I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
Reading Gonçalo M. Tavares, the Portuguese novelist who writes in detached, hyper-objective prose, can be like eating from a brilliantly curated cheese sampler. Each carefully cut wedge of cheese on the plate is given ample space from the others so that it can be savored distinctly, and ultimately ranked according to preference. In the more sophisticated restaurants, the chef will pair each cheese with a precise analog — a flavor of honey, a warm fig, a sprig of rosemary, a sliver of almond. Your enjoyment in consuming the cheese sample springs from this scientific arrangement, the grace and beauty of the experience assured because the chef’s palate is at once so elemental and so refined.
Consider this use of language, the way Tavares juxtaposes logical thoughts and sensory experience, in the novel Jerusalem:
He smelled his way back to the barrel, then over to the grip; and now, in fact, having spent the requisite amount of time with his nose against its metal — feeling the slightly unpleasant heat radiating from the thing — sitting at his table, completely focused, in total silence, with no other thoughts in his head, Hinnerk found he was able to smell his own hands on the gun. The grip of a gun smells like a man — in this case like a man by the name of Hinnerk Obst. The smell of a man is a human smell, he thought, then went back to concentrating and inhaling. What a difference after the seemingly insignificant journey between the gun’s barrel and its grip: the barrel was free of any hint of humanity…it didn’t smell like a man, it smelled metal: a deeply intimidating smell, a smell you wouldn’t exactly call appetizing. But when it came to the gun’s grip — because of the human smell clinging to it — the smell of Hinnerk’s hand — there was something appetizing…a ripe, organic smell.
Tavares has been Portugal’s rising literary mestre since he was awarded the Saramago Prize at 35, nine years ago. American readers got their first taste of his startling prose and his obsessive interest in the dynamics of power—strength and weakness, mind and machinery — with Jerusalem, which Dalkey Archive published in 2007 in the English translation by Anna Kushner. That book was Tavares’s third in his four-part Kingdom cycle. Dalkey put out the last book in the series, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, in 2011 in the translation by Daniel Hahn, followed by the second, Joseph Walser’s Machine, in 2012, and now this month the first, A Man: Klaus Klump, which was published originally in Portugal in 2003. Rhett McNeil, who in 2011 translated The Splendor of Portugal, the haunting novel by António Lobo Antunes, produced the English versions of both Joseph Walser and Klaus Klump.
The four books are set in a fictional, somewhat Germanic-seeming city at the time of an invasion and occupation by a foreign army and they share characters and character types: powerful people — like industrialists and doctors — and distinctly fragile ones — invalids, mental patients, and quiet workers. The industrialist Leo Vast of Klaus Klump owns the factory where the reticent Joseph Walser works; Walser encounters the soldier Hinnerk Obst on a city street during the war. By the time of Jerusalem, Obst is suffering from PTSD and has an uncontrollable urge to kill (and after smelling his gun, devour human flesh). In each book, Tavares has given us a cold, amoral manipulator who, through reason and will, attempts to hack the laws of nature for profit, political gain, or professional advancement. One of them, Jerusalem’s Dr. Theodore Busbeck, is researching the correlation between human atrocity and history, in search of a groundbreaking “formula laying bare the cause of all the evil men do for no good reason.”
The Kingdom cycle itself reads as a kind of objective inquiry, as if Tavares, with language uncorrupted by sentiment and attachment, is in search of the secret order of mankind. “Animals know the law: strength, strength, strength,” he writes in Klaus Klump. “The weak ones fall and do what the strong ones want.” But the natural world can’t account for the effects of shame or humiliation. A sadistic teacher had practiced corporal punishment on the child Klump; Busbeck’s father Thomas had been willful and cruel to both Theodore and Theodore’s physically disabled son Kaas; and in Learning to Pray, protagonist Lenz Buchmann’s father Frederich is an old army commander who believes foremost in strength and domination. “In this house, fear is illegal,” he told Lenz and Lenz’s brother Albert. “I can hear of any accusation about you, you can commit the most immoral acts, you can have the police coming after you, or even the devil himself; I will defend my sons with any weapon I have. I will only be ashamed if I hear that you have been afraid. If that happens, don’t bother to come running here: you will find this door closed to you.”
What’s needed, for those who wish to assert power in Tavares’ books, is distance, from fear as well as love; distance allows for objectivity, a clear sense of one’s goals uncolored by emotion. Man can be as predictable and reliable as a machine, if only he can control himself and others around him.
