new posts to click on. I’m pretty sure I moaned, partially out of desperation for more of Tim and Jessica’s story, and partially out of relief, for it meant I could live a normal life again, reading merely a post a day from then on. Either way, I was sure 40 Days of Dating was one of the most compelling internet projects I’d stumbled upon in a while – -the antithesis of “tl;dr.” It’s no surprise that Walsh and Goodman have since signed with CAA for representation in “all areas” — which means, I suppose, that their project could become a book, a movie, a television series, a musical, a video game, or all of the above. Their collaboration clearly resonates with people. But why?
For one, the drama of the experiment feels immediate, with both parties describing moments and experiences with selective but strong details, be it the headaches Jessica suffers from the first couple of weeks, or Tim’s attraction to Jessica when she wears her hair up, or when they finally kiss for the first time. They take pains to convey their emotions as they tilt and shift, while also occasionally discussing tangential topics like coffee, basketball, and Walt Disney. It’s voyeuristic, but what’s displayed isn’t unfiltered, which is both refreshing and a bit tantalizing: I kept wondering what wasn’t included, what moments didn’t get recorded. (I am not going to lie, I am seriously hoping a sex tape gets unearthed soon!)
Despite the site’s as-it-happens feeling, the experiment is over; they posted it only after the project was completed. It’s recent history, even if it seems like it’s occurring right now. Their narratives are paired with typography and design work by their many talented friends, which reminds the reader that this love experiment is also a design experiment, collaborative to its core. The project is deliberate.
This dichotomy, between spontaneity and premeditation, created an interesting tension for me as I followed the project: I was continually swept away by their drama, while also cognizant that it had already passed. I kept imagining the couple in the present: were they still together, like, for real? Were they enemies? OMFG, what if they were married by now? I also kept considering their unkempt, un-designed inner selves next to the site’s slick presentation. Goodman and Walsh claim to want to get at the root of their relationship troubles, to dive deeply into the mud of their desires and flaws, and yet, this self-exploration is hemmed in by the limited questionnaire they’ve assigned themselves to answer every day, and by the vision of whatever guest designer they’ve asked to render their writing into a cool image some youngster might want to frame and hang above their flea market-gleaned love seat. Unlike some other critics, I don’t doubt Goodman and Walsh’s sincerity; just because your shit looks tight on the internet doesn’t make it any less authentic. But it also might mean that what Goodman and Walsh learned about themselves from this experiment can’t be translated, can’t fit the medium they’ve devised for it. I say “might” because I’m still not sure. My brain’s still spinning a little.
What’s also compelling about 40 Days of Dating is its “he said/she said” nature. Throughout the experiment, I was regularly surprised by how conflicting their accounts were. (For instance, once Tim tried to send Jess a flirty text, but she thought he was being seriously jealous and shut him down real quick. The misunderstanding was too cute, as I might tell my son.) Other times, one person will describe an entire encounter that the other doesn’t mention at all, and it feels like they’re experiencing drastically different events. The project is a lesson for fiction writers in the variance of point of view, and it proves that interpersonal communication can be as trying as putting together Ikea furniture. The last post, on the 40th day, is the most heartbreaking, for when Tim confesses, “I know now that I’m in love with her. I love her, yet I know there’s nothing else I can do,” it’s clear that Jessica has no idea — or she didn’t at the time — and that their failure to adequately express their perspectives to each other is what led to their downfall as romantic partners.
Both Jessica and Tim answered the same questions every day, and their responses are posted on the left- and right hand columns respectively. The side-by-side format, with different graphics for each, emphasizes their isolated experiences. It also complicates the reading process, for one has to make decisions about what to read and look at first, and why. (The experience reminded me of a little of approaching a graphic novel like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, where simply scanning left-to-right just won’t cut it.) Some days, I read Jessica’s answers first, sometimes Tim’s, and other days I’d toggle back and forth between each of them. How I absorbed the graphics was another variable. I felt like one of the collaborators in this regard, participating in the experience.
There’s another way I participated in the experience, or imagined that I was: I hoped. Like a sports fan who wears his favorite jersey on game day and screams at the T.V., I had this superstitious feeling that my actions made a difference in the outcome of this couple. I tuned in and rooted for the success of Tim-and-Jessica, this forever-after couple. And, boy, did I want it to work out! Throughout my 40 Days experience, I continually caught myself yearning for the happily-ever-after narrative; I wanted Goodman and Walsh’s story to adhere to a RomCom formula, even as I knew that it was a formula. The contradiction reminded me of Mindy Kaling’s essay “Flick Chicks.” In it, she writes:
I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.
