The Universe in a Sentence: On Aphorisms

“A fragment ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.” —Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments (1798)

“I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram.” —Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

From its first capital letter to the final period, an aphorism is not a string of words but rather a manifesto, a treatise, a monograph, a jeremiad, a sermon, a disputation, a symposium. An aphorism is not a sentence, but rather a microcosm unto itself; an entrance through which a reader may walk into a room the dimensions of which even the author may not know. Our most economic and poetic of prose forms, the aphorism does not feign argumentative completism like the philosophical tome, nor does it compel certainty as does the commandment—the form is cagey, playful, and mysterious. To either find an aphorism in the wild, or to peruse examples in a collection that mounts them like butterflies nimbly held in place with push-pin on Styrofoam, is to have a literary-naturalist’s eye for the remarkable, for the marvelous, for the wondrous. And yet there has been, at least until recently, a strange critical lacuna as concerns aphoristic significance. Scholar Gary Morson writes in The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel that though they “constitute the shortest [of] literary genres, they rarely attract serious study. Universities give courses on the novel, epic, and lyric…But I know of no course on…proverbs, wise sayings, witticisms and maxims.”

An example of literary malpractice, for to consider an aphorism is to imbibe the purest distillation of a mind contemplating itself. In an aphorism every letter and word counts; every comma and semicolon is an invitation for the reader to discover the sacred contours of her own thought. Perhaps answering Morson’s observation, critic Andrew Hui writes in his new study A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter that the form is “Opposed to the babble of the foolish, the redundancy of bureaucrats, the silence of mystics, in the aphorism nothing is superfluous, every word bear weight.” An aphorism isn’t a sentence—it’s an earthquake captured in a bottle. It isn’t merely a proverb, a quotation, an epigraph, or an epitaph; it’s fire and lightning circumscribed by the rules of syntax and grammar, where rhetoric itself becomes the very stuff of thought. “An aphorism,” Friedrich Nietzsche aphoristically wrote, “is an audacity.”

If brevity and surprising disjunction are the elements of the aphorism, then in some ways we’re living in a veritable renaissance of the form, as all of the detritus of our fragmented digital existence from texting to Twitter compels us toward the ambiguous and laconic (even while obviously much of what’s produced is sheer detritus). Hui notes the strangely under-theorized nature of the aphorism, observing that at a “time when a presidency can be won and social revolutions ignited by 140-character posts…an analysis of the short saying seems to be crucial as ever” (not that we’d put “covfefe” in the same category as Blaise Pascal).

Despite the subtitle to Hui’s book, A Theory of the Aphorism thankfully offers neither plodding history nor compendium of famed maxims. Rather Hua presents a critical schema to understand what exactly the form does, with its author positing that the genre is defined by “a dialectical play between fragments and systems.” Such a perspective on aphorism sees it not as the abandoned step-child of literature, but rather the very thing itself, a discursive and transgressive form of critique that calls into question all received knowledge. Aphorism is thus both the substance of philosophy and the joker that calls the very idea of literature and metaphysics into question.  The adage, the maxim, and the aphorism mock completism. Jesus’s sayings denounce theology; Parmenides and Heraclitus deconstruct philosophy. Aphoristic thought is balm and succor against the rigors of systemization, the tyranny of logic. Hua writes that “aphorisms are before, against, and after philosophy.” Before, against, and after scripture too, I’ll add. And maybe everything else as well. An aphorism may feign certainty, but the very brevity of the form ensures it’s an introduction, even if its rhetoric wears the costume of conclusion.

Such is why the genre is so associated with gnomic philosophy, for any accounting of aphoristic origins must waylay itself in both the fragments of the pre-Socratic metaphysicians, the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East, and the Confucian and Taoist scholars of China. All of this disparate phenomenon can loosely be placed during what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the “Axial Age,” a half-millennium before the Common Era when human thought began to move towards the universal and abstract. From that era (as very broadly constituted) we have Heraclitus’s “Nature loves to hide,” Lao-Tzu’s “The spoken Tao is not the real Tao,” and Jesus Christ’s “The kingdom of God is within you.” Perhaps the aphorism was an engine for that intellectual transformation, the sublimities of paradox breaking women and men out of the parochialism that marked earlier ages. Regardless of why the aphorism’s birth coincides with that pivotal moment in history, that era was the incubator for some of our earliest (and greatest) examples.

From the Greek philosophers who pre-date Socrates, and more importantly his systematic advocate Plato, metaphysics was best done in the form of cryptic utterance. It shouldn’t be discounted that the gnomic quality of thinkers like Parmenides, Heraclitus, Democritus, and Zeno might be due to the disappearance of their full corpus over the past 2,500 years. Perhaps erosion of stone and fraying of papyrus has generated such aphorisms. Entropy is, after all, our final and most important teacher. Nevertheless, aphorism is rife in the pre-Socratic philosophy that remains, from Heraclitus’s celebrated observation that “You can’t step into the same river twice” to Parmenides’s exactly opposite contention that “It is indifferent to me where I am to begin, for there shall I return again.” Thus is identified one of the most difficult qualities of the form—that it’s possible to say conflicting things and that by virtue of how you say them you’ll still sound wise. A dangerous form, the aphorism, for it can confuse rhetoric for knowledge. Yet perhaps that’s too limiting a perspective, and maybe its better to think of the chain of aphorisms as a great and confusing conversation; a game in which both truth and its opposite can still be true.

A similar phenomenon is found in wisdom literature, a mainstay of Jewish and Christian writing from the turn of the Common Era, as embodied in both canonical scripture such as Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Songs, as well as in more exotic apocryphal books known for their sayings like The Gospel of Thomas. Wisdom literature was often manifested in the form of a listing of sayings or maxims, and since the 19th century, biblical scholars who advocated the so-called “two-source hypothesis,” have argued that the earliest form of the synoptic New Testament gospels was a (as yet undiscovered) document known simply as “Q,” which consisted of nothing but aphorisms spoken by Christ. This conjectured collection of aphorisms theoretically became the basis for Matthew and Luke whom (borrowing from Mark) constructed a narrative around the bare-bones sentences. Similarly, the eccentric, hermetic, and surreal Gospel of Thomas, which the book of John was possibly written in repost towards, is an example of wisdom literature at its purest, an assemblage of aphorisms somehow both opaque and enlightening. “Split a piece of wood; I am there,” cryptically says Christ in the hidden gospel only rediscovered at Nag Hamadi, Egypt, in 1945, “Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

From its Axial-Age origins, the aphorism has a venerable history. Examples were transcribed in the self-compiled Commonplace Books of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in which students were encouraged to record their favorite fortifying maxims for later consultation. The logic behind such exercises was, as anthologizer John Gross writes in The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, that the form does “tease and prod the lazy assumptions lodged in the reader’s mind; they wars us how insidiously our vices can pass themselves off as virtues; they harp shamelessly on the imperfections and contradictions which we would rather ignore.” Though past generations were instructed on proverbs and maxims, today “Aphorisms are often derided as trivial,” as Aaron Haspel writes in the introduction to Everything: A Book of Aphorisms, despite the fact that “most people rule their lives with four or five of them.”

The last five centuries have seen no shortage of aphorists who are the originators of those four or five sayings that you might live your life by, gnomic authors who speak in the prophetic utterance of the form like Desiderius Erasmus, François de La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, William Blake, Nietzsche, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Dorothy Parker, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Hua explains that “Aphorisms are transhistorical and transcultural, a resistant strain of thinking that has evolved and adapted to its environment for millennia. Across deep time, they are vessels that travel everywhere, laden with fraught yet buoyant.” In many ways, modernity has proven an even more prodigious environment for the digressive and incomplete form, standing both in opposition to the systemization of knowledge that has defined the last half-millennia, while also embodying the aesthetic of fragmented bricolage that sometimes seems as if it was our birthright. Contemporary master of the form Yahia Lababidi writes in Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By that “An aphorist is not one who writes in aphorisms but one who thinks in aphorisms.” In our fractured, fragmented, disjointed time, where we take wisdom where we find it, we’re perhaps all aphorists, because we can’t think in any other way.

Anthologizer James Lough writes in his introduction to Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit that “Our time is imperiled by tidal waves of trivia, hectored by a hundred emails a day, colored by this ad slogan or that list of things to do, each one sidetracking our steady, focused awareness.” What might seem to be one of the most worrying detriments of living in post-modernity—our digitally slackening attention spans and inattention to detail—is the exact same quality that allows contemporary aphorists the opportunity to dispense arguments, insight, enlightenment, and wisdom in a succinct package, what Lough describes as a “quickly-digested little word morsel, delightful and instructive, that condenses thought, insight, and wordplay.”

Our century has produced brilliant aphorists who have updated the form while making use of its enduring and universal quality of brevity, metaphor, arresting detail, and the mystery that can be implied by a few short words that seem to gesture towards something slightly beyond our field of sight, and who embody Gross’s description of the genre as one which exemplifies a “concentrated perfection of phrasing which can sometimes approach poetry in its intensity.” Authors like Haspel, Lababidi, Don Paterson in The Fall at Home: New and Selected Aphorisms, and Sarah Manguso in 300 Arguments may take as their subject matter issues of current concern, from the Internet to climate change, but they do it in a form that wouldn’t seem out of place on a bit of frayed pre-Socratic papyrus.

Consider the power and poignancy of Manguso’s maxim “Inner beauty can fade, too.” In only five words, and one strategically placed comma that sounds almost like a reserved sigh, Manguso demonstrates one of the uncanniest powers of the form. That it can remind you of something that you’re already innately aware of, something that relies on the nature of the aphorism to illuminate that which we’d rather obscure. Reading 300 Arguments is like this. Manguso bottles epiphany, the strange acknowledgment of encountering that which you always knew but could never quite put into words yourself, like discovering that the gods share your face. Lababidi does something similar in Where Epics Fail, giving succinct voice to the genre’s self-definition, writing that “Aphorisms respect the wisdom of silence by disturbing it, but briefly.” Indeed, self-referentiality is partially at the core of modern aphorisms; many of Paterson’s attempts are of maxims considering themselves like an ouroboros biting its tail. In the poet’s not unfair estimation, an aphorism is “Hindsight with murderous purpose.”

Lest I be accused of uncomplicated enthusiasms in offering an encomium for the aphorism, let it be said that the form can be dangerous, that it can confuse brevity and wit with wisdom and knowledge, that rhetoric (as has been its nature for millennia) can pantomime understanding as much as express it. Philosopher Julian Baggini makes the point in Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover: 100 Takes on Familiar Sayings and Quotations, writing that aphorisms “can be too beguiling. They trick us into thinking we’ve grasped a deep thought by their wit and brevity. Poke them, however, and you find they ride roughshod over all sorts of complexities and subtleties.” The only literary form where rhetoric and content are as fully unified as the aphorism is arguably poetry proper, but ever fighting Plato’s battle against the versifiers, Baggini is correct that there’s no reason why an expression in anaphora or chiasmus is more correct simply because the prosody of its rhetoric pleases our ears.

