It was the fall of 2000, and I had just read David Foster Wallace’s article in Rolling Stone about his experiences hanging out with John McCain aboard the Straight Talk Express, McCain’s cannily christened campaign bus. At the time, McCain was running a spirited, if underdog, race against George W. Bush for the Republican party nomination. McCain had positioned himself as the anti-politician politician, the truth-telling everyman — an image he would reinvent as the “maverick” eight years later, only to be out-mavericked by his own running mate.
Why this strange marriage between a youth-oriented music magazine, a pop-culture savvy young writer, and a sixty-three-year-old-war-hero-turned-politician? It came about because commentators had observed that McCain’s studied lack of politicking seemed to be lifting the stupor of the country’s most politically apathetic — and thus most cherished — demographic. McCain was threatening to awaken the eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-olds who otherwise fell into a deep slumber every fourth November. “No generation of Young Voters,” Wallace announced in only the second sentence of the article, “has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours.”
Apathy was a common trope, then as now. And although I had no statistics to disprove Wallace’s pronouncement, less than one year earlier, in late November 1999, I had watched in awe as tens of thousands of demonstrators, most of them in that eighteen to thirty-five demographic (as I was myself), descended upon the city of Seattle to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization. United against the WTO’s policies toward labor, the environment, and economic development, the protestors effectively shut down the meeting, and the city with it — much as the Occupy Wall Street protestors are struggling to do now. The event was exactly the sort of thing we’d long been told could no longer happen — something that existed only in the dewy memories of ’60s nostalgists. My generation was said to be too cynical and self-absorbed to bother with causes. We’d given up on trying to change the world. For David Foster Wallace, our apathy was a form of sales resistance. We’d been marketed to our entire lives. Civic duty had come to seem like just another product.
But I, for one, was feeling optimistic. Maybe what had happened in Seattle was a sign that things were starting to change. Maybe apathy was giving way to engagement. That fall I was teaching composition to college freshmen. I had a classroom full of enthusiastic young students who for the first time in their lives would be old enough to vote. And I had the idea that it would be exciting to spend the semester reading essays like David Foster Wallace’s and writing about what it meant to be young, to have ideals, to live in a democracy, and to have a political voice. As I handed out the syllabus on the first day of class, gazing out upon their fresh, eager faces, I thought how satisfying it would be to prove those naysayers wrong.
The students saw the reading list. The collective groan was audible.
As it turned out, the naysayers were right.
That Americans hate politics is something everyone seems to agree on, even if no one knows exactly why. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne has written that American hatred of politics derives from the “false polarization” created by liberalism and conservatism, a consequence of the cultural divisions that arose in the 1960s. For David Foster Wallace the culprit is the numbness of living in a consumer society. But both arguments suppose that, in the eras before Madison Avenue and Haight-Ashbury, Americans were thronging to rallies to shake hands with our beloved public servants. It may be true that we did so in larger numbers then than we do now, but there’s nevertheless a general sense that right from the start we’ve been a nation of individuals who have regarded politics with suspicion.
I grew up in the suburbs of Central New York in a middle-class family with college-educated parents whose political ideologies were a complete mystery to me. To say “mystery,” though, suggests I spent any time actually wondering what their ideologies were. I didn’t. I had no idea whom they voted for, and I seldom had any idea who was even running. My after-school activities were sports, not debate club. If I looked at the newspaper, it was to study box scores. In this I was no different from any of the rest of my friends.
Like a lot of kids in my position, my own political awakening, such as it was, occurred in college, but probably not in the way it was supposed to. It was the mid-’90s, and I remember one of my first college girlfriends — a feminist when it was still fashionable to confess to being such a thing — badgering me into taking a position on abortion. “I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “I don’t know if it’s right or wrong.”
“If you don’t know,” she said, not bothering to conceal her exasperation, “that means you’re pro-choice.”
I decided to take her word for it.