You can read 40 Days of Dating as another of these narratives, participating in these unbelievable tropes. From that angle, Jessica plays the overworked, career-driven female lead, while Tim plays the go-lucky committment-phobic dude who will rescue her from her uptightery. Throughout, friends of each (off-the-page, in this story), express their concerns over the project, just as minor characters would show disapproval in a cliched romantic comedy. Throughout it all, the viewer/reader longs for the final act to bring about confessions of true love. That these lovers are also super hip (i.e., their handwriting is font-worthy and they somehow manage to find the coolest Mickey Mouse paraphernalia at Disney World), nudges something inside of me: namely, the notion that True Love Exists for All. It turns out, we can all be Katherine Heigl and James Marsden, even the skinny-flabby and the yellow-toothed among us.
Except that this story doesn’t end happily, not in the traditional sense: Jessica Walsh and Tim Goodman aren’t together, haven’t been since day 40. Instead, they remain business partners, if not friends, possibly earning oodles of money off their wacky project. And I end up checking myself, for longing for that master narrative, for letting it persist in my imagination when there are far more complex stories to be had.
In the end, maybe Alterna-Bachelor would fail because the very people I’d imagine on that show would be way too cool for something that commercial. Or maybe it would fail because a bearded guy who likes IPAs isn’t inherently interesting. (It takes four years of college sex to learn that one!) By now, when even the boy toys in One Direction look like promising cast members for my imaginary show, and when consumer culture co-opts identities faster than you can say Silverlake, there’s nothing to differentiate my idea from the original Bachelor franchise except the obligatory tribal plugs and a few more brunettes. All that means nothing if the story adheres to the same false notion of happily-ever-after.
Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman recognize that falseness, I think, and are thus looking at different ways to adapt their story. They might have been on the Today Show, but I doubt you’ll see them hosting their own cheesy talk show anytime soon, or, worse, taping their wedding for the E! network. Straightforward television just isn’t flexible enough for this story. Goodman recently said, “We’re interested in creating a book about our experience and a web-based community platform for others to participate in this experience.”
What this web-based community will look like is beyond my powers of fantasy, but I’ll definitely take a peek as soon as it’s a reality.
See you on the internets, guys.
Most people in the literary world are now aware that the New Yorker has selected the “best” 20 writers under age 40. This is a follow-up to the magazine’s 1999 list, which was fairly prescient in spotting some soon-to-be superstars in the book universe. There are some wonderful writers on the new list. The ages range from the early 20’s to right on the cusp of the big 4-0. The list is evenly split between men and women. From the names alone you get a much more international flair this time, reflecting how the world has changed in the past decade. But when you look at the 1999 list and the 2010 list side by side, one must wonder if the predictions will play out in a similar fashion. There is no doubt that within this group there will be some Pulitzers and National Book Awards to throw around. But I do worry if the world had changed so much that these young authors, despite talent or skill, won’t be able to reach the same level as their predecessors.
The majority of these writers are in their mid-to-late 30’s and are just now at the start of what we hope will be a long and fruitful career. But if you look back 40 years to the year 1970, there were many more established, award-winning authors under the age of 40. They were often times both critical and commercial successes. If the New Yorker had released a “20 under 40” list 40 years ago, it might have looked something like this…
Joyce Carol Oates
Hunter S. Thompson
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Jonathan Safran Foer
C. E. Morgan
Z Z Packer
David Foster Wallace
William T. Vollmann
Elvis Presley disappeared 35 years ago today.
I choose the verb disappeared for a reason. Not because I’m a big believer in conspiracy theories or Elvis sightings — I am not — but because in a very real sense Elvis Presley didn’t actually die on Aug. 16, 1977, he simply moved on to a different level in the ether of superstardom. When asked what he planned to do once Elvis was in the ground, his evil genius of a manager, Col. Tom Parker, said it all: “Why, I’ll just go right on managing him!” As Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick put it, “RCA (records) would discover that Elvis was as great a sales phenomenon in death as in life.”
Even more phenomenal than the unquenchable hunger for Elvis music, Elvis impersonators, and Elvis memorabilia (black velvet paintings, ashtrays, liquor bottles, etc.) is the relentless outpouring of books about Elvis. I call it ElvisLit — a river of words that gives every indication, year after year after year, that it will never run dry. Guralnick described it as “the cacophony of voices that have joined together to create a chorus of informed opinion, uninformed speculation, hagiography, symbolism, and blame.”