Economic statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb provides ample representative examples in The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms of how a pleasing adage need not be an accurate statement. There’s an aesthetically harmonious tricolon in his contention that the “three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary,” and though of those I’ve only ever been addicted to bread, pizza, and pasta, I’ll say from previous addictions that I could add a few more harmful vices to the list made by Taleb. Or, when he opines that “Writers are remembered for their best work, politicians for their worst mistakes, and businessmen are almost never remembered,” I have to object. I’d counter Taleb’s pithy aphorism by pointing out that both John Updike and Philip Roth are remembered for their most average writing, that an absurd preponderance of things in our country are named for Ronald Reagan whose entire political career was nothing but mistakes, and that contra the claim that businessmen are never remembered, I’ll venture that my entire Pittsburgh upbringing where everything is named after a Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, or Heinz demonstrates otherwise. The Bed of Procrustes is like this, lots of sentences that are as if they came from Delphi, but when you spend a second to contemplate Taleb’s claim that “If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends” you’ll come to the conclusion that far from experience-tested wise maxim, it’s simply inaccurate.

Critic Susan Sontag made one of the best arguments against aphoristic thinking in her private writings, as published in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, claiming that “An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.” She makes an important point—that the declarative confidence of the aphorism can serve to announce any number of inanities and inaccuracies as if they were true by simple fiat. Sontag writes that “Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details.” Providing a crucial counter-position to the uncomplicated celebration of all things aphoristic, Sontag rightly observes that “To write aphorisms is to assume a mask—a mask of scorn, of superiority,” which would certainly seem apropos when encountering the claim that if you can enumerate why you enjoy spending time with a friend they’re not really your friend. “We know at the end,” Sontag writes, that “the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.”

An irony in Sontag’s critique of aphorisms, for embedded within her prose like any number of shining stones found in a muddy creek are sentences that themselves would make great prophetic adages. Aphorisms are like that though; even with Sontag’s and Baggini’s legitimate criticism of the form’s excesses, we can’t help but approach, consider, think, and understand in that genre for which brevity is the essence of contemplation. In a pose of self-castigation, Paterson may have said that the “aphorism is already a shadow of itself,” but I can’t reject that microcosm, that inscribed reality within a few words, that small universe made cunningly. Even with all that I know about the risks of rhetoric, I can not pass sentence on the sentence. Because an aphorism is open-ended, it is disruptive; as such, it doesn’t preclude, but rather opens; the adage both establishes and abolishes its subject, simultaneously. Hua writes that the true subject of the best examples of the form is “The infinite,” for “either the aphorism’s meaning is inexhaustible or its subject of inquiry—be it God or nature of the self—is boundless.”

In The Aphorism and Other Short Forms, author Ben Grant writes that in the genre “our short human life and eternity come together, for the timelessness of the truth which the aphorism encapsulates can only be measured against our own ephemerality, of which the brevity of the aphorism serves as an apt expression.” I agree with Grant’s contention, but I would amend one thing—the word “truth.” Perhaps that’s what’s problematic about Baggini’s and Sontag’s criticism, for we commit a category mistake when we assume that aphorisms exist only to convey some timeless verity. Rather, I wonder if what Hua describes as the “most elemental of literary forms,” those “scattered lines of intuition…[moving by] arrhythmic leaps and bounds” underscored by “an atomic quality—compact yet explosive” aren’t defined by the truth, but rather by play.

Writing and reading aphorisms is the play of contemplation, the joy of improvisation; it’s the very nature of aphorism. We read such sayings not for the finality of truth, but for the possibilities of maybe. For a short investment of time and an economy of words we can explore the potential of ideas that even if inaccurate, would sink far longer and more self-serious works. That is the form’s contribution. An aphorism is all wheat and no chaff, all sweet and no gaffe.

Image credit: Unsplash/Prateek Katyal.

Goodnight World-Building

There’s no plot to Goodnight Moon, no characterization, no conflict. Every word written by Margaret Wise Brown and every detail illustrated by Clement Hurd is designed to build the illusion of comfort and stability—much in the same way that Star Wars presents a galaxy of infinite possibilities that includes one where your spaceship’s starter refuses to turn over, or the way that Harry Potter depicts a version of middle school where you are actually special.

In the case of Goodnight Moon, all the words and details—save one notable exception—work together to build Brown and Hurd’s fictional world. In the midst of the book’s mirrored repetition of household objects and animals, the goodnights to the clocks and socks, the kittens and mittens, is a white page with the words “Goodnight nobody” printed on it. It jolts the adult mind out of the trance the book’s murmured sibilants can produce. Goodnight nobody? What does that mean? Who’s nobody? Is children’s literature ur-cozy room haunted? This strange page feels like the point at which the book’s childhood materialism and chronic OCD list-making morph into existential despair (which makes Goodnight Moon the perfect bedtime story of grown-ups too).

But what the adult mind–especially one prone to the nagging-doubt-pre-sleep death spiral–reads as gloom is, in the context of Brown’s micro-fictional universe, just the introduction of the unknown. Worlds, even ones created for children’s bedtime stories, need a little mystery. In this case, not a mystery to solve, but one that remains unsolved; less whodunit and more who-or-what-is-it. For a fictional world to feel real, some part of the story has to reach outside the setting and break the seal of perfect self-containment. There are some characters we will never figure out. Some places we will never understand. Not everyone gets an arc. And sometimes loose ends work better when they are left untied. The least realistic fantasy is that in which everything is revealed, that in which everything adds up. No level of omniscience can answer every question that might occur to the reader. No author is the Laplace’s Demon of her own creation.

But today, many authors and filmmakers seem convinced they really do know the location of every atom in their fictional universes. Instead of expanding their worlds, creators—and the executives pressuring them—exploit them. Characters and settings become resources to tap. The best and most interesting worlds are strip-mined, their forests clear-cut, their mountaintops blown clean off. If you’re successful, you’ll never run out of space that needs to be filled or money that needs to be made. Maximalism has nothing on serialism, the way the infinite cannot compare to the merely big. In other words: Once the mystery of Nobody is solved in the sequel to Goodnight Moon, readers can finally learn what kind of complex and fully-realized life the quiet old lady has once that bunny finally goes to sleep.

This is how minor characters in superhero movies come to have whole worlds built upon them. And each time this happens—every time an unnecessary backstory is explained—some part of the mysterious fictional world dies. These minor characters become load-bearing gargoyles, and their inability to support the weight of the story weakens the entire structure. Perhaps the greater Goodnight Moon universe will support a prequel explaining the deep backstory and life path of the quiet old lady and the personal meeting “hush” has for her. Or maybe that will be where the money and the interest dry up. If they ever do.

In addition to the degradation of fictional universes, this hyper world-building means we spend so much time in familiar (and ever-expanding) worlds that we don’t invest in new ones. Too many choices; let’s just watch something with superheroes in it again. The rules are familiar, and that familiarity creates the illusion of comfort and stability. Goodnight lightsabers. Goodnight wands. Goodnight Godzilla. Goodnight James Bond.

The creation of fictional worlds and universes is an achievement to be celebrated (and rewarded), but so, now, is their stewardship: knowing when to push further and what to leave unspoiled. Not every old lady needs a complex backstory, not every Nobody has to go off in the third act or the third film. Sometimes the mysteries in our fictional worlds can simply be put to bed.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Cusk, Barry, Eltahawy, Foer, Klein, Kois, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Rachel Cusk, Kevin Barry, Mona Eltahawy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Naomi Klein, Dan Kois, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Coventry by Rachel Cusk

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Coventry: “Memoirist and novelist Cusk (Kudos) turns her perceptive gaze and distinctive voice to a variety of topics in her arresting first essay collection. Broken into three sections, the volume takes its title from an English term for ‘the silent treatment,’ which typified how Cusk’s parents disciplined her as a child. The opening chapters focus on memoir, but within the context of broader questions about society, families, women and work, and what makes a home. Cusk tackles, in addition to her fraught relationship with her parents, life after separating from her husband and with her daughters as they become teenagers (in the deliciously titled ‘Lions on Leashes’). In the second section, she examines art and its creation, in one piece grappling with ‘women’s writing’ in terms of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir (‘Shakespeare’s Sisters’). The final section ventures into literary criticism with analyses of writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, D.H. Lawrence, Olivia Manning, and Edith Wharton. There is an element of stream of consciousness to Cusk’s prose, with its effortless transitions from one idea to another. However, the overriding thread binding her essays is the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives. It’s something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.”

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Night Boat to Tangier: “A pair of Irish drug runners who’ve seen better days haunt a ferry terminal in southern Spain in search of a missing woman, in Barry’s grim and crackling latest (after Beatlebone). Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond had a long and profitable run in drug smuggling, but now, with both just past 50, they are out of the business after a decline in their fortunes. The two stalk the ferry terminal in search of Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, whom they haven’t seen for three years but believe will be showing up on a ferry there, either coming from or going to Tangier. As the men wait and scan the crowds, they reminisce on better days and an unfortunately textbook betrayal, and flashbacks to pivotal moments in Maurice’s adult life reveal a torturous history. Whether Dilly is actually Maurice’s daughter is an animating question of the narrative, along with what the men’s true intentions are. Barry is a writer of the first rate, and his prose is at turns lean and lyrical, but always precise. Though some scenes land as stiff and schematic, the characters’ banter is wildly and inventively coarse, and something to behold. As far as bleak Irish fiction goes, this is black tar heroin.”

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls: “In this fed-up, rage-fueled ‘big fuck-you to the patriarchy,’ activist and journalist Eltahawy (Headscarves and Hymens) thrusts ‘tools to fight back’ into the hands of women and girls: in themed chapters, Eltahawy exhorts her peers to embrace their power through the energy of anger, attention seeking, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust. She lets no one off the hook, calling out the Muslims who defended the man who sexually assaulted her while she was on hajj and the racist Americans who vilified Muslim men during her #mosquemetoo response, feminists who accept the crumbs offered to them by the patriarchy and promote milquetoast ideas of ‘girl power,”’U.S. Republican white women complicit in misogyny and racism, and women who call for civility in discourse or who disavow violent responses to violence. But Eltahawy’s arguments come through with as much intelligence and clarity as passion and evocative imagery; they are built on facts about racism, capitalism, and homophobia, as well as her own and others’ experiences. Eltahawy not only gives frustrated women permission, but demands that they ‘defy, disobey, and disrupt.’ This bold, rampaging manifesto is far past the edge of mainstream feminism, but it’s so viscerally motivational that even those more moderately inclined may find themselves intrigued.”

We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Are the Weather: “In an unconventional but persuasive manner, novelist Foer (Here I Am) explains why taking meaningful action to mitigate climate change is both incredibly simple and terribly difficult. Writing from an intensely personal perspective, he describes the difference between understanding and believing, making clear that only the latter can motivate meaningful action. He argues that the dichotomy between those who accept the science of climate change and those who don’t is ‘trivial,’ because ‘the only dichotomy that matters is between those who act and those who don’t.’ Foer makes the case that animal agriculture is the dominant cause of climate change, concluding that ‘we must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is as straightforward and as fraught as that.’ While he calls for everyone not to eat animal products before dinner (at the very least), he is not shy about discussing his own hypocrisy, disclosing his lapses back into meat-eating after writing a book-length treatise against it (2009’s Eating Animals). Foer’s message is both moving and painful, depressing and optimistic, and it will force readers to rethink their commitment to combating ‘the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced.'”