The main reason I’d chosen this college — one of the lowest tier in the New York state system — was its proximity to mountains. Some people went to college to learn and to expand their horizons. I wanted to go backpacking. Also, it was one of the few colleges that would have me. My apathy for politics was exceeded only by my indifference toward school work.
But once at college, my attitude gradually began to change. My crash course in women’s rights — compliments of my girlfriend — was an important first step. I began to wonder what else I was supposed to know.
My roommate and I had no TV. The internet wasn’t yet widespread. Aside from my girlfriend, the campus had virtually no detectable political pulse. But this small mountain town, which lacked virtually everything else, at least had a public radio station. The hour in the afternoon when they broke with pallid classical music to broadcast an international news program became a fixture of my college curriculum. It was both daunting and exhilarating to discover how big the world actually was, and how little of it I understood.
By my sophomore year, backpacking was no longer enough. I’d decided I was ready for something more. So I set my mind on a plan to escape, and suddenly I found myself willing to do even the unthinkable: study. I buried myself in books, pushed myself to write, and managed to make the dean’s list. And then, before the start of my junior year, I transferred from the mountains of New York to the plains of Ohio, to a school at the opposite end of every measurable spectrum: Antioch College, a place so infamous for countercultural rabble-rousing that its bookstore sold T-shirts touting the college’s unofficial slogan, “Boot Camp for the Revolution.” Overblown rhetoric or not, the campus certainly looked like a boot camp, with barrack-like dormitories and grassless, muddy footpaths. I was both awestruck and dazed. Even though it was 1996, not 1966, at Antioch the revolution was still very much alive. The school’s official slogan, borrowed from Horace Mann, the school’s founder, was “Be ashamed to die until you have won some small victory for humanity.” Even if I wasn’t quite ready to be worrying about how my tombstone might read, I liked the idea of being surrounded by people who were. What better way to make up for all those years of indifference than full immersion at the epicenter of activism?
But in all the excitement of starting over, I forgot to ask myself one important question: where in this atmosphere did someone like me belong? Although I had managed to shake off my apathy, I had no real intention of replacing it with fervor. I was introverted and increasingly bookish. I had no ideology. I was merely curious. My Antioch classmates wanted to change the world; I mostly just wanted to write short stories.
Instead of plotting victories for humanity, I spent my college years cloistered in the tiny office of the Antioch Review, logging fiction and poetry submissions on index cards. The Antioch Review is one of the longest-running literary journals in the country. I was one of the only students at the college who knew it even existed.
The other thing Antioch is known for, besides its activist student body, is being the butt of jokes. In the early 1990s, at the height of the culture wars, the school was a cautionary tale about the perils of political correctness, culminating in a Saturday Night Live skit lampooning the school’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. The SOPP was a document that required verbal permission before any sort of sexual contact could be initiated.
If you missed the skit, just close your eyes and picture a trembling Chris Farley (playing a “nose tackle and a Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother”) asking a scowling Shannen Doherty, “Can I put my hands on your buttocks?”
Needless to say, Antioch has neither a football team nor fraternities. And of course, Shannen Doherty said no. Within this triangulation you find the familiar caricature of progressive politics: that it’s the exclusive domain of the humorless and dull. Antioch, though, was anything but dull. Given the proliferation of unicycles and art cars and tattoos, the place often felt more like a circus than a campus. What the SNL skit overlooked was the important fact that the SOPP had been written and introduced entirely by the students themselves. Sexual harassment on college campuses was a problem; Antioch students had decided to come up with a solution. I appreciated the bullshit-free way in which my peers had set out to fix something that they believed was broken. If I’d been asked to take part, though, I have no doubt I’d have said no.
David Foster Wallace was probably right that no generation has cared less about politics than Generation Y. Then again, whoever said the same thing about my Generation X would have been right, too, as would whoever said it about the generation before that. The idea that Americans are selfish and individualistic isn’t new. There’s even a school of thought that suggests the idea is virtually as old as the nation itself, that these tendencies might be, paradoxically, an inheritance of the Puritans themselves. The Puritans’ relentless pursuit of self-denial, the argument goes, wound up turning the corner into self-indulgence. So closely did they identify themselves with the divine America that they came to feel they actually personified it. Which led, in a roundabout way, to that great American mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose preachings about self-reliance and transcendentalism begot Walt Whitman’s songs of himself; they became something of a national anthem. Ever since then, it seems, the majority of us have beat a hasty retreat from public life.
