Yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive. And yes, he’s still writing, superbly. On the eve of his 100th birthday—it arrives Sunday, March 24—the poet laureate of San Francisco has produced a delightful little mongrel of a book called Little Boy. It opens by lulling the reader into believing it’s going to be a conventional memoir and then–blammo!–it veers into a scintillating free-form riff on…on…on what, exactly? Youth and philosophy and aging and death? Kerouac and Cervantes and Ginsberg and Henry Miller? Yes and no and I can’t say for sure. Here’s a sample that will give you a taste of this autobiographical novel’s delicious heedlessness:
Jack Kerouac and his merry band and not so merry as all that in fact quite the opposite in their imagined quest for you name it an America that no longer existed even as he embarked to find it with his crazy crew oh and it wasn’t just America they were looking for driven as they were by testosterone and the rage of living personified by one Neal Cassady the driven driver of their beat jalopy…
Maybe the best way to appreciate this bawdy, ebullient book’s nearly punctuation-free river of prose is to dip into it at random. Here’s Ferlinghetti on Henry Miller, another writer who lived a very long life:
AND it’s our last Hurrah and keep your pecker up for if you outlive your pecker where does that leave you like Henry from Brooklyn with the great gift of gab who all his life kept it up and wrote great books with it but then kept writing when his pecker couldn’t write anymore like an old fountain pen run dry oh daddy call me a cab…
Here’s a confession: “I was never much of a rebel back then or now.” And here’s a lament: “Oh the time lost and no other memory of it…”
For all its verbal sparks and wordplay, the book provides solid documentation that Ferlinghetti’s was a rich and eventful life. His father died before he was born. His first language was French. “I thought I was Tom Sawyer catching crayfish in the Bronx River and imagining the Mississippi,” he writes, “I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion at five in the afternoon and the Herald Trib at five in the morning…I saw Lindbergh land…I chopped trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps and sat on them, I landed in Normandy in a row boat that turned over…” He also witnessed the devastation of Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped, an experience that turned him into a lifelong pacifist.
After surviving the Second World War he made his way to California, where he was reborn as a poet and publisher, translator and social activist, promoter of Beat writers but, he insisted, not one of them. “I was never a Beat poet,” he declared in a documentary. But he was certainly a fellow traveler. He was arrested, and later acquitted, on an obscenity charge for publishing a 75-cent paperback copy of Allen Ginsberg’s monumental Howl.
Ferlinghetti, founder of San Francisco’s revered City Lights bookstore, has written more than 50 volumes of poetry, fiction, art criticism, and translation. His best-known book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, has sold more than a million copies, a staggering number. Along the way, Ferlinghetti has become something much larger than a poet or a writer, a Beat or a Buddhist. He’s our longest-living ambassador of the written word, a relic from a time when a certain type of person treated books as sacred objects rather than as products that could be sold at a profit. I realized this way back in the early 1970s, when I was wandering up and down the coast of California, working odd jobs, traveling in a retrofitted pickup with my dog, trying to write an apprentice novel, living out my own Travels With Charley meets On the Road fantasy. Whenever I passed through San Francisco I went straight to City Lights, where I spent countless hours doing something that went way beyond any definition of browsing. I read entire books, in installments, but rarely spent any money because I was always broke. Yet I never once got a filthy look from a clerk when I exited the store empty-handed. It was that kind of place. Amazing to realize the store was already two decades old and that it’s still in business today, nearly half a century later. Only a true believer could create such a cathedral of the written word. Given the staff’s forbearance, it’s a miracle the place ever turned a profit.
That miracle is the doing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it. I’m also grateful for his wondrous new book Little Boy, a valediction, a summing up, a rosy exclamation point at the end of a life well lived.
Image credit: Flickr/Christopher Michel.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Bryan Washington, Siri Hustvedt, Polly Rosenwaike, Claudia Rankine and more—that are publishing this week.
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Look How Happy I’m Making You: “The 12 stories in Rosenwaike’s striking debut collection portray women of childbearing age confronting the challenges of becoming, or not becoming, a mother. In ‘Grow Your Eyelashes,’ a web developer admires a baby on a bus while recalling her own fruitless efforts to get pregnant. Freelance editor Cora, of ‘Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,’ has a miscarriage. In incisive language, Rosenwaike evokes the baby’s miniature hands and swollen cheeks; the cavernous, windowless institute where Leah works; and Cora writing pleasant work emails despite her throbbing uterus. Longing and anxiety pervade ‘White Carnations’ as four motherless, childless friends celebrate Mother’s Day together, and ‘June,’ in which an expectant mother feels torn between her unborn daughter and dying aunt. Self-aware humor helps baby Alice’s parents through her first Christmas/Hanukkah gathering in ‘Welcome to Your Family’ and a wakeful infant’s parents through the night in ‘Parental Fade.’ The road to parenthood is paved with denial in ‘The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy,’ resistance in ‘Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression,’ and overwhelming affection in ‘Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.’ Rosenwaike’s edgy stories are endearingly honest, excruciatingly detailed, and irresistibly intimate, expertly depicting what motherhood means to millennials.”
Far Country by Franco Moretti
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Far Country: ‘Short in pages, and compressed in style,’ according to the author, this smart collection from Moretti (The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature), cofounder of the Stanford Literary Lab, takes five introductory lectures on literary history out of the classroom. His selections pair authors in unexpected ways, such as Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire, or Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, or, branching out from literature, Jans Vermeer and Edward Hopper. Moretti has a penchant for grammatical analysis, at one point counting the number of prepositional phrases (25) in a passage from Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ He observes that sentences such as ‘In his shirt the breast pockets bulged against him with his lunch and his fly book’ tell the reader what the character has already done, so that action is implied, but ‘not really visible anymore.’ This interest in the invisible or the ‘missing thing’ also gets applied to the use of repetition in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (Moretti argues that the difficulty of Stein’s language duplicates the problem of expressing one’s inner state), and to the sense of mystery Vermeer creates about what might have happened just before the scene depicted in a painting. Learned without being difficult or jargony, Moretti proves that criticism can be both thought provoking and fun.”
Horizon by Barry Lopez
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Horizon: “A globe-trotting nature writer meditates on the fraught interactions between people and ecosystems in this sprawling environmentalist travelogue. Essayist Lopez (Arctic Dreams) recounts episodes from decades of his travels, most of them tied to scientific investigations: camping on the Oregon coast while considering the exploits of British explorer James Cook; examining archaeological sites in the high Arctic while reflecting on the harshness of life there; hunting for hominin fossils in Kenya while weighing human evolution; scuba-diving under an Antarctic ice shelf while observing the rich marine biota. His free-associative essays blend vivid reportage on landscapes, wildlife, and the knotty relationships among the scientists he accompanies with larger musings on natural history, environmental and climate crises, and the sins of Western imperialism in erasing indigenous cultures. It’s often hard to tell where Lopez is going with his frequent digressions: one two-page section skitters from global cancer rates past a one-eyed goshawk he once saw in Namibia to an astrophysics experiment at the South Pole to detect dark matter, with no particular conclusion. Still, his prose is so evocative—during a tempest at sea, ‘veils of storm-ripped water ballooned in the air around us’ amid ‘the high-pitched mewling of albatrosses, teetering impossibly forty feet away from us on the wind’—and his curiosity so infectious that readers will be captivated.”
Lot by Bryan Washington
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lot: “Washington debuts with a stellar collection in which he turns his gaze onto Houston, mapping the sprawl of both the city and the relationships within it, especially those between young black and brown boys. About half of the stories share a narrator, whose transition into manhood is complicated by an adulterous and absent father, a hypermasculine brother, a sister who leaves their neighborhood the first chance she gets, and a mother who learns that she and her restaurant may no longer be welcome in a gentrifying Houston. All this is on top of his grappling with the revelation that he might be attracted to men. Washington is exact and empathetic, and the character that emerges is refreshingly unapologetic about his sexuality, even as it creates rifts in his family. In general, there is a vein of queerness in these stories that runs deep and rich. Washington excels when he gets playful with his narration, like the Greek chorus of ‘Alief,’ in which the residents of an apartment complex acknowledge their role in an affair and its disastrous ending. And in the best stories, such as ‘South Congress,’ ‘Waugh,’ and ‘Elgin,’ Washington captures the dual severity and tenderness of the world for young people. Washington is a dynamic writer with a sharp eye for character, voice, and setting. This is a remarkable collection from a writer to watch.”
The Parade by Dave Eggers
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Parade: “Eggers’s unremarkable latest (after The Monk of Mokha) follows two unnamed men sent to an unnamed country by an unnamed corporation to pave a road. The country—tropical, malarial—is emerging from years of civil war, and a new road running through the heart of the country is intended to be a first step by the government to unite the populace. The men charged with paving it are code-named Four and Nine. Four is a stoic company man intent on getting the job done ahead of schedule and with as little fuss as possible. Nine exists seemingly only to annoy Four; he talks incessantly, has no problem breaking company protocol—particularly when it comes to interacting with locals, which the company prohibits but he engages in endlessly—and does pretty much anything other than his job, including playing in a potentially contaminated river. As Four gets to work, Nine becomes increasingly irresponsible, and after his antics predictably get him ill and in trouble with the locals, both men end up in a precarious, possibly grave, situation. The repetitive narrative, sparse prose, and overall vagueness lend this an allegorical feel, and because the reader spends the whole book waiting for the hammer to drop, when it finally does (on the last page), it lands with more a thud than a wallop. There’s nothing particularly bad about this, but it comes across as more an exercise than a full-blooded novel.”
Waiting for Bojangles by Olivier Bourdeaut (translated by Regan Kramer)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Waiting for Bojangles: “Bourdeaut’s debut, an international bestseller, is a wacky, melancholy tribute by a loving young son to his charmed life in the company of his eccentric parents. In his own words, and quoting diaries his father kept—each often falling into rhyming verse—the boy recalls his unconventional upbringing. His mother is beautiful and mad, and dances her way through his childhood. His father is indulgent and kind, giving up his job when his son is born and always telling ‘such beautiful lies for love.’ The two met and married one night on a whim, and their life proceeds as a succession of parties and holidays, even after the boy’s birth. The narrator chronicles alcohol-fueled evenings, an old-fashioned turntable always playing Nina Simone’s ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ sunlit weeks in Spain after being confronted by the taxman, and so many days late to school that the boy is simply allowed to stop going altogether. Their household is chaotic, and includes an exotic squawking crane and occasionally a famous senator (whom the father worked for). But the boy’s mother teeters on the brink of insanity, and sorrows fall on her ‘from somewhere very, very high.’ When darkness threatens to overcome the intensity of light she has always thrown off, father and son go to great lengths to try to protect her. This fanciful love story, fraught with sadness, is a sweet meditation on the more unorthodox gifts that parents leave the children they cherish.”
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Memories of the Future: “This provocative, experimental novel from Hustvedt (The Blazing World) joins several narratives to illustrate the roles of memory and perspective in making sense of a life. A version of the author, called S.H. and nicknamed Minnesota by her friends for her state of origin, stumbles through her first year in New York, which begins in August, 1978. Having saved up her money and postponed graduate school, she has given herself a year to write a novel in a ‘grim apartment in a scraped, chipped, battered building.’ Passages from that dryly humorous, meandering novel, which follows a misfit pair of teenage detectives, are interspersed with the memories of the now 61-year-old narrator, selections from her journals in 1978 and ’79, and slices of the life of ‘proto-punk’ Dada poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who serves as a sort of muse. Dominating S.H.’s memories of her year in New York is her fascination with the disturbed older woman in the next apartment, Lucy Brite, to whose rants she listens regularly with a stethoscope pressed to the wall, and for whom she becomes an unexpected savior when Lucy is assaulted. The many moods and flavors of this brash ‘portrait of the artist as a young woman’ constantly reframe and complicate the story, making for a fascinating shape-shifter of a novel.”
Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Boy: “‘I’ve always been off in my own burb in some suburb of consciousness dreaming away or otherwise goofing off,’ writes the author of this wonderfully effusive autobiographical prose poem. Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, etc.), who turns 100 this year, offers a lyrical accounting of his life, both the ‘Me-me-me,’ with whom he identifies, and ‘the Other,’ who is his ‘shadow self.’ He also reflects on his private preoccupations with such broader issues as ‘ecological meltdown,’ third-world politics, and the ‘bad breath… of industrial civilization’—what he refers to as a way ‘to find the universal in the particular.’ He provides vivid memories of his tumultuous childhood, shuttled between family, orphanages, and the foster family he eventually chose for his own, and his wartime experiences as part of the D-Day invasion. Ferlinghetti’s prose pulses with the enjambments that energized the beats, whose work he published (famously, Ginsberg’s Howl), and it’s punctuated with such stunningly evocative metaphors as his recall of himself in Paris in 1948 as ‘a little like Conrad carrying Coleridge’s albatross and the albatross my past’—one of the numerous literary allusions that pepper the text. This book is a Proustian celebration of both memory and moments that will delight readers.”
Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Oksana, Behave!: “Kuznetsova’s standout debut offers a fresh and funny look into the life of a bold young immigrant woman. Told in a series of long vignettes, Oksana’s story begins in her last moments in Ukraine as a young girl and traverses the U.S. from Florida to Ohio, the East Coast to the West Coast over the next 20-odd years. Along with her fiery, sexy grandmother, her gentle and brilliant father, and her nervous but loving mother, Oksana attempts to assimilate, but her efforts are thwarted by her own bad behavior. Known as ‘little idiot’ to her family, Oksana seems incapable of taking on the role of Model Immigrant. In middle school, she attempts to blackmail the principal of her school; by high school, she has an illicit relationship with her troubled track coach. And in her young adulthood, she sleeps around and relies on substances to help repress her family’s painful past. Using light humor, Kuznetsova tackles difficult themes in her sparky narrator’s life; the nuances of trauma and campus rape culture are particularly well handled. While a yearning and affection for her homeland underlie much of the novel, Oksana’s story is that of a young woman making her own place in a world both new and familiar. This accomplished and frank work is a new take on an immigrant girl’s complicated coming-of-age.”
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Island of Sea Women: “See (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane) once again explores how culture survives and morphs in this story of a real-life Korean female diving collective. Young-Sook and Mi-Ja meet as young girls in 1939 in Hado, a village on the island of Jeju, where traditionally the women earn a living while their husbands care for the children and home. The two girls begin training as haenyeo, divers who harvest oysters, sea slugs, and octopi from the sea. But after WWII when American occupation of southern Korea begins, the two grow apart. While Young-Sook struggles to make ends meet for her family, Mi-Ja’s husband’s role in the government spares her the economic suffering endured by most of the country. But after Mi-Ja’s family betrays Young-Sook, Young-Sook struggles for decades to reconcile her anger with fond memories of her friend, even after their families cross paths again. Jumping between the WWII era and 2008, See perceptively depicts challenges faced by Koreans over the course of the 20th century, particularly homing in on the ways the haenyeo have struggled to maintain their way of life. Exposing the depths of human cruelty and resilience, See’s lush tale is a wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women.”