The Second Founding by Eric Foner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Second Founding: “In this lucid legal history and political manifesto, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Foner (The Fiery Trial) explores how the ‘Reconstruction amendments’—the 13th, 14th, and 15th, which abolished slavery, granted birthright citizenship, and acknowledged black men’s political rights—have been interpreted over the past century and a half. Foner begins with Congressional debates immediately after the Civil War about what ‘freedom’ could and should mean in the context of the liberation of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Most relevantly for today, Foner depicts the disagreement among both Democrats and Republicans about who should have, and be allowed to use, the right to vote. He points out that, as recently as 2013, the Supreme Court has failed to use the 15th Amendment to oppose state laws that, while not specifically mentioning ethnicity or race, make it difficult for nonwhite citizens to vote, and has refused to bar discriminatory practices of private citizens, in seeming contradiction to the 14th Amendment. In Foner’s view, the current moment represents a ‘retreat from racial equality,’ but the rights promised in these amendments also remain ‘viable alternatives.’ Readers invested in social equality will find Foner’s guarded optimism about the possibility of judicial activism in this area inspiring, and both casual readers and those well-versed in American legal history will benefit from his clear prose and insightful exploration of constitutional history.”

On Fire by Naomi Klein

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Fire: “Klein (This Changes Everything) makes a case for a Green New Deal in a treatise high on passion, but low on specifics. It consists largely of reprinted writings—reporting, think pieces, public talks—with brief notes providing updates. After an account of speaking at a 2015 Vatican press conference on Pope Francis’s climate change encyclical, Klein comments that the Church’s encouraging gesture now seems overshadowed by a lack of accountability over its sexual abuse crisis. These retrospective pieces lack the urgency of the book’s lengthy introduction about fostering ‘economies built both to protect and to regenerate the planet’s life support system and to respect and sustain the people who depend on them.’ In the brief epilogue, Klein returns to the book’s main thrust and argues the Green New Deal still has a ‘fighting chance.’ But even that formulation acknowledges the difficulties involved, and her more extravagant proposals—for instance, transforming every post office in her native Canada into a ‘hub for green transition’—don’t encourage confidence in her ambitious program. Klein’s cri de coeur (‘when the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve’) will galvanize some and depress others.”

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Single Thread: “Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) celebrates the embroiderers of Winchester Cathedral in this appealing story of a 38-year-old spinster who learns needlecraft from real-life embroidery pioneer Louisa Pesel. In 1932, Violet Speedwell is what newspapers of the day call a surplus woman: unmarried and likely to remain so. Working as a typist in Winchester, Violet visits the cathedral, where she admires the intricate canvas embroidery on the kneelers, cushions, and other accessories. She joins the Winchester Cathedral Broderers Group and, after an unpromising start, becomes proficient under the mentorship of group founder Louisa Pesel. A fellow embroiderer introduces Violet to Arthur Knight, a 60-year-old married bell-ringer who, like Violet, has suffered the death of a loved one. Arthur protects Violet from a stalker and takes her to the bell tower to show her the ropes. Violet’s confidence grows as she learns to handle a needle, her mother, and her own desires. Chevalier excels at detailing the creative process, humanizing historical figures and capturing everyday life. With its bittersweet romance and gentle pace, Chevalier’s latest may be less powerful than her best novels, but it vividly and meticulously shows how vision, teamwork, and persistence raise needlecraft from routine stitching to an inspirational and liberating art.”

The Heart and Other Viscera by Félix J. Palma

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Heart and Other Viscera: “In Palma’s solid collection, following his The Map of Time trilogy, the surreal collides with the deeply mundane in transformative ways. In these stories, the protagonist—almost always a man down on his luck or depressed in some way—encounters something extraordinary. This might be a magical train set, where an avatar painted in one’s likeness placed inside it can traverse the world (‘Roses against the Wind’); a new apartment that’s perfect in every way, except for the man behind the curtain in the den (‘The Man behind the Curtain’); or, in the title story, a man who gives pieces of his body to his lover on birthdays and anniversaries. In the most ambitious story, ‘The Seven (or So) Lives of Sebastian Mingorance,’ Palma pulls off the impressive juggling act of considering one man and all the different directions a day in his life could have gone, with all seven alternative Sebastian Mingorances occupying the same room at one point. The scope of Palma’s imagination is undeniable, even if his female characters suffer for it—all of them are objectified or otherwise treated as accessories to the plot, and most meet rather gruesome fates. Palma proves he is an assured, creative writer with a knack for the unsettling.”

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red at the Bone: “Woodson’s beautifully imagined novel (her first novel for adults since 2016’s Another Brooklyn) explores the ways an unplanned pregnancy changes two families. The narrative opens in the spring of 2001, at the coming-of-age party that 16-year-old Melody’s grandparents host for her at their Brooklyn brownstone. A family ritual adapted from cotillion tradition, the event ushers Melody into adulthood as an orchestra plays Prince and her ‘court’ dances around her. Amid the festivity, Melody and her family—her unmarried parents, Iris and Aubrey, and her maternal grandparents, Sabe and Sammy ‘Po’Boy’ Simmons, think of both past and future, delving into extended flashbacks that comprise most of the text. Sabe is proud of the education and affluence she has achieved, but she remains haunted by stories of her family’s losses in the fires of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. The discovery that her daughter, Iris, was pregnant at 15 filled her with shame, rage, and panic. After the birth of Melody, Iris, uninterested in marrying mail-room clerk Aubrey, pined for the freedom that her pregnancy curtailed. Leaving Melody to be raised by Aubrey, Sabe, and Po’Boy, she departed for Oberlin College in the early ’90s and, later, to a Manhattan apartment that her daughter is invited to visit but not to see as home. Their relationship is strained as Melody dons the coming-out dress her mother would have worn if she hadn’t been pregnant with Melody. Woodson’s nuanced voice evokes the complexities of race, class, religion, and sexuality in fluid prose and a series of telling details. This is a wise, powerful, and compassionate novel.”

How to Be a Family by Dan Kois

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Be a Family: “Kois, a parenting podcaster and editor at Slate, believed that he, his wife, and two daughters ‘were doing being a family wrong’ and tells of his radical step to rectify their situation. He decided they should spend 2017 living in new locations far from their Arlington, Va., home, spending three months in each location. The experiment’s results are varied and delightful to read about: their happy idyll in beautiful Wellington, New Zealand, is packed with friendly neighborhood barbecues and a rejection of American helicopter parenting. The Dutch in Delft, in the Netherlands, seem a cooler lot and obsessed with ‘normalcy,’ though Kois—a serial enthusiast—is entranced by their social cohesion and bicycles. Bug-infested Samara, Costa Rica, is appealingly laid-back, though its roughness starts straining family ties. Back in the vaunted ‘Real America’ of Trump-voting Hays in western Kansas, Kois is as intrigued by the close-knit religious town as he is with the locales abroad. He fills his narrative with both ironic, self-deprecating humor and earnest soul-searching (‘A place never solves anything’) as he comes to the realization that ‘you can’t actually change your kids but your kids change nonetheless.’ This ‘foolhardy jaunt’ into experimental family life–hacking consistently pleases and surprises.”

The Time I Opened for Bon Iver: On Allowing Failure to Flourish

Swinging wide the door to The Local Store in Eau Claire, Wisc., it was hard not to feel like a rock star. Not because I am one (What’s the opposite of a rock star?), but because, due to the store’s back-to-back scheduling of events, I was opening for Bon Iver.

All right, that’s not entirely true. Probably not even a little true. What I mean to say is that a song I’d written—the only song I’ve ever written—was being debuted alongside a few other first-time songwriters’ attempts directly before a pre-release listening party for Bon Iver’s latest album, i,i.

My elevation to opening-act status was not made at Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon’s request, but rather, what I imagine was his horror. Nothing like a tune from B.J. “What’s a Flugelhorn?” Hollars to get the party started.

I’d have never written the song in the first place were it not for a solicitation from a local middle school chorus teacher, who gathered together a few writers and promised to set our words to music. Initially, I’d demurred (“I have too much respect for music,” I’d said), but she insisted. And so, we writers momentarily set aside our novels and our essays and tried to determine what a song was supposed to sound like. I had some vague notion, of course, but given my own defection from music following a two-week stint of fifth-grade trumpet, I was feeling vulnerable in a new medium.

And that vulnerability felt glorious.

What a rare gift to be given permission to fail. Or rather, to spin it more optimistically, to “succeed to a lesser extent.” While writing the song, I’d set the bar so low that even I could limp over it. The product hardly mattered. What mattered was the process; specifically, my attempt at utilizing the fundamental skills I employed in other literary genres and applying them to lyrics.

The resulting song—thanks to the talented chorus teacher—wasn’t half-bad. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a fleeting hint of pride. Not for what I’d done, but for what we’d done together. We took a risk and the risk paid off.

In the hour or so leading up to Bon Iver’s listening party, 40 of us took our seats in The Local Store for a sing-along from our selection of newly-composed songs. As the program neared its end, I turned to spot a roomful of fans anxiously awaiting the Bon Iver listening party, fans that hadn’t intended to hear a B.J. Hollars’s original but may have heard one anyway. And lived to tell of it.

The idea that an amateur like me can share a “stage” alongside a Grammy-Award winning band like Bon Iver (even if only by way of a listening party) speaks to one of art’s greatest gifts: its potential for inclusion. From finger painting to a gallery exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, it’s possible to carve out space for us all. And sometimes, if the scheduling works in your favor, even the same space.

That night, while leaving The Local Store, I watched the Bon Iver fans descend upon the room we’d just vacated. Within minutes, they’d be encircled around a record player in that darkened room, heads bowed as they did that rarest of 21st-century things: sat silently together. The scene was repeated at 59 other locations worldwide, thousands gathering for a first listen of Bon Iver’s latest effort.

Within hours, reviews for i.i. began pouring in. Most were positive, with the exception of a scathing two out of five-star review from The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas, who called the album a “misfire,” claiming Vernon’s melodies were “uninspired” and accusing the musician of, on a few occasions, “squat[ting] in his comfort zone.” As for Vernon’s lyrics, Beaumont-Thomas remarked that the songs “feature a few lucid pleas for understanding…amid acid-addled sermonizing.”

Thank goodness he wasn’t there for my opening act, I thought.

For me, Beaumont-Thomas’s final line left the deepest cut, the reviewer arguing that if Vernon is “trying to build Bon Iver into a mini-utopia of shared values,” then “he needs to be a stronger leader.”

To critique i.i on its artistic merit is one thing, but to critique Vernon’s well-known effort to create and support a robust community of artists and musicians—a community, I’ll add, in which even a guy like me can occasionally sneak in the back door—seems a rather low blow. If Beaumont-Thomas means—as I think he does—that Vernon’s so-called “burgeoning hippy paradise” has corrupted his musical vision, then I suppose we can agree to disagree. But for my part, I prefer to think of Vernon’s community of artists as something larger than any album, more vital than any song, and more empowering and inspiring than any review.

