Growing up as a vegetarian in rural England in the ’90s, I was sometimes under the impression that my lifestyle was unusual—if not radical. In recent years, vegetarianism (and reduced-meat diets) have become more mainstream even in rural areas.
With time I’ve come to realize that there have always been vegetarians and vegetarian communities. Perhaps the more interesting ones for me are the artists and thinkers who go against the grain, choosing to think and live differently from the people around them. There is sometimes difficulty in ascertaining the validity of claims that certain historical figures actually followed a vegetarian lifestyle. For Da Vinci we have both Giorgio Vasari’s accounts and the letters between Andrea Corsali and Da Vinci’s patron Giuliano de’ Medici as convincing sources; for Pythagoras we have a number of ancient sources, as well as his enduring legacy. My awareness of Albert Einstein’s vegetarianism comes from primary sources—letters to Hans Muehsam and Max Kariel.
I will employ the term “vegetarian sentiment” here, as vegetarianism and veganism are ideologies before they are followed through in lifestyle and dietary choices. There are many writers and thinkers who advocate for vegetarianism and/or animal rights but still consume flesh meat. There’s Alice Walker, who I’ll talk about in more detail later; there’s Voltaire, who argued fervently against Descartes’s belief that animals were mere machines (though he may have been a practicing vegetarian based on what he writes in Dictionnaire Philosophique: “Men fed upon carnage, and drinking strong drinks, have all an impoisoned and acrid blood which drives them mad in a hundred different ways.”
Anna Sewell, through her children’s novel Black Beauty, taught young and old readers about how to treat both animals and humans with kindness—and in turn spurred progression in the animal welfare movement.
Raskolinov’s fearful horse dream in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is symbolic of what is soon to come—though also revelatory of what the author feels about animals. In his later novel The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a discussion between Alyosha and the elder Zosima:
Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us!
Suffragists who fought for women’s rights were also heavily involved in campaigning against vivisection and the consumption of meat. Many suffragists thought that the adoption of a vegetarian diet could herald a new world where women were not confined to the kitchens. Carol J. Adams writes in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat (extract obtained from Stuff Mom Never Told You):
We can follow the historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in Utopian writings and societies, antivivisection activism, the temperance and suffrage movements, and twentieth century pacifism. Hydropathic institutes in the nineteenth century, which featured vegetarian regimens, were frequented by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and others. At a vegetarian banquet in 1853, the gathered guests lifted their alcohol-free glasses to toast: “Total Abstinence, Women’s Rights, and Vegetarianism.”
Recently a friend came to me asking for a recommendation for vegetarian literature. I was taken a little off guard, for I have never actively searched for books on vegetarianism. Why read to be convinced of an opinion I already share? Though I realized that I had read books by vegetarian authors (of fiction), and writers who have expressed a vegetarian sentiment. And though I couldn’t answer his question, it compelled me to pick up work by authors whose experiences of (and sometimes motivations for) vegetarianism were entirely different from my own.
While far from exhaustive, I shall discuss some among them here.
1. Franz Kafka
Max Brod is often remembered as the friend who wouldn’t burn Franz Kafka’s life’s work, as was asked of him by Kafka, instead publishing it posthumously. If it were not for his refusal to follow his friend’s instructions, we might not have stories such as The Metamorphosis and The Castle. But Brod was also a prolific published writer during his lifetime, and he eventually became Kafka’s biographer. Much of what we know about Kafka comes from Brod, including his experimentation with different diets—in part to ease his lifelong sickness.
One of the most striking images from Franz Kafka: A Biography is where Brod recalls how Kafka, a recently turned strict vegetarian, once visited the Berlin aquarium:
Suddenly he began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks, “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you any more.” …
Among my notes I find something else that Kafka said about vegetarianism…He compared vegetarians with the early Christians, persecuted everywhere, everywhere laughed at, and frequenting dirty haunts. “What is meant by its nature for the highest and the best, spreads among the lowly people.”
In a letter from Brod to Kafka’s fiancee Felice Bauer, Brod writes:
After years of trial and error Franz has at last found the only diet that suits him, the vegetarian one. For years he suffered from his stomach; now he is as healthy and as fit as I have ever known him. Then along come his parents, of course, and in the name of love try to force him back into eating meat and being ill—it is just the same with his sleeping habits. At last he has found what suits him best, he can sleep, can do his duty in that senseless office, and get on with his literary work. But then his parents…This really makes me bitter.
2. Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer returns to fellow Jewish writer Kafka’s moment at the Berlin aquarium throughout his first nonfiction work, Eating Animals. The book is the result of three years spent immersed in the world of animal agriculture. This was in part motivated by a desire to make an informed decision about what to feed his newborn son—but also to become more resolved with regard to his wavering vegetarianism. He makes the invisible realities for factory-farmed animals visible for himself and the reader, forcing us to think about what is impaled on our forks.