1.One of the most poignant of all passages in English literature occurs in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, serially published between the years of 1759 and 1767, when its author Laurence Sterne wrote: “████████████████████████████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████” Such is the melancholic shade of the 73rd page of Tristram Shandy, the entirety of the paper taken up with black ink, when the very book itself mourns the death of an innocent but witty parson with the Shakespearean name Yorick. Said black page appears after Yorick went to his doors and “closed them, – and never opened them more,” for it was that “he died… as was generally thought, quite broken hearted.”
Tristam Shandy is more than just an account of its titular character, for as Steven Moore explains in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, the English writer engaged subjects including “pedantry, pedagogy, language, sex, writing, obsessions… obstetrics, warfare and fortifications, time and memory, birth and death, religion, philosophy, the law, politics, solipsism, habits, chance… sash-windows, chambermaids, maypoles, buttonholes,” ultimately concluding that it would be “simpler to list what it isn’t about.” Sterne’s novel is the sort that spends a substantial portion of its endlessly digressive plot with the narrator describing his own conception and birth. As Tristam says of his story, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”
Eighteenth-century critics didn’t always go in for this sort of thing. Dr. Johnson, with poor prescience, said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last,” while Voltaire gave it a rather more generous appraisal, calling it “a very unaccountable book; an original.” Common readers were a bit more adventuresome; Moore records that the “sheer novelty of the first two volumes made Tristam Shandy a hit when they were reprinted in London in the early 1760s.” Sterne arguably produced the first “post-modern” novel, long before Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Central to Tristam Shandy are its typographical eccentricities, which Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography describes: “mock-marbling of the paper, the pointing hands, the expressive asterisks, squiggles, dingbats…the varying lengths of dashes.” None of those are as famous as poor Yorick’s pitch-black page, however.
It’s easy to see Sterne’s black page, its rectangle of darkness, as an oddity, an affectation, an eccentricity, a gimmick. This is woefully inconsiderate to English language’s greatest passage about the blankness of grief. Sober critics have a tendency to mistake playfulness with lack of seriousness, but a reading of Tristram Shandy shows that for all of its strangeness, its scatological prose and its metafictional tricks, Sterne’s goal was always to chart the “mechanism and menstruations in the brain,” as he explained, to describe “what passes in a man’s mind.”
Which is why Tristram Shandy’s infamous black page represents grief more truthfully than the millions of pages that use ink in a more conventional way. Sterne’s prose, or rather the gaping dark absence where prose normally would be, is the closest that he can get to genuinely conveying what loss’s void feels like. What’s clear is that no “reading” or “interpretation” of Yorick’s extinction can actually be proffered, no analysis of any human’s death can be translated into something rationally approachable. Sterne reminds us that grief is not amenable to literary criticism. For anyone that has ever lost someone they loved, seen that person die, you can understand that there is an inability for mere words to be commensurate with the enormity of that absence. Concerning such emotions beyond emotions, when it comes to “meaning,” the most full and accurate portrayal can only ever be a black hole.
2.Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors. Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.
Their extremity is what haunts, allowing either only absorption or only
reflection, the two colors reject the russet cool of October and the blue chill
of December, or the May warmth of yellow and the July heat of red. Black and
white are both voids, both absences, both spouses in an absolutism. They are
singularities. Hardly anything is ever truly black, even the night sky awash in
the electromagnetic radiation of all those distant suns. Black and white are
abstractions, they are imagined mathematical potentials, for even the darkest
of shades must by necessity reflect something back. Save for one
thing—the black hole.
As early as 1796 the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace conjectured the existence of objects with a gravitational field so strong that not even light could escape. Laplace, when asked of God, famously told Napoleon that he “had no need for that hypothesis,” but he knew of the black hole’s rapacious hunger. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that another scientist, the German Karl Schwarzschild, would use Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to surmise the existence of the modern black hole. Physicist Brian Greene explains in The Elegant Universe that Schwarzschild’s calculations implied objects whose “resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close… will be unable to escape its gravitational grip.”
Black holes were first invented as a bit of mathematical book-keeping, a theoretical concept to keep God’s ledger in order. However, as Charles Seife writes in Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, though a “black hole is practically invisible, astronomers can infer its presence from the artifacts it has on spacetime itself.” Formed from the tremendous power of a supernova, a blackhole is a lacuna in space and time, the inky corpse of what was once a star, and an impenetrable passage from which no traveler may return.
A black hole is the simplest object in the universe. Even a hydrogen atom is composed of a proton and an electron, but a black hole is simply a singularity and an event horizon. The former is the infinitely dense core of a dead star, the ineffable heart of the darkest thing in existence, and the latter marks the point of no return for any wayward pilgrim. It’s at the singularity itself where the very presuppositions of physics breakdown, where our mathematics tells us that reality has no strictures. Though a black hole may be explained by physics, it’s also paradoxically a negation of physics. Obvious why the black hole would become such a potent metaphor, for physics has surmised the existence of locations for which logic has no dominion. A cosmological incognito if you will, where there be monsters.
God may not play dice with the universe, but as it turns out She is ironic. Stephen Hawking figured that the potent stew of virtual particles predicted by quantum mechanics, general relativity’s great rival in explaining things, meant that at the event horizon of a black hole there would be a slight escape of radiation, as implied by Werner Heisenberg’s infamous uncertainty principle. And so, from Hawking, we learn that though black may be black, nothing is ever totally just that, not even a black hole. Save maybe for death.
3.“Black hole” is the rare physics term that is evocative enough to attract public attention, especially compared to the previous phrase for the concept, “gravitationally collapsed object.” Coined by physicist Robert H. Dicke in the early ’60s, he appropriated it from the infamous dungeon in colonial India that held British prisoners and was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In Dicke’s mind, that hot, fetid, stinking, torturous hell-hole from which few men could emerge was an apt metaphor for the cosmological singularity that acts as a physical manifestation of Dante’s warning in Inferno to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Dante was a poet, and the word “black hole” is a metaphor, but it’s important to remember that pain and loss go beyond language, they are not abstractions, but very real. That particular Calcutta hole was in actuality an 18-foot by 14-foot cell in the ruins of Ft. William that held 69 Indian and British soldiers upon the fall of that garrison in 1756, when it was taken by the Nawab of Bengal. According to a survivor of the imprisonment, John Zephaniah Howell, the soldiers “raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” On the first night 46 of the men died.
What that enclosure in Calcutta signified was its own singularity, where meaning itself had no meaning. In such a context the absence of color becomes indicative of erasure and negation, such darkness signaling nothing. As Lear echoes Parmenides, “Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.” There have been many black holes, on all continents, in all epochs. During the 18th century the slave ships of the Middle Passage were their own hell, where little light was allowed to escape.
In Marcus Redicker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, the scholar speaks of the “horror-filled lower deck,” a hell of “hot, crowded, miserable circumstances.” A rare contemporary account of the Middle Passage is found in the enslaved Nigerian Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Penned the year that French Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Equiano’s account is one of the rare voices of the slave ship to have been recorded and survived, an account of one who has been to a hell that they did not deserve and who yet returned to tell tale of that darkness. Equiano described being “put down under the decks” where he “received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experience in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat…I now wished for the last friend, death.”
There’s a risk in using any language, any metaphor, to describe the singularities of suffering endured by humans in such places, a tendency to turn the lives of actual people into fodder for theorizing and abstraction. Philosopher Elaine Scary in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World argues that much is at “stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language… a project laden with practical and ethical consequence.” Any attempt to constrain such experience in language, especially if it’s not the author’s experience, runs a risk of limiting those stories. “Black hole” is an affective metaphor to an extent, in that implicit within it is the idea of logic and language breaking down, and yet it’s all the more important to realize that it is ultimately still a metaphor as well, what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago described as “the dark infinity.”
David King in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia provides a chilling warning about what happens when humans are reduced to such metaphor, when they are erased. King writes that that the “physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” What’s most disturbing are the primitively doctored photographs, where being able to see the alteration is the very point. These are illusions that don’t exist to trick, but to warn; their purpose is not to make you forget, but rather the opposite, to remind you of those whom you are never to speak of again. Examine the Damnatio memoriae of Akmal Ikramov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, who was condemned by Stalin and shot. In the archives his portrait was slathered in black paint. The task of memory is to never forget that underneath that mask there was a real face, that Ikramov’s eyes looked out as yours do now.
4.Even if the favored color of the Bolsheviks was red, black has also had its defenders in partisan fashion across the political spectrum, from the Anarchist flag of the left to the black-shirts of Benito Mussolini’s fascist right and the Hugo Boss-designed uniforms of the Nazi SS. Drawing on those halcyon days of the Paris Commune in 1871, anarchist Louis Michel first flew the black flag at a protest. His implications were clear—if a white flag meant surrender, then a black flag meant its opposite. For all who wear the color black certain connotations, sometimes divergent, can be potentially called upon; including authority, judiciousness, piety, purity, and power. Also, black makes you look thinner.
Recently departed fashion designer, creative director for the House of Chanel, and noted Teutonic vampire Karl Lagerfeld once told a Harper’s Baazar reporter that “Black, like white, is the best color,” and I see no reason to dispute that. Famous for his slicked-back powdered white pony-tail, his completely black suits, starched white detachable collars, black sunglasses, and leather riding gloves, Lagerfeld is part of a long tradition of that fabled French design firm. Coco Chanel, as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand and Euan Cameron, explains that “All those gaudy, resuscitated colors shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues.” Chanel explains rather that she “imposed black; it’s still going strong today.”
Black may be the favored monochromatic palette for a certain school of haute couture; think black tie affairs and little black cocktail dresses—but the look is too good to be left to the elite. Black is the color of bohemians, spartan simplicity as a rebellion against square society. Beats were associated with it, they of stereotypical turtlenecks and thick-framed glasses. It’s always been a color for the avant-garde, signifying a certain austere rejection of the superficial cheerfulness of everyday life. Beats like Allen Ginsberg in his epic poem Howl, with its memorable black cover from City Lights Books, may have dragged himself through the streets at dawn burning for that “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo,” but his friend William S. Burroughs would survey the fashion choices of his black-clad brethren and declare that the Beats were the “movement which launched a million Gaps.”
Appropriated or not, black has always been the color of the outlaw, a venerable genealogy that includes everything from Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in The Wild One to Keanu Reeves’s duster in The Matrix. Fashionable villains too, from Dracula to Darth Vader. That black is the color of rock music, on its wide highway to hell, is a given. There is no imagining goth music without black’s macabre associations, no paying attention to a Marilyn Manson wearing khaki, or the Cure embracing teal. No, black is the color of my true love’s band, for there’s no Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or the members of Bauhaus in anything but a monochromatic darkness. When Elvis Presley launched his ’68 comeback he opted for a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit.
Nobody surpasses Johnny Cash though. The country musician is inextricably bound to the color, wearing it as a non-negotiable uniform that expressed radical politics. He sings “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, /Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” Confessing that he’d “love to wear a rainbow every day,” he swears allegiance to his millennial commitments, promising that he’ll “carry off a little darkness on my back, /’Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” Elaborating later in Cash: The Autobiography, cowritten with Patrick Carr, he says “I don’t see much reason to change my position today…There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Cash’s sartorial choices were informed by a Baptist upbringing; his clothes mourned a fallen world, it was the wardrobe of a preacher. Something similar motivates the clothing of a very different prophetic figure, the pragmatist philosopher Cornel West, who famously only wears a black three-piece suit, with matching scarf. In an interview with The New York Times, West calls the suit his “cemetery clothes,” with a preacher’s knowledge that one should never ask for whom the bell tolls, but also with the understanding that in America, the horrifying reality is that a black man may always need to be prepared for his own funeral when up against an unjust state. As he explained, “I am coffin-ready.” West uses his black suit, “my armor” as he calls it, as a fortification.
Black is a liturgical, sacred, divine color. It’s not a mistake that Cash
and West draw from the somber hue of the minister’s attire. Black has often
been associated with orders and clerics; the Benedictines with their black
robes and Roman collared Jesuits; Puritans and austere Quakers, all unified in
little but clothing. Sects as divergent as Hasidic Jews and the Amish are known
for their black hats. In realms of faith, black may as well be its own temple.
5.Deep in the Finsterwalde, the “Dark Forest” of northwestern Switzerland, not far from Zurich, there is a hermitage whose origins go back to the ninth century. Maintained by Benedictine monks, the monastery was founded by St. Meinard. The saint lived his life committed to solitude, to dwelling in the space between words that can stretch to an infinity, a black space that still radiates its own light. In his vocation as a hermit, where he would find the monastery known (and still known) as the Einsiedeln Abbey, he had a single companion gifted to him by the Abbes Hildegard of Zurich—a carved, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, who was himself clutching a small bird as if it was his play companion.
For more than a millennium, that figure, known as the “Lady of Einsiden,” has been visited by millions of pilgrims, as the humble anchorage has grown into a complex of ornate, gilded baroque buildings. These seekers are drawn to her gentle countenance, an eerie verisimilitude projecting some kind of interiority within her walnut head. She has survived both the degradations of entropy and Reformation, and is still a conduit for those who travel to witness that material evidence of that silent world beyond. Our Lady of Einsiden is only a few feet tall; her clothing is variable, sometimes wearing the celestial, cosmic blue of the Virgin, other times in resplendent gold, but the crown of heaven is always upon her brow. One aspect of her remains unchanging, however, and that’s that both her and Christ are painted black.
In 1799, during a restoration of the monastery, it was argued, in the words of one of the workers, that the Virgin’s “color is not attributable to a painter.” Deciding that a dose of revisionism was needed alongside restoration, the conclusion of restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher was that the Mary’s black skin was the result of the “smoke of the lights of the hanging lamps which for so many centuries always burned in the Holy Chapel of Einsideln.”
Fuetscher decided to repaint the statue, but when visitors saw the new Virgin they were outraged, and demanded she be returned to her original color, which has remained her hue for more than 200 years. Our Lady of Einsideln was not alone; depictions of Mary with dark skin can be found the width and breadth of the continent, from the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Our Lady of Dublin in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church; in the Sicilian town of Tindari, to the frigid environs of Lunds Domkyrka Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Depending on how one identifies the statues, there are arguably 500 medieval examples of the Virgin Mary depicted with dark skin.
Recently art historians have admitted that the hundreds of Black Madonnas are probably intentionally so, but there is still debate as to why she is so often that color. One possibility is that the statues are an attempt at realism, that European artists saw no compunctions about rendering the Virgin and Christ with an accurate skin-tone for Jews living in the Levant. Perhaps basing such renderings upon the accounts of pilgrims and crusaders who’d returned from the Holy Land, these craftsmen depicted the Mother of God with a face that wasn’t necessarily a mirror of their own.