Can Klaus Klump achieve this sort of distance? Not now — the invasion by a fictional foreign military has interrupted his climb and ill-timed desire has put him in the arms of Herthe, a prostitute, who has set him up. (In Tavares, rather disturbingly, most women are either prostitutes or mentally ill and whereas fathers dominate their sons, mothers are inconsequential.) Klaus is arrested and imprisoned. In jail, he befriends the monstrous Xalak, thinking, “I’m going to be your friend until I’m able to kill you.”
At 93 pages, A Man: Klaus Klump is the shortest of the four novels of the cycle. The prose is characteristically slender, naïve, as if rendered by an alien:
Klaus’s gums were very red. There was blood on Klaus’s lower gum. Vitamins are important for the sentences you speak. Klaus now spoke with faulty grammar, he spoke confusedly. He lacked vitamins in his gums and his sentences had lost their former precision. He no longer discoursed promptly and aptly. His sentences were approximations, attempts. Language deprived of vitamins is incompatible with reality.
The distance pricks the reader. The words rendered this way certainly taste different. But the detached form inherently eschews emotion; for all Klaus endures, the reader doesn’t feel much of anything for him. Once the war ended, “Klaus grabbed hold of the family business as he’d previously grabbed hold of weapons: calmly and coldly,” says Tavares, for that is the only reasonable way to go on.
In Klaus Klump, we’re seeing early experimentation with the form that will ripen as the cycle unfurls, so that eventually, in Jerusalem and Learning to Pray, Tavares is able to extract sensation from the brittle machinations of human behavior in order to deliver tragedy that feels like tragedy and melancholy that emerges from the genuine failure of will. In Jerusalem, Tavares’s characters explode with the raw vulnerability that Klaus and Leo Vast (and Joseph Walser) lack. Moreover, with the reckless figures Theodore Busbeck and Lenz Buchmann, Tavares demonstrates that even within the realm of detached language — this radical rational form — his characters can occupy real emotional space. In the complexity of their failures, they linger with us in ways the strangely bland Klump cannot.
It’s notable that the year before Rhett McNeil produced the excellent translations of Joseph Walser’s Machine, which was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, and Klaus Klump, he translated Lobo Antunes’s masterpiece The Splendor of Portugal, a Faulknerian opera of family disappointment and shame also published by Dalkey. The tone, structure, and psychological ambition of Antunes’s book is quite the opposite of Tavares’s work — a testament to McNeil’s extraordinary talent as a translator. But Antunes’s riveting, unsettling, utterly lyrical book, told in the distinctly sad overlapping voices of four members of a once wealthy family whose plantation was lost during the war for Angolan independence, suggests that Tavares’s approach in the Kingdom cycle is limiting. (Tavares interestingly was born in Angola in 1970, in the middle of the Angolan war.) Without a real city and its particular culture, history, and visceral reality — and without having invented these things for his fictional “Kingdom” — the worry is that he is left with abstract ideas of them: the idea of a political system, the idea of dark and dangerous streets, the idea of cruelty, the idea, even, of graffiti.
Tavares would say, I imagine, that the clinical distance is what gives his books their strange power. Through him, we’re able to taste the world — offered in exquisite, sampler-sized portions — as if we’ve never eaten before.
Willa Cather did not want her letters published, ever. She could not have been clearer or more emphatic on this point. There is, then, a respectable argument that Selected Letters should not be in the world, inasmuch as its publication does violence to the wishes of the very author whose legacy this book’s editors purport to serve. I am inclined to disagree with that argument, but I find it impossible to state the affirmative case for posthumous publication of letters and unfinished texts in terms I would care to defend. The facts of each case are so stubbornly different. To the publication of Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon one is inclined to say “Yes;” to the publication of Hemingway’s True at First Light one is inclined to say “No.” Critical scruples are likely beside the point, in any event. Where there is a market for publication, publication will eventually occur; that is the inexorable commercial logic. One simply wishes it to be done well rather than ill.
The Willa Cather Trust is unusual among such bodies in that its decisions regarding the disposition of Cather’s remnants are made with substantial scholarly input. Here the trustees chose their editors well. Janis Stout is the author of perhaps the best conventional Cather biography (Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World), and Andrew Jewell is the keeper of the substantial Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Stout and Jewell undertook a considerable task of selection, and they seem to have been content to let the letters that survived their winnowing process stand largely on their own. Perhaps they could have done more to place the letters in relief against Cather’s contemporaneous work and the signal events of her life. But they could also have done more harm, through either persistent intrusion or stubborn over-reading of the letters. Their understated approach mitigates any insult to Cather’s privacy done by the choice to publish.