Eating Animals is essentially his own denunciation of factory farming, but it is also a reflection on the culture that surrounds meat eating: the history of ambivalence toward carnism; societal hypocrisies; the myth of consent and other stories cultures create for themselves to justify slaughter; the language we use to devalue some animals but place value in others that we love as companions.
In several places, Safran Foer refers back to that moment when Kafka looks at fish at the Berlin aquarium. He uses Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Kafka’s animal tales to frame this part of his own story. Benjamin tells us how Kafka’s animals are “receptacles of forgetting,” while shame—as paraphrased by Safran Foer—is “a response and a responsibility before invisible others.”
“What had moved Kafka to become vegetarian?” asks Safran Foer:
A possible answer lies in the connection Benjamin makes, on the one hand, between animals and shame, and on the other, between animals and forgetting. Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely—yet not entirely—forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate satisfaction.
Shame doesn’t just prompt forgetting about the animals we harm. “What we forget about animals,” writes Safran Foer, “we begin to forget about ourselves.”
During the spring of 2007, Safran Foer lived in Berlin with his family, and they would visit the aquarium Kafka had visited the previous century—and like him, they would stare into the tanks at the sea life. “As a writer aware of that Kafka story, I came to feel a certain kind of shame at the aquarium,” he writes. Among the various manifestations of shame he experienced: shame at feeling “grossly inadequate” compared to his hero, shame at being a Jew in Berlin:
And then there was the shame in being human: the shame of knowing that twenty of the roughly thirty-five classified species of seahorse worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are killed “unintentionally” in seafood production. The shame of indiscriminate killing for no nutritional necessity or political cause or irrational hatred or intractable human conflict.
For Safran Foer, remembering thwarts forgetting when he visits the kill floor of Paradise Locker Meats and looks into the eyes of a pig who is minutes away from being slaughtered; he didn’t quite feel at ease being the pig’s last sight, though what he felt wasn’t quite shame either. “The pig wasn’t a receptacle of my forgetting,” he writes. “The animal was a receptacle of my concern. I felt—I feel—relief in that. My relief doesn’t matter to the pig. But it matters to me.”
3. Alice Walker
“KNOW what the caged bird feels,” wrote Paul Laurence Dunbar in a poem entitled “Sympathy.” With this poem, Dunbar—who was born to parents who had been enslaved before the American Civil War—opened up this dreaded comparison between human and animal slavery. The line was borrowed by Maya Angelou for the title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Most will feel uncomfortable with comparisons between animal suffering and human suffering—the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison acknowledges this. The African-American writer and self-described womanist Alice Walker, known best perhaps for The Color Purple, prefaced Marjorie Spiegel’s controversial title. Walker writes, “It is a comparison that, even for those of us who recognize its validity, is a difficult one to face. Especially so, if we are the descendants of slaves. Or of slave owners. Or of both. Especially so if we are also responsible in some way for the present treatment of animals.”
Though Walker acknowledges the difficulty of this comparison, she concludes that she agrees with Spiegel’s line of reason: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men. This is the gist of Spiegel’s cogent, humane and astute argument, and it is sound.”
Walker is not a vegetarian. In a book entitled The Chicken Chronicles, the author writes about her relationship with her flock of chickens. Rather than turn her head, Walker confronts her food vis-à-vis—in this way, the chicken is not a receptacle of her forgetting. Interviewer Diane Rehm expressed surprise upon learning that Walker eats birds. “I know, I know. It’s a contradiction and I have been a vegan and I’ve been a vegetarian,” replied Walker, “but from time to time, I do eat chicken. I grew up on chicken and I accept that.”
Vegetarianism, or veganism, is something to which Walker seems to aspire, though. To an audience at Emory University, the author talks about her love of cows and says she is glad she doesn’t eat them. She then recites a short poem she wrote for an Italian friend who wanted help giving up meat, “La Vaca”:
She does not think
4. Isaac Bashevis Singer
The comparison between human and animal slavery is not the only dreaded comparison; the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer has become the classic reference for comparisons between intensive farming and the Holocaust. In “The Letter Writer,” he wrote, “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Singer was born in a village near Warsaw, Poland. His father was a Hasidic rabbi, while his mother was the daughter of the rabbi of Bilgoraj. Singer seemed destined to become a rabbi, too, though a brief enrollment at a rabbinical school turned him off the idea. He worked brief stints in a number of fields before emigrating to the United States, fearful of the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany. In New York City he worked as a journalist for a Yiddish-language newspaper before penning his own novels and short stories, including The Slave and The Family Moskat.
Vegetarianism crops up often in his work. Yet it is nowhere near as explicit as in “The Slaughterer,” a short story which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1967 and now resides in The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The story follows Yoineh Meir, a Jew who—like Singer—seems destined to become a rabbi. A competitor takes Meir’s place, and instead he is offered the role of the town’s ritual slaughterer. The career causes him daily anguish and eventually leads to his own untimely demise. The story is graphic and bloody, the protagonist sensitive and empathetic toward all living creatures:
Yoneih Meir no longer slept at night. If he dozed off, he was immediately beset by nightmares. Cows assumed human shape, with beards, and skullcaps over their horns. Yoineh Meir would be slaughtering a calf, but it would turn into a girl. Her neck throbbed, and she pleaded to be saved. She ran to the study house and splattered the courtyard with her blood. He even dreamed that he had slaughtered [his wife] instead of a sheep.