The chorus of ElvisLit can be divided into several sections, beginning with straight biographies. Guralnick’s two-volume bio — Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1995) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (2000) — definitely comes from the informed opinion section of the chorus. Running over 1,300 pages, with extensive source notes and 23 pages of bibliography that includes such heavyweights as W.J. Cash and C. Vann Woodward, it’s a magisterial work of biography, the perfect melding of dogged research, deft writing, and the ability to tell one roaring hell of a story. The key to Guralnick’s success, I believe, is that he was able to empathize with his subject without idolizing or patronizing him. Guralnick boils Elvis’s message down to this: “the proclamation of emotions long suppressed, the embrace of a vulnerability culturally denied, the unabashed striving for freedom.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Albert Goldman’s 600-page pathography from 1981, Elvis, an uninterrupted airing of vignettes about the appalling side of the subject: his mother fixation, his perpetual adolescence, his balky penis, his atrocious diet, the isolation and drug use that sent him to an early grave. The book gives almost no indication that Elvis Presley possessed talent, or that he had the power to drive crowds into a foam-at-the-mouth frenzy, or that he remade the landscape of American pop culture. You’ll want to take a shower after reading this book.
In between these two extremes is the respectable handiwork of a small army of fine writers, including Dave Marsh, Jerry Hopkins, Nick Tosches, Roy Blount Jr., and Bobbie Ann Mason. Here’s how Mason, a native of rural Kentucky, saw Elvis: “He was one of us, a country person who spoke our language…a barometer of the culture, a sort of hillbilly voodoo doll.”
A barometer of the culture…Now we’re getting somewhere, now we’re approaching the nut of why Elvis continues to inspire writers of all stripes, from serious scholars and artists to hacks shamelessly trying to turn a fast buck. The brilliant Greil Marcus, who wrote insightfully about Elvis when he was alive, uncorked a wicked book in 1991 called Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. Marcus explained his motivation for writing the book in this way: “I found, or anyway decided, that Elvis contained more of America — had swallowed whole more of its contradictions and paradoxes — than any other figure I could think of… I understood Elvis not as a human being…but as a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself.” In his glowing review of the book in the L.A. Times, David Foster Wallace agreed, concluding that Elvis was a “synecdoche of America.”
I would go even farther than Marcus and Wallace and argue that Elvis’s life is a weirdly precise mirror of America’s story. Consider the parallels. Both the man and the nation began humbly — poor, neglected, despised. Both awoke to an inner flame, a gift, that was then harnessed to a ferocious drive. Both used that gift and that drive to create something unprecedented, something dangerous and irresistible and magnificent, which led to unimagined power and riches. Both were consumed by their power and wealth, became distrustful and insular, grew fat and sloppy, then slid into a terminal decline. Or maybe this is just a long-winded way of defining synecdoche.
But I think not. If Elvis went from man to metaphor during his life, I would argue that he has gone from metaphor to myth since his death. Every culture needs myths as much as it needs metaphors for itself, and those myths must be mutable. It helps if the source of the myth blazed early and died too soon (think of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson), because an incomplete life is easier to re-fashion and re-imagine than a long, full one. As Elvis biographer David Luhrssen put it: “In death Elvis became whatever anyone wanted to see in him.”
As the Guralnick and Goldman bios attest, two people can see a single life in very different ways. In my own case, a lifelong love/hate affair with Elvis has produced a strange strand of schizophrenia. There is so much to love — the Sun Sessions, kinetic masterpieces like “Little Sister,” the gospel stuff, the dance moves and the hair and the clothes, the pink Cadillac and the Stutz Bearcat. And there is so much to hate — the movies, the white jumpsuits, the Vegas shtick, fat junkie Elvis. This schizophrenia has led me to do some strange things, including getting tricked out in the Vegas kit I claim to loathe, on the occasion of a 10th Anniversary party on Aug. 16, 1987. Here’s the incriminating evidence:
By far the largest and most telling section of ElvisLit is the long shelf of books by and about People Who Knew the King. This includes everyone from blood relatives and true intimates to people way out on the margins, and the resulting books range from revealing to mildly diverting to downright schlocky.