While it’s true that my songwriting “career” began and ended with a single song, that song wouldn’t have been written at all were it not for the chorus teacher’s willingness to populate her own “mini-utopia” with imperfect “songwriters” like me. In doing so, she reminded me that vulnerability can serve as rocket fuel for the muse. It doesn’t guarantee greatness, but it guarantees growth.

As all artists know, it’s easy to create the safe thing, but it’s courageous to take the risk. Which is why the art that I admire most invites failure at least as often as success. Leave it to the critics to tell us whether or not we pulled it off. “While they are deciding,” as Andy Warhol famously said, “we’ll make even more art.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel J. Ordahl.

The Long, Winding Road to Publication

In 1999, I got the phone call every writer dreams of when my agent rang to tell me that William Morrow had made an offer on my first novel, In Open Spaces. The advance was very modest, but I didn’t care. I had been trying to get published for almost 10 years and hadn’t even managed to place a short story yet. Like many writers, I’d had my share of close calls, the most significant one being when I’d had an internship at the Atlantic Monthly and the fiction editor there, C. Michael Curtis, read the first few chapters of In Open Spaces and liked it enough to offer to help me find a publisher. The fact that someone of his stature couldn’t find someone to publish the book was one of many indicators of how challenging the publishing world can be. But eventually, I met the right person and my book found a home.

I’ve met enough writers in the 20 years hence to know that my story is not all that unusual, although I would challenge anyone to match my record of seven different editors for a first novel. About the time the novel was supposed to come out, Morrow was swallowed up by HarperCollins. My editor was laid off, and I was left in limbo for three and a half years, passed from one editor to another—one of whom called to tell me how much she loved memoirs—wondering whether it would ever see the light of day.

But it did, and it actually made a small splash, receiving a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and several other goods reviews, including one in The New York Times. After all those many years of wondering, the reception made me feel vindicated, to the point that I developed a bit of an attitude. I often refer to this as my “Everything I Have to Say Is Absolutely Fascinating” phase. Harper paid for a book tour, and I was convinced this was going to be my life.

I had apparently learned nothing from the parade of editors that left the company while In Open Spaces hung in the balance. I sent my editor at Harper one of the other novels I had written, but he was less than enthused. It was a complete departure from the themes of In Open Spaces, which is historical fiction based on my homesteader grandparents in Eastern Montana. So he asked whether I had anything similar. I had just started working on a sequel, so I sent him the first few chapters.

He was thrilled, and made me a pretty good offer ($20,000) for the book that would eventually become The Watershed Years. I was happy, but decided to push for a couple of things. The first book came out as a quality paperback, and like most writers, I had hoped for a hardcover, so I asked whether he thought that was possible. I also asked if they could raise the advance a bit.

He told me that he thought he could get me those things once the book was finished, but that I would have to turn down this initial offer in the meantime. I talked it over with my agent, who recommended I take him up on it, so I turned down the offer. Of course that editor left the company before I finished the novel. They passed The Watershed Years along to an editor unfamiliar with my work, who turned it down.

I was naturally very disappointed, but I also just assumed that my track record for In Open Spaces would open doors to another publisher. What I didn’t realize is that once you’re dropped by a major publisher, it’s almost impossible to move up to that level again if you are not a Big Name. My first book had sold more than 10,000 copies, which was good for a first novel, but not enough to put me into the category of a sure thing.

So for the next 15 years, I had to scramble to find a publisher for each and every book I finished. I was fortunate enough to land some very good agents, including one at Writer’s House, and one at Brandt and Hochman. But none of them ever got me a book deal. One of the unusual things about my career is that I’ve now sold seven books and no agent ever found the publisher for any of them. It was always a friend—or it was me.

I ended up working with whoever would have me, in most cases regional publishers in Montana. And I have nothing negative to say about any of those people. For the most part, they were dedicated and attentive, much more so than anyone at Harper ever was. But the downside is that your books never get the kind of exposure and distribution that a major publisher provides. As much as I enjoyed working with these smaller houses, I would have gone back to Harper in a second, and I tried to get my foot back in their door many times.

Oddly enough, after one of my books started selling fairly well, the publisher that was distributing it asked if I could get in touch with Harper about obtaining the rights to In Open Spaces. I figured that would be easy since the book was only selling a few hundred copies a year. But to my surprise, Harper declined; the book was still doing well enough that they wanted to hang onto the rights.

Meanwhile, my books continued to get great reviews. Two of them were finalists for the High Plains Book Award for fiction. But that made very little difference when it came to finding someone to publish my next book. So in desperation, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish two novels for which I hadn’t been able to find a publisher. That campaign raised a healthy amount, and during the process, a Facebook friend, Steven Gillis, founder of Dzanc Books, asked me to send him the novel that would eventually become Cold Country. I thought little of it because I was accustomed to getting my heart broken. But to my surprise, Michelle Dotter, the editor for Dzanc, contacted me with an offer to publish Cold Country.

I have given a lot of thought to those 15 years, and what I learned from that huge mistake of turning down the offer from HarperCollins. I’ve wondered why I would have been so willing to subject myself to being treated like a commodity, as the major publishers tend to do, rather than working with people who value your work for what it is. And one thing became clear. It’s not the money, although that certainly helps. It’s more a matter of being taken seriously, of having your efforts validated. It’s about avoiding that feeling of meeting writers you admire and having them dismiss you because you’re an unknown author. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve experienced this, and it’s an awful feeling.

Eventually, as an artist, you have to listen to that small voice in your head—the one that reminds you about the starred review and the review in The New York Times. That you are still that same writer.

Michelle Dotter proved to be an amazing editor. She came up with a brilliant solution for a narrative problem that had plagued me for years on Cold Country. And just last week, the first review came in, from the notoriously tough journal, Kirkus Reviews. It was a very good review. And I am ecstatic. And it could mean nothing. This could be the only review I get. But it is the first national review I’ve had for any of my books since In Open Spaces, and that alone has meant the world to me.

I will always aspire to greater things. More exposure. Tours paid for by the publisher. All of that is seductive. But, in the end, I needed to figure out if I could live with being a regional, mid-list writer. Is it possible to be happy as someone who has a small, loyal following? As a matter of fact, yes it is.

Image credit: Unsplash/Jesse Bowser.

My Chernobyl

☢ ☢ ☢ a tv show

In an early scene of the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl the local Pripyat town council is called to a meeting. By this point in Soviet history, these meetings of official Communist Party functionaries—like those portrayed in the scene—served no purpose beyond employing whatever means necessary to save the Party embarrassment from another ideological failure. The set-up is borderline comic, appropriately so, with a tableful of actors portraying crusty, back-slapping Soviet nomenklatura—honest to goodness bad guys—all too ready to swallow the demonic proposal offered by the crustiest Party hack in the room: Shut down the town. Nobody in or out. Cut the phone lines. We can’t allow a general panic. Particularly, the old man insists, since there’s nothing to panic about.

I wondered, though, whether Ukrainians and Belarussians watching Chernobyl wouldn’t guffaw their borscht out their noses at another “Hollywood” attempt to dramatize their aching history. More cultural hash, devoid of nuance, stuffed with comic book Soviet citizens. Had HBO screwed up, casting Anglophone actors who wouldn’t know a Ukrainian from a Taresian from the Delta Quadrant? The actors around that table were not the unflappable, taciturn eastern Slavs I’ve spent half my life among. Not even close.

I was pretty sure of myself: In giving life to Chernobyl, HBO, in a gloriously unintentional blast of irony, had birthed a mutant. A flop. It would sink like a pebble in a pond. Too windy. Far too nuanced for the 280-character generation. And anyway, ancient history. 1986? Pre-internet. People wouldn’t care. For proof, look to the five million Kyivites living within 80 miles of the Chernobyl dead zone, our city hyped by an endless string of millennial puff-pieces about “Kyiv: The New Berlin!”—how bad can the damage be, really? If nothing else, the series would fail because as an internet troll once scolded me: Ukraine is irrelevant. By writing about it I was just promoting American hegemony—a CIA acolyte, a baby boomer stooge pining for the Cold War and looking to disparage Marx.

An assertion that was, of course, as ignorant as it was beside the point. I love Marx. But the exchange did provide a delightfully ironic rendering of what happens when an ideologue bastardizes an otherwise worthy piece of technology—be it the internet or a nuclear reactor—to serve parochial interests.

Back on point: Admittedly, the Chernobyl series faced challenges. People would rather forget. Nuclear physics is hard, and conversely, easy to ignore. Ukraine’s new president, a comedian by trade (there is no joke in this sentence), is currently prodding the Ministry of Culture to turn the Exclusion Zone into a “Tourism Magnet,” and I wish I were kidding about the formulation he chose. Ukrainians who earn their bread and board in the cultural sector have largely adopted an exasperated pose toward the subject of Chernobyl—it’s boring. Insignificant. Ukraine has so much more to offer. A sentiment that oddly recalls Cousin Eddy in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation describing “the Yak Woman” at a local carnival: “She’s got these great big horns growing right out above her ears. Ugly as sin but a sweet gal, and a helluva good cook.” Chernobyl casts Ukraine as Europe’s Yak Woman. And if radioisotopes have anything to say—and they do—it will continue to serve in that role for the next 10 millennia, give or take.

☢ ☢ ☢ the history

Here’s the gist: In the early morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded—the worst nuclear disaster in European history. It came about because a young Ukrainian engineer, Sasha Akimov, did exactly what his boss told him to do and punched the malfunctioning reactor’s big red OFF button.

There’s more to the story—and the HBO series tells it well, with clarity that few physics professors could match—but that punched button would force the permanent evacuation of 350,000 people, kill tens of thousands more, embitter tens of millions, contaminate the greater part of Europe with random showers of radioactive fallout, poison sheep in Britain and Sami tribes in Norway, take a solid $225 billion bite out of an already flailing Soviet economy, and provide a fatal kick to the groin for the USSR.

In the 33 years since, the accident has also resulted in a shitstorm of mendacity, double dealing, and unprecedented opportunity for fiscal corruption in a state celebrated the world over for its genius-level capacity for graft fueled by disinformation. It has produced enough scientific and sociological studies to level a forest, grist for Ukraine’s competing hard-right political factions, and helped fashion at least two nation-states that suffer from chronic, somatically mutated socio-political cynicism.

☢ ☢ ☢ at home in Kyiv

By accident of history I am better positioned to spot the little flaws in the Chernobyl production—the rare anachronism, the even rarer info-dump passing itself off as dialogue and the very-non-Slavic staginess in some of the acting. An example of the latter: In one scene the male lead—in what is an otherwise knee-buckling performance by British actor Jared Harris—stands alone at a bar, knocking back jigger after jigger of vodka with nary a zakuska (munchies, hors d’oeuvre) in sight. Clueless that a true Soviet man, uncharacteristically deprived of zakusky, would take a deep snort of his own sweaty wrist after each gulp.

Yet, I kept watching long enough to confirm a thing or two, namely: goddamn HBO. They don’t make flops. My initial skepticism was wrongheaded. Chernobyl, the mini-series, is good. In places, great. A series to rewatch, if not by me. All it took was a single long crane shot filmed on a street I know well.