Yoineh Meir extends his love toward all animals when he realizes what it means to kill one. Later in the narrative, Singer writes that “when you slaughter a creature, you slaughter God.”
5. J.M. Coetzee
In his metafictional novella The Lives of Animals, Coetzee’s alter ego and fictional novelist Elizabeth Costello is invited to be a guest lecturer at a university’s annual literary seminary. Rather than talk about literature, she decides to talk about animal cruelty and in several places compares the mass slaughter of animals to the Holocaust:
The people who lived in the countryside around Treblinka—Poles, for the most part—said that they did not know what was going on in the camp; said that, while in a general way they might have guessed what was going on, they did not know for sure; said that, while in a sense they might have known, in another sense they did not know, could not afford to know, for their own sake. …
I return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. …
It was from the Chicago stockyards that the Nazis learned how to process bodies.
We know Coetzee is a vegetarian and active animal rights advocate, though in The Lives of Animals it becomes difficult to distinguish between Elizabeth Costello’s views and J. M. Coetzee’s. He has written several op-eds for the Sydney Herald about beliefs we can safely say are his own.
In one article, Coetzee criticizes the manner in which consumers tend to idealize family farms:
It would be a mistake to idealize traditional animal husbandry as the standard by which the animal products industry falls short. Traditional animal husbandry is brutal enough, just on a smaller scale. A better standard by which to judge both practices would be the simple standard of humanity: is this truly the best that humans are capable of?
In another, Coetzee expresses his optimism concerning the compassion of children: “It takes but one glance into a slaughterhouse to turn a child into a lifelong vegetarian.”
6. V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul has a visceral response to the sight and smell of meat. Naipaul was born in Trinidad; unusual among Indian laborers in the Caribbean region, Naipaul’s paternal grandfather was a Brahmin—the highest ranked caste among Hindus in India. Naipaul’s father also claimed this distinction, though the validity of his claim is less clear. Often, due to general caste rules, Brahmins distinguish themselves from other castes by adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. All Hindus aspire to transcend this life through self-realization—halting the transmigration from one body to the next. To do so, in their daily lives they must act in accordance with the tenets of Sattva Guna (mode of goodness) laid out in the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture which includes the abstention of flesh meat.
For many Hindus who follow a lacto-vegetarian diet, the ideological reasons for not eating animals are still ever present—for others, it is merely a distinction inherited from the cultural context into which they were born. I don’t know which category Naipaul fits into. He has, to the best of my knowledge, never spoken openly about any ideological reason for his vegetarianism.
He has, however, written about his disgust at the sight of meat. What is perhaps the first mention is in his early work Between Father and Son: Family Letters. A young Naipaul received a scholarship to study at Oxford, where he found himself struggling with depression and loneliness. In a bid to bridge the distance between continents, he wrote letters to his family—a correspondence that lasted four years and ended with the death of his father. In a letter to his elder sister Kamla, dated Sept. 21, 1949, he recapitulates a distressing situation during an Old Boy’s Association dinner: “Special arrangements, I was informed after dinner, had been made for me but these appeared to have been limited to serving me potatoes in different ways—now fried, now boiled.” Turtle soup was served to the other diners; being vegetarian, Naipaul asked the manager for corn soup instead. “He ignored this and the waiter bought me a plateful of green slime. This was the turtle soup. I was nauseated and annoyed and told the man to take it away. This, I was told, was a gross breach of etiquette.”
7. Leo Tolstoy
Vegetarianism was the focal point of several of his essays and tied in with his pre-existing beliefs in the benefits of abstinence. In On Civil Disobedience, for example, Tolstoy writes, “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.”
Tolstoy originally wrote The First Step as the foreword to The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams. In it, Tolstoy encourages readers to practice harmlessness: “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” He also suggests that vegetarianism is humanity’s natural state: “So strong is humanity’s aversion to all killing. But by example, by encouraging greediness, by the assertion that God has allowed it, and above all by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling.”
He wrote extensively about violence, and in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi published later as A Letter to a Hindu, Tolstoy convinced Gandhi to use nonviolent resistance to gain independence from the British colonial rule in the Indian peninsula. In his essay “What I Believe,” Tolstoy emphasizes his conviction that we become more violent by inflicting suffering upon animals: “As long as there are slaughter houses there will always be battlefields.”
Four years after Tolstoy’s death, his private secretary Valentin Bulgakov wrote an article for London-based The Vegetarian News to celebrate Tolstoy’s “great service to the vegetarian movement” during the last 23 years of his life. The article ends like this:
I close what I have to say with the words of Leo Tolstoy himself: “Here, indeed, outwardly, are we met but inwardly we are bound to every living creature. Already are we conscious of many of the motions of the spiritual world, but others have not yet been borne in upon us. Nevertheless they come, even as the earth presently comes to see the light of the stars, which to our eyes at this moment is invisible.”