So far we have gotten books by and about Elvis and his: momma (Elvis and Gladys by Elaine Dundy), wife (Elvis and Me by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley), family (Elvis by the Presleys by David Ritz), step-family (Elvis, We Love You Tender by Dee Presley, Rick Stanley, Billy Stanley, and David Stanley), step-brothers (Elvis, My Brother by Billy Stanley and Life with Elvis by David Stanley), uncle (A Presley Speaks by Vester Presley), aunt (The Forgotten Family of Elvis Presley: Elvis’ Aunt Lois Smith Speaks Out by Rob Hines), love interests (Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him by Alanna Nash and Caught In a Trap: Elvis Presley’s Tragic Lifelong Search for Love by Rick Stanley), Lord (The Two Kings: Jesus & Elvis by A.J. Jacobs), president (The Day Elvis Met Nixon by Egil Krogh), bodyguards (Elvis: What Happened? by Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler, and Elvis and the Memphis Mafia by Alanna Nash, Billy Smith, Marty Lacker, and Lamar Fike), buddies (Elvis: My Best Man by George Klein, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business by Sonny West, Good Rockin’ Tonight: Twenty Years On the Road and On the Town with Elvis by Joe Esposito, and Me and a Guy named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley by Jerry Schilling), guitarist (That’s Alright, Elvis: The Untold Story of Elvis’s First Guitarist and Manager by Scotty Moore), physician (The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me by Dr. George Nichopoulos), manager (The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley by Alanna Nash, and Elvis and the Colonel by Dirk Vallenga and Mick Farren), maid (Inside Graceland: Elvis’ Maid Remembers by Nancy Rooks), nurse (I Called Him Babe: Elvis Presley’s Nurse Remembers by Marian J. Cocke), secretary (My Life With Elvis by Becky Yancey), and gofer (Elvis’ Man Friday by Gene Smith). There have even been cookbooks (Are You Hungry Tonight? by Brenda Arlene Butler, and Fit For a King: The Elvis Presley Cookbook by Elizabeth McKeon, which includes a recipe for that heart-smart favorite, butterscotch pinwheels).
All the books on this far-from-exhaustive list share one thing, and it’s not literary merit: they’re all predicated on the reasonable assumption that there is a market for any morsel of first-hand information about Elvis Presley — what he said, did, sang, ate, wore, read, thought, loved, feared, and loathed. In ElvisLit, no morsel is unworthy. To write this off to our culture’s voyeurism and obsession with celebrity is, I think, to miss the point. In death Elvis became whatever anyone wanted to see in him. Which is another way of saying he is now free to become whatever we want to see in ourselves. No wonder the river will never run dry.
The latest addition to the I-Knew-Elvis section of the chorus is a new book called Conversations with the King: Journals of a Young Apprentice by David Stanley, who, as the above bibliography shows, is a repeat contributor to the ever-expanding universe of ElvisLit. Stanley’s mother, Dee, married Elvis’s father less than two years after Elvis’s mother died. Stanley arrived at Graceland in 1960 as a wide-eyed 4 year old, and over the next 17 years he claims Elvis became his “father figure, mentor, spiritual advisor.” Stanley started accompanying Elvis on the road in 1972 as a “full-time personal aide,” and he had his last conversation with his step-brother/boss on Aug. 14, 1977. On that night a fat, scared and lonely Elvis asked him, “David, who am I?” Then he added prophetically, “The next time you see me I’m going to be in a different place, on a higher plane.” The next time Stanley saw him, two days later, Elvis was lying on the floor of Graceland’s master bathroom in the fetal position, tongue black, face turning blue, graveyard dead.
Anyone (like me) who was hoping for more along these lines — details of Elvis’s drug intake and long decline, or the Memphis Mafia’s shenanigans in Vegas and Hollywood — will be disappointed by Conversations with the King. Stanley, according to the book’s biographical note, is “a speaker in the field of self-development & authenticity,” and he claims that Elvis possessed mystical powers. Elvis could, according to Stanley, command clouds to move, stop rainstorms, and cure headaches. He also conversed regularly with the spirit of his twin brother, Jesse, who was delivered stillborn. But these anecdotes are merely a peg for Stanley to hang the story of his own “hero’s journey” from awestruck boy to hard-partying wildman to sobered-up evangelist to motivational smoothie. He urges us to read Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer while delivering mumbo-jumbo paragraphs like this:
My spiritual surrender made it possible for me to complete my hero’s journey. This led to my epiphany, which opened me up to having my transformative labyrinth experience. This freed me to shed my isolation and enabled me to at last shed my self-destructive habits, which gave me access to the courage I had needed to fully embody the greatness of my authentic self.