The scene in question shook me—wrong word—sent me into a sobbing fit that scared the hell out of my sons, three and five. It was filmed not three blocks from our flat. The Soviet penchant for cookie cutter architecture surely helped in the scouting for locations that resemble those in the ghost town of Pripyat and 1980s Kyiv. My neighborhood had provided one.

Military-drab personnel trucks with the word LIUDY (“people inside”) spray-painted in capital letters on the tailgate pull onto Kyiv’s Kostiantynivska Street. Soldiers fan out along the street to begin the work of conscripting some of the 700,000 volunteers it would take to restore the devastated area to something resembling order. Kostiantynivska is bisected by tram tracks and lined on either side by modernist apartment blocks. When it came on screen, I knew the place immediately—my sons’ kindergarten is in the left of the shot. And there, on the right side, hangs the mistake: a single plastic-aluminum balcony extension for a top-floor flat. If Google street view is dated correctly, that balcony went up during the past four years. It certainly wasn’t there in 1986.

An ugly anachronism, but one that reminds me that in life, as in art, the past, present, and future will meld any damn way they please and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing. Particularly when Chernobyl-related relevancies—strontium-90, caesium-137, and plutonium-239 and its 24,000-year half-life—come into play. The spectrum of radioisotopes produced by the 60-ish metric tons of uranium that spewed from the Chernobyl reactor core and were carried by prevailing winds that dropped nuclear fallout across the breadth of Europe before it could be controlled, well, those chunks of burning stardust have a different concept of time.

Yet, Kyiv is home. Safe as Chernobyl milk. My family stays in part because we lack viable options. Also, partly because, despite attempts by cynicism, that relentless bitch, to seduce me, I will show that I am tougher than her. Or at least tougher than I was before I started allowing her room in my heart.

Chernobyl made me mad—not at all what I expected when I sat down to watch in preparation for this essay. Full disclosure: Chernobyl—the accident, not the HBO series—and I have some shared history.

☢ ☢ ☢ an ancient history

I used to be a pastor, a priest, a performer of ancient Christian ritual. As such, I, like most clergy, kept a book called a Pastoral Agenda—a ledger of official sacerdotal function. You get baptized, married, anointed, or buried on my watch and the relevant names, dates, Scriptural text, and attending circumstances go in the book. An earthly spreadsheet with heavenly data.

One crisp autumn day in 2001, I entered a name and the attending circumstances in my leather-bound, gold-leaf embossed Agenda that ended up being the last entry I would ever make as a clergyman. Before I left the Church, taking off the cloth for good, more weddings, funerals, etc. would follow, though they’re mostly a blur. They’re definitely not in my Agenda. I have no conscious memory of it happening, but it’s clear that I stopped writing things down that day.

About two-and-a-half years after that final entry, I would finish my parish work in Ukraine and return to the United States. Six months later I would be released from a psychiatric hospital, now tagged as suicidal, with PTSD, and on full disability: an unholy trinity that puts a hellacious crimp in your job prospects in God’s green America. I did what any sane person would do: I went back to the country that had unmade me. The place that had confronted and continues to confront my demons with its own.

That last entry in the book records the day I spent with a mourning family in a small village in far western Ukraine—day three of a traditional Orthodox Christian funeral. I led the procession from the home to the church. Sang the liturgy. Led the procession from the church to the cemetery. Officiated at the internment. We had a bit of a scare at the church doors where pallbearers traditionally kneel three times, lowering the coffin to the ground before crossing the threshold. That day the pallbearer—only one was needed—nearly stumbled. In the end he managed not to fall, and the Igloo cooler-sized coffin he was carrying was delivered safely to the sanctuary.

The funeral was for a two-year-old boy dead of acute juvenile myeloid leukemia. The 39th funeral I had conducted in Ukraine for a cancer victim under the age of six.

The drive back from that Carpathian village was gorgeous, but I was in a rush because I’d been invited to a talk with a member of UNSCEAR—the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation—meeting with local pediatricians. I disliked her on sight. When she opened her mouth it only sealed the deal. She spoke with the dismissive assurance typical to the breed, telling the room: There is no credible evidence of widespread malign effect on public health from radiation released during the Chernobyl catastrophe. I worked with pediatricians who had, five years running, determined that 100 percent of the children they treated tested positive for hypothyroidism—thousands of children annually. Ukrainian children born a generation after Chernobyl. Their mothers had been girls when it blew up. Their results, these doctors were told, were anecdotal. It was intimated that their research would not be considered for UNSCEAR reporting “as is.”

The dreams can be rough. Dead-eyed parents standing by a grave as the shoebox that holds the desiccated corpse of their little one is lowered into the black soil. The child whose family was so poor that the only coffin they could afford was made of particle board covered in felt. The dead boy’s godfather served as pallbearer. It was raining hard as we walked from the church to the grave and the box began to split apart in his hands. He gripped it tighter before eventually dropping to his knees and weeping in a way that has me praying for senility. Perhaps one day I will unhear him. Or unsee the vision cauterized into my brain of a little girl, pinched and skeletal in her coffin, and the crisscrossing indentations made by the mortician’s stitches holding her tiny mouth shut.

☢ ☢ ☢ the half-life we’re living

In these latter days, Chernobyl adds little to my existence beyond the 1.5-percent pension tax I pay every quarter—certainly an upgrade from toddler funerals and the attendant demons that HBO refused to keep locked in their cage. And there are demons. There are more lurking in this story than the series could ever begin to tell: the State-enforced abortions and the pregnant women crossing borders to avoid them, the ungodly spike in juvenile cancers, the crushing infertility rates, the 31 years it took to finally put a stable cover over the reactor, and, God help us, even profiteering bankers, those nuggets of human toxin that surpass all understanding.

Perhaps the defining phenomenon I draw from Chernobyl is the understanding that there is no limit to the evil we will do to one another. Though perhaps I stand as proof that there is a limit to how much evil the average person can stand. Something the HBO series captured well by centering its story around Valery Legasov, the actual Soviet physicist and inorganic chemist who drove the creation of a team of 700,00—700,000!—first responders by sheer force of will. (You have to admire Soviet maximalism.) The same ragged crew of the unwashed whose daily micro-acts of defiance understood tyranny as a way of life and not just vocabulary for a hyperbolic political tweet. Legasov, though he possessed all knowledge of nuclear fission, and though he spoke the truth to Soviet power in the tongues of angels, could not find sufficient love in his heart and hanged himself in his flat.

Here, close to the core, we have it better than most. Chernobyl hunkers nearby, a daily reminder of the lessons we ignore to our peril. That governments lie. That their noble-sounding intentions will involve, without fail, practical human cost. There is no truth, no nobility, no heart in them. The lie is their native language and murder their craft. Embitterment their true policy. They call some men free while enslaving others. And they take this turn—some sooner, some later—because they are made up of us. We swallow the lie as we feed it. John Le Carré put it well: “Communism. Capitalism. It’s the innocents who get slaughtered.”

Don’t misunderstand, the broader lessons of Chernobyl—if that’s not too quaint—are as unimpeachable as they are immutable: Rogue technology is off its leash; we shit where we eat and the earth groans, indicating it’s had its fill; our institutions, our best ideas, are obsolete the day they are minted. And yet I can’t help but think that these concerns, though disturbing, are altogether predictable phenomena on the spectrum of evil produced by a benthic species with a penchant for deep hostility and murder in its genes.

Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature, told me a couple of years back during an interview for The Millions: “I cannot cover a war anymore. Cannot add to that storehouse of bad dreams. Instead I’m trying to talk to them…about love. But this is hard for us…every story about love inevitably turns into a story of pain. Ours is not a happy culture.” And despite the prevailing timbre of this story, I am not sure I completely agree with her. Chernobyl has given Ukrainians an advantage: the ability to recognize what James Joyce called “the radiance in all things.” They have seen the world as it is. The lie in all its bold potential. They have seen a generation of their children reduced to so much insignificant and unidentifiable particulate, seen those children dismissed as statistically insignificant, and yet they have endured. Who needs happiness when you have hope? Finally, when nothing is as it seems what else is there but hope?

☢ ☢ ☢

I’m sitting on a bench outside my church. Too crowded in there. Too many random nuclei bumping and jostling. Too much heat being generated. This little congregation has an unexpectedly outstanding choir and this Sunday they are singing the Rachmaninoff liturgy—a rare treat. A tram rattles down the block, the same model of tram that’s been traveling along this road for at least the last 33 years. A young woman exits the sanctuary. She is big pregnant and her belly makes it difficult for her to bow and cross herself three times before the church doors. Out and down through the narrow windows float the words of St. John Chrysostom from deep antiquity—let us now lay aside all earthly care—to my ear the spiritual cantus firmus that fueled Rachmaninoff as he labored to compose this otherworldly music precisely as the Russian Empire was beginning its meltdown. The pretty woman smiles at me as she passes.

Image Credit: Oleksandr Khomenko.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Emezi, Ellmann, Barkan, Donoghue, Atwood, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of  Akwaeke Emezi, Lucy Ellmann, Ady Barkan, Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pet: “Carnegie Medal–nominee Emezi (Freshwater for adults) makes their young adult debut in this story of a transgender, selectively nonverbal girl named Jam, and the monster that finds its way into their universe. Jam’s hometown, Lucille, is portrayed as a utopia—a world that is post-bigotry and -violence, where ‘angels’ named after those in religious texts have eradicated ‘monsters.’ But after Jam accidentaly bleeds onto her artist mother’s painting, the image—a figure with ram’s horns, metallic feathers, and metal claws—pulls itself out of the canvas. Pet, as it tells Jam to call it, has come to her realm to hunt a human monster––one that threatens peace in the home of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. Together, Jam, Pet, and Redemption embark on a quest to discover the crime and vanquish the monster. Jam’s language is alternatingly voiced and signed, the latter conveyed in italic text, and Igbo phrases pepper the family’s loving interactions. Emezi’s direct but tacit story of injustice, unconditional acceptance, and the evil perpetuated by humankind forms a compelling, nuanced tale that fans of speculative horror will quickly devour.”

Indelible In The Hippocampus edited by Shelly Oria

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Indelible In The Hippocampus: “Editor Oria (New York 1, Tel Aviv 0) compiles fiction, personal essays, and poetry from 21 female writers on the subjects of sexual assault, harassment, and other dehumanizing consequences of patriarchy, in order to bring #MeToo from screen to page and showcase voices less likely to be heard in mainstream media, including those of women of color, queer women, and trans women. The results are bracing and urgent. Kaitlyn Greenidge considers the question of who has the right to hear the story of her assault. Courtney Zoffness explores the implications of a student’s overtly sexualizing behavior, noting, ‘It didn’t matter that I had ten years on Charlie, or more degrees, or the power to fail him. He still felt compelled to exert sexual power.’ In a darkly comical standout piece of fiction, Elissa Schappell imagines an email exchange between a writer submitting the story of her rape for publication and a magazine editor, whose increasingly absurd and offensive notes culminate in a disclosure that, if the writer doesn’t meet the deadline, ‘We’re going to be forced to swap in a photo spread of Woody Allen’s greatest hits.’ The collection is far from an endless parade of suffering; the writers offer a sense of communal feeling, bravery, and triumph. It’s well worth readers’ time.”