Antecedents to Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir, Malik Sajad’s graphic novel about the writhing valley of Kashmir are not numerous. Born in 1987 in Srinagar, Sajad spent his formative years in Kashmir at the time of curfews and crackdowns, an experience documented in Munnu. This tumult was the result of the continuing political and cultural crisis that followed Partition, with both Pakistan and India claiming the Kashmir valley and thus dividing its citizens — some claim that Kashmir belongs to one of the two nations, while others demand its independence. This divide, also religious, was recalled by Salman Rushdie in The Paris Review:
When I was probably no older than twelve we went on a family trip to Kashmir…When we got to our rest house my mother discovered that the pony that should have been carrying all the food didn’t have the food on board. She had three fractious children with her, so she sent the pony guy off to the village to see what could be had, and he came back and said, There’s no food, there’s nothing to be had. They don’t have anything. And she said, What do you mean? There can’t be nothing. There must be some eggs — what do you mean nothing? He said, No, there’s nothing. And so she said, Well, we can’t have dinner, nobody’s going to eat. About an hour later we saw this procession of a half-dozen people coming up from the village, bringing food. The village headman came up to us and said, I want to apologise to you, because when we told the guy there wasn’t any food we thought you were a Hindu family. But, he said, when we heard it was a Muslim family we had to bring food. We won’t accept any payment, and we apologise for having been so discourteous.
In Munnu, Sajad negotiates the private identity with the public crisis that has gripped the valley. In the monochromatic tiles and anthropomorphism of Munnu, Sajad is unsettlingly blunt about the brutality of army personnel in Srinagar, doing away with the idealism that mars debates in suburban Indian homes, often shaped by news channels, where sensationalists run amok, and Bollywood, which would rather engage in melodrama and merrymaking, and delegate the realism to its estranged cousin, the Parallel Cinema. Both these media are ridiculed in a single speech balloon.
Comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s Maus are inevitable; in Munnu the Kashmiris, as endangered as their state animal, are drawn as Hangul deer, while their poachers or anyone beyond the valley’s limits, are humans. Spiegelman assigns an anthropomorphic quality to every nationality: the canine Americans, the porcine Poles. Sajad assigns, ironically, anyone not native to the valley a human form; the Hanguls — his mother, father, siblings, neighbors, and mates — are pitted against the Homo Sapiens. The sentimentality in such a choice is difficult to overlook. Sajad remains steadfast in his Hangul identity, never flitting between species.
Munnu bursts forth with the sparkling clarity of a neo-Romantic novelistic autobiography, bringing to mind the chronology of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Of course, Sajad’s unique medium of imbibition and narration force a negotiation with oral traditions. The section titled “Footnotes” opens with a glorious collection of panels and it is appropriately titled — smack in the middle of the narration of the boy and his family, Sajad charts the history of the valley, from its folkloric origins involving a terrorizing demon and the monk who engorged himself to become the valley and displace a dragon, to the Indian Army landing in Kashmir on October 27, 1947, the drawing of the so-called Line of Control between India and Pakistan., and the intra-wars of the militant groups. It is not as much of an afterthought as an addendum.
Whilst Spiegelman’s “Prisoners on the Hell Planet” adds an after-aftereffect to the mass incarceration ordered by the Führer, “Footnotes” is more of a succinct recapitulation of the treatment of Hanguls by the various waves of visitors to the valley. The prosperity of the valley as it thrived upon the Silk Route is on full display on the left supplemented by words from Abhinavagupta and Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani.
On the right, the famous declaration of love by Amir Khusrau is cruelly borrowed first by the Mughals, then the Afghans, and then the Sikhs. “If there is a Paradise on Earth” paints the invaders in the guise of marauders as they are perched gloriously upon their horses while at their feet lie the Hanguls, first in their military garb, then their arrow-pierced corpses, then with their skulls and ribs laid bare. The decomposition is complete with each “It is here,” reminding one of Walt Whitman’s “heart, heart, heart” that imitates, gloriously, audibly, the “bleeding drops of red.”
The nuanced bildungsroman that is Munnu, the steady metamorphosis of the naive primary schoolchild to the blood-boiling political cartoonist, employed in his adolescence, is some distant cousin of Marjane Satrapi’s Marji in Persepolis. United by their experiences, both play a daily game of hopscotch with armed personnel which is an early entry into disenchantment with their lands: as a rectification for his physical abuse, Munnu’s father takes him on a tour of the old city on his bicycle while the conclusion of the novel contains a shady episode involving two men and a woman in a guarded auto rickshaw. An adjustment to curfews and crackdowns — to avoid being whisked away by armed men, at least — is the plight of the Spiegelmans, the Satrapis, and Munnu’s family. However it would be elementary to homogenize their experiences, just as it is elementary to conflate together the experiences of the North-East Indian states, Kashmir with Assam or Nagaland (the Naga experience, specifically, documented by Temsula Ao in These Hills Called Home and Laburnum for My Head).