Such are the vagaries of ElvisLit, an uneven corpus that makes no promises other than inviting us to pay our money and take our chances. It’s a grand crapshoot. Sometimes the results are sublime, as in Guralnick’s and Marcus’s books. Sometimes the results are icky, as in those recipe books. And sometimes, as in Conversations with the King, they’re a reminder that certain morsels are, in fact, much more worthy than others.
So the King is 35 years dead. Long live the King.
Image courtesy of the author.
Which poet of the past should we turn to as we look back on the traumatic year that is drawing to a close? Throughout much of 2016, W.H. Auden seemed to many the obvious choice. Fearing where the current tide of angry nationalism could lead, many commentators, including Neal Gabler and Cynthia Ozick, singled out “September 1, 1939” as a twentieth-century poem that spoke powerfully to our current twenty-first century tragedies. The poem, which has been downloaded from the web tens of thousands of times this year, refers to “what dictators do” across “the darkened lands of the earth” — these and other phrases resonate today.
There was a great deal of interest as well in the renewed topicality of William Butler Yeats, particularly after the Russian Ambassador to Turkey was assassinated. This act of violence, in a year that had seen so many and witnessed a rise in international tensions, shifted attention back from the 1930s, the “low dishonest decade” of Auden’s, to the 1910s, during which a global war had been sparked partly by the murder of a diplomat. The ultimate poem of the moment seemed then “The Second Coming,” which Yeats wrote in 1919 and many had quoted earlier in the year already. It evokes a period when “anarchy is loosed upon the world” and the “centre cannot hold.”
There is a third great poet, however, who seems to me worth re-reading while reflecting on 2016. The poet is Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1913 became the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize. The less weighty reason to focus on Tagore now is that much was made this year of the novelty of a songwriter becoming a Nobel Laureate. Bob Dylan was not, however, the first one to get this prize; that distinction, as Amit Chaudhuri noted in the Guardian belongs to the Bengali poet Tagore, who wrote many songs as well. The more substantial reason to associate Tagore with 2016 is the renewed relevance of his “Sunset of the Century,” which was written on the final day of 1900, a year during which wars, humanitarian crises, angry nationalist rhetoric, and a diplomat’s assassination all made headlines.
The diplomat killed in the year of Tagore’s searing poem, which speaks of a time when the sound of the “clash of steel” filled the air, was Baron Clemens von Ketteler. The Baron was the German Plenipotentiary to China. He was slain in broad daylight in Beijing in mid-June, just before anti-Christian militants known as “Boxers,” backed by soldiers of the Qing Dynasty, laid siege to the foreign legation quarter of China’s capital. The combination of the assassination and the siege, which famously lasted 55 days, triggered an international invasion of North China that ended up costing the lives of tens of thousands of people, most of them Chinese villagers with no ties to the Boxers. On December 31, 1900, while Tagore wrote “Sunset of the Century” in India, a crowd of people from different countries gathered on the other side of the Himalayas to see von Ketteler’s killer decapitated in a public square.
The poem, which Tagore wrote in Bengali, is filled with phrases that could easily have been inspired by 2016 news stories. It refers to people “howling verses of vengeance,” of the “drunken delirium of greed.” The poem evokes a time when the “self-love of Nations” triggers a “whirlwind of hatred.” Tagore writes of watching the last sun of 1900, which was also the “last sun of the century,” sinking into clouds that, befitting the times, were of a “blood-red” hue.
Back in July, when 2016’s status as an annus horribilus was already clear, Slate’s Rebecca Onion asked ten historians to propose candidates for the worst year in history. Some looked back many centuries, while those who focused on the recent past chose years such as 1919, when “The Second Coming” was written, and 1943, when the “dictators” of Auden’s poem carried out some of their darkest deeds. No one mentioned 1900.
When that year began, a large-scale famine was underway in India and China and the Boer War was raging in South Africa. In the spring, the Boxers — who blamed the presence of a foreign religion for angering local gods and causing these deities to withhold much needed rain from the drought-parched lands of North China — murdered missionaries and Chinese Christians. At various points in the year, wars were fought in other parts of the world, including the Philippines, where Tagalog rebels and American soldiers clashed. The summer saw intense fighting in China between Boxer and Qing forces, on one side, and an international army made up of soldiers marching behind eight different foreign banners, including the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, and the Japanese and Russian flags, on the other.