Scholar Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has her own interpretation of these carvings in her study Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. For Birnbaum, the statues may represent a multicultural awareness among those who made them, but they also have a deep archetypal significance. She writes that “Black is the color of the earth and of the ancient color of regeneration, a matter of perception, imagination, and beliefs often not conscious, a phenomenon suggested in people’s continuing to call a madonna black even after the image had been whitened by the church.”
China Galland in Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, her account of global pilgrimage from California to Nepal, asks if there was in the “blackness of the Virgin a thread of connection to Tara, Kali, or Durga, or was its mere coincidence?” These are goddesses, which as Galland writes, have a blackness that is “almost luminous,” beings of a “beneficent and redeeming dark.” Whatever the motivations of those who made the statues, it’s clear that they intended to depict them exactly as they appear now, candle smoke and incense besides. At the il Santuario della Madonna del Tindari in Sicily there is a celebrated Virgin Mary with dark skin. And just to dispel any hypothesis that her color is an accident, restorers in 1990 found inscribed upon her base a quotation from Song of Songs 1:5, when the Queen of Sheba declares to Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.”
6.Very different deities of darkness would come to adorn the walls of the suburban Madrid house that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved to 200 years ago, in the dusk of the Napoleonic conflicts (when Laplace had dismissed God). Already an old man, and deaf for decades, Goya would affix murals in thick, black oil to the plaster walls of his villa, a collection intended for an audience of one. As his biographer Robert Hughes would note in Goya, the so-called black paintings “revealed an aspect of Goya even more extreme, bizarre, and imposing” than the violent depictions of the Peninsular War for which he was famous. The black paintings were made for Goya’s eyes only. He was a man who’d witnessed the barbarity of war and inquisition, and now in his convalescence he chose to make representations of witches’ sabbaths and goat-headed Baphomet overseeing a Black Mass, of Judith in the seconds after she decapitated Holofernes, and of twisted, toothless, grinning old men. And, though now it hangs in the Museo del Prado, it was painted originally on the back wall of the first story of the Quinta del Sordo next to one window and perpendicular to another, was his terrifying depiction of a fearsome Saturn devouring his own young.
In the hands of Goya, the myth of the Titan who cannibalized his progeny is
rendered in stark, literal, horrifying reality. For Goya there is no forgetting
the implications of what that story implies, his Chronos appears as shaggy,
wild-eyed, orangish monstrosity; matted, bestial white hair falls uncombed from
his head, and past his scrawny shoulders. Saturn is angular, jutting bones and
knobby kneecaps, as if hunger has forced him to this unthinkable act. His eyes
are wide, and though wild, they’re somehow scared, dwelling in the darkness of
I wonder if that’s part of Goya’s intent, using this pagan theme to express something of Catholic guilt and death-obsession, that intuitive awareness of original sin. It makes sense to me that Saturn is the scared one; scared of what he’s capable of, scared of what he’s done. Clutching in both hands the dismembered body of a son, whose features and size are recognizably human, Chronos grips his child like a hoagie, his son’s right arm already devoured and his head in Saturn’s stomach, with the Titan biting directly into the final remaining hand. Appropriately enough for what is, after all, an act of deicide, the sacrificed god hangs in a cruciform position. A fringe of blood spills out from inside. His corpse has a pink flush to it, like a medium rare hamburger. That’s the horror of Chronos—of time—emerging from this undifferentiated darkness. When considering our final hour, time has a way of rendering the abstraction of a body into the literalism of meat. Saturn Devouring His Son hung in Goya’s dining room.
His later paintings may be the most striking evocation of blackness, but the
shade haunted Goya his entire life. His print The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters, made two decades before those murals in the Quinta del
Sordo, is a cross-hatched study of the somber tones, of black and grey.
Goya draws himself, head down on a desk containing the artist’s implements, and
above him fly the specters of his nocturnal imagination, bats and owls flapping
their wings in the ceaseless drone that is the soundtrack of our subconscious
irrationalities, of the blackness that defines that minor form of extinction we
7.The blackness of sleep both promises and threatens erasure. In that strange state of non-being there is an intimation of what it could mean to be dead. Telling that darkness is the most applicable metaphor when describing both death and sleep, for the bed or the coffin. Sigmund Freud famously said of his subject in The Interpretation of Dreams that they were the “royal road to the unconscious.” Even the laws of time and space seem voided within that nocturnal kingdom, where friends long dead come to speak with us, where hidden rooms are discovered in the dark confines of homes we’ve known our entire lives. Dreams are a singularity of sorts, but there is that more restful slumber that’s nothing but a calm blackness.
This reciprocal comparison between sleep and death is such a cliché precisely because it’s so obvious, from the configuration of our actual physical repose to our imagining of what the experiences might share with one another. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene writing “For next to Death is Sleepe to be compared;” his contemporary the poet Thomas Sackville referring to sleep as the “Cousin of Death;” the immaculate Thomas Browne writing that sleep is the “Brother of Death;” and more than a century later Percy Shelley waxing “How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!”
Without focusing too much on how the two have moved closer to one another on the family tree, what seems to unify tenor and vehicle in the metaphorical comparisons between sleep and death is this quality of blackness, non-existence of color the same as non-existence. Both imply a certain radical freedom, for in dreams everyone has an independence, at least for a few hours. Consider that in our own society, where our totalizing system is the consumerism which controls our every waking moment, that the only place where you won’t see anything designed by humans (other than yourself) is in dreams, at least until Amazon finds a way to beam advertisements directly into our skulls.
Then there is Shakespeare, who speaks of sleep as the “ape of death,” who in Hamlet’s monologue writes of the “sleep of death,” and in the Scottish play calls sleep “death’s counterfeit.” If centuries have a general disposition, then my beloved 17th century was a golden age of morbidity when the ars Moriendi of the “good death” was celebrated by essayists like Browne and Robert Burton in the magisterial Anatomy of Melancholy. In my own reading and writing there are few essayists whom I love more, or try to emulate more, than the good Dr. Browne. That under-read writer and physician, he who both coined the terms “literary” and “medical,” among much else besides, wrote one of the most moving and wondrous tracts about faith and skepticism in his 1642 Religio Medici. Browne writes “Sleep is a death, /O make me try, /By sleeping, what it is to die:/And as gently lay my head/On my grave, as now my bed.” Maybe it resonates with me because when I was (mostly) younger, I’d sometimes lay on my back and pretend that I was in my coffin. I still can only sleep in pitch blackness.
8.Far easier to imagine that upon death you go someplace not unlike here, in either direction, or into the life of some future person yet unborn. Far harder to imagine non-existence, that state of being nothing, so that the most accessible way that it can be envisioned is as a field of black, as being the view when you close your eyes. That’s simply blackness as a metaphor, another inexact and thus incorrect portrayal of something fundamentally unknowable. In trying to conceive of non-existence, blackness is all that’s accessible, and yet it’s a blackness where the very power of metaphor ceases to make sense, where language itself breaks down as if it were the laws of physics at the dark heart of the singularity.
In the Talmud, at Brachot 57b, the sages tell us that “Sleep is 1/60th of death,” and this equation has always struck me as just about right. It begs certain questions though: is the sleep that is 1/60th of death those evenings when we have a pyrotechnic, psychedelic panoply of colors before us in the form of surrealistic dreams, or is it the sleep we have that is blacker than midnight, devoid of any being, of any semblance of our waking identities? This would seem to me to be the very point on which all questions of skepticism and faith must hang. That sleep, that strangest of activities, for which neurologists still have no clear answers as to its necessities (though we do know that it is), is a missive from the future grave, a seven-hour slice of death, seems obvious to me. So strange that we mock the “irrationalities” of ages past, when so instrumental to our own lives is something as otherworldly as sleep, when we die for a third of our day and return from realms of non-being to bore our friends with accounts of our dreams.
When we use the darkness of repose as metaphor for death, we brush against the extremity of naked reality and the limitations of our own language. In imagining non-existence as a field of undifferentiated black, we may trick ourselves into experiencing what it would be to no longer be here, but that’s a fallacy. Black is still a thing. Less than encouraging, this inability to conceive of that reality, which may be why deep down all of us, whether we’re to admit it or not, are pretty sure that we’ll never die, or at least not completely. And yet the blackness of non-existence disturbs, how couldn’t it? Epicurus wrote as an argument against fear of our own mortality that “Death… is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
Maybe that’s a palliative to some people, but it’s never been to me. More of
sophistry than wisdom in the formulation, for it eludes the psychology of being
terrified at the thought of our own non-existence. Stoics and Epicureans have
sometimes asked why we’re afraid of the non-existence of death, since we’ve
already experienced the non-existence before we’re born? When I think back to
the years before 1984, I don’t have a sense of an undifferentiated blackness,
rather I have a sense of…. well…. nothing. That’s not exactly
consoling to me. Maybe this is the height of egocentricity, but hasn’t anyone
ever looked at photographs of your family from before you’re born, and felt a
bit of the uncanny about it? Asking for a friend.
In 1714, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz asked in the Monadology “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and that remains the rub. For Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, that issue remained the “fundamental question of metaphysics.” I proffer no solution to it here, only to notice that when confronted with the enormity of non-existence, prudence forces us to admit the equivalently disturbing question of existence. Physicist Max Delbrück in Mind from Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology quotes his colleague Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, as having once said that the “hallmark of any deep truth [is] that its negation is also a deep truth.” Certainly, the case with existence and non-existence, equally profound and equally disquieting. If we’re to apply colors to either, I can’t help but see oppositional white and black, with an ambiguity to which is which.
9.If there can be a standard picture of God, I suspect that for most people it is a variation on the bearded, old man in the sky trope, sort of a more avuncular version of Michelangelo’s rendering from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such is an embodied deity, of dimensions in length, breadth, and width, and also such is the Lord as defined through that modern heresy of literalism. The ancients were often more sophisticated than both our fundamentalists and our atheists (as connected as black and white). Older methods of speaking about something as intractable as God were too often pass over in silence, with an awareness that to limit God to mere existence was to limit too much.
In that silence there was the ever-heavy blossom of blackness, the all-encompassing field of darkness that contains every mystery to which there aren’t even any questions. Solzhenitsyn observed that “even blackness [can]… partake of the heavens.” Not even blackness, but especially blackness, for dark is the night. Theologians call this way of speaking about God “apophasis.” For those who embrace apophatic language, there is an acknowledgement that a clear definition of the divine is impossible, so that it is better to dwell in sacred, uncertainties. This experience of God can often be a blackness in itself, what St. John of the Cross spoke of in his 1577 Spanish poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Content with how an absence can often be more holy than an image, the saint emphasized that such a dark night is “lovelier than the dawn.” A profound equality in undifferentiated blackness, in that darkness where features, even of God, are obscured. Maybe the question of whether or not God is real is as nonsensical as those issues of non-existence and death; maybe the question itself doesn’t make any sense, understanding rather that God isn’t just black. God is blackness.
10. On an ivory wall within the National Gallery, in Andrew Mellon’s palace constructed within this gleaming white city, there is a painting made late in life by Mark Rothko entitled Black on Grey. Measuring some 80 inches by 69.1 inches, the canvas is much taller than the average man, and true to its informal title it is given over to only two colors—a dark black on top fading into a dusty lunar grey below. Few among Rothko’s contemporaries in his abstract expressionist circle, that movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York, had quite the sublimity of color as he did. Jackson Pollock certainly had the kinetic frenzy of the drip, Willem de Kooning the connection to something still figurative in his pastel swirl. But Rothko, he had a panoply of color, from his nuclear oranges and reds to those arctic blues and pacific greens, what he described to Selden Rodman in Conversations with Artists as a desire to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
Black on Grey looks a bit like what I imagine it would be to survey the infinity of space from the emptiness of the moon’s surface. These paintings towards the end of the artist’s life, made before he committed suicide by barbiturate and razor blade in his East 69th Street studio, took an increasingly melancholic hue. Perhaps Rothko experienced what his friend the poet Frank O’Hara had written about as the “darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions.” Rothko confirmed that his black paintings were, as with Goya, fundamentally about death.
In a coffee-table book, Rothko’s work can look like something from a paint
sample catalog. It does no justice compared to standing before the images
themselves, of what Rothko described as the phenomenon of how “people break
down and cry when confronted with my pictures.” For Rothko, such reactions were
a type of communion, these spectators were “having the same religious experience
I had when I painted them.” When you stand before Black on Grey, when
it’s taken out from the sterile confines of the art history book or the
reductions of digital reproduction, you’re confronted with a blackness that
dominates your vision, as seeing with your eyes closed, as experiencing death,
as standing in the empty Holy of Holies and seeing God.
With a giant field of black, the most elemental abstraction that could be
imagined, this Jewish mystic most fully practiced the stricture to not make any
graven image. He paradoxically arrived at the most accurate portrayal of God
ever committed to paint. For all of their oppositions, both Infinity and
Nothing become identical, being the same shade of deep and beautiful black, so
that any differences between them are rendered moot.
Image credit: Unsplash/David Jorre.
Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading.
Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan
Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art.
Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake
As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!”
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea.
The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin
In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth.
Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville
If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it.
Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it.
Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, “Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? … Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton’s daughters did to their father?” In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties.
Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis
Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be.
Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons.
Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice.
The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster
Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things.
Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd
Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer.
The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie
Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold.
Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble,” a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.”
But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. American Graffiti Abroad
My wife and I started watching Gilmore Girls in Helsinki when our first daughter was a toddler. My wife is Finnish, and the show has been with us through the childhoods of all four of our kids.
For better or worse, American high school is now an international experience, shared around the world. My three daughters and one son are all in Finnish grade school or preschool, but many of the rituals of teen America have already entered their imagination, just as they entered mine when I was a boy in Seattle and D.C. Helsinki mean girls operate differently from Hollywood’s Mean Girls, yet the movie helps frame the concept of teen cruelty here, just as Heathers and The Virgin Suicides help frame international views of why teens kill themselves. My own kids, from their distant Nordic nook, love Ferris Bueller and Willow Rosenberg, and they’re primed for American-flavored teen adventures they might never have.
Out of all the teenagers Hollywood has launched overseas, Rory Gilmore — the main character of Gilmore Girls — is the one I like best, at least in her high school years. It’s not just that she’s smart and fiercely dedicated to literature and learning. The teenage Rory has her weak points: her mistreatment of Dean, her self-absorption, her cluelessness about some of her impulses. In general, though, she maintains a core of common decency and fair play while facing off against a series of narcissistic little tyrants. The show’s central joke is the comedy of the bookish and reasonable Rory holding her own against people who bully everyone around them.
2. The Dorothy Parker Reader
Across the Internet you can find lists of all the books Rory read or talked about over the series’ seven seasons, which originally ran between 2000 and 2006. The lists conjure up not so much the millennial preferences of Rory’s generation as the Baby Boomer preferences of the series’ talented creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The novels are almost all safe, traditional choices, from Madame Bovary and Moby Dick to The Metamorphosis and Ulysses.