The tools Sajad uses to contain his experiences into tiles is inspired partly by observing his father who etched patterns into wood and metal. Whilst Spiegelman conforms with an inky aesthetic with a consistent cross-hatching, and Satrapi a monolithic chiaroscuro, it seems that individual lines never crossing paths might as well have been a recreation of the texture of un-veneered wood. The Hanguls are as angular as matchsticks or the faces Munnu carves into pieces of chalk and fashions out of nibs of pencils to impress his schoolmates. The melting frames of the humans might as well be a Munch-ian nod or an homage to “Prisoners on the Hell Planet.” Sajad is acutely aware of the history of the genre: in the text he fawns over Joe Sacco’s fine hair detail, a DVD of Ivan’s Childhood is fodder for empathy, and R.K. Laxman’s Common Man is out of place and out of character in a fateful Delhi cyber café. Although the Laxman jab might have been a little foolhardy, Sajad has produced a probing visual memoir that translates anger and shame, perhaps incites it, too. More importantly, it delights with its recklessness; the strokes, sometimes practiced like an established language system as rich as Urdu, sometimes unshackled, flip the bird to censors.
Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 story “Lihaaf” challenged heteronormative relations and landed its author in court. There was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Arundhati Roy too is a guest at the party. It is noteworthy that all this subjugation is for pieces of what we call fiction. Munnu is a revelatory testimony, resplendent with observation and direct, uninhibited interrogation of a state that makes Munnu a citizen of war who cannot meekly submit and cannot wildly revolt and must therefore compromise for a state somewhere in-between, a state that has characterized his own nation.
In 2014 we lost some great writers — two Nobel laureates, prize-winning poets and playwrights, a beloved memoirist/poet, an unrivalled nature writer, satirists, historical novelists, crime novelists, biographers, critics, and authors of books for children and young adults. Here is a selective compendium:
Incendiary poet and playwright — or old man playing with matches? Champion of the disenfranchised — or racist, anti-Semitic homophobe? There was never a consensus on the merits of the prolific writer who was born Leroy Jones, began publishing as LeRoi Jones, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and died on Jan. 9 in his hometown of Newark, N.J., at 79.
Regardless of what he called himself, the man was always going against the grain. Born into Newark’s black middle class, he dropped out of prestigious Howard University, then got a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force before melting into the bohemian hothouse of 1950s Greenwich Village. There he married a white woman named Hettie Cohen, who helped him found a literary magazine that published his work and that of many Beat notables. As his career took off — his poetry was gaining notice, his play Dutchman won an Obie Award, and he wrote perceptively about black music — he became increasingly radicalized. He shed his white wife and moved to Harlem, where he helped found the Black Arts Movement. The murder of Malcolm X in 1965 and Baraka’s savage beating by white cops during the 1967 Newark riot — which he called a rebellion — completed his radicalization.
The transformation, in some eyes, did not improve his writing. The poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth lamented that when the gifted Jones became the angry Baraka, he also became “a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort.” That dart resonated a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Baraka, then poet laureate of New Jersey, gave a public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It read, in part:
Who knew the World Trade Center
Was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
The poem’s anti-Semitic overtones led the New Jersey General Assembly to abolish the poet laureate’s post. Baraka fought the move in court, without success. Six months after Baraka’s death, his son Ras was elected mayor of Newark.
Peter Matthiessen could make just about anything interesting to readers. A restless naturalist who devoted himself to preserving the planet’s vanishing wilderness, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works of fiction and non-fiction on such subjects as Peruvian tribesmen, Long Island fishermen, Caribbean turtle hunters, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Florida cane planters, a safari in Tanzania, migrant farmworkers, and Native Americans. His human subjects were joined by a menagerie of white sharks, snow leopards, shore birds, and other exotic species. Matthiessen, who died on April 5 at 86, is the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both fiction and non-fiction.
His resumé was nearly ridiculous. A son of privilege — which made him uneasy — Matthiessen grew up in an apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. He attended Hotchkiss, Yale, and the Sorbonne. In 1953 he co-founded The Paris Review, though it wasn’t until years later that it came out that the magazine was Matthiessen’s cover for his brief career as an operative for the C.I.A. He befriended a who’s Who of American letters, including William Styron, George Plimpton, and E.L. Doctorow. He became a commercial fisherman and a Zen priest.
Matthiessen’s last novel, In Paradise, was published three days after his death. He was a connoisseur of the world’s most unforgiving terrain right up to the end: the novel tells the story of a group of people who come together for a meditation retreat on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Too bad America hasn’t produce a satirist to skewer Ronald Reagan and the depredations he visited on America in the 1980s. England was blessed with Sue Townsend, a self-educated high school dropout whose fictional teenage misfit, Adrian Mole, got millions of readers to laugh at the highly Reaganesque bill of goods Margaret Thatcher sold to Great Britain during the 1980s.