There are numerous variations on this idea, with different starting points and interpretations. Literary scholar R. W. B. Lewis calls his version of this mythic, individualist national identity “the American Adam.” He traces its evolution from Emerson to Thoreau to Whitman, and on to the early American novelists James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. Lewis describes the American Adam, celebrated in this literary lineage, as “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” The American Adam is a figure of pure innocence, focused inward, detached from the larger concerns of the world. He is Adam before the Fall.
If I was failing to become everything Horace Mann might have wanted me to be, I at least got out of my time at Antioch an awareness of the complicated matrix of political issues surrounding everything we do, including the telling of stories. I learned that even great works of literature were products of social values and ideas, too many of which often went unexamined. I came to understand instinctively what George Orwell meant when he wrote, three decades before Fredric Jameson, that “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
While at Antioch, my tolerance toward the compatibility of literature and politics gradually grew. I developed an interest — sacrilegious for a budding writer — in critical theory: Marxists and postcolonialists and postmodernists. The whole solemn crowd. I spent a seminar on Toni Morrison deconstructing the ways in which Beloved, Song of Solomon, Sula, and her other novels blended controversial social issues such as slavery and race with high art.
During the two years I spent at Antioch, my opinions did eventually grow stronger, my convictions more firm. My admiration grew as well for my classmates — for their passion and determination. They were as far from the American Adam as one could get. And yet, I didn’t try to emulate them. Or even to join them. I remained probably the only student at Antioch who took no part in demonstrations. Whenever my classmates were organizing and meeting and debating, I was somewhere else.
As was my tendency with most things, I fed my fascination with political activism by reading. I read everything I could find: Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, histories of the Situationists, the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, the Angry Brigade. I read Hakim Bey and borrowed whatever dog-eared tracts my friends had lying around. I was like an anthropologist trying to decipher some exotic alien society. I wanted to understand their culture, their myths and religion. I wanted to know what propelled them. I wanted to know, in short, what made them so different from me.
In time I learned that there were things I lacked that true activists, like my classmates, had in abundance. Above all else, a tolerance for confrontation and a productive ability to channel anger. My instincts were hopelessly reversed. When it came to the issues I cared about most, what got triggered within me was more often flight than fight. The injustices of the world made me indignant, but more than that, they made me depressed. And the only way to escape the depression was to detach. This has remained true even as I’ve gotten older. My attraction for politics is still, more often than not, outweighed by my aversion.
In 2000, when George W. Bush was handed the presidency through a Supreme Court decision, it was the process that I wanted my students to be interested in. What mattered was taking part and caring, not about the outcome, but about why a thing like democracy was important.
In 2004, when Bush was reelected, I turned my radio off, and I’m not exaggerating when I say a year passed before I was able to turn it back on.
My attempt to interest that class of freshmen in writing about what it meant to be political was far from a success. The fault for its failure was undoubtedly mine. After all, how could I expect them to unravel their complicated feelings about democracy and political identity when I was still struggling to do so myself?
But even after the class was over and I packed my syllabus permanently away, these questions about my political self continued to nag at me. Then, in 2002, I happened to read an article in the New York Times about the difficult political situation in Haiti. The focus of the article was an enormous estate on that tumultuous island that had become occupied by armed gangs. In addition to being the site of a once-lavish hotel, the estate was also said to contain the last scrap of the island’s ravaged tropical rainforest. Against the armed intruders the article pitted the estate’s caretaker, a white Canadian whose mission was to try to save the estate, particularly the forest, from oblivion. (This was almost eight years before the devastating earthquake and cholera epidemic.) At the time, my knowledge of Haiti was sketchy, but I knew it was a place embroiled in unrest. I couldn’t help wondering what it meant that this Edenic estate had ever existed here, and what it meant for someone to be trying to preserve it amid widespread environmental destruction and political upheaval.