If Rory’s literary leanings tend to be old-fashioned, they reflect a larger retrograde bent in the series. As Rahawa Haile has deftly documented, the show reserves almost all its speaking roles for white actors, and compounds the problem by casting actors of color mainly as silent tokens. The town of Stars Hollow has less cultural variety than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and Rory’s classics-oriented reading choices can’t even make room for, say, The Tale of Genji or The Blind Owl. While Finland doesn’t have quite the same culture wars as the U.S., it faces similar problems with the rise of rightwing hate groups, and the overwhelming whiteness of Stars Hollow — like the whiteness of the casts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek — now looks more obtuse and offensive with each passing year. When I watch Gilmore Girls these days, Rory’s fixation on famous old novels by famous old authors feels less quaint and more ominous — more like a reinforcement of Europe’s new line of bigoted and belligerent reactionary nationalists.
Still, I’m wary of generalizing about the ways Europeans absorb U.S. films and TV shows, because America’s influence cuts in so many different and contradictory directions here. From a Nordic perspective, for instance, it’s obvious that Rory would join most Finns in opposing the EU’s current assortment of jingoist demagogues, and would fight back against the attempts of those demagogues to use her favorite authors for their narrow political purposes. Also, Gilmore Girls is popular in Finland in part because this is a nation of readers, and I know two young Helsinki journalists who — despite their anger at America for our military and economic activities — found Rory’s love for books an inspiration when they were growing up.
After all, how many other TV teenagers can convince you they’ve not only read Anna Karenina and Swann’s Way but have made their reading a part of their decisions and their personality? Rory’s books aren’t just fashion accessories, as they are with most TV characters. Her relationship with Jess turns on him filching her copy of Howl and then proving he can catch the Charles Dickens reference she makes (“Dodger”). At the same time, we see some of the limits of her connection with Dean when she tries to teach him how to read Leo Tolstoy.
More broadly, her devotion to the writing of Dorothy Parker sharpens Rory’s natural ear for snappy dialogue — and this isn’t simply an aesthetic preference but the key to her entire approach to life. She values good talk because she values the ability to connect with other people and to have them connect with her. The contrast between Rory’s sleepy-eyed manner and her Parker-like flair for keeping a conversation in play is a major part of the show’s appeal. Her closest friendships — with Lorelai, Lane and Paris — are built on quick, casual banter. The jokes aren’t laboriously set up for a punchline in the old sitcom style. They dart along, one after another, easy and light and always moving on. Trying a video game with Lane, Rory says: “So this is what teenage boys are doing instead of watching television? Seems like a lateral move.” When Rory reacts to a comment from Lane by saying, “Sarcasm does not become you,” Lane answers, “No, but it does sustain me,” and keeps talking. In season three, Lorelai tries to suss out the degree of Rory’s interest in Jess: “Okay, now let’s say he’s in the house and there’s a fire, and you can save either him or your shoes — which is it?” Rory hedges, saying: “That depends. Did he start the fire?” Rory and Lorelai can’t stand together at a checkout line without slipping into their usual patter:
Lorelai: I hate crossword puzzles. They make me feel stupid.
Rory: Then don’t do them.
Lorelai: But if you don’t do them, you’re not only stupid—you’re also a coward.
Rory: Or you’ve got better things to do with your time.
Lorelai: You think people buy that?
Rory: The people who line up on a daily basis and ask you if you do crossword puzzles and then when you say no, challenge you as to why? Yes, I think they will buy it.
Lorelai and Rory are, famously, best friends as well as mother and daughter. Their friendship has its problems, but at its heart is the pleasure of their conversations. They’re bound to each other by language, their feel for the rhythms of each other’s phrases. Gilmore Girls belongs to the tradition of the great screwball comedies, films like Bringing Up Baby and Talk of the Town: the skill of the writing is largely in the lightness of the touch.
3. Early Rory
Lauren Graham plays Rory’s mother to perfection: she makes Lorelai wickedly charismatic. Driven and resourceful and a bit devilish, Lorelai typically sports a big knowing grin that’s up for all kinds of mischief. She takes command of the series 30 seconds into the first episode, when she looks at diner owner Luke Danes with the profound desire of someone who needs her next cup of coffee and will stop at nothing to get it. She’s a treat, and she brings a delirious energy both to her work as an innkeeper and to her love for Rory.
Yet she’s also a bit of a monster. She insists that Rory tell her everything, and places practical and emotional demands on her daughter that would break many children. Pregnant at 16, Lorelai ran away from her rich parents and rich boyfriend to raise Rory on her own. Lorelai envisions Rory’s future as a rebuke to the privileged Gilmore background — though another of the show’s nice comic touches is its recognition of how much this background defines Lorelai and Rory, and how heavily they still rely on it. Lorelai has encouraged Rory’s childhood dream of going to Harvard, and together they’ve built Rory’s life around reaching that dream.
It’s a potentially ugly situation for Rory, especially since Lorelai has a habit of bending others to her will. As Rory, Alexis Bledel lacks Lauren Graham’s I-can-do-anything-I-want-with-a-line acting chops, but her unnervingly serene demeanor brings something original to the mix. She’s quietly compelling when she spars with her mother, and usually acts like the adult in the relationship. Lorelai, with her playful eat-the-world smile, is like an insanely cheerful cartoon character turning the barrels of a Gatling gun, shooting out swirls of rapid-fire sentences and mowing down anyone in her path. Rory is less overwhelming, but she knows how to put forward her opinions. In her low-key fashion, she refuses to let her voice get lost in the onslaught of Lorelai’s presence. She’s much tougher than people assume, and this makes listening to her a constant pleasure.
Rory prefers to work things out, to understand the other person’s position and find a shared solution. Lorelai’s nature is simply to push and push until she gets what she wants, even if it often turns out she doesn’t want what she gets. During the first three seasons of the show, when Rory is a student at the pricey private school Chilton, Lorelai and she bring out the best in each other. If Lorelai is a great mother — one of the most complex and intriguing parents on television — she owes part of her success to Rory’s strength of character. Not every child would’ve prospered under the Lorelai Gilmore regime.
4. Occupying Paris
In high school, as Rory goes from bewildered outsider to top student, we see her at her best. Standing up to her mother has taught her how to stand up to the other megalomaniacs she meets: most notably, the immortal Paris Geller.
My kids are wild about Paris, and they’ve got a point. Paris is so mercurial—and Liza Weil inhabits the role with such virtuosity—that the character delivers comic bliss. Paris alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, between feeling superior to everyone and feeling crushed by her own inadequacy. She has a dazzlingly unhinged compulsion to scold people, and to control their every thought and deed.
As editor of the Chilton newspaper, Paris tries to sabotage Rory by giving her a lame assignment, a piece on repaving the school parking lot. Rory buckles down and does a good job on the article, and then confronts Paris directly. With calm force she explains that nothing Paris does will make her quit the paper. It’s the turning point in their relationship. Able to strike sensible compromises and work well in hostile circumstances, Rory also shows she can fight back when Paris is malicious or unreasonable. Bit by bit, Paris is impressed, and eventually becomes one of Rory’s best friends.
Rory’s success with Paris mirrors her success with the other little dictators in the series, like her charming but domineering grandparents Emily and Richard, and the pompous Stars Hollow autocrat Taylor Doose. (It’s easy for Europeans to imagine that if Taylor were French he’d be a Marine Le Pen supporter, and if he were Danish he’d vote DPP.) In situation after situation, Rory demonstrates the strength behind her decency, the ability to defend herself and assert her viewpoint while winning over those who at first want to control or hurt her. She lives out a fantasy of good faith—of a world where understanding beats aggression, and where intelligence and compassion defeat unfairness and cruelty.
5. The Corleone Connection
Gilmore Girls is full of references to The Godfather, and Lorelai and Rory quote from the film repeatedly. The first three seasons of the show set up the possibilities for Rory’s future so we can watch her, in seasons four through six, grow increasingly unbalanced and misguided. She’s the Stars Hollow version of Michael Corleone: she changes from a fresh and appealing college student to someone who has lost her way, becoming a dark and negative image of her former self. In season five she drops out of Yale, cuts off contact with Lorelai, and devotes her time to Emily’s social circles and a relationship with the rich and creepy Logan. The change is nightmarish to watch, because we can see our own bad decisions in her, and our own fears about what we might become. Even after she returns to Yale, she keeps dating Logan, and it’s clear she still hasn’t fully come out of the crisis that started when Logan’s father told her she doesn’t have what it takes to be a journalist.
Because of a contract dispute, Sherman-Palladino left the series before its seventh and final season, and she was never able to finish Rory’s story. Now, thanks to the show’s popularity on Netflix, Sherman-Palladino has had the chance to make Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a revival in four 90-minute parts. She’s gone back to her original conception, and to her old plans for Rory. The revival is ambitious, and compared to the series, it places the emphasis much more on drama than on comedy.
The Rory we now find, 10 years after we last saw her, is slowly disintegrating, and we follow her as she falls apart. Her journalism career has stalled, and she seems to have lost the ability to finish an article or even pitch an idea. Some reviewers have blasted Rory for her lack of professionalism, but we know from her years on the Yale Daily News that the mistakes she’s making aren’t due to ignorance or stupidity. She’s sabotaging herself, and part of her knows it while part of her denies it.
At the same time, she’s carrying on a degrading affair with Logan, who’s engaged to someone else. The revival takes pains to show that Rory’s view of Logan is a fantasy, a damaging illusion. The long party sequence with Logan and his friends is a dream: at the start, a sign magically changes from the word “Flowers” to the word “Tonight,” and the sequence closes with Rory caught in a burlesque of Dorothy’s farewells in The Wizard of Oz. This is the Logan she wants to believe in, a Gatsby/Kennedy hybrid who would care enough to give her a final night of Jazz Age entertainment. The real Logan is much colder: he lets Rory break things off with him over the phone and simply goes on with his life. Always polite, always superficially concerned, he can’t be bothered to make much of an effort with her.
The revival’s last four words, which Sherman-Palladino always planned to use for the final scene of the series, turn out to be chilling. Rory says she’s pregnant, and since the baby is probably Logan’s, the effect is grim. Rory’s transformation is complete. The girl who planned to leave Stars Hollow and become an overseas correspondent is gone, replaced by this eerie ghost-Rory who might never find her way forward again.
The ending isn’t hopeless. Rory has started writing a book about her relationship with her mother, Chilton has proposed a job for her as a teacher, and her connection with Lorelai is strong. You can picture a happy future for Rory, if you want. Still, the overall mood of the revival is bleak, and the darkness that always hovered behind the comedy of Gilmore Girls has now swallowed everything else.
This makes the revival very much a show for our time. We’ve all sensed it, of course, these past few years: the feeling of disaster in the air, of violence and anger and a rampant, all-devouring bad faith. This isn’t an era when people like Rory flourish. Instead, they tend to fall into self-doubt and self-destruction, and to become as narcissistic and manipulative as the culture around them. Rory has always carried her share of flaws. We all do. If we don’t like what we see in her these days, it’s because Sherman-Palladino has been pitiless about showing what can happen to us when we go bad. The Gilmore Girls revival is an odd, somber way to end a series that built its reputation on quick-witted comic brio. Sherman-Palladino has shifted us from the realm of Dorothy Parker to the scarier and more disorienting realm of Jean Rhys — and the revival makes Rory’s teen years now look heartbreaking in their wasted promise.
Although 1820 was more than a generation after the Revolutionary War, British critic Sydney Smith was perhaps still smarting when he wrote in The Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” He claimed that the recently independent Americans have “done absolutely nothing…for the Arts, for Literature.” American writers have since been involved in a two-century process of crafting a rejoinder to Smith’s scurrilous assertion. We called this endeavor the “Great American Novel,” and since Smith’s royalist glove-slap the United States has produced scores of potential candidates to that exalted designation. But for all of our tweedy jingoism, the United States seems rare among nations in not having an identifiable and obvious candidate for national epic.
After all, the Greeks have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans have The Aeneid, the Spanish have El Cid, the French The Song of Roland, Italy The Divine Comedy, and the British The Faerie Queene. Even the Finns have The Kalevala, from which our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cribbed a distinctive trochaic tetrameter in his attempt to craft an American national epic called The Song of Hiawatha. What follows is a list of other potential American epic poems, where the words “American,” “epic,” and “poem” will all have opportunity to be liberally interpreted. Some of these poems reach the heights of canonicity alongside our ”Great American Novels,” others most emphatically do not. [Editor’s Note: See our “Correction” to this list.]
The Four Monarchies (1650) by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet’s collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America inaugurated what we could call “American literature.” Scholars have often given short shrift to her so-called “quaternions,” long poems encapsulating literature, history, theology, and science into considerations of concepts grouped in fours (like the four elements, seasons, ages of man, and so on). Her epic The Four Monarchies follows the influence of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas in recounting the historical details of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are commonly associated with the four kingdoms of the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy. While a committed Protestant (even if her private writings evidence a surprising degree of skepticism), Bradstreet was inheritor to a particular understanding of history that saw the seat of empire moving from kingdoms such as the ones explored in her quaternion, to a final fifth monarchy that would be ruled by Christ. It’s hard not to possibly see a westerly America as the last of these monarchies, as taking part in what John Winthrop famously evoked when he conceived of New England as being a “city on a hill” (incidentally that sermon was delivered aboard the Arbela, which was also transporting Bradstreet and her family to America). Reflecting on that passing from Old World to New, Bradstreet wrote that her “heart rose up” in trepidation, even if she ultimately would come to be the first poet of that New World.
Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton
Despite John Milton being one of “God’s Englishmen,” Paradise Lost is consummately American in its themes of rebellion, discovery, and the despoiling of paradisiacal realms. The poet’s radical republican politics seemed to prefigure that of the country in the way his native England never could embrace. A century later, in the burgeoning democracy across the Atlantic men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin read the Milton of the pamphlets Eikonoklastes (which celebrated the execution of Charles I) and Areopagitica (which advocated for freedom of speech) as a prophet of revolution. Scholarship about the poem has often hinged on how Lucifer, he who believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” should be understood: as traitor or romantic rebel. For a monarchical society such as England’s, Milton was always more a poet for the radicals than he was one to be celebrated with a monument in the Poet’s Corner. As early Christians once believed Plato and Socrates prefigured Christ, I’ll claim that Milton prefigures America.
The Day of Doom (1662) by Michael Wigglesworth
Milton’s colonial contemporary Michael Wigglesworth has fared less well in terms of posterity, and yet his long apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom stood alongside John Bunyan and the Bible as the most read book in New England well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Wigglesworth epic was the first to fully capture the American public’s obsession with Armageddon (first sacred, now secular), depicting a shortly arriving Judgment Day whereby those who were “Wallowing in all kind of sin” would soon view a “light, which shines more bright/than doth the noonday sun” with the coming of Christ and the destruction (and redemption) of the world. Yet its deceptively simple rhyming couplets about the apocalypse betray an almost ironic, gothic sensibility. A critical edition of the book has yet to be published in our own day, yet the book was so popular that virtually no copies of its first printing survive, having been read so fervently that the books were worn to oblivion.