In 1900, as in 2016, a new communication technology was used to spread false information. The most important example then of what we now call “fake news” was a widely circulated and for a time widely believed report of a mass killing of the foreigners held captive in Beijing, which had allegedly led to the death of all diplomats and their wives and children. This incorrect report began with one cabled story, disseminated via telegraphy, a medium that had been invented decades before but had just gained added importance when the first undersea cables were laid. Soon, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in other parts of the world, were presenting the rumor as truth. Eventually, when the international forces lifted the siege, the foreigners who had been held hostage emerged very much alive, but the horror generated by the rumor of their slaughter had an important effect.
When the stories of Beijing’s streets running with blood circled the globe, it stoked the outrage generated by factual reports of the Boxers killing Christians and von Ketteler’s assassination by a soldier. Even though the stories had been proved untrue before the international force reached Beijing, memories lingered of the loud calls for retribution heard while the rumors were taken as fact. Many had been insisting, even before the rumors flew, that China and the Manchu dynasty that ruled it, which had decided to back the Boxers, needed to be taught a lesson they would never forget. But the fiercest prose equivalents of the “verses of vengeance” alluded to in Tagore’s poem were issued while images of rooms filled with slain diplomats and their family members were in people’s minds. Some insisted that Beijing should be razed to the ground, and a European newspaper said that “exemplary vengeance” should be the order of the day once the international army reached the capital. In the end, while Beijing was not completely destroyed, there was wholesale looting of imperial treasures and the campaigns of retribution subsequently staged across North China could be seen as “exemplary vengeance” of a sort.
In 1900, some saw the troubles in the world as a straightforward battle between good and evil, with no ambiguity about who and which creeds were on which side. Campaigning for the vice presidency, for example, Theodore Roosevelt gave speeches defending his running mate William McKinley’s expansionist moves in the Philippines and the American contribution to the invasion of China as just the latest in a long line of efforts by “civilized” men, by which he meant Christians, to defeat “barbarous” ones. When the “civilized” took actions, even things that seemed warlike and cruel were justified, since they “ultimately” brought “peace,” he said, to the affected lands. “In China we see at the moment,” he told a packed crowd at a July rally in Minnesota, “the awful tragedy that is following just exactly such a movement as the so-called anti-imperialists have championed in the Philippines.” The Boxers and Tagalog needed to be defeated, just as Native Americans on the U.S. frontier had needed to be at an earlier time. His listeners should remember that before “we had expanded over this country, the border warfare between the white men and the red men and among the different red men was unceasing, but now that we have expanded, peace has come exactly as peace has been brought to Algiers, to Turkestan, and the Soudan by the great peoples of Europe.”
Donald Trump’s tweet presenting the December 19 “terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany” as being of one piece, despite the different targets and actors involved, fits in with the 1900 speeches by Roosevelt, a future resident of the White House. So, too, did the President-elect’s appeal to the “civilized world” to respond to the violence. There was even a 1900 analogue to Trump’s past efforts to associate his domestic opponents with terrorism. The cover of the August 11, 1900, issue of the magazine Judge showed three figures standing side by side, each with a plague reading “I AM AGAINST AMERICAN IMPERIALISM” across his chest. On the left, a menacing looking Chinese Boxer, on the right, a Filipino rebel with a fierce expression, and in between, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan.
In 1900, as in 2016, there were those who insisted that it was wrong to see the violence wracking the world as a simple struggle between “savagery” and “civilization,” with all Christians on the side of the angels in all disputes. Mark Twain, for example, expressed sympathy for the Boxers, seeing them as patriots, and drew attention to atrocities committed in the name of “civilization,” as foreigners, including missionaries, looted Chinese national treasures, and international troops rampaged across North China. He also chastised Christendom for besmirching its reputation through acts no better than “pirate raids” in the Philippines and South Africa as well as China. Tagore’s “Sunset of the Century,” by blaming the “self-love of Nations” and a “drunken delirium of greed” for the era’s horrors, rather than seeing them as part of an epic battles between “civilized” and “savage” groups, expressed views closer to Twain’s than Roosevelt’s.