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gun Island: “Ghosh’s latest (after Flood of Fire) is an intellectual romp that traces Bengali folklore, modern human trafficking, and the devastating effects of climate change across generations and countries. Dinanath Datta, who goes by the more Americanized Deen, is an antiques and rare-books dealer in Brooklyn. While in Calcutta, Deen encounters the tale of the Bonduki Sadagar, or the gun merchant, a localized riff on the familiar Bengali tale of a merchant and Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes and poisonous creatures. Intrigued, Deen pays a visit to the Sundarbans, the borderlands from which the myth originated. At the shrine said to be protected by Manasa Devi, Deen encounters a snake that bites one of the young men with him, with nonfatal but mystical consequences. Shaken, but convinced that it was just a freak coincidence, the rationalist Deen returns to America, where his trip still haunts him. A tumultuous year and a half later, under the patronage of his dear friend Cinta, a glamorous Italian academic, Deen arrives in Venice for the book’s second half, where he befriends the local Bengali community and further uncovers the tale of the Bonduki Sadagar as he is drawn into relief efforts for the refugee crisis. Ghosh writes with deep intelligence and illuminating clarity about complex issues. This ambitious novel memorably draws connections among history, politics, and mythology.”

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ducks, Newburyport: “This shaggy stream-of-consciousness monologue from Ellmann (Sweet Desserts) confronts the currents of contemporary America. On the surface it’s a story of domestic life, as the unnamed female narrator puts it: ‘my life’s all shopping, chopping, slicing, splicing, spilling.’ Her husband, Leo, is a civil engineer; they have ‘four greedy, grouchy, unmanageable kids’; she bakes and sells pies; and nothing more eventful happens than when she gets a flat tire while making a pie delivery. Yet plot is secondary to this book’s true subject: the narrator’s consciousness. Written in rambling hundred-page sentences, whose clauses each begin with ‘the fact that…,’ readers are privy to intimate facts (‘the fact that I don’t think I really started to live until Leo loved me’), mundane facts (‘the fact that ‘fridge’ has a D in it, but ‘refrigerator’ doesn’t’), facts thought of in the shower (‘the fact that every murderer must have a barber’), and flights of associative thinking (‘Jake’s baby potty, Howard Hughes’s milk bottles of pee, opioid crisis, red tide’). Interspersed throughout is the story of a lion mother, separated from her cubs and ceaselessly searching for them. This jumble of cascading thoughts provides a remarkable portrait of a woman in contemporary America contemplating her own life and society’s storm clouds, such as the Flint water crisis, gun violence, and the Trump presidency. The narrator is a fiercely protective mother trying to raise her children the only way she knows how, in a rapidly changing and hostile environment. Ellmann’s work is challenging but undoubtedly brilliant.”

Unseen Poems by Rumi (translated by Brad Gooch and Maryam Mortaz)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Unseen Poems: “With millions of copies of the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet’s work sold worldwide, this new book containing many first-time translations will find a ready audience. While the love poems resemble the erotic verse popularized by previous editors (‘Again my eyes saw what no eyes have seen./ Again my master returned ecstatic and drunk’), several new poems stand out in their foregrounding of Rumi’s religious descent. ‘Why make a quibla of these questions and answers?/ Ask instead, the lesson of the silent ones, where is it?’ one of the book’s many ghazals proposes, referring to the direction Muslims face in prayer. The Koran figures throughout: ‘Let me swear an oath on Osman’s holy book,/ The pearl of that beloved, gleaming in Damascus,’ reminding contemporary readers of the centrality of Islam to Rumi’s worldview, even if, finally, what Gooch calls a ‘religion of love’ carries the day: ‘Someone is snipped away, and I am sewn to another,/ Stitched together, forever, seamlessly.’ Offering new insight into the poet’s spiritual life, these poems prove a valuable addition to Rumi’s oeuvre.”

Eyes to the Wind by Ady Barkan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Eyes to the Wind: “Activist Barkan relates in this candid memoir how, after receiving a terminal illness diagnosis at age 32, he had to negotiate his failing body as his political star rose. In 2016, Barkan was diagnosed with ALS and given three to four years to live. Fueled by anger over his ‘outrageous’ situation, he sought to leave a legacy for his baby son and wife. A lawyer at the Center for Popular Democracy, Barkan initially resumed work on Fed Up, a campaign to encourage the Federal Reserve to enact policies beneficial to working-class Americans, but soon pivoted to health care, ‘bird-dogging’ members of Congress in visits to the Capitol. Barkan was wheelchair-bound by spring 2018 yet he embarked on a six-week cross-country tour in support of Democrats in the midterm elections (a sincere conversation with Arizona senator Jeff Flake about how a GOP tax plan would affect Medicare was captured in a video that went viral), ultimately sharing the stage with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. Throughout, Barkan weaves tales of law school and clerkships with insights into community organizing (a national movement led by a single person could ‘never approach the transformative political power that would be unleased by genuine mass movement of organized working-class people’). Barkan’s powerful narrative gives great insight into the nuts and bolts of political activism at work.”

Akin by Emma Donoghue

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Akin: “Donoghue’s underwhelming latest features a troubled doppelgänger of the sweet naïf from her best-known novel, Room, a foul-mouthed 11-year-old named Michael, whose great-uncle Noah takes him to the French Riviera to save him from the foster care system after Michael’s father dies of an apparent overdose and his mother, who is in prison, is unable to care for him. In the present day, Noah, having discovered some photographs taken by his mother during the two years she spent in Vichy France, and wishing to discover their significance, travels to Nice with Michael in tow. Dialogue between the two predominates as they wander about the city, constantly squabbling along predictably generational lines, searching for clues about whether Noah’s mother was a Nazi collaborator or part of the Resistance. The reader is soon exasperated with Noah’s own collaboration with the author, who won’t let him solve the mystery without Michael’s age-appropriate technological savvy. This work seems like a pale redux of Room, with its depiction of the wonder of a sheltered boy supplanted by the cynicism of a damaged one, whose voice doesn’t always ring true. The gap between Michael’s view of the world and the reader’s feels less charged than it should be, though the book makes up for it to some degree with a very satisfying denouement. This is a minor work in Donoghue’s astounding oeuvre.”

Also on shelves this week: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.

The Lion and the Eagle: On Being Fluent in “American”

“How tame will his language sound, who would describe Niagara in language fitted for the falls at London bridge, or attempt the majesty of the Mississippi in that which was made for the Thames?” —North American Review (1815)

“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” —Edinburgh Review (1820)

Turning from an eastern dusk and towards a western dawn, Benjamin Franklin miraculously saw a rising sun on the horizon after having done some sober demographic calculations in 1751. Not quite yet the aged, paunchy, gouty, balding raconteur of the American Revolution, but rather only the slightly paunchy, slightly gouty, slightly balding raconteur of middle-age, Franklin examined the data concerning the births, immigration, and quality of life in the English colonies by contrast to Great Britain. In his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin noted that a century hence, and “the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side of the Water” (while also taking time to make a number of patently racist observations about a minority group in Pennsylvania—the Germans). For the scientist and statesman, such magnitude implied inevitable conclusions about empire.


Whereas London and Manchester were fetid, crowded, stinking, chaotic, and over-populated, Philadelphia and Boston were expansive, fresh, and had room to breathe. In Britain land was at a premium, but in America there was the seemingly limitless expanse stretching towards an unimaginable West (which was, of course, already populated by people). In the verdant fecundity of the New World, Franklin imagined (as many other colonists did) that a certain “Merry Old England” that had been supplanted in Europe could once again be resurrected, a land defined by leisure and plenty for the largest number of people. Such thoughts occurred, explains Henry Nash Smith in his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, because “the American West was nevertheless there, a physical fact of great if unknown magnitude.”

As Britain expanded into that West, Franklin argued that the empire’s ambitions should shift from the nautical to the agricultural, from the oceanic to the continental, from sea to land. Smith describes Franklin as a “far-seeing theorist who understood what a portentous role North America” might play in a future British Empire. Not yet an American, but still an Englishmen—and the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord still 24 years away—Franklin enthusiastically prophesizes in his pamphlet that “What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land!”

A decade later, and he’d write in a 1760 missive to a one Lord Kames that “I have long been of opinion, that the foundations of the future grandeur and stability of the British empire lie in America.” And so, with some patriotism as a trueborn Englishmen, Benjamin Franklin could perhaps imagine the Court of St. James transplanted to the environs of the Boston Common, the Houses of Parliament south of Manhattan’s old Dutch Wall Street, the residence of George II of Great Britain moved from Westminster to Philadelphia’s Southwest Square. After all, it was the Anglo-Irish philosopher and poet George Berkeley, writing his lyric “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” in his Providence, Rhode Island manse, who could gush that “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”

But even if aristocrats could perhaps share Franklin’s ambitions for a British Empire that stretched from the white cliffs of Dover to San Francisco Bay (after all, christened “New Albion” by Francis Drake), the idea of moving the capital to Boston or Philadelphia seemed anathema. Smith explained that it was “asking too much of an Englishmen to look forward with pleasure to the time when London might become a provincial capital taking orders from an imperial metropolis somewhere in the interior of North America.” Besides, it was a moot point, since history would intervene. Maybe Franklin’s pamphlet was written a quarter century before, but the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord was wafting, and soon the idea of a British capital on American shores seemed an alternative history and a historical absurdity.

Something both evocative and informative, however, in this counterfactual; imagining a retinue of the Queen’s Guard processing down the neon skyscraper canyon of Broadway, or the dusk splintering off of the gold dome of the House of Lords at the crest of Beacon Hill overlooking Boston Common. Don’t mistake my enthusiasms for this line of speculation as evidence of a reactionary monarchism, I’m very happy that such a divorce happened, even if less than amicably. What does fascinate me is the way in which the cleaving of America from Britain affected how we understand each other, the ways in which we become “two nations divided by a common language,” as variously Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw have been reported as having waggishly once uttered.

Even more than the relatively uninteresting issue that the British spell their words with too many u’s, or say weird things like “lorry” when they mean truck, or “biscuit” when they mean cookie, is the more theoretical but crucial issue of definitions of national literature. Why are American and British literature two different things if they’re mostly written in English, and how exactly do we delineate those differences? It can seem arbitrary that the supreme Anglophiles Henry James and T.S. Eliot are (technically) Americans, and their British counterparts W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas can seem so fervently Yankee. Then there is what we do with the early folks; is the “tenth muse,” colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, British because she was born in Northampton, England, or was she American because she died in Ipswich, Mass.? Was Thomas More “American” because Utopia is in the Western Hemisphere, was Shakespeare a native because he dreamt of The Tempest? Such divisions make us question how language relates to literature, and how literature interacts with nationality, and what that says vis-à-vis the differences between Britain and America, the lion and the eagle.