This volume comes 18 years after Joan Acocella’s lacerating New Yorker essay, “Cather and the Academy” (later published in book form as Willa Cather & the Politics of Criticism, which resolved certain conflicts within Cather studies the same way the atomic bomb ended World War II: by destroying one side’s ability to fight. Acocella, herself a feminist and critic of strong conviction, took on the feminist and queer critics in the Cather field, accusing them of shrillness, tone deafness, and ultimately bad faith. These charges stuck, and subsequent readings of Cather have returned to core principles of literary criticism — which is to say they have returned to the texts.
Cather was one of nature’s miracles, possessed from an early age of an unaccountable conviction that she was meant for something. Yes, she was female, and she lived in Nebraska. The world of letters was a long way away in every sense. Cather could not have been unaware of these facts. But as Acocella puts it, Cather simply opened the door to artistic freedom and walked through it. Seeing that there was a door was Cather’s first and greatest feat of imagination. For several centuries of women that had preceded her, there had only been a brick wall, extending in either direction as far as the eye could see. But at the same time that Virginia Woolf labored heroically to give expression to a female artist’s entitlement, Cather simply assumed it.
Another striking thing about Cather as a social being is how little anxiety she appears to have had about status and class, even while rising vertiginously from rural obscurity to warm correspondences with H.L. Mencken, Alfred Knopf, and Sinclair Lewis. She wrote to these “great men” (and some great women, too; Sarah Orne Jewett, for example, was a frequent correspondent) without anxiety, in her own voice, without wheedling or special pleading, displaying an intelligent ease, and her correspondents replied in kind. One is tempted to say that as a woman from Red Cloud, Nebraska, she was so much an outsider as to be free of the more complex and intractable concerns about status from which another young writer, at least mildly acquainted with the “literary” world, might have suffered. But Red Cloud, like any other place, had its hierarchy of name, wealth, and manners, and Cather’s early correspondence demonstrates that she was both attuned to it and respectful of it. Cather was a radical, but she remained a bourgeois radical, keeping the good manners with which she was brought up.
The form and meaning of Cather’s radicalism have been a source of scholarly debate, even discomfort. In style she was avant-garde, but her relation to American modernism was complex and at times even fraught. She claimed enormous personal freedom for herself, and in her writing she depicted the achievement of that freedom for women artists and what it cost them. But her cotton shirtwaist pressed against no barricades. For Cather, freedom was fundamentally an individual rather than a collective project. This stance has been unsatisfactory to some contemporary critics who would prefer to make of her a martyr-activist.
Cather’s letters of 1922 shed light on a difficult episode in her career, which came with the publication of her World War I novel, One of Ours, in which a Nebraska farm boy dies in the fields of France feeling that he has given his life “for an idea.” Cather’s rare anxiety about what she had written is confirmed here in a letter to H.L. Mencken, whose opinion she knew would be pivotal to the book’s reception. The novel, she told Mencken, was one young man’s story, and only that, and should not be read as standing for the experience of an entire generation that went to the trenches. Cather well knew that the prevailing narrative of the war among writers who saw action at the front was otherwise. Mencken, Hemingway, and others savaged One of Ours as the work of a genteel lady novelist, and the book remains one of Cather’s least admired, defended only for its early scenes set in her familiar Nebraska.
From the beginning Cather conceived of her artistic project as that of recording the history of a vanishing way of life, a life that once gone would be gone forever. She set herself up very early as a spiritual archivist of sorts, and her work is full of omens of decline and obsolescence. Even a spiritually resolute novel like Death Comes For The Archbishop is suffused with sadness for something lost.
Yet Cather is the least sentimental of artists.
One of her most striking scenes comes in My Antonia when a hobo commits suicide by throwing himself into a grain thresher. The thresher, a potent symbol of the coming machine society, makes of the hobo what the values of that society would do to the Bohemian farmers of Cather’s youth. If the crucial inflection point of modernity for the next generation of writers was the war, for Cather that point came somewhat earlier, as the farmer’s relation to the land was changed by mechanization and commercialization in the 1890s.