My desire to understand the complex situation there led me to a related article from twenty-seven years earlier. “A New Retreat for the Rich — Surrounded by Tumbledown Shacks” documented a party held to celebrate the opening of the hotel on that very estate in January 1974 (a year and a half before I was born). With a mixture of bewilderment and contempt, its author described the jet-setters and society figures gathered poolside in tuxedos and diamonds, utterly oblivious of the dire poverty and political instability surrounding them even then. The hotel had been built atop a powder keg. In fact, the earlier article could in retrospect be said to predict the one that would first catch my eye more than a quarter century later.
There was also a seemingly minor detail that both articles mentioned in passing. But this detail captured my imagination almost as much as the rest: at the turn of the nineteenth century the estate had been the home of Charles Leclerc, a French general who in 1801 had been sent by his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, to restore slavery on the French colony. Since 1791, the slaves, led in part by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had been fighting to win their independence. Not long after they succeeded, Napoleon dispatched Leclerc to take it back.
But despite his warships and his forty thousand troops, Leclerc’s army was decimated. The general himself succumbed to yellow fever. His successor, Rochambeau, fared no better. Although L’Ouverture would not live to see it, the war he had helped to wage became the first successful slave rebellion in history. In 1804, Haiti became the world’s first independent black republic.
This bloody episode was not, however, the end of Haiti’s troubles. It was instead the beginning of a different struggle. The following two hundred years have been characterized by nearly perpetual autocratic rule and fairly regular American meddling. At the time of my initial research, Haiti was in the midst of a difficult transition to democracy. The country’s first popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought to power in 1990, had already been overthrown once by a military coup. He’d been reelected in 2000 for a second term, but alleged irregularities and deep divisions among the electorate had created a tense, often violent atmosphere.
Amy Wilentz’s Rainy Season chronicles the plight of Haiti’s poor and the rise of Aristide, their champion, from firebrand priest to politician. The book is the story of a nation that for generations has suffered oppression most Americans can barely fathom. But the book also makes clear that this is not a nation of passive victims. In Haiti, brutality has always met resistance. The struggles of individuals, communities, and the populace as a whole reveal a relentless determination to see justice done — a determination still plainly visible in the midst of post-earthquake reconstruction and a new round of democratic elections.
For many Americans, politics is an abstraction, something that happens somewhere else, overseen by people we pay to handle things so we don’t have to think about them. In a place like Haiti, I came to see, politics is virtually inescapable. In 1964, while in exile during the reign of dictator Françoise Duvalier, Haitian scholar (and future president) Leslie Manigat wrote of the situation back home, “Everything is political… The reputation earned by an engineer in his special field is regarded as a political trump. The prestige that a professor gains among his students may represent a political threat to the government… Such is the encroachment of politics on all aspects of life that if a man does not go into politics, politics itself comes to him.”
Poring over newspaper articles from the country’s recent past, I found one from 1987, not long after the thirty-year father-and-son Duvalier dictatorship finally came to an end. The constitutionally required “free and fair” elections scheduled for that year — the nation’s first — pitted candidates from numerous camps against one another. And as the ruling military junta began to realize that it stood no chance of retaining power, they concluded that their only recourse was to stop the election from taking place. This they accomplished by orchestrating a campaign of violence culminating in a daylight attack on a school where at least two dozen men, women, and children were slaughtered while waiting to vote.
Could there be any more stark a contrast than between David Foster Wallace’s bemoaning of voter apathy in the U.S. and the situation in Haiti, where in 1987, daring to vote could get a person killed, and where people persisted in doing it anyway? For most of us, the impossibility of something like this happening in our own lives, in our own country, makes the horror feel pretty abstract, too. We can’t conceive of such a world, even though it’s less than a two-hour flight from Miami.