Adrian Mole may have grown up in a chronically underemployed working-class family and he may have attended shabby, underfunded schools, but he learned to love royal weddings. In adulthood, he fell victim to predatory lenders and wound up living in a converted pigsty — a nifty metaphor for the fallout of Thatcher’s merciless policies. Townsend, who died on April 10 at 68, shared Adrian’s grim upbringing and his ambivalent view of the Iron Lady. “Sometimes I think Mrs. Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman,” he tells his diary in 1984’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. “The next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Few writers are as deeply loved by readers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, though deserved, was almost beside the point. He had already earned a writer’s most treasured honor: the devotion of millions of readers around the world.
Like many of those readers, I came to his work through One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterpiece of magical realism that I started reading on a fall day in 1974 and read straight through in two sleepless, nearly foodless, intoxicating days. The book changed my life, opened me to new worlds and new ways of seeing. As astonishing as it was — those all-night rains of yellow blossoms, those swamps of lilies oozing blood — I think Love in the Time of Cholera was an even better book. It teemed with fleshed-out characters and their potent emotions. It was less reliant on stylistic pyrotechnics and whimsy. It was earthier, meatier than its more famous predecessor. It showed us that love grows more solid the closer it comes to death.
Other readers will have good reasons for preferring one or more of the other 15 books by the amazing Marquez, who died on April 17 at 87, having achieved the thing all writers yearn for, whether they admit it or not: immortality.
Thirty-two years after Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961, Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Those events stand as twin pinnacles in the power and prestige of American poetry. But Angelou, who died on May 28 at 86, will probably be even more vividly remembered for her searing 1969 memoir about growing up in the Jim Crow South, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the six volumes that recount the story of her remarkable life.
After growing up mostly in Stamps, Ark., a small town brimming with “dust and hate and narrowness,” she traveled the world working as a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, prostitute, actress, magazine editor, college professor, and civil rights activist, associating with nobodies and with such notables as James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, and at least two U.S. presidents. Her poetry was more coolly received by critics than her memoirs, but her influence was undeniable. In 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And on the day she died, President Barack Obama remarked, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”
“Don’t try to fool an Indian who has seen a lot of white men.” So advises 111-year-old Jack Crabb, the unforgettable narrator of one of the greatest novels written by an American, Little Big Man. Its author, Thomas Berger, who died on July 13 at 89, will be long remembered for that astonishment of a novel, though too few readers realize that he produced two dozen others, as well as a sprinkling of stories and plays. In addition to the myths of the American West that he dissected so deftly in Little Big Man, Berger’s other great subject was the mores of the American middle class, whose deep-rooted paranoia he satirized wickedly in such novels as Neighbors (made into a 1981 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd), The Feud, The Houseguest, and Best Friends. In these novels, routine social encounters have a way of morphing into comic horrors. A disciple of Franz Kafka, Berger’s range was vast. He wrote horror, pulp detective stories, science fiction, utopian fiction; he mined Greek tragedy, the survival saga, and the Camelot myth; he wrote about invisibility and time travel; his literary alter ego, Carl Reinhart, who appeared in several novels, was described as “representative of the unrepresented.”
Once highly sociable, Berger in his later years became a recluse in a league with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Even his publisher and literary agent didn’t know how to get in touch with him. In a rare interview in 1980, Berger posed a rhetorical question: “Why does one write?” He answered, “I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.”
Nadime Gordimer cast a wide net in trying to capture the iniquity and human cost of apartheid in her native South Africa. She crossed lines of race, class, religion, and gender, bringing to life the cinderblock mazes of the black townships, the poolside barbecues of white society, the terror visited on those who resisted society’s rigid divisions. She brought to life Indian Muslims and mixed-race characters. Her Booker Prize-winning 1974 novel, The Conservationist, had a white male protagonist.
Gordimer, who died at age 90 on July 13 (the same day as Thomas Berger), wrote two dozen works of fiction, personal and political essays, and literary criticism over the course of a 60-year career. Some critics saw her personal struggle for liberation from her possessive mother as a mirror of her characters’ struggle against apartheid. Though she insisted she was not political by nature, she became engaged in the struggle — joining the banned African National Congress, passing messages, hiding friends from the police, driving people to the border — and she used many of these events in her fiction. The authorities were not pleased, and they banned three of her books, including one of her best known, Burger’s Daughter.
On Feb. 11, 1990, after 26 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison into the sun-washed streets of suburban Cape Town. The first person Mandela asked to see was Nadine Gordimer. A year later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mark Strand set out to be an artist. But while studying under the great colorist Josef Albers at Yale, Strand discovered poetry and embarked on a long and fruitful career that included a stint as U.S. poet laureate, a Pulitzer Prize, a Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the publication of his selected poems last year. Strand, who died on Nov. 29 at age 80, was too dark for some tastes, but he insisted that his poems were “evenly lit.”