The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau with Hugh Henry Brackenridge
Four years before the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, the New York born Huguenot poet Philip Freneau stood on the steps of Nassau Hall at Princeton University with his Scottish born classmate Hugh Henry Brackenridge and declared that “here fair freedom shall forever reign.” Six years after that, Freneau found himself held captive for six weeks aboard one of the stinking British prison ships that filled New York Harbor, only to escape and write verse about the ordeal, confirming his unofficial position as the bard of the American Revolution. Those prison ships were notorious at the time, with the bleached skulls and bones of their cast-over victims washing up onto the shores of Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey into the early-1800s; as such, Americans thirsted for a soldier-poet like Freneau to embody the republican ideals of independence from British tyranny. Now, two centuries later, the “poet of the American Revolution” is all but unknown, except to specialists. But at the height of his esteem, patriotic Americans, in particular those of a Jeffersonian bent, saw Freneau as an American poet laureate whose verse could extol both the virtues of democratic governance, and the coming prestige of the “Empire of Liberty,” which was to be built upon those precepts. In Freneau’s writings, whether his poetry or his journalistic work for James Madison’s The National Gazette, he envisioned “America” as a type of secular religion, the last act in human history providentially heading towards its glorious conclusion “where time shall introduce/Renowned characters, and glorious works/Of high invention and of wond’rous art.” He may have failed in his goal of being counted among these “Renowned characters,” yet the “wondr’ous art” he predicted to soon arise in this new nation would eventually come to pass.
Proposed Second Volume (1784) by Phillis Wheatley
We do not know what her real name was. She was kidnapped from her West African home at age seven, and rechristened first “Phillis” after the name of the slave ship that pulled her across the Atlantic, and then “Wheatley” after the pious Boston family who purchased her as chattel. We cannot understand how the Puritan family was able to personally justify ownership of this girl who was translating Horace and Virgil at the age of 12. We do not have record of the hours-long examination she underwent at age 18 with the same number of men (including John Hancock and the Rev. Samuel Mather) to successfully prove herself the author of the volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The reading public refused to believe that she could have written verse evocative of John Dryden and Alexander Pope without confirmation from those white men who constituted that committee. We cannot tell how genuine her belief is that it “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” as a child on the Middle Passage, where almost a quarter of Africans died before they reached land. We do not know with what intonation she delivered the line “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. We cannot know what may have constituted the conversations between colleagues like the fellow slave Jupiter Hammon, or the Indian poet Samson Occom; we can only read their odes to one another. We do not know how much the shift in her celebrations of George III to George Washington evidence a change in ideology, or the necessary calculus of the survivor. We do not have record of the deprivations she experienced when finally manumitted but forced to work as a scullery maid, or of her husband’s imprisonment in debtor’s prison, or of her pregnancy (her child dying only a few hours after Wheatley herself died at the age of 31). We do not have her second book of poetry, nor its contents. We do not know if this lost epic sits in some sleepy college archive, or is yellowing in a Massachusetts attic, or rebound in some British library. We only know that in her Augustan classicism, her elegant couplets, her poetic voice always forced by circumstance to speak in her oppressors’ tongue, that we are reading one of the finest American poets of the 18th century.
Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) by Joel Barlow
In first his Visions of Columbus, and later The Columbiad, Barlow attempted to consciously write an epic befitting his new nation, whose drama he saw as equivalent to that of universal mankind. Borrowing the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, Barlow envisions a westerly angel named Hesperus as appearing to Christopher Columbus in a Castilian prison cell and revealing the future epic history of the continents he (supposedly) discovered. In The Columbiad Barlow wished to “teach all men where all their interest lies, /How rulers may be just and nations wise:/Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, /Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.” Columbus may have been a strange heroic subject for the eventually steadfastly secular Barlow, but in the mariner the poet saw not the medieval minded Catholic zealot of historical reality, but rather a non-English citizen of Renaissance republicanism (and thus an appropriate patron for these new lands). Barlow’s contemporary Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; in Barlow’s case language, whether poetic or diplomatic, was central in the project of constructing these new men of the New World. Barlow had long rejected the religion of his youth, and saw in the United States a new, almost millennial nation, which would fulfill humanity’s natural inclination towards freedom, where “that rare union, Liberty and Laws, /Speaks to the reas’ning race ‘to/freedom rise, /Like them be equal, and like them be/wise.”
America: A Prophecy (1793) by William Blake
Already critiqued as turgid in its own day, Barlow’s The Columbiad has only become more obscure in the intervening two centuries. Yet what it loses in number of overall readers, the poem makes up for it in the genius of those who were inspired by it, with that mystic of Lambeth William Blake reading Barlow and penning his own America: A Prophecy in visionary emulation of it. Blake is deservedly remembered as a poetic genius, Barlow not so much. The non-conformist eccentric genius “looking westward trembles at the vision,” saw in the rebellion of “Washington, Franklin, [and] Paine” the redemption of all mankind. Inspired by a heterodox religious upbringing, the rich poetic tradition of England, the coming fires of Romanticism, and the particular madness and brilliance of his own soul, Blake composed the most emancipatory verse of his or any era. With his vocation to break the “mind forg’d manacles” which enslave all mankind, Blake saw the great 18th-century revolutions in America and France as not just political acts, but indeed as ruptures in the very metaphysical substance of reality. The narrative is typical Blake, encoded in a biblical language so personal that it remains inscrutable as it is beautiful. The angel Orc, rebelling against the anti-Christ surrogate Albion, prophecies that “The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations/The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.” In a rejection of his servitude, this spirit of independence declaims, “no more I follow, no more obedience pay.” An Englishman writing in England with a heart more American than any of the revolutionaries he celebrates, Blake writes, “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic, /And Earth had lost another portion of the Infinite;/But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.” But Blake’s hatred of all kings was consistent, he rejected the idolatrous apotheosis of the god-president Washington, and as is the fate of all revolutionaries, America would ultimately break his heart. For Blake, no nation proclaiming liberty while holding so many of its people in bondage could claim to be truly independent. Freedom was still to be found elsewhere.
Madoc (1805) by Robert Southey
Because his and his friend Samuel Coleridge’s dreams of founding a utopia on the Susquehanna River would be unrealized, Southey’s American dreams remained in England, where he composed an unlikely epic charting a counterfactual history imagining epic battles between the Welsh and the Aztecs. The poem is based on legends surrounding the Welsh prince Madoc, who in the 12th century supposedly escaped civil war in his home country to travel west and dwell among the Indians of America. There is an enduring quality to these sorts of apocryphal stories of pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic contact. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee used these legends as justification for English colonization of the Americas, explorers ranging from Spanish conquistadors to Jamestown natives claimed to have found blonde-haired Welsh speaking Indians, and in Alabama and Georgia historical markers reporting these myths as facts stood as recently as 2015. The undeniable excitement and romance of such a possibility is threaded throughout Madoc, which pits Celt against Aztec and druid against pyramid high-priest, with a council of Welsh bards naming the prince a “Merlin” to the Americas. The poem is ready-made for the cinematic treatment, even as its imaginary medieval battles allowed the once idealistic Southey to overlook the unequal violence of historical colonialism, and in the process to embrace an increasingly conservative politics. Yet the Arthurian fantasy of the story is inescapably fascinating, as Southey asks, “Will ye believe/The wonders of the ocean? how its shoals/Sprang from the wave, like flashing light…/language cannot paint/Their splendid tints!”
The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the greatest American bard, the most accomplished of the Fireside Poets, whose verse celebrated Yankee independence and liberty. The question of what America’s national epic was would be easy for a good Victorian — it could be nothing other than Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. And yet the literary critical history of the 20th-century was not kind to the bearded old New Englander. The degradation has become such that current poet Lewis Putnam Turco derides Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way… nothing more than a hack imitator.” In the years and decades after its composition, generations of American school-children memorized the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, /Of the shining Big-Sea Water, /Stood Nokomis, the old woman, /Pointing with her finger westward,/O’er the water pointing westward,/To the purple clouds of sunset.” The distinctive trochaic trimeter, borrowed from the Finnish epic The Kalevala gives the epic a distinct beat intentionally evoking an Indian pow-wow as imagined by Longfellow. Critical history has not only been unkind to Longfellow, it has also been unfair. While Freneau and Barlow consciously mimicked European precedents, and Southey constructed his own imaginary representations of the Aztec, Longfellow tried to tell an indigenous story as accurately as he could (even if his own identity may have precluded that as a possibility). Based on his friendship with the Ojibwa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh and the Sauk chief Black Hawk, the poet attempted to use indigenous history and religion to craft a uniquely American epic. For much of its reception history American readers took the poem as precisely that. Longfellow’s tale sung of Hiawatha, a follower of the 12th-century Great Peacemaker of the Iroquoian Confederacy who preached in the western hills around Lake Superior and of New York and Pennsylvania. Though little read anymore, the poem still echoes as an attempt not just to write an epic for America, but also to transcribe a genuinely American epic.
“Song of Myself” (1855) by Walt Whitman
Both The Song of Hiawatha and “Song of Myself” were published in 1855; and while the former sold 50,000 copies upon release, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published in a Brooklyn print shop, didn’t even sell out its small initial run of 800. Of the few reviews published, most seemed to repeat some variation of the critic who called the slender volume “reckless and indecent.” And yet a century and a half later it is Whitman whom we hold in the highest esteem, as America’s answer to Milton or Blake. For in Whitman we have the first genuine rupture in American literary history, with the New York poet following Milton’s lead in “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” For Whitman abandoned the conventional rules of prosody, loosening tongue and ligament to craft a lusty and hearty free verse equal parts Bowery dock-worker and King James Bible. So what, exactly, was Whitman’s epic about? In short, it took as its subject — simply everything. The poem is about the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” and “The runaway slave” who came to a house and “stopt outside,” and also “The young men” who “float on their backs” whose “white bellies bulge to the sun,” and “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft,” and “The quadroon girl” who is “sold at the auction stand” and “The machinist” who “rolls up his sleeves,” as well as “The groups of newly-come immigrants.” He understood that in a truly democratic society the Golden Age platitudes of the traditional epic form could not truly confront the vibrant, egalitarian reality of lived experience, and so rather than sing of Columbus, or Washington, or Hiawatha, Whitman asks us to “celebrate yourself.” The “I” of “Song of Myself” is not quite reducible to Whitman as the author, and therein lies the genius of his narration, for he elevates himself in a sort of literary kenosis, becoming an almost omniscient figure for whom the first-person personal pronoun comes to almost pantheistically encompass all of reality. And though Whitman was a type of mystic, he was always consciously American as well, penning that most American of genres — advertisements for himself.
Complete Poems (c.1886) by Emily Dickinson
Dickinson is not the author of any conventional epic, nor would she have considered herself to be an epic poet. What she offers instead are close to 2,000 lyrics, so finely and ingeniously structured, so elegant in the relationship between line and image and rhythm, that taken as a whole they offer a portrait of a human mind anticipating death that is as consummate and perfect as any offered by any other poet. Like Leaves of Grass, the fragments of Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper present an epic that is secretly, yet simply, the reader’s own life story. Dickinson belongs among that collection of the greatest philosophers, whose orientation towards truth is such that she is able to tell us that which we all know, but were unable to say. Take the line “I am Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?” With her characteristic idiosyncratic punctuation (that capitalized “Nobody!”) and the strange, almost-ironic interrogative declaration. In her logical statement of identity, which is built upon negation, she offered a Yankee version of God’s declaration in Exodus that “I am what I am.”
The Cantos (c.1915-62) by Ezra Pound
His Cantos are the strangest epic, a syncretic alchemy of American history, Chinese philosophy, and ancient Greek poetry. Almost impenetrable in their hermeticism, Pound’s actual phrases were able to distill the essence of an image to their very form. Yet he was also an anti-American traitor, madman, war criminal, propagandist, and defender of the worst evils of the 20th century. He was an ugly man, but as a poet he could cut excess down to crystalline perfection: “The apparition of these faces in the/crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Some 20 years after his infamous wartime broadcasts for the Italian fascists, a faded, broken, wrinkled, and ancient Pound found himself living in Venice. Sitting before the elderly man in that Venetian villa was a balding, magnificently bearded Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and Jewish Buddhist, there to break bread with Pound. Ginsberg brought along some vinyl to play; he wished to demonstrate to Pound the distinct American speech that threaded from the older poet through Ginsberg and to that other Jewish folk troubadour, this one named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The younger poet, reportedly forgiving and gracious to a fault, claimed that Pound apologized for his anti-Semitic betrayals during the war. Yet this was not an act of contrition — it was a request for cheap grace. Beautiful verse can sprout from poisoned soil. We can still read him, but that does not mean that we need to forgive him, even if Ginsberg could.
John Brown’s Body (1922) by Stephen Vincent Benét
The writer from Bethlehem, Penn., attempted his classically structured epic poem at an unfortunate cultural moment for classically structured epic poems. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize a year after it was written, John Brown’s Body remains largely forgotten. Though Benét’s conservative aesthetics that call upon the “American muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many have tried to understand” may seem retrograde, what’s actually contained is the fullest poetic expression of the definitional moment of American history. John Brown’s Body, which teaches us that “Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself,” returns to slavery, the original sin of American history, and to the incomplete war waged to bring an end to the horrors of bondage. Benét, most famous for his story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (which if anything has reached the level of fable, its author’s name largely forgotten) attempted to craft an epic to commemorate the Civil War while its veterans still lived. His task is conscious, perhaps thinking of Barlow, Freneau, and others, he writes of his nation “They tried to fit you with an English song/And clip your speech into the English tale. /But, even from the first, the words went wrong.” The poem would be mere affectation if not for how beautiful lines of the poem could be, and if not for how important the poet’s task was, and if not for just how often he comes close to accomplishing it.
The Bridge (1930) by Hart Crane
From his apartment at 110 Columbia Heights the poet Hart Crane could see that massive structure that began to span from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. Like Barlow, Crane borrows the character of Columbus, as well as other semi-mythic American personages such as Pocahontas and Rip Van Winkle in leading up to his own experience of seeing this new wonder of the world unite two formerly separate cities. Beneath the shadow of the bridge he asks, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, /Shedding white rings of tumult, building high/Over the chained bay waters Liberty.” The poem was written as a rejoinder to the pessimism in that other epic, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s own life could be desperate: alcoholic and dead at 32 from his own hand after being savagely beaten by a homophobic crowd. Yet in The Bridge he tries to marshal that definitional American optimism, this sense of a New World being a place that can make new people. A contemporary critic noted that the poem, in “its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails.” And yet whether this is said fairly or not, it misses the point that all epics must in some sense be defined by failure, the only question is how well you failed. By this criterion, in its scope, breadth, ambition, and empathy, Crane failed very well.