A difficulty emerges in separating two national literatures that share a common tongue, and that’s because traditionally literary historians equated “nation with a tongue,” as critic William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature, explaining how what gave French literature or German literature a semblance of “identity, coherence, and historical continuity” was that they were defined by language and not by nationality. By such logic, if Dante was an Italian writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau a French one, and Franz Kafka a German author, then it was because those were the languages in which they wrote, despite them respectively being Swiss, Czech, and Florentine.

Americans, however, largely speak in the tongue of the country that once held dominion over the thin sliver of land that stretched from Maine to Georgia, and as far west as the Alleghenies. Thus, an unsettling conclusion has to be drawn; perhaps the nationality of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson was American, but the literature they produced would be English, so that with horror we realize that Walt Whitman’s transcendent “barbaric yawp” would be growled in the Queen’s tongue. Before he brilliantly complicates that logic, Spengemann sheepishly concludes, “writings in English by Americans belong, by definition, to English literature.”

Sometimes misattributed to linguist Noam Chomsky, it was actually the scholar of Yiddish Max Weinreich who quipped that a “language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” If that’s the case, then a national literature is the bit of territory that that army and navy police. But what happens when that language is shared by two separate armies and navies? To what nation does the resultant literature then belong? No doubt there are other countries where English is the lingua franca; all of this anxiety over the difference between British and American literature doesn’t seem so quite involved as regards British literature and its relationship to poetry and prose from Canada, Australia, or New Zealand for that matter.

Sometimes those national literatures, and especially English writing from former colonies like India and South Africa, are still folded into “British Literature.” So Alice Munro, Les Murray, Clive James, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie could conceivably be included in anthologies or survey courses focused on “British Literature”—though they’re Canadian, Australian, South African, and Indian—where it would seem absurd to similarly include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison in the same course. Some anthologizers who are seemingly unaware that Ireland isn’t Great Britain will even include James Joyce and W.B. Yeats alongside Gerard Manley Hopkins and D.H. Lawrence as somehow transcendentally “English,” but the similar (and honestly less offensive) audacity of including Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath as “English” writers is unthinkable.

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of shared pronunciation, the superficial similarity of accent that makes us lump Commonwealth countries (and Ireland) together as “English” literature, but something about that strict division between American and British literature seems more deliberate to me, especially since they ostensibly do share a language. An irony in that though, for as a sad and newly independent American said in 1787, “a national language answers the purpose of distinction: but we have the misfortune of speaking the same language with a nation, who, of all people in Europe, have given, and continue to give us thefewest proofs of love.”

Before embracing English, or pretending that “American” was something different than English, both the Federal Congress and several state legislatures considered making variously French, German, Greek, and Hebrew our national tongue, before wisely rejecting the idea of one preferred language. So unprecedented and so violent was the breaking of America with Britain, it did after all signal the end of the first British Empire, and so conscious was the construction of a new national identity in the following century, that it seems inevitable that these new Federalists would also declare an independence for American literature.

One way this was done, shortly after the independence of the Republic, is exemplified by the fantastically named New York Philological Society, whose 1788 charter exclaimed their founding “for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue.” If national literatures were defined by language, and America’s language was already the inheritance of the English, well then, these brave philologists would just have to transform English into American. Historian Jill Lepore writes in A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States that the society was created in the “aftermath of the bloody War for Independence” in the hope that “peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt…a federal, national language.”

Lepore explains the arbitrariness of national borders; their contingency in the time period that the United States was born; and the manner in which, though language is tied to nationality, such an axiom is thrust through with ambiguity, for countries are diverse of speech and the majority of a major language’s speakers historically don’t reside in the birthplace of that tongue. For the New York Philological Society, it was imperative to come up with the solution of an American tongue, to “spell and speak the same as one another, but differently from people in England.” So variable were (and are) the dialects of the United States, from the non-rhotic dropped “r” of Boston and Charleston, which in the 18th century was just developing in imitation of English merchants to the guttural, piratical swagger of Western accents in the Appalachians, that this lexicographer hoped to systematize such diversity into an unique American language. As one of those assembled scholars wrote, “Language, as well as government should be national…America should have her own distinct from all the world.” His name was Noah Webster and he intended his American Dictionary to birth an entirely new language.

It didn’t of course, even if “u” fell out of “favour.” Such was what Lepore describes as an orthographic declaration of independence, for “there iz no alternativ” as Webster would write in his reformed spelling. But if Webster’s goal was the creation of a genuine new language, he inevitably fell short, for the fiction that English and “American” are two separate tongues is as political as is the claim that Bosnian and Serbian, or Swedish and Norwegian, are different languages (or that English and Scots are the same, for that matter). British linguist David Crystal writes in The Stories of English that “The English language bird was not freed by the American manoeuvre,” his Anglophilic spelling a direct rebuke to Webster, concluding that the American speech “hopped out of one cage into another.”  

Rather, the intellectual class turned towards literature itself to distinguish America from Britain, seeing in the establishment of writers who surpassed Geoffrey Chaucer or Shakespeare a national salvation. Melville, in his consideration of Hawthorne and American literature more generally, predicted in 1850 that “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day born on the banks of the Ohio.” Three decades before that, and the critic Sydney Smith had a different evaluation of the former colonies and their literary merit, snarking interrogatively in the Edinburgh Review that “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” In the estimation of the Englishmen (and Scotsmen) who defined the parameters of the tongue, Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Washington Irving, Charles Brockden Brown, and James Fenimore Cooper couldn’t compete with the sublimity of British literature.

Yet, by 2018, British critics weren’t quite as smug as Smith had been, as more than 30 authors protested the decision four years earlier to allow Americans to be considered for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. In response to the winning of the prize by George Saunders and Paul Beatty, English author Tessa Hadley told The New York Times “it’s as though we’re perceived…as only a subset of U.S. fiction, lost in its margins and eventually, this dilution of the community of writers plays out in the writing.” Who in the four corners of the globe reads an American novel? Apparently, the Man Booker committee. But Hadley wasn’t, in a manner, wrong in her appraisal. By the 21st century, British literature is just a branch of American literature. The question is how did we get here?

Only a few decades after Smith wrote his dismissal, and writers would start to prove Melville’s contention, including of course the author of Benito Cereno and Billy Bud himself. In the decade before the Civil War there was a Cambrian Explosion of American letters, as suddenly Romanticism had its last and most glorious flowering in the form of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Dickinson, and of course Walt Whitman. Such was the movement whose parameters were defined by the seminal scholar F.O. Matthiessen in his 1941 classic American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, who included studies of all of those figures saving (unfortunately) Dickinson.

The Pasadena-born-but-Harvard-trained Matthiessen remains one of the greatest professors to ever ask his students to close-read a passage of Emerson. American Renaissance was crucial in discovering American literature as something distinct and great in its own right from British literature. Strange to think now, but for most of the 20th century the teaching of American literature was left for either history classes, or the nascent (State Department funded) discipline of American Studies. English departments, true to the very name of the field, tended to see American poetry and novels as beneath consideration in the study of “serious” literature. The general attitude of American literary scholars about their own national literature can be summed up by Victorian critic Charles F. Richardson, who, in his 1886 American Literature, opined that “If we think of Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, the seventeenth-century choir of lyrists, Sir. Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Addison, Swift, Dryden, Gray, Goldsmith, and the eighteenth-century novelists…what shall we say of the intrinsic worth of most of the book written on American soil?” And that was a book by an American about American literature!

On the eve of the World War II and Matthiessen approached his subject in a markedly different way, and while scholars had granted the field a respectability, American Renaissance was chief in radically altering the manner in which we thought about writing in English (or “American”). Matthiessen surveyed the diversity of the 1850s from the repressed Puritanism of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the Pagan-Calvinist cosmopolitan nihilism of Moby-Dick and the pantheistic manual that is Thoreau’s Walden in light of the exuberant homoerotic mysticism of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Despite such diversity, Matthiessen concluded that the “one common denominator of my five writers…was their devotion to the possibilities of democracy.” Matthiessen was thanked for his discovery of American literature by being hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee over his left-wing politics, until the scholar jumped from the 12th floor of Boston’s Hotel Manger in 1950. The critic’s commitment to democracy was all the more poignant in light of his death, for Matthiessen understood that it’s in negotiation, diversity, and collaboration that American literature truly distinguished itself. Here was an important truth, what Spengemann explains when he argues that American literature is defined not by the language in which it is written (as with British literature), but rather “American literature had to be defined politically.”

When considering the American Renaissance, an observer might be tempted to whisper “Westward the course of empire,” indeed. Franklin’s literal dream of an American capital to the British Empire never happened. Yet by the decade when the United States would wrench itself apart in an apocalyptic civil war, ironically America would become figurative capital of the English language. From London the energy, vitality, and creativity of the English language would move westward to Massachusetts in the twilight of Romanticism, and after a short sojourn in Harvard and Copley Squares, Concord and Amherst, it would migrate towards New York City with Whitman, which if not the capital of the English became the capital of the English language.  From the 1850s onward, British literature became a regional variation of American literature, a branch on the latter’s tree, a mere phylum in its kingdom.

English literary critics of the middle part of the 19th century didn’t note this transition; arguable if British reviewers in the mid part of the 20th century did either, but if they didn’t, it’s an act of critical malpractice. For who would trade the epiphanies in ballad-meter that are the lyrics of Dickinson in favor of the arid flatulence of Alfred Lord Tennyson? Who would reject the maximalist experimentations of Melville for the reactionary nostalgia of chivalry in Walter Scott? Something ineffable crossed the Atlantic during the American Renaissance, and the old problem of how we could call American literature distinct from British since both are written in English was solved—the later is just a subset of the former.

Thus, Hadley’s fear is a reality, and has been for a while. Decades before Smith would mock the pretensions of American genius, and the English gothic novelist (and son of the first prime minister) Horace Walpole would write, in a 1774 letter to Horace Mann, that the “next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and an Isaac Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveler from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s.” Or maybe Walpole’s curious traveler was from California, as our language’s literature has ever moved west, with Spengemann observing that if by the American Renaissance the “English-speaking world had removed from London to the eastern seaboard of the United States, carrying the stylistic capital of the language along with it…[then] Today, that center of linguistic fashion appears to reside in the vicinity of Los Angeles.” Franklin would seem to have gotten his capital, staring out onto a burnt ochre dusk over the Pacific Palisades, as westward the course of empire has deposited history in that final location of Hollywood.

John Leland writes in Hip: The History that “Three generations after Whitman and Thoreau had called for a unique national language, that language communicated through jazz, the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance…American cool was being reproduced, identically, in living rooms from Paducah to Paris.” Leland concludes it was “With this voice, [that] America began to produce the popular culture that would stamp the 20th century as profoundly as the great wars.” What’s been offered by the American vernacular, by American literature as broadly constituted and including not just our letters but popular music and film as well, is a rapacious, energetic, endlessly regenerative tongue whose power is drawn not by circumscription but in its porous and absorbent ability to draw from a variety of languages that have been spoken in this land. Not just English, but languages from Algonquin to Zuni.