In the 1980s, after a decade and a half of publishing poems shadowed by death and dissolution, Strand became dissatisfied with the autobiographical vein of his work, and he stopped writing poetry. He turned to writing children’s books and short stories, books on the painters Edward Hopper and William Bailey, and a collection of critical essays. Late in life, he made collages with paper he had made by hand. Eventually he returned to writing a more expansive kind of poetry.
In a Paris Review interview in 1998, the year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Blizzard of One, Strand mused about death: “It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.”
Here’s one such ha ha, moment from the poem “The Remains,” in Strand’s 1970 collection, Darker:
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds.
How can I sing? Time tells me what I am.
I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) staked out his patch of literary ground and never stopped working and reworking it. Like William Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Macondo), Flannery O’Connor (rural Georgia), and Patrick Modiano (Paris during the Nazi Occupation), Haruf, who died on Nov. 30 at 71, became possessed by his chosen place. He called it Holt, a fictional small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, a place of “pointless cruelty and simple decency,” where he set all of his fiction, including his 1999 breakthrough, Plainsong, and Our Souls at Night, which will be published posthumously in May.
Single-mindedness can lead to repetitiveness, and some critics noted that Haruf didn’t outdo himself with each new book; rather, he redid himself. One critic went so far as to compare Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture, with its “aged patina” and “rustic lines.” But Haruf’s many fans embraced the moral clarity of life in Holt — the town’s esteem for honest work, its belief in innocence as a virtue — and they saw the place as a refuge from the snark and irony and equivocation that fester beyond the rim of the high plains.
This list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but there were a number of other literary deaths in 2014 that are worth mentioning. In alphabetical order they are:
Norman Bridwell, creator of the Clifford children’s books; James MacGregor Burns, an award-winning political biographer and student of the art of leadership; Mary Cheever, the long-suffering wife of John Cheever, who published a book of her poems in 1980, two years before her husband’s death; P.N. Furbank, a British critic and scholar best known for his biography of E.M. Forster; Mavis Gallant, a master of the short story whose great subject was rootlessness; Doris Pilkington Garimara, an Australian Aborigine whose book about the government’s brutal campaign to eradicate the native population, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, became the basis of the 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence; Dermot Healy, the Irish novelist, poet, and memoirist regarded by many as a modern master in the mold of Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett; P.D. James, who became known as “The Queen of Crime” for her layered mysteries starring the dashing detective Adam Dalgliesh; Galway Kinnell, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for lyrical poems written to be understood, as he put it, without the help of a graduate degree; Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian writer whose lofty reputation was built on his single novel, No Great Mischief, and two collections of stories; the far more prolific Walter Dean Myers, who wrote more than 100 books, including best-selling children’s books centered on the lives of disenfranchised black kids; Alastair Reid, the peripatetic poet, New Yorker writer, and translator; Rene Ricard, an eighth-grade dropout, brilliant self-taught poet and art critic, painter, and movie actor, who Andy Warhol called “the George Sanders of the Lower East Side”; Louise Shivers, a late-blooming Southern writer who produced just two novellas but won rapturous praise and comparisons to Flannery O’Connor.
Through your words you will all live on.
Drawings by Bill Morris
June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.
But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).
Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.
“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?
Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.
Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.
Image via circasassy/Flickr
A few weeks ago, I listened to Maya Angelou’s 1987 appearance on Desert Island Discs. The host was Michael Parkinson, a great interviewer who struggled rather sadly to connect with this particular castaway. The low point of the conversation is almost certainly this:
“You described yourself as six foot, black and female. I want to ask you a question. It might sound silly, but it’s a serious question. Have you ever wished you were six foot, white and male?”
Of course, most of us will experience an involuntary constriction of the chest when a privileged white man says to a member of any other demographic “but wouldn’t you like to me more like me?” Unsurprisingly, Angelou laughed, said no, and gave a charming, obfuscatory answer that precluded further discussion of the subject.
But while Parkinson should have known better, it is daunting to write about Maya Angelou from a cultural remove. Since her death on Wednesday, I have struggled to communicate anything beyond the fact that I loved her and am terribly sorry that she’s gone. Even that feels like appropriation. And yet, I’ve listened to Angelou read Letters to My Daughter — the best way to enjoy her work — and I take her at her word when she says the following:
“I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish speaking, Native Americans and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.”
This week’s torrent of grief hasn’t been for a public figure, it’s been much more personal than that. We are grieving a friend, a sister, a mother. Since the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, Angelou has used her own life as a channel for universally valuable truths about racism, poverty, gender, violence, relationships, rape, family, motherhood, loss, equality, hope.
When I first read Angelou’s description of being raped, it was about 10:30 on a Sunday night and I was travelling home on the Tube. I knew it was going to happen and I tried to brace myself, but who could prepare for the frank, vivid brutality of the attack that left the seven year old feeling “like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible.” As soon as I began reading the chapter, I wished I hadn’t, wished I had more time to prepare, to read and feel that pain alone. My house in North London was about a 10 minute walk from the Tube station and I called my partner and spoke to her the whole way — too frightened to face the darkness of the street or the world on my own.