Reading these letters is satisfying in that they tend to confirm our basic sense of Cather as an artist and a consciousness. The “Aunt Willie” of later years is the same woman who wrote O Pioneers! and The Professor’s House. An integrated and abundantly healthy personality is at hand. This is not say, of course, that Cather lived an entirely happy life. The end for her was lonely, as it is for most people. She perhaps felt that she had received somewhat less than her due, as most of us feel at one time or another. But she had her life, as many of us never do, and against considerable odds.
Cather was not a modest woman. She knew very well what she was and saw no reason to dissemble. But she was also content to let her work speak for itself. This is another sense in which she speaks to us across a large cultural divide. She preceded the age of publicity, and the idea that the personal is political would have seemed to her both foolish and naïve. She died a New Yorker and a devotee of the Metropolitan Opera, but her values were always those of yeomanry, of Red Cloud. Like well-made furniture, her novels strengthen with age, taking on the character of their absent maker. Her reputation is not the largest in American letters, but at this moment it appears to be one of the sturdiest.
Back in the mid-1980s, while young Scott McClanahan was busy running up and down the mountainside in Rainelle, W.Va., picking blackberries and carving his name into turtles, critics in New York were becoming increasingly preoccupied with defining, and ridiculing, a “new” form of short fiction. Labeled as Shopping Mall Realism, Kmart Realism, Dirty Realism, Name Brand Realism, Diet Coke Realism or “Truth Among the Trailer Parks,” the short stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Larry Brown, and others were derided as being terse, unadorned, and shallow. In a 1986 essay in Harper’s, Madison Smartt Bell described the writing as having an “obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders, and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.” Three years later Tom Wolfe chimed in by claiming that the Kmart Realists had a penchant for “real situations, but very tiny ones” and “disingenuously short, simple sentences—with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of Novocain.”
Most critics agree that the idea of Kmart Realism as movement or cohesive style came about after the publication of Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) but the style predated her. Ernest Hemingway’s spare, muscular prose might be seen as the Grandaddy of Kmart Realism and Raymond Carver is almost undisputedly the Daddy, and though the term is no longer used very often, the family tree has continued on through writers like Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Tao Lin, Mary Miller, and Scott McClanahan. But while Mason and others chafed under Wolfe and Smartt Bell’s descriptions, there has been a new trend in this lineage, through the ‘90s and ‘00s, towards a deeper embrace of the “obsessive concern for surface detail” and Novocained nihilism—an embrace that tips towards the surreal, with Johnson’s hallucinatory drug escapades, Bender’s flammable skirts, and most recently Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which just may be the king of Shopping Mall Surrealism.
In a 1985 interview, Bobbie Ann Mason admitted that the characters in her stories are heavily affected by pop culture but, she clarified, this “is not to be confused with a celebration of consumerism.” Scott McClanahan on the other hand is in full tilt celebration of Mountain Dew, Applebees, and Walmart; in his hands these familiar references are warped in beautiful ways, creating a transcendent meditation on modern materialism. Midway through this novel the narrator (also named Scott McClanahan) actually begins living at Walmart, or at least in the parking lot. “I highly recommend the Walmart parking lot for living in your car after a divorce,” he muses, “The cops don’t seem to bother you if you park close to the entrance.”
Kmart may have been the backdrop of Shopping Mall Realism, but Walmart, in McClanahan’s fiction, becomes a sacred entity unto itself. From his vantage point in the parking lot, McClanahan’s narrator
watched the people go inside. I watched them fill up their buggies and forget about all their pain […] I got out of my car and walked towards Walmart. It glowed in front of me like a temple. […] I went inside and saw the aisles rise like castles before me. And there was beef jerky, and almonds and chicken wings, pizza bites and cheese, all kinds of cheese, steak, porkchops, crackers and cereal. There was Fruity Pebbles and potato skins and soda. Mountain Lightning soda. And there was Red Bull, diet Red Bull, beer, light beer, dark beer, pistachios, juice boxes for kids […] I could see outside in the parking lot and the people were coming for a coronation of some sort. And so I walked among them because these were my people and this was my kingdom. They would all be bowing soon. This was the new country we had made from the skeleton of the old one. And I was their king of beef jerky. I was their emperor of soda.
McClanahan is not afraid to hold the royal and holy up alongside the mundane and banal. He cups them all together—the high and the low, simple and complex, fiction and nonfiction, present and past—and the result is a book that is as tender as it is fierce. The plot in this “semi-autobiographical portrait about falling in love, the breakdown of a marriage, and life in West Virginia,” is deceptively simple. It is intensely personal and yet also familiar. But it is not just that the sequence of falling in and out of love is relatable; there is something more than that, a genius in the level of specificity, so tight that it expands out until it contains everything. As one character puts it, “this giant meteor collided with earth and so life began. […] We are all made up of what came here and collided […] but also if you wanted to buy the things that make up our bodies it would cost about as much as a candy bar. And that’s all we are. Candy bars and stars.”