The more I read about Haiti, the more I came to believe that conceiving of such a world is one of the most important things literature can do. And I realized that some of my favorite novels, the ones to which I felt the greatest affinity, were concerned with politically averse individuals caught in the middle of similarly fraught political situations. I’m thinking, for instance, of Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, which depicts the complicity in dictatorial brutality of a priest who wants nothing more than to be a poet. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah, places a government clerk stricken with malaise in the center of Ghanaian political and social turmoil. And many of J. M. Coetzee’s novels explore this terrain, too, including Waiting for the Barbarians, in which an unnamed magistrate wishes to disassociate himself from the evils of the empire he serves. It’s worth noting that none of these are American novels. Which suggests that maybe political aversion isn’t limited to our shores after all.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising then that the book I came to write, based in part on the events I’d been reading about in Haiti, also placed political aversion at its core. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but it was clearly a symptom of what my mind was working through. I couldn’t help asking, as I looked back on my own complicated relationship with politics: if I had been born in such a place, how might I have been different? Might I have been stronger, someone with the courage to take a stand? Or might I have found a way to be the same detached observer that I am? Or something even more extreme: a true American Adam, determined to remain innocent in a place where such a luxury seemed inconceivable, where attempts to secure it were doomed to fail? These questions felt important to me.
But the questions also felt personal. It soon became clear that despite writing about someone whose circumstances and skin color and place of birth could hardly have been more different from my own, I was writing in large part about myself. In fact, I was writing, albeit in a much different form, the sort of thing I had asked my students to write back in 2000 — about what it meant to have ideals and a political voice, and about the strength it sometimes took to express them, especially when it was so much easier not to. It’s taken me more than ten years to do what I hoped they could accomplish in a semester. Little did I know how difficult an assignment it would turn out to be.
Image: 2006 election in Haiti via Wikimedia
Luckily, I have been keeping a list. I began the year with Tom Hodgkinson’s lovely How to be Idle, which is a very very good way to begin a year of reading. Immediately then to The Twelve Terrors of Christmas (Updike / Gorey). Thereafter, Kicking the Leaves, an old favorite. This is in my opinion, Donald Hall’s best volume of poetry. I have read it dozens of times. Then a short travel with a writer I had never read, Gyula Krudy, whose Sunflower, courtesy of NYRB was enormously pleasing and atmospheric. Then Botvinnik: 100 Selected Games, for those of you who read chess-notation with joy and pleasure. That old Soviet master had a fearsome will. Then Last Days by Brian Evenson, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Life of Johnson by Boswell (wonderful — even the ambition of reading it and carrying it about with one is wonderful). Then Fowles, The Collector, and Out by the very resourceful Matsuo Kirino. Read Out if you, like myself and also the previously mentioned Evenson, spend time thinking about how bodies ought to be disposed of. At this point, I went to another old favorite, Robert Walser’s Selected Stories. If you must read something, please forget about what anyone else has to say and read Walser’s selected stories. There’s a lot of posturing about contemporary writing, but the truth is — most of it isn’t any good. That’s where Walser comes in, from the first quarter of the last century, riding the wagon from his Swiss sanatorium. He’ll fix your modern day ills with ease.
I went to Leonard Gardner next, and his Fat City, which I read in one sitting. Delicious! Do you like prize-fighting? I do. Then Zen Antics courtesy of Cleary, and Lolita while on a train to Michigan, and Hass’s Field Guide (not an actual field guide).
At this point we are partway through the year, and I am considering the class I will teach in the fall, a class on derive, which sends us into: Society of the Spectacle by Debord, Revolution of Everyday Life by Vaneigem, Nadja by Breton, The Character of Physical Law by Feynman, A Pattern Language by Alexander, Ishikawa, Silverstein, and Koolhaus’s Delirious New York.
I will leave you then, there with me in the summertime. Of later books, I will mention but one:
Bears: A Brief History by Brunner (a remarkable book). Do you like bears?