“Middle Passage” (c.1940) by Robert Hayden
Benét intuited that slavery was the dark core of what defined this nation, and that no understanding of who we could be can ever really begin till we have fully admitted to ourselves what we have been. The poet Robert Hayden concurred withBenét, and his “Middle Passage” was a black expression of the horrors and traumas that defined American power and wealth, a moral inventory that explicates the debt of blood owed to the millions of men, women, and children subjugated under an evil system. His epic is one of the fullest poetic expressions of the massive holocaust of Africans ripped from their homes and transported on the floating hells that were the slave ships of the middle passage, telling the narrative of “Middle Passage:/voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” No complete personal memoir of the middle passage survives (with the possible exception of 1789’s The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) and so Hayden had to make himself a medium or a conduit for voices that were silenced by the horrors of slavery, writing of “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, /the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” Hayden had certainly never been in the stomach of a slave ship himself, and yet he conveys the knowledge that “there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half/the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;/that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/and sucked the blood.” “Middle Passage” is such a consummate American epic precisely because it enacts the central tragedy of our history, but its ending is triumphant, depicting the emergence of a new hybridized identity, that of the African-American. The conclusion of Hayden’s poem is inescapable: all that is most innovative about American culture from our music to our food to our vernacular to our literature has its origins in the peoples who were brutally forced to this land.
Paterson (1946-63) by William Carlos Williams
Of course a town like Paterson, N.J., could generate an epic five-volume poem, penned by her native son, the pediatrician-bard William Carlos Williams. True to his Yankee ethic, Williams’s philosophy was one that was vehemently materialist, practical in its physicality and imploring us to “Say it! No ideas but in things.” In Paterson Williams’s answered Eliot’s obscure Waste Land with a poetic rejoinder, one that rejected the later poet’s obscurity and difficult language with a paean to the lusty American vernacular every bit the equal of Williams’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitman. That language flowed as surely as the Passaic River across those five volumes, and over two decades of writing. What the poem provides is a thorough and deep history of this particular place, using it as a reflective monad to encompass the history of the entire country from colonialism, through revolution and industrialization into the modern day. In Williams’s epic the reader experiences, “The past above, the future below/and the present pouring down: the roar, /the roar of the present, a speech –/ is, of necessity, my sole concern.”
Howl (1955) by Allen Ginsberg
The Blakean New Jerseyite may have implored us to topple Moloch’s statue, but we used his poem to sell coffee, jeans, and computers. A criticism of the Beats was always that their modus operandi was more style than substance, a disservice to Howl, which when read free of the accumulated cultural debris that surrounds it is still thrillingly inspired. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked” (at a tender age I inscribed those very lines around the white edge of a pair of black Converse hi-tops with a purple felt pen). Howl can seem a mere product of the mid-century counterculture, but that doesn’t mean that his bop Kabbalistic vision of the sacred embedded within the grit and muck of marginalized people — the radials, and junkies, and queers, and addicts, and drunks — doesn’t remain profoundly beautiful. Ginsberg sings the song of “Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Dedicated to one of these lost children of America, Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a Patterson mental hospital, Howl’s vision is profoundly redemptive, despite its depiction of an America that is more Babylon than “City on a hill.”
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1972) by Frank Stanford
The poet Frank Stanford marshaled that Southern history that hangs as thick as a blanket of lightning bugs on a humid July night in his brilliant The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If not America’s great epic than it is surely the South’s, where the poem is all moonshine and Elvis Presley, yet not reducible to its constituent parts. Following the lead of modernists like E.E. Cummings, Stanford produced a massive poem devoid of punctuation and reproduced without any stanzas, one that never reached the heights of canonicity despite being celebrated by poets like Alan Dugan as among the greatest American works of the 20th century. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You endures as a half-remembered phantom born out of a particular Southern dark genius, and now almost folk-myth as much as it is actual text, out of print for years at a time. Stanford, who killed himself with three pistol shots to the chest at the age of 30 in 1978 endures as a literary ghost, still searching for a deserving audience. As he wrote, “Death is a good word. /It often returns/When it is very/Dark outside and hot, /Like a fisherman/Over the limit, /Without pain, sex, /Or melancholy. /Young as I am, I/Hold light for this boat.”
The New World (1985) by Frederick Turner
Perhaps a central anxiety of American literature, which reflects on the endlessly novel and regenerative possibilities of this Golden Land, is that as the clock ticks forward we become less and less new. Hence the necessity to continually reinvent, to “make it new” as Pound put it. The Neo-Formalist poet Frederick Turner takes this injunction very literally with his provocative science fiction epic appropriately titled The New World. Set in a fantastic 24th century, Turner envisions a fractured and disunited states of America born out of the fissures and inconsistencies that always defined American cultural identity. There are now groups like the anarchic Riots, the Eloi-like Burbs, the theocratic Mad Counties, and the Jeffersonian Free Counties. What follows is an archetypal story of family feuding, exile, and messianism across these designated polities, and in the process Turner tells a narrative about America’s history by imagining America’s future. Invoking the muse, as is the nature of the epic convention, Turner writes “I sing of what it is to be a man and a woman in our time.” What follows is a circus-mirror reflection of America, brilliantly harnessing the potential of science fiction as a modern genre and using the vehicle of the seemingly moribund epic form to sing a new story. The future setting of Turner’s epic serves to remind us that this mode, so much older than America, will also outlive us.
The Forage House (2013) by Tess Taylor
As genealogy-obsessed as we may be, many Americans have an anxiety about fully recognizing their own reflections in past mirrors, with the full implications of where we’ve come from steadfastly avoided. Poet Tess Taylor writes, “At first among certain shadows/you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.” In The Forage House she crafts an American epic by writing a personal one; she interrogates the long-dead members of her own lineage, pruning the tendrils of her family tree and discovering that while genealogy need not be destiny, it also must be acknowledged. A native Californian, she is descended from both New England missionaries and Virginian slave owners, with one ancestor in particular, Thomas Jefferson, as enigmatic a cipher as any for the strange contradictions of this land. Jefferson may not have admitted that branch of his family tree sired through his slave Sally Hemings, but Taylor seeks out her black cousins. To do this isn’t an issue of political expedience, but one profoundly and necessarily urgent in its spiritual importance. Perhaps it is in the collection of people that constitute a family, and indeed a nation, where we can identify an epic worthy of the nation. Rugged individualism be damned, we’re ultimately not a nation of soloists, but a choir.
Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine
The dark irony of the word “citizen” as the title of Rankine’s poem is that this postmodern epic explores the precise ways that this nation has never treated its citizens equally. Combining poetry, creative nonfiction, and a stunningly designed image, Citizen has the appearance of a photography magazine but the impact of a manifesto. The cover of the book depicts a gray hood, isolated in a field of white, presented as if it were some sort of decontextualized object or museum piece. But the hoodie calls to mind the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; Citizen ensures that we can never view an artifact as this out of context. The awareness that Citizen conveys is that this is a nation in which a black child like Martin, simply walking home from the store with iced tea and Skittles, can be killed by an armed vigilante who is then acquitted by a jury of his peers. But it would be a mistake to think that Rankine’s poem is some sort of sociological study, for as helpful as the adoption of terms like “privilege” and “intersectionality” have been in providing a means for political analysis, Citizen displays the deep, intuitive wisdom that only poetry can deliver — racism not simply as a problem of policy, but also as a national spiritual malady. From Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to Citizen, conservative critics have purposefully obscured the purposes of these poetic sermons. Yet what Rankine attempts is profoundly American, for Citizen conveys that any America falling short of its stated promises is an America that betrays its citizens. As she writes, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” In answering what our national epic is, Uncle Walt said that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;” the importance of Citizen is that it reminds us that this poem has yet to be fully written.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“You should sign up for this,” my sister said, showing me an article about a bookstore that doubles as a matchmaking service. At the Brooklyn indie, lovelorn bookworms choose their prospective romantic interests based on their list of favorite authors pinned to a cork board. The article went on to point out that women never wrote down Jack Kerouac as one of their coveted authors.
My decade-long love affair with the poets and writers of the Beat Generation was about to pay off. As the only woman who adored Kerouac, I would be the vixen of the literary matchmaking board.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a girly girl. My regular weekend activity includes clothes shopping, I feel naked without nail polish on, and my favorite color is pink. In fact, it was while reading the fashion magazine Seventeen my senior year of high school that I stumbled upon a mention of Ann Charters’s The Portable Beat Reader and quickly became obsessed with all things Beat related. After reading Jack Kerouac’s road-trip novel On the Road, it only seemed natural to pack my bags and move across the country for college. As Kerouac wrote, “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
While attending Scripps, a women’s college in Southern California, my interest in Beat literature grew as I went on a San Francisco pilgrimage to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, infamous for its involvement in the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. When I returned, diploma in hand, to the East Coast, I attended talks by Beat writers at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. I tucked Gregory Corso’s poem “Marriage,” in which he asks “Should I get married? Should I be good?” into my heart. That would be the poem I want read at my wedding, I thought. When I read On the Road, I connected to Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, shambling after friends, being nostalgic for events even as they’re happening, seeing beauty in the mundane, and hitting the road in his eternal quest for meaning — topics I thought both men and women could relate to.
Until my sister showed me the matchmaking article, it had never occurred to me that the author of On the Road could be a cement divider on Lover’s Lane. I had met guys who’d been inspired by Kerouac. They thrilled at the freedom of stuffing beef jerky in a backpack, wearing the same band t-shirt for days, and hitting the road with no plan but more life experience. It’s true I didn’t personally know any women who admired Kerouac, but I figured he just wasn’t on their radar since fifty years had passed since On the Road was published. There were plenty of women I knew through books who had loved Kerouac — women like Edie Parker-Kerouac, Joyce Johnson, and Helen Weaver, who wrote memoirs about their romances with Kerouac. Overcome with his prose prowess as I was, it was easy to overlook the parts that weren’t exactly rom-com material — the failed marriages, the refusal to acknowledge his own daughter, the fact that he lived with his mother until the day he died — particularly since I didn’t read his novels as love stories but as poetic travelogues.
Then I encountered a woman who openly disdained Kerouac — and all that he seemed to represent. It occurred to me that women saw him as a misogynist vagabond, the bad boy who had left their broken hearts in a trail of exhaust fumes. He didn’t like being tied down by responsibilities, or women. Perhaps those female readers who actually did like his writing feared adding Kerouac to their list of favorite authors for a literary matchmaking board because they didn’t want to end up with someone like him: a penniless drifter, a dreamer, an alcoholic.
If I am to be terribly stereotypical, I’d say the literary crush I hear most women talk about is Mr. Darcy, the cute fixer-upper worth the effort because of his money and social standing. Sure, maybe he’s a bit aloof at first, but in the end Mr. Darcy’ll put a ring on it. Of course, dating-savvy women wouldn’t necessarily include Jane Austen as their favorite author for the literary matchmaking board: they’re smart enough to know they might scare off potential male suitors if they implied they enjoy staying in on a Friday night to watch BBC films on television, possibly having to get out the smelling salts during the “pond scene” in Pride and Prejudice.
Instead, women might disclose preferences for less polarizing authors. Female authors would be perfectly acceptable to list, so long as they’re “serious” or witty authors like Toni Morrison, Tina Fey, and Jennifer Egan — and not authors whose books feature shopping bags, pearl necklaces, or candy hearts on the covers. Words like “wedding” and “feminist” probably shouldn’t be anywhere in the title either. There’s nothing wrong with reading these books — in fact, wanting to get married and being treated as equal are both positive desires — it’s just that, well, if on your first date you wouldn’t bring up the number of kids you want to have (unless, of course, you’re on The Bachelorette), then you also would probably subtly edit your reading tastes when you know you’re being judged by them. Like with clothing, it’s best to leave a little mystery.
Men’s disinterest in Austen and other female authors has, of course, been its own cause for consideration. Last year, in an article entitled “Men Need Only Read Books by Other Men, Esquire Post Suggests,” The Atlantic Wire rightly took issue with the fact that only one female author was listed in Esquire’s “75 Books Men Should Read.” However, guess which male author The Atlantic Wire specifically mentions, as if he is the driving force behind men’s exclusion of female writers: “hard-living, macho writers like…Jack Kerouac.” Interesting. I would have called him a life-affirming, sensitive author. It was Kerouac, after all, who wrote, “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”
In the past few years, culture critics have speculated that in general men read less than women and that specifically they don’t read much fiction — Kerouac presumably excluded. It appears, then, that men and women read quite differently. If men are more likely to read nonfiction, it seems likely that men are reading to obtain information. In contrast, women maybe read fiction for the entertainment of a character-driven story. And this is where it gets interesting. Every so often, social debates arise whether women are more “sympathetic” than men, “sympathetic” being defined by dictionary.com as “acting or affected by, of the nature of, or pertaining to a special affinity or mutual relationship.” If it is true that women are more sympathetic, either because of their genetic makeup or because they have been conditioned to be so, then perhaps women read relationally, placing themselves within the story. It would be natural then for female readers to cast themselves as the female characters instead of the male characters. In a work written by a man, the female character is usually going to be the subject of the male gaze. If that work happens to be On the Road, you’re going to end up with women like Marylou and Camille, flat characters being two-timed by hyperactive car-thief Dean Moriarty. It’s no wonder then that many women, even when they put his personal lives aside, don’t relate to Kerouac’s writing.
I don’t believe all women — or all men — think and act and read the same way, though. I never automatically put myself in the stilettos of the female character in a book. I read On the Road through the eyes of the eager narrator, Sal Paradise. Even if I didn’t agree with his every action, I desired Kerouac’s joie de vivre.
More than that, I was also the narrator of my own story, my own life. After reading Kerouac, I became the one dashing out the door for my next adventure. If I had a week off of work and wanted to take a vacation, I packed my bags and hopped on a bus or a plane. I took a Greyhound across the United States. I saw Stonehenge. I visited shrines in Kyoto. And I did it by myself, sometimes couch-surfing with friends who lived near my chosen destination before venturing off on my own to a hostel.
I was never looking for someone to jumpstart my story, to open the car door for me, to give me permission to do something. It didn’t occur to me that I needed a boyfriend or even a friend to accompany me to art galleries or readings or to make my life full. I wasn’t looking for my Jack Kerouac. I was Jack Kerouac. And so I never signed up for the matchmaking board. I didn’t believe in lonely nights. I was a reader. If I wanted company, all I had to do was pick up a book — or my car keys.
Image credit: Pexels/Johannes Plenio.
As most readers of The Millions will undoubtedly be aware, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is not so much a book as a sociological event. One of the most polarising works in the whole of the American literary canon, its cultural resonance continues to endure, and for many — the bohemian, the backpacker, the dropout, the hipster — it remains a sacred text. However, as well as being a work of great literary and cultural import, On The Road holds the dubious distinction of having made a journey to the big screen as tortured and as fractured as any other book one might care to mention. It has taken a total of 55 years, and almost as many screenwriters, to finally convert Kerouac’s vision of “an anywhere road for anybody anyhow” to film.