To McClanahan there is no contradiction between the astral and the pedestrian, and throughout The Sarah Book a great electric energy is created by this simultaneous coexistence, the huge emotions that his character feels versus the simple clipped sentences in which they are expressed.
In a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates wrote of “the requirement of the minimalist imagination that nothing profound should happen in a work of fiction.” And while McClanahan is clearly a descendant of the minimalist tradition, he does not shy away from profundity, but rather allows it to spring forth from the everyday. A lunch break at the mall results in true love and reunification, or as the narrator puts it: “this is a boring story about how I went to the mall one day and ordered a cheeseburger and my life changed because I ordered a cheeseburger. I didn’t know it then but the story of our lives is the story of ordering cheeseburgers.” Life-changing love and cheeseburgers, candy bars and stars, life is not one of these but both, McClanahan argues.
While he takes on the Hallmark of Shopping Mall Realism—pop culture and consumer goods— McClanahan is equally as successful at incorporating that other aspect which Smartt Bell described as a “tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among […] people.” In a conversation they have while falling in love, Sarah tells Scott that she believes that “we are only a collection of other people’s ideas about us. We are all a we.” Later, when Sarah asks Scott for a divorce, Scott finds solace in this”‘we.” After moving his belongings out of Sarah’s house, he drives to an Applebees where he is greeted by a hostess who is wearing “the same uniform that someone else was wearing somewhere else […] and make-up that someone else was wearing somewhere too. A woman named Michelle handed me a menu and she had a name like the name of a million different Michelles but she was her own Michelle.” Instead of the modern cliche of disconnection or separateness that we so often associate with box stores and chain restaurants, McClanahan uses these settings to amplify a sense of togetherness, a sort of winking “we’re all in this together.” This twist on the numbing universality of brands is uniquely refreshing, this idea that even in our aloneness (or our identicalness) we are not alone.
In the same way that he asks us to re-evaluate our preconceptions about corporate restaurants and stores, McClanahan also pushes his readers to re-inspect our ideas of what is sacred. A Bible is burned, the superiority of the Garden of Eden is brought into question—even the hierarchy of family over pornography is made unstable. The paternal concern that character-Scott is not quite able to muster for his children is perfectly offset by the caring and understanding way in which writer-Scott depicts his own failings. Though this novel chronicles the breakdown of a marriage, it is not an exercise in self-flagellation but rather a revolutionary re-envisioning of what love and family mean. This is perhaps best demonstrated through McClanahan’s treatment of time. In The Sarah Book the falling in and out of love happen simultaneously. A chapter in which Scott and Sarah sign divorce papers is snuggled up beside a chapter in which they get married, and a chapter in which Sarah announces that she is pregnant with their first child comes directly before a scene in which Scott, years later, sells his wedding ring for cash to spend at a strip club. This splicing of the end of the relationship in with its beginning is an exquisite technique that allows the reader to feel the fullness of the lives depicted here. This malleability of time is reminiscent of works like Patrick Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth in that it contains a beautiful sense that pockets of the past keep on occurring even in the midst of the present.
While McClanahan’s earlier books have, understandably, been described as “gritty” or “folksy” or “like you’re sitting in a buddy’s garage sucking down a couple of beers and he’s telling you” a story, comparing McClanahan only to Breece Pancake and Larry Brown does not do him justice. The Sarah Book especially, is larger than that. It is not regional fiction, but human fiction, and it is best read not as a zoological window into exotic Appalachia, but as a window into yourself. The very ubiquity of the shopping mall settings is what facilitates and enhances this perspective.
By the end of The Sarah Book McClanahan brings together all of these dichotomous elements—”I,” “you,” and “we;” memory and reality; the stars and the candy bars—into a quietly thunderous and immensely satisfying scene. While reading the final pages I couldn’t help but picture McClanahan as a conductor, orchestrating from on top of Sandstone Mountain with his piles of beef jerky, pistachios, DVDs, and potato chips, pulling it all together into a subtle emotional crescendo, hinging on the plastic lid to a fast-food restaurant cup.