Yet that is how pain works in Maya Angelou’s writing — indiscriminately elbowing its way into perfectly ordinary, contented experience. On the day she was raped (which is how she always described it, although obituaries have largely referred to “sexual abuse”), the young Angelou was about to go out to the library, where she spent most Saturday afternoons.
The pain of segregation became clear when she and her brother attended the movies and were forced to sit on a dangerous, dirty balcony. And that memory resurfaced many years later when she stood to speak at a high-profile ceremony attended by the “most glamorous actors and actresses of the day,” leaving her incapable of delivering her prepared remarks and prompting a rumour that she had blanked out due to drugs.
And days after she returned to the U.S. from Ghana to work with Malcolm X, buoyed with hope for black Americans, he was shot and killed.
Although Angelou is celebrated for her resilience, and rightly so, her repeated traumas were devastating in their impact. They were, in her words, “times when my life has been ripped apart, when my feet forget their purpose and my tongue is no longer familiar with the inside of my mouth.” Still, she shared many of those traumas and, as countless publications have noted this week, her memoirs will almost certainly be her greatest legacy. By consciously writing non-fiction, Angelou stripped us of any possible shield or shred of wool. We can’t escape the pain in her work. When reading fiction, even fiction we know to be largely autobiographical, we have an emergency exit from pain, retreating into the childhood assurance that “it’s only make believe.”
That said, some critics have questioned whether Maya Angelou’s memoirs are strictly truthful. They feature the tropes of literary fiction, there are discrepancies between the different texts, the dialogue is too extensive and too stylish to be entirely accurate, and major “characters” come out smelling suspiciously like roses. Angelou’s mother and frequent muse, Vivan Baxter, is portrayed as a beautiful, strong, caring person, despite the fact that she dispatched her children, three and five, to live with their grandmother and all but disappeared from their lives for many years. Bearing all that in mind, can we still categorize Angelou’s works as autobiographies? Should they still be treated as honest insights into the life and experience of black American women?
The obvious response is that when it comes to memoir — or indeed any form of biography — there are no clear lines between fact and fiction. This is the kind of ambivalent answer I frequently gave as a hungover university student who hadn’t read the book being discussed, but in this case, I actually believe it’s correct. Writing and editing the story of a life inevitably involves emphasis, embellishment, narrative-creation, exclusion of important detail. The auto-biographer, purely by virtue of her extreme investment in the subject, can never be a reliable narrator. The most we can expect is that she will honestly communicate her truth. Surely that kind of honest communication comprised Angelou’s life work?
Like many writers from oppressed communities, Angelou was consciously “speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural.” She was telling the story of black America through her own experience, to provide insight to other black Americans, but also as an act of communication with other groups, including white people. Angelou’s truth, for much of her life, was embedded in an unthinkably racist society. Of course she didn’t fixate on their flaws and of course she drew out their strengths. White people lied about black people, perpetuating stereotypes and practises that continue to tear at American society today. The prevailing narrative was pitched dramatically against her community, so she pushed in the other direction.
What’s more, as well as showing us pain that in fiction would be unbearable, by having the courage to write memoir, Angelou also shared hope that in fiction would be implausible.
It’s worth noting, I think, that although they now seem like figures from a distant past, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were contemporaries of Angelou’s; Malcolm X was three years older and Dr. King a year younger. The violent brevity of their lives — among many other black men and women — may distort our understanding of how much has changed in 80 to 90 years. Although extreme and insidious racism survives, within the natural lifespan of Angelou’s generation, black Americans have dramatically forced back the tide of prejudice. Her hope may have appeared implausible, but she was right to hope.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In advance of Mother’s and and Father’s Day (May 10 and June 21 respectively) I am putting together a catalog of the best representations of Childhood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood in literature.There is a long list of great childhood memoirs, many of which pivot around either a mother or a father. So far I’ve got:An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us by James CarrollAngela’s Ashes by Frank McCourtAn American Childhood by Annie DillardThe Color of Water by James McBrideGrowing Up by Russell BakerI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouWhen it comes to fiction, many books involve mothers and fathers, but fewer are specifically focused on themes of what it is to be a mom or a dad. Some of the titles below are specifically about the parent-child relationship, while for others the connection is there, but it’s more of a stretch.About mothers, sons and daughters:A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail GodwinThe Joy Luck Club by Amy TanPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothThe Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneAbout fathers, daughters and sons:A Death in the Family by James AgeeDombey and Son by Charles DickensFathers and Sons by Ivan TurgenevGilead by Marilynne RobinsonIndependence Day by Richard FordTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (perusing blogs and discussion groups, Atticus Finch might be the most beloved literary father of them all)King Lear by ShakespeareThe Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas HardyThe Risk Pool by Richard RussoWashington Square by Henry JamesI’ll send out the complete list once it’s compiled. Any suggestions welcome!