A cinematic adaptation of On The Road has been in the works almost since the day it was published. In late 1957, a matter of weeks after the novel’s appearance, Warner Brothers offered $110,000 for the motion-picture rights. At the news that Paramount and actor Marlon Brando were similarly interested, Kerouac’s agent attempted to incite a bidding war, and Kerouac himself wrote a letter to Brando imploring him to purchase the rights and co-star in it with him: “I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak…You play Dean and I’ll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life.”
Nothing came of Kerouac’s request, with Brando supposedly believing On The Road to be too “loose” for a Hollywood makeover. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers refused to meet the agent’s asking price of $150,000. A year later, a screenplay consultation with Twentieth-Century Fox was arranged, during which producer Jerry Wald insisted on the idea of Dean Moriarty perishing in a violent climax at the close of the movie. A somewhat cynical way of cashing in on the recent real life death of James Dean, this proposed ending was unacceptable to Kerouac, who terminated the consultation.
In 1958, Kerouac agreed to sell On The Road’s film rights to a small film studio for just $25,000, but not long later the studio went bankrupt. By 1960, the American media machine had grown tired with On The Road’s slow progress towards the screen, and in October of that year, CBS began airing a new television series called Route 66. The show was a not-so-thinly-veiled capitalisation on Kerouac’s hugely popular novel, featuring a pair of young American males (“Todd” and “Buzz”) roaming the interstate in search of adventure: In one episode, a dreamy ‘Buzz’ declared “…you live it the way you feel it. When it moves, you go with it…I been looking ever since I can remember.” After it aired, Kerouac tried to sue the producers of Route 66 for plagiarism, but was advised by lawyers that such a lawsuit was destined to fail.
Towards the end of the ’60s, the film rights to On The Road fell into the hands of independent film-maker D. A. Pennebaker, who had just found fame with his groundbreaking Bob Dylan documentary, Dont Look Back. However, Pennebaker quickly decided that — beyond an opening scene featuring the various characters sitting in a parking lot — he had no idea how to make the film. In 1969, following a long descent into isolation and alcoholism, Kerouac passed away. Interest in an On The Road adaptation waned.
It wasn’t until 1979, when the film rights were purchased by Francis Ford Coppola, that On The Road looked set for the screen again. However, what followed was 30 more years of frustration, confusion, and discarded scripts. Coppola’s struggle to turn the novel into a workable screenplay — involving aborted collaborations with around a dozen separate writers, as well as a brief flirtation with the idea of shooting the whole thing on black-and-white 16mm film — is well-documented. Even Coppola himself had a try: “I tried to write a script,” he said in 2007, “but I never knew how to do it.”
Fast-forward to 2012 then, and, finally, a cinematic adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road has been written, shot, edited, and packaged, and is set for release towards the end of May. A trailer has even been released, and the film itself selected to compete for the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
The team who have finally pulled off this once-seemingly-impossible artistic feat is an interesting one: Walter Salles, the director, was hired by Coppola after he saw Salles’ 2004 Che Guevara biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries — Salles, incidentally, calls On The Road “a book that’s had a very deep impact on my life.” Meanwhile, screenwriter Jose Rivera — who collaborated with Salles on The Motorcycle Diaries, receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process — started out as a playwright, and has studied under Gabriel García Márquez.
So, after such a long and difficult journey to the big screen, what are the main existential challenges faced by Salles’ film, its possible pitfalls? And, conversely, what opportunities can this adaptation grasp; what absences might it fill? Can On The Road still mean anything in 2012? If so, what? And how?
From Language To Image?
A large part of On The Road’s powerful and ongoing appeal undoubtedly stems from the lyricism of its language — as opposed to its linearity, or even narrative coherence. Translating this to the screen could quite simply be impossible. Indeed, one suspects it is the reason that, up till now, so many screenwriters have failed in turning Kerouac’s text into visual form. Influential film critic Robert Stam might lament the fact that many adaptations are judged strictly against the “fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of [their] literary source[s],” but that is undoubtedly the way of things. And as seen in other adaptations of challenging texts, such as Mrs. Dalloway (1997) or Ulysses (1967), even when an idiosyncratic style is converted to the screen with great care and attention, the success is rarely total. To quote Regina Weinreich, in her essay “Can On The Road Go On The Screen?” (from What’s Your Road, Man?):
…many critiques of the novel cite its episodic structure as a failing. In terms of a film, the key scenes on the road in a moving American landscape, in a jazz club, at Old Bull Lee’s, would have to be made visual in an extended narrative…The novel resolved those aesthetic issues in its language, in its use of repetition, of key phrases triggering verbal riffs, in Kerouac’s expansion of language as a storytelling medium…Can the medium of film be stretched in the manner in which On The Road expanded narrative possibilities for literary fiction?
Dead As History?
It might seem like an odd point to make — considering plenty of films set hundreds if not thousands of years ago are made every year — but it is possible that, as far as cinema is concerned, On The Road is (uniquely) out of date. The novel made a splash in 1957 because it tapped into a generation’s growing sense of restlessness and existential yearning — not to mention because it rebelled against the stuffy, conformist atmosphere of the post-war era. Now, 55 years on, while the novel might still succeed on other levels, there’s no denying that its content seems far less transgressive. As Kerouac scholar John Leland states in Why Kerouac Matters, “We’re no longer shocked by the sex and drugs. The slang is passé and at times corny.”
Is there a risk, then, that On The Road’s reference points (not to mention mise-en-scène) will render its adaptation a dispatch from a cultural milieu long since past? Kerouac’s text is intimately involved with its highly tangible present; its power lies in its immediacy, its urgency. But this is 55 years later, and half of America’s 20-somethings have done a coast-to-coast road trip. On The Road is about the “now in this exact minute” — but that now is now very much then. On the other hand, to utilise an atmosphere of glossy mid-century nostalgia — such as that so effectively deployed by ABC’s Mad Men — would be highly disingenuous towards the text. Is a retrospective telling, therefore, perhaps destined to be a diminished one?
While On The Road is undoubtedly a frenetic, challenging story — Kerouac himself assured Brando, in that 1957 letter, that he “[knew] to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure” — Salles and Rivera appear to have struck on what might be a way to tell it. Rivera says he has based the screenplay on the novel’s multi-layered theme of “finding a father.” While a departure from the novel, this at least sounds like something which might convert into a story arc, and give it some cinematic shape. It also ties into (one of) the true heart(s) of the novel, and would suggest, thankfully, that we are to receive a film that is about more than sex, drugs, and driving. Furthermore, Rivera has based much of the script on material collected by director Salles during his meticulous retracing of Kerouac’s route across America, and his interviewing of Beat figures including Carolyn Cassidy, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Diane di Prima. Both men, in other words, have done their research.
Salles, meanwhile, is encouragingly bullish about the notion that the film is in any way out of date:
This is the journey of a group of young men…who confronted a society that was very impermeable at the time…Those were the McCarthy years — the Beats collided against a social and political reality that was defined by the culture of fear. It’s not very different from what we live in now. At that time, you’d hear: “Don’t do this! Don’t do that! The Reds are coming. The Atomic bomb!” Now we hear, “The terrorists are coming. Don’t do this! Don’t do that!” It’s the same state of terror. So the theme of On the Road is more contemporary today than it was 10 years ago. It gives you the possibility to understand today’s America by jumping 50 years in the past.
Cinema Loves a Road Movie
An obvious one, but it’s true. Cinema might not have a great record when it comes to adapting Kerouac movies for the screen — witness not just On The Road’s crooked journey, but the travesty that was The Subterraneans (1960) — but it does have a great history of producing good road movies. Films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) are hardwired into the psyche of cinema. The ideal of The Road — with its connotations of exploration, pioneership, and personal freedom — is such a generally appealing one that the term “road trip” is part of common usage. And while Kerouac’s winding and delirious prose might be a challenge for the camera, sweeping shots of gleaming convertibles beneath a Midwest sunset aren’t. Nor — and it was one of the reasons Kerouac himself was so fond of cinema — is the depiction of live music, including jazz. Indeed, images such as “Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety — leaning into it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world,” seem almost made for the screen.
Kerouac wanted it to be a film
This might seem like something of a maudlin justification, but the fact is that Kerouac wanted On The Road made. Badly. Kerouac was a great lover of cinema — his personal letters are filled with praise for various films — and some of his writing spills over fully into cinematic-like writing. For example, in the “Joan Rawshanks In The Fog” section of his novel Visions of Cody (1972), the narrative focus explicitly takes on the role of a camera, and its rhythm that of a screenplay. Indeed, even in 1959, while his agent was wrangling over the rights to On The Road, Kerouac was adapting and providing a voiceover for the bizarre but surprisingly popular Beat film Pull My Daisy (1959).
And in chapter 13 of On The Road, Sal and Dean actually go to Hollywood — where Sal declares “Everybody had come to make the movies, even me.” Ultimately, some Kerouac fans might feel that — even 55 years later, and despite the author’s lifelong sensitivity regarding the nature of the adaptation — On The Road is due for the screen.
The Beat Renaissance
You could debate whether this is a blessing or a curse, but 2012’s On The Road adaptation would seem to tap into a recent (and ongoing) renaissance of Beat material. In 2007, the novel’s 50th anniversary, Viking published the “original version” of the novel, as typed by Kerouac on a 120-foot-long scroll. Over the next two years, the scroll itself went on a lengthily intentional tour. Meanwhile, in 2010, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl — the other chief text of the Beat generation — received an interesting and experimental cinematic makeover, with James Franco making an excellent Ginsberg. Further still, as you read this, an adaptation of Kerouac’s last (and desperately sad) novel, Big Sur, is in the final stages of post-production. It won’t ultimately affect the quality of the film — and even the casual cynic could see this timing as less serendipity, and more hard-headed commercialism of the sort that Kerouac diehards detest — but at least Salles’ On The Road is appearing at a fitting moment, when it would appear it has a wave to ride, and some wider interest to tap into. After all, if On The Road is to continue to have a cultural legacy, then what it needs more than anything is exposure.
“There are only three journals that matter and one of them is Conjunctions.”
— Walter Abish, author of How German Is It
Behold the man — Bradford Morrow, who spans in both biography and experience the best explorations of the teachers and writers of two centuries, the 20th and our new toddling era. Both a generous reader and writer, a community-maker in his years as founder and editor of the pioneering Conjunctions, bearing standards paradoxically rigorous, curious, and fluid, author of Giovanni’s Gift, among some other eight books, this year he came out with two new books: one, the novel The Diviner’s Tale, a genre cloverleaf, combining elements of paranormal mystery, the detective story, the confessional, and a shaggy-dog story, told by a woman whose credibility proves as convincing as Norman Rush’s similar feat of male-to-female ventriloquism in Mating. The second, the collection of short stories The Uninnocent, shows similar insight, plunging the reader again and again into some icy waters. Why? Because he pushes characters to extremes while luring us into unguessable sympathies: you, dear reader, become complicit with the metaphysical and actual body count of these stories. Who would you be under such complex circumstances? Would you dare call yourself good?
Such is the sly question in ghostly ink between Morrow’s lines. Meanwhile, his formal play (see, for instance, the highly pleasurable psychological Rubik’s cube of a story,”Mis(laid)”) is subtle; in its subtlety lies intrigue.
*And if you want more gritty specifics embracing Morrow’s upbringing and aesthetics, in addition to the interview that follows, may I direct you to the well-written biography?
** And if you want the opening of Paradise Lost, one of the undergirdings of postwar American fiction, see this:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us . . .
(First dot) You have tackled so many large topics in your work, and have used such varying technique, and yet your last novel, The Diviner’s Tale, as well as this most recent book of short stories, The Uninnocent, both come out of a truly American gothic sensibility. The Uninnocent bears every kind of smudged, glowing thumbprint of America gone awry: absentee fathers haunt these stories, as do grotesque physical accidents, incest, murder, subterfuge, numbing devices.
(Second dot) You have a deep connection to Willa Cather.
Can you connect these two points for your lay readers?
Brad Morrow: That’s a really intriguing question. I see several possible ways to connect those dots, although perhaps the simplest explanation for what on the surface might seem an affinity for two quite different aesthetics would be to cite Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” — as a writer my interests are wildly wide-ranging. My taste in literature, like my taste in music, and even in people, is eclectic. I’ve never been one to limit myself in my preoccupations, my affections. Which is not to say my taste is chaotic or even all that catholic. Just that for better or worse I manage a wide embrace. Besides Willa Cather, I’m completely devoted to John Donne, for instance, and Yeats. But also William Burroughs and William Gaddis. What these writers have in common, for want of a sharper word, is genius. Originality, dynamism, vision, and a gift for language that’s electric.
Two more specific vectors between the gothic and Willa Cather involve, first, her use of landscape as an active character — a trait that’s ever-present in my most gothic work — and, second, for all her reputation as a kind of pioneer realist, Cather is a modernist chronicler of all manner of violent and tragic behaviors. Her landscapes are often aggressive, uncooperative, and even fatally destructive to the humans who inhabit them. Likewise, her characters are capable of depravities that would take aback the darkest noir writer. When the cruel Wick Cutter blithely slits open the eyes of a woodpecker in A Lost Lady and enjoys watching the poor creature flop around helplessly trying to find its way back to its nest, you know you’re in the presence of a writer who understands evil. Murder, betrayal, deception, downfalls. Cather explores all these themes pretty relentlessly, though she also is a brilliant celebrant of human triumph against adversity, as well.
Another personal connection to Willa Cather, having nothing to do with the gothic, is that my mother was born and raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and my grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents farmed the same rolling Nebraska lands that Cather’s family did. Most are buried there, many a stone’s throw from the graves of Cather’s family and friends. So there’s that, as well. Cather and I, generations apart, left small towns in Nebraska and Colorado to end up in New York where we each became novelists and editors. Sentimental or not, I feel she’s a kind of forebear.
EM: Again, forgive me this dyadism, two quotations:
“We were uninnocent, but the very isolation that in some ways damned us has also acted as our benefactor and protector.” — The Uninnocent
“The druggist’s was empty, its row of stools with mottled vinyl aligned kind of sad somehow before the long counter, Coke taps, pie racks, ketchup bottles, the stainless-steel malted cup — ” — “Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances”
While I don’t feel this about every writer, may I venture that in your embrace of such complex and often evil characters, a lapsed idealism lives? Not that polemic pulses your fiction, but rather that some American nostalgia unites these stories. As if all might be better if we could get back to — to what? The land, perhaps, the freedom of an individual facing the vastness of the world and needing to make those insuperably huge American choices. Cather’s prairie redux! As if each character might, somewhere before the second coming or apocalypse, recognize the worth of ethics and community. Your characters are often anachronistic vigilantes, pursuing their own form of righteousness. I might be pushing it here, but the voice rising from your pages suggests that while your pariahs’ psychologies rarely bear Edenic backstories, the arcs of their stories contain a ghostly hint: some lost key lives in the backstory of the States. Discuss?