In 1900 there was a sense that so many different things were going wrong that the end of the world might be at hand. Writing home from China during the Boxer crisis, one missionary mused that she felt “as though these were the last days,” due to the sufferings around the world caused by “wars, famines, rumours, persecutions!” 2016 witnessed references to specific events as having an apocalyptic feel to them, as well as dark reflections on the year as a whole, including the way it moved us closer to a climate change doomsday scenario while reviving worries about a nuclear Armageddon.
It is possible to take comfort from the knowledge that previous generations have felt that end times were near. There is such a feel of familiarity to the problems Tagore describes in “Sunset of the Century,” though, that reading it now leads me in a different direction. He and his contemporaries thought of the day he wrote the poem, December 31, 1900, as bringing the nineteenth century to a close. It was possible to imagine that narrow forms of nationalism, fear of the foreign, and other things that had caused such misery during the previous months would soon be seen as problems of an age gone by. If we move forward from Tagore’s poem to the famous ones that Yeats wrote in 1919 and Auden in 1939, we see that the phenomena the Tagore felt had marred the nineteenth century continued to do an enormous amount of harm in the twentieth. And if we focus on the years just ended, we find clear evidence that, due in part to the continuing power that “greed” and the “self-love of Nations” can exert, we live in a twenty-first century when the “howling” of “verses of vengeance” often fills the air.
John McPhee somewhat famously teaches writing to undergrads at Princeton. So, what’s on his syllabus?McPhee has been one of my favorite writers ever since I absently picked up a copy of Coming into the Country while working the cash register at Book Soup in L.A. and blazed through it in a day or two. I was hooked. From then on, I scanned the table of contents in each new New Yorker for the name McPhee. Meanwhile, McPhee’s books, many in number and varied in subject, were ideal targets for used bookstore visits. I found Table of Contents in a pile of books on the sidewalk. I spotted The McPhee Reader on my father in law’s bookshelves. I picked up a remaindered copy of Annals of the Former World, wanting the largest possible dose of McPhee.I also soon discovered that he teaches a class to undergrads at Princeton. It’s in some places referred to as “Creative Nonfiction” and in others as “The Literature of Fact.” A 2007 article in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin offers the most detail, including an example of his rather unique technique for visualizing story structure:”I’m obsessed with the structure of pieces of writing,” explained McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Princeton’s Ferris Professor of Journalism, who has taught his legendary class on writing at the University for more than 30 years.For his students, McPhee sketches primitive diagrams – a horizontal line with loops above and below it to represent the tangents along the storyline, a circle with lines shooting out of it that denote narrative pathways – to illustrate how a piece of writing is assembled. The “doodles,” as he calls them, are projected on a screen in front of the class.Students get to hear from some impressive visitors, and get plenty of face time with McPhee himself:McPhee requires the same of the 16 students – all sophomores – in his “Creative Nonfiction” course, in which students discuss and practice the craft of writing through reading, listening to guest lecturers like New Yorker writers Ian Frazier and Mark Singer and, most critically, meeting one-on-one with McPhee for private conferences about their work. After McPhee marks up the students’ papers, he sits down with each student and goes over the writing line by line.Another interesting tidbit:Other former students include David Remnick, now The New Yorker’s editor (“I’m proud of the fact that he’s turned down work of mine,” McPhee said)It’s a fascinating little profile of McPhee, but it left one big question unanswered. What’s on John McPhee’s syllabus? Who do his students read? It turns out to be hard info to find, and some time spent with Google turned up what might be the reason why; to quote McPhee, himself, “There’s no syllabus.”This comes from a 2005 piece called “Courses in science writing as literature” in the academic journal Public Understanding of Science, which includes a bit on McPhee. The piece isn’t freely available online, but with Google I was able to piece together the relevant section:The most famous nonfiction literature course is probably The Literature of Fact, taught since 1975 at Princeton University by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee. It is widely cited as a science-writing-as-literature course, but McPhee disavows this label. “My course is not devoted to science writing . . . It’s a plain writing course with no thematic base . . . There’s no syllabus. Reading varies each year. Mostly, I give them books of mine to read. (such as The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed and Looking for a Ship)”I had a flash of disappointment upon reading this before realizing that, with about eight McPhee books under my belt, I’m already well into the McPhee syllabus. Reading McPhee’s books is an education in Creative Nonfiction unto itself.Bonus News: We’ve recently heard that McPhee has a new book coming out in March 2010 called Silk Parachute. McPhee wrote a 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called “Silk Parachute” about his elderly mother. It begins “When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur.”See Also: A Lawrence Weschler reading list and The New New Journalists.