John Lewis, the congressman who bears the scars of his march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma in 1965, made his debut as a graphic memoirist this fall at the age of 73. March: Book One, which he co-authored with his press secretary Andrew Aydin and the award-winning artist Nate Powell, is a somber little book. There are two more volumes planned for this series, so there is much more story to be told. Still, through Powell’s pen, we have a strong sense of Lewis’s difficult history. A child would learn a lot more from March than he would from the two-dimensional cartoons of “respectable Negroes” that covered the walls of my fourth-grade classroom.
On the morning of January 20, 2009, Congressman Lewis sits in his office where he is visited by a mother and her two sons. He tells them the story of his life, beginning with his impoverished childhood in Pike County, Alabama, beginning really with young Lewis’s love for animals. Lewis, we are told, was a lonely child, content to sit in a dark barn in the company of his family’s chickens, whom he cared for and for whom he delivered eulogies at their funerals. Powell draws these chickens through Lewis’s eyes, endowing each of them with their own individual humanity. He draws young Lewis through our contemporary eyes, lined and old and wise before his time. Lewis the beautiful child of the earth, 14 pages of young Lewis and his chickens. It’s the best part of the book.
The young Lewis is smart enough to discover the injustice of the world into which he is born. He grows appalled by the hypocrisy of preachers who drive nice cars in his hometown. He becomes a preacher himself and turns out to be a prodigy. He leaves town, meets his hero Dr. King, and enters under the tutelage of Jim Lawson. “Looking back, it must’ve been the spirit of history taking hold of my life,” he narrates.
Lewis and his cohorts take part in workshops in non-violence, preparing for the confrontations they will face when they finally start doing sit-ins. We see them play the roles of their oppressors, adopting the most terrifying of facial contortions. A number of comic book artists have described their artistry as a form of acting, whereby they get inside the heads of their characters and endow them with the proper expressions. Powell captures the turmoil of these young activists, the rage and determination and the competing waves of self-loathing and self-respect that swirl in their heads as they push themselves through these workshops. You understand why a sizable number couldn’t take part in the protests that mark the final pages of the book.
Is this the way to depict civil rights leaders? Was the civil rights movement made up of men who overcame the limitations of their earthly flesh to create something closer to a heaven on this earth? Ta-Nehisi Coates diagnosed the problem in his Atlantic blog a few years ago, after noting the little-known story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s demagoguery during the Montgomery bus boycott. King had chastised black men who needed decent transportation to work so they could provide for their families and who did not wish to join the movement. “There are Negroes who will never fight for freedom,” King said. “There are Negroes who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even some Negroes who will co-operate with their oppressors.” Coates wrote,
[T]he narrative of black super-morality never connected with me. The people just never really seemed human, so much as they seemed like rather divinely passive reactions to white racism. The Montgomery boycott is the perfect example. The way it was told to us, sheer magic and Christian spirit made the boycott work. Castigation and intimidation surely would have doomed it. Except any deep study of activist and activism always reveals moments like this, moments that cut against the narrative of victory through pure moral force.
The history of the civil rights movement is littered with moral compromises, class conflicts, and power rivalries. That history has been told elsewhere, most famously in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, but it never made it into my elementary/middle/high school. If I knew about that history, I think I would have liked these men more. King’s capacity for mediocrity makes his capacity for greatness that much more interesting and that much more extraordinary.
With that said, Powell’s Lewis is also extraordinary and interesting, though he is not made interesting through the use of the corrective anecdote as much as through a depressive eye for the world in which he lives. “We Shall Overcome” appears in the script, but the book could not be set comfortably to a rousing gospel soundtrack. In March, the civil rights movement is a brutal place, where young men torture themselves for the great cause, and where the moments of euphoria are all too rare. Lewis has told his story many times before, most notably in his 1998 memoir Walking with the Wind in which he explained his life as a path that “involves nothing less than the pursuit of that most precious and pure concept I have ever known, an ideal I discovered as a young man and that has guided me like a beacon ever since, a concept called the Beloved Community.” The strive forward for that concept feels like optimistic folly when you look at Powell’s cool articulation of the segregated South.
Powell’s Lewis sweats and slouches and wears ill-fitting clothes. He takes the world before him as it is, but drives himself forward by holding onto visions of a world Powell does not draw because it does not exist. One suspects that Lewis, for all his Christian faith, doubts that world’s existence as well. And it is that doubt along with the ability to ignore it that is extraordinary, interesting and heroic. March is not an uplifting book, but it has its own weird brand of optimism. The world the civil rights movement created is imperfect but far less so than the world into which Lewis was born.