BM: I agree that many characters in these stories would like to get back to the Garden but that the path, if there ever was one, is overgrown with thorny flora and guarded by treacherous fauna. Indeed, Jack, in “All the Things That Are Wrong With Me,” tries to create his own Edenic animal garden in which the lion lies down with the lamb, but he is blinded by naïveté and an ignorance of community rules, and so is fated for a hard fall. Both narrators in “Lush” try their very best to overcome alcoholism and injury, but in the end it’s unclear if their dreams, despite their striving and hope, can finally create a haven that’s strong enough to protect them from their demons.
As for the role of America in the book, I can say simply that the stories were meant to be individual investigations rather than a political map of the patchwork quilt that is our culture. Having said that, though, it is interesting that the first story in the collection, “The Hoarder,” involves a family moving from place to place across the country, beginning in the Outer Banks on the East Coast, passing through the Midwest and pausing in the Southwest for a time, then ending up in California. The youthful collector, on his own westward journey, at first contents himself with innocent enough things to assemble — sea shells, birds’ nests, pottery shards; things he finds on beaches, in forests, and on the desert. But just as the country itself in its westward expansion, fueled by Manifest Destiny and other questionable political philosophies that hardly disguised an underlying rapacity, moved inevitably away from idealism, this boy increasingly finds himself driven to take things from others in order to feel in control of a life that’s slipping away from him.
While evil is obviously universal, various forms of evil portrayed in The Uninnocent do seem to me to be, as you suggest, distinctly American. An unstable idealism that sometimes erupts into irrevocable acts of violence or crime does reside in the hearts of many of these characters, which despite my better judgment is one of the reasons I so deeply empathize with even the worst among them. Some are naive, others psychotic, still others believe that they are doing the right thing even though the rest of the world would strongly disagree. Just as America is a young country, a number of people portrayed here struggle with maturity at a fairly tender age. Again, I’m not saying the characters in The Uninnocent are meant to be small portraits of the country itself. But all of them are in one way or another the products of America and, as William Carlos Williams put it, “The pure products of America go crazy.”
EM: How does music affect your writing?
BM: Music was crucial to my life long before I ever thought of writing, even well before I got into reading books beyond The Phantom Toll Booth or The Cat in the Hat. My mother was church organist and choir director at the First Methodist Church in Littleton, Colorado, and was an accomplished opera singer. She had me taking piano lessons before my hands could barely reach the ivories and my feet the pedals. So music is in my blood and soul. Every kind of music, I might add, from classical to jazz, rock to rap, from sea chanteys to you name it. I’ve learned a lot from Bach and Stravinsky, Debussy and Copland, Bird and Coltrane, Leadbelly and John McLaughlin, the Geto Boys and NWA. A list of all the composers and musicians who have influenced me would run into the hundreds. I doubt I could write any of the sentences that I do without that core musical background. Narrative, be it on the scale of a short paragraph or a long novel, is told in words whose origins are ultimately musical. Emerson wrote, Every word was once a poem. And I would suggest that every poem was once a musical phrase.
EM: Who was your first ideal reader?
BM: I had a professor at the University of Colorado, the late and much-missed Edward Nolan, who had an enormous impact on me and read my work with care and blazing intelligence. He got me to read Woolf and Yeats and Ezra Pound and could discuss the dynamics of a sentence or phrase with dazzling precision and nuance. But in fact I have been blessed over the years with a number of dear friends who happen also to be super sharp readers of my work, and who’ve been unafraid to suggest possible improvements to this text or that. Rarely have I felt like I’m singing alone in the dark, thanks to these gracious intimates.
EM: When I first read your response, above, I thought you had written thanks to these gracious inmates. Which made me think, since I believe you have a great panopticon view of American letters (belles lettres?) and much recent literary history — what is your view of our current literary prison? Prison or paradise? While we are a rebellious clan, is there some uniting moment which we are living through? DeLillo once famously said the novelist had great freedom, living in the margins of a dying art, yet also that terrorists had usurped our ability to form compelling narrative. Answer any part of this, or go off on your own spree.
BM: I may be overly optimistic or utterly blind, but my view of contemporary American fiction is that it is as rich as ever. Some of the best work is being written in what until recently was considered, at least among the conventional literati, genre fiction. Horror, gothic, mystery, fantasy, fabulism. There are so many stunningly original and serious writers working these fields. I have to think that anybody reading this interview would agree. Just one example, though there are many, would be Elizabeth Hand. She composes sentences of ravishing beauty. She is capable of creating metaphor systems that are so dynamic and provocative. She can turn a fictive moment that seems deeply rooted in the everyday into something that, in fact, touches upon the sublime, the miraculous. Just read her novella Cleopatra Brimstone and tell me that American fiction isn’t pulsing with life. Like I say, I could list dozens of authors here whose work I admire and follow with care and excitement. That said, I do think that much contemporary criticism is stuck in the past and that too many reviewers want those who are exploring ways to revolutionize genre to stick to the rules. I think of them as genre police. They make too many false arrests and lead potential readers astray, keep them caged away from renegades whose work they might well dig reading.
EM: Coming off your rich response: did you have an early model in your young life of generosity, whether literary or existential?
BM: A few, Edie. Ezra Pound had a huge impact on me. Poet, critic, translator, editor, promoter of others’ works, shaper of Kulchur. Even now, looking back to the Pound Era (Hugh Kenner’s phrase for those astonishing years that saw everyone from Joyce to Eliot to Williams to H.D. rise into view with novels and poems sizzling with genius), I marvel at how crucial Ezra Pound’s generosity was to modernism. So certainly Pound. Also, I was devoted to Allen Ginsberg who similarly moved outward beyond his own poetry to help other writers find their voices and audiences. Kenneth Rexroth, who introduced Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl and was at least initially godfather to the Beat movement, was my mentor when I was in my 20s. Like Pound, Kenneth was a critic and translator as well as an exceptional poet who delved deeply into the mysteries of love. His generosity toward me, a young writer 50 years his junior, was a real inspiration. Kenneth was a polymath, knew everything about everything, truly the most exquisite mind I have ever encountered, and so he too was a model. Interesting that I’m only citing poets. The most generous prose fiction writer who inspired me in my 30s was John Hawkes. His generosity toward me I try to pay forward as often as I can. Jack was constantly encouraging me and a whole host of other writers — Jeff Eugenides, Rick Moody, Joanna Scott, Mary Caponegro, so many others. I will never forget his introducing me at Brown University when I gave my first public reading. He had a wild wit, a luminescence, that inspires me to this day.
To get to the movie theater that’s playing the new documentary about William S. Burroughs, I had to pass a six-story tenement at 170 E. 2nd St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A plaque by the building’s front door reads:
ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-1997) Internationally acclaimed poet and Member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters lived here from August 1958 to March 1961. His signal poem Howl (1956) helped launch The Beat Generation. Kadish (1961), a mournful elegy for his mother Naomi, was written in apartment #16.
The documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, taught me several things about the author of Naked Lunch and other scabrous novels that, along with Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, got the Beat Generation off the launch pad. I learned that Burroughs was fascinated by poisonous snakes, particularly when they were feeding, and he almost died when he rashly positioned a live mouse within range of a Gaboon viper’s fangs. I learned that Burroughs was a gun nut who liked to get liquored up before he started blasting, and that his beverage of choice was vodka and Coke. (This, surely, helps explain the “accident” when Burroughs shot his wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in Mexico City in 1951.) I learned that Burroughs was not much of a father either; his only son died of acute alcoholism at the age of 33. I learned that the poet-rocker Patti Smith, who recently won a National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids, used to have a crush on Burroughs and that the cult filmmaker John Waters considers Burroughs a “saint” and that Burroughs had a hard time expressing love because he was terrified of rejection and so he usually turned to young gay hustlers for sex and finally I learned that the poet who wrote Howl and Kadish was the great unrequited love of Burroughs’s life. Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997 and Burroughs died less than four months later and A Man Within suggests, not very convincingly, that Burroughs died of a broken heart.
Whew. That’s a lot of learning to get from a 90-minute documentary. But now the question must be asked: Am I better for knowing these things – richer, wiser, closer to some essential truths about Burroughs’s literary output? Not at all. I’m just a bit more stuffed with useless information because Yony Leyser, the writer-director of A Man Within, is a foot soldier in the army of Beat hagiographers who operate under the illusion that dissecting the personal lives of writers is essential to – even preferable to – understanding their writing. Burroughs’s writing is barely mentioned in the movie, just a quick note about how he appropriated his “cut-up” technique from the artist Brion Gysin. For the Beat hagiographers, not only is the work never enough, it’s almost beside the point. They’re in the business of erecting a cult, after all, and all cults need icons. It’s telling that A Man Within was released shortly after Howl, a documentary-feature hybrid starring the ubiquitous James Franco as the poet from apartment #16. At least there’s some poetry in Howl. At one point an interviewer asks Franco/Ginsberg, “What is the Beat generation?” He replies: “There is no Beat generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
That may have been true in 1957. No more. Today the Beat generation is a thriving cottage industry.
What makes A Man Within such a dreary viewing experience is that it’s largely a parade of talking heads yammering on and on about what Burroughs meant to them. In addition to Patti Smith and John Waters, we get to hear from Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Peter Weller (who played Burroughs in Cronenberg’s fine 1991 film version of Naked Lunch and also does this documentary’s voice-over), plus assorted lovers, writers, sycophants, enablers, academics, gun dealers, snake handlers and hangers-on.
My favorite of the bunch is Regina Weinreich, who is identified as “a Beat generation scholar.” While it’s no secret that the academic racketeers can turn just about anything into a “discipline,” Weinreich’s job description struck me as particularly delicious. Here is a woman who was canny enough to hitch her professional wagon to the Beat caravan more than 20 years ago. In 1986 she met Paul Bowles while teaching a creative writing workshop in Tangier, where Bowles had moved in the late 1940s. His home there became a station of the cross on the Beats’ holy itinerary. The year after she met Bowles, Weinreich co-wrote a documentary, The Beat Generation: An American Dream, that featured archival footage of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and Kerouac reading from On the Road accompanied by Steve Allen on piano. In 1994 Weinreich and Catherine Warnow co-directed Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider, an hour-long documentary about the author of the proto-Beat novel The Sheltering Sky. Weinreich also wrote a critical study called Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics and edited Kerouac’s Book of Haikus. Today she contributes to numerous periodicals, teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, talks into cameras and, for good measure, blogs at Gossip Central.
Such industry is exhausting to contemplate but, it turns out, not unusual among the Beat hagiographers. The critical studies keep coming and the documentaries keep piling up, with titles like What Happened to Kerouac?, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, The Source (a hash of TV and film clips spiced with performances by Johnny Depp as Kerouac, John Turturro as Ginsberg and Dennis Hopper as Burroughs), and One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. This last train wreck – people getting weepy talking about Kerouac’s crack-up on the California coast – inspired Slant magazine to ask the one question that must be asked: “Who keeps inviting Patti Smith to these Beat docs?” Writing in The Millions last year, Lydia Kiesling speculated that Smith keeps getting invited back because she’s “perceived as having a never-ending fund of ‘cred.'” That must be it. It can’t possibly be that anyone still cares that she used to have a crush on William S. Burroughs.
I’m no fan of hagiographers, obviously, but I’m only a bit less distrustful of literary biographers. Too often their books slide toward what Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “pathography,” which she defined as “hagiography’s diminished and often prurient twin.” Its motifs are “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”
Since we live in an age that’s obsessed with personalities and celebrities, it’s not surprising that so few readers are satisfied with loving a book and so many insist on knowing as much as possible about the person who wrote it. While this appetite has inspired literary biographers to produce a long shelf of pathographies and other monstrosities – does the world really need Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene? – it has also resulted in some well researched and finely written literary biographies that did what such exercises do at their best: they led readers back to the subject’s books. Among these I would include Blake Bailey’s recent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever and, strangely enough, Ann Charters’s thorough and balanced 1973 bio of Kerouac. In her introduction, Charters wrote insightfully, if a bit clunkily: “The value of Kerouac’s life is what he did, how he acted. And what he did, was that he wrote. I tried to arrange the incidents of his life to show that he was a writer first, and a mythologized figure afterward. Kerouac’s writing counts as much as his life.”
I would argue that his writing counts more than his life, much more. Eventually Charters seemed to come around to my way of thinking. In 1995, after she’d edited two fat volumes, Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and The Portable Jack Kerouac, I interviewed her for a newspaper article. “I wanted (the book of letters) to be a biography in Jack’s own words,” she told me. “His life is in his books, but on the other hand the most essential thing is missing from those novels. What he tells you in the letters is that the most important thing in his life is writing.”
At the time The Gap was using Kerouac’s image – and images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and other ’50s icons – to sell its khaki pants. In the face of such shameless hucksterism, Charters’s insistence on the importance of Kerouac’s writing seemed both quaint and heroic to me. It still does today, as the hagiographers keep bombarding us with abominations like One Fast Move or I’m Gone and Howl and A Man Within.
In the end I must admit that “A Man Within” did teach me one thing worth knowing. I’d spent years believing that Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote were the Holy Trinity of Shameless Self-Promoters among American writers. (That, by the way, is not a putdown; it’s a compliment laced with no small amount of envy.) Thanks to this documentary, I now realize that Burroughs was easily their equal as a self-promoter. This came home to me as I watched the archival footage of him rolling up his shirt sleeve and shooting dope into his left arm. The effect on me was very different from the shiver Yony Leyser was surely hoping for. My first thought was: No man would allow himself to be filmed shooting dope unless he was eager to package and promote his image as an outlaw.
It’s not hard to see why Burroughs is catnip for documentary filmmakers more than a dozen years after his death. In his late years he became a weirdly irresistible figure – the bag-eyed, fedora- and three-piece-suit-wearing patrician junkie misanthrope with the deadpan baritone who droned on and on about the rot festering at the core of the American Dream. He is the closest we’ve ever gotten to an American Jonathan Swift, and he’s to be credited for shunning those who tried to idolize him, including many Beats, hippies, punks and gay libbers. The only organization I could imagine him joining is the National Rifle Association because, as he put it, “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed to have guns are the cops and the military.” He shrewdly burnished the Burroughs brand by branching into recording and acting, reminding us that the man who wrote Junkie and Naked Lunch could be caustically funny. His turn as dope-hungry Tom the Priest in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy is not to be missed, and one of the highlights of “A Man Within” is Burroughs reciting his “Thanksgiving Prayer” as Old Glory flutters behind him: “Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison…thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes…thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through…” Sadly, the documentary does not include any of Burroughs’s “Words of Advice for Young People,” such as, “Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. What they mean is, they want more money. Much more.”
A word of advice for readers and filmgoers of all ages: Beware of hagiographers who tell you a writer’s life is more important than the books he or she wrote. It never is. It might be diverting to watch a guy shoot dope and shoot guns and feed poisonous snakes. But the books are more important. Much more.