No one less than the great grey poet Whitman himself wrote, “We American have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources.” Addressed to an assembly gathered to celebrate the 333th anniversary of Santa Fe, Whitman surmised that “we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.” He of the multitudinous crowd, the expansive one, the incarnation of America itself, understood better than most that the English tongue alone can never define American literature. Our literature is Huck and Jim heading out into the territories, and James Baldwin drinking coffee by the Seine; Dickinson scribbling on the backs of envelopes and Miguel Piñero at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Do I contradict myself? Very well then. Large?—of course. Contain multitudes?—absolutely.

Spengemann glories in the fact that “if American literature is literature written by Americans, then it can presumably appear in whatever language an American writer happens to use,” be it English or Choctaw, Ibo or Spanish. Rather than debating what the capital of the English language is, I advocate that there shall be no capitals. Rather than making borders between national literatures we must rip down those arbitrary and unnecessary walls. There is a national speech unique to everyone who puts pen to paper; millions of literatures for millions of speakers. How do you speak American? By speaking English. And Dutch. And French. And Yiddish. And Italian. And Hebrew. And Arabic. And Ibo. And Wolof. And Iroquois. And Navajo. And Mandarin. And Japanese. And of course, Spanish. Everything can be American literature because nothing is American literature. Its promise is not just a language, but a covenant.

Image credit: Freestock/Joanna Malinowska.

How to Write the Perfect Five-Paragraph Essay

It was my job for a time to corral college freshmen, feed them books and then coax from them fits of insight five paragraphs at a time. This I did imperfectly. I asked them to think about their lives to concoct a narrative or descriptive piece from those thoughts. Or I’d place a book or a film in front of them and guide them down a twisting path of analysis. We’d end the semester by debating some thorny societal issue; they’d develop an opinion, search for credible sources to back up their views and then attempt to forcefully argue the point. This is all standard. Pages and pages of reading for me. Many late nights with students’ words. Hand cramped from marking grammar issues. Mind numbed from the repeated phrases, the In today’s society; from the malapropisms, the now and days. As I am teaching and grading these essays, I am writing my own fiction, the stories that would become my collections Insurrections and The World Doesn’t Require You. I wondered about the form of the five-paragraph essay and its place in my own work. One never sees a five-paragraph essay in the wild. Could it hold its own in a mature piece of writing? Constraints can lead to creativity, right? Isn’t that what poetic forms are about? This is how I arrived at the novella, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,” which ends my second collection. The constraints imposed by the five-paragraph essay could, I figured, be a space to dramatize all that is contradictory or absurd about academia.

In my own fiction, I usually dream freely, writing without form, mostly, hoping the words, like water, find their own shape. In my students’ work, though, I, like many academics engaged in teaching Composition, imposed a rigid structure: five paragraphs consisting of an introduction with a thesis statement at the end, three body paragraphs, and a summary conclusion. It’s a heavily maligned form, I know. Writer John Warner, whose book Why They Can’t Write is subtitled: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, insists it warps students’ idea of a well-formed essay and we should “kill it dead.” Even while teaching it and arguing that the form allows weaker writers unfamiliar with structure and grammar to find their way, I had my reservations. To think this through further, I figured, I’d introduce the form to my fiction. First, I’d write a story consisting of nothing but five-paragraph essays, taking us through a semester in a student’s and a professor’s life. It would be a longer story, though not anything resembling a novella; the essays would begin in a relatively milquetoast way though full of colorful malaprops and misspellings that winked at double meanings. As the student grew in confidence she would also grow more verbose and the narrative would become surreal and loopy until she was in open revolt against the structure of the essay, the professor, and society itself.
This provided some challenges that made themselves obvious before I could even write the first word. How does the professor’s voice get into the story? What is this class about and why does it make this student want to rebel? Most importantly, what the heck is this student writing about? Essays, student essays in Comp. 101 at least, don’t come from nowhere. They come from prompts carefully drawn up by professors to achieve some educational purpose. Those educational purposes are laid out in the course syllabus. Before I could write this student’s essays, before I could write a prompt, I needed to write a syllabus. This would be a Freshman Composition class, I knew. There I could exploit any number of contradictions and conflicts—between the high intellectual nature of the academic and the utilitarian nature of the course; between bored student and starry-eyed professor. It would be tragic. It would be hilarious.


When I started drawing up the syllabus, I thought of the way the realities of the classroom impose a loneliness onto the academic, particularly low-paid, overworked contingent faculty members. The words Professor or Dr. appended to the beginning of a name have the ring of prestige, but the miniscule rewards—low pay, lack of stability and time because of the mountains of papers to grade—often make getting through day-to-day life difficult and frustrating, even dangerous if you have no health benefits and your overwork is eroding your health. The phrase, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies, flitted through my head as a title and in making the syllabus the professor character formed. He would be a lonely man obsessed by loneliness and, like any good academic, he would use his intellect to solve his solitude. A doomed project if I’ve ever heard one. When I heard the professor’s voice I needed to know why he was so lonely. Some of it was in his syllabus, but to really understand it I needed context that called for traditional narration. I watched the story grow, not just into sections like a traditional short story, but into chapters. The email is both the bane and lifeblood of the college campus these days. As the professor reached out to his students and peers via electronic mail, I wrote those for him and his peers and charges. But what did the professor tell his students in class? Back in the real world, I spent many a class hour standing in front of PowerPoint presentations, talking and watching students flash pictures of the screen like paparazzi. I snapped ridiculous pictures of my childhood toys and used the photos to create the professor’s lecture slides. To you and me they’d be absurd, to him the pictures are as serious as commitment, as serious as sitting in solitude to think through your life’s path.
Through the process of getting to know the characters and watching the piece expand from a long short story into a novella, I realized I had to abandon my original conceit, the constraint of a series of five-paragraph essays that were to bring me boundless creativity. While the narrative had prompts for free writes and free writes from the student, both further revealing the professor and the student, the five-paragraph essay had not yet made an appearance. The narrative no longer needed three of them to mark time. The narrative now took place in an academic year, not a semester. I must say, I wasn’t eager to write the five-paragraph essay I knew the book needed. I had written enough from the student’s perspective that I knew her. Her final class essay had to represent a maturity of her voice. But the five-paragraph essay is often thought of as facile and stale, the opposite of mature, fully realized work. As Warner writes in an Inside Higher Ed essay: “The 5-paragraph essay is indeed a genre, but one that is entirely uncoupled from anything resembling meaningful work when it comes to developing a fully mature writing process.” I consulted books, doing the research the student would have done, inhabiting her, and then I wrote, following the rules and structures of the five-paragraph essay with the precision I had always hoped my students would, creating for her and for the narrative a piece of insight in five paragraphs.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Unsplash/Lachlan Cormie.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Keret, Solnit, Truong, Cruz, Rushdie, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Etgar Keret, Rebecca Solnit, Monique Truong, Angie Cruz, Salman Rushdie, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Fly Already by Etgar Keret

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fly Already: “Keret (The Seven Good Years) balances gravitas and drollery in this collection of 23 pieces. Stories often begin with declarative sentences—’I celebrate the kid’s birthday the day after.’—that presume an intimacy with the reader and immediately engage. Many are very short; ‘Evolution of a Breakup,’ ‘At Night,’ ‘The Next-to-Last Time I Was Shot Out of a Cannon,’ each capture a moment of emotional complexity. Longer stories start with that same directness and add complications. ‘Tabula Rasa’ begins with the explanation of a frightening recurrent dream rooted in academia and ends with echoes of the Holocaust. In ‘Crumb Cake,’ Mom is grumbling because her 50-year-old son is unsatisfied with the birthday cake she has made him. As a lunch celebration plays out, deeper fissures in their relationship are revealed. The longest story, ‘Pineapple Crush,’ begins with ‘the first hit of the day’ and follows the tumultuous life of a functioning drug addict who has a job working with an after-school program. Peppered throughout the book is an email thread about terrorism, Nazism, and UFOs; it’s the most unconventional story of all, bringing home the idea that the personal is political. The endlessly inventive Keret finds the truth underlying even the simplest human interactions.”

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dominicana: “The demands and expectations of family are an overpowering force in this enthralling story about Dominican immigrants in the mid-1960s from Cruz (Let It Rain Coffee). Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion, living in the Dominican countryside, becomes Ana Ruiz when she bends to her mother’s pressure and marries the brutish 32-year-old Juan, who has recently emigrated to America and is scratching out a living in New York. Juan and his brothers intend to build a restaurant on the Cancion family land back in the Dominican Republic, and part of the plan is for the brothers to first raise money by working in New York. When Juan brings Ana to the city, she’s overwhelmed, learning hard lessons about the locals and her husband—who’s abusive until Ana becomes pregnant—and she grows closer to Juan’s younger brother, Cesar. Ana comes of age while the Vietnam War protests surge around her in New York, and when the brewing conflict in the Dominican Republic erupts, Ana becomes determined to earn her own money and bring her mother and siblings to the relative safety of the States. The intimate workings of Ana’s mind are sometimes childlike and sometimes tortured, and her growth and gradually blooming wisdom is described with a raw, expressive voice. Cruz’s winning novel will linger in the reader’s mind long after the close of the story.”

The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Sweetest Fruits: “Truong (The Book of Salt) gives voice to three women in the life of Lafcadio Hearn—the real-life 19th-century Greek-Irish writer who wrote about America, the West Indies, and most notably Japan—in her remarkable novel about love, the power of memory, and betrayal. On the island of Cythera in the late 1840s, Lafcadio’s mother, Rosa, meets Charles Hearn, an Irish military surgeon, and sees in him not only romance but a way to escape her oppressive father and loveless home. But when Rosa arrives in Ireland, family politics and homesickness drive her away, leaving a young Lafcadio with nothing but the memory of her scent of lavender. In 1872, Alethea Foley, a young woman born enslaved in the U.S. but now free, meets Lafcadio, also called Patrick, in Cincinnati, where he’s pursuing a career in journalism. Though they fall in love and marry, there are rifts in the marriage rooted in their racial and cultural differences that they cannot repair, and he leaves. In the last decade of the 19th century, Lafcadio arrives in Japan after reporting stints in New Orleans and the West Indies. Soon he meets Koizumi Setsu, who becomes his literary and cultural translator, wife, and mother of his children. Interwoven through these richly imagined narratives are excerpts from the first, actual biography of Lafcadio Hearn, published in 1906. Truong is dazzling on the sentence level, and she inhabits each of these three women brilliantly. Truong’s command of voice and historical knowledge brings the stories of these remarkable women to life.”

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cantoras: “This sensuous tale from De Robertis (The Gods of Tango) takes readers to the author’s native Uruguay during the 1970s to follow the harrowing lives of five women living under dictatorship. Bonded as cantoras, or ‘women who sing’ (a coded term for lesbians at the time), Flaca, Romina, Anita, Malena, and Paz escape the oppression of their country’s new regime and enjoy freedom at Cabos Polonio, a little known beach. Flaca is a risk taker who bucks tradition; Paz, a 16-year-old romantic just discovering who she is; Romina, a revolutionary who continues to fight despite punishment; Malena, a mysterious one hiding a dark past; and Anita, a beautiful housewife with dreams beyond her marriage. Back home in Montevideo, people disappear and women are raped, but in Polonio, relationships and romance flourish. Over the course of 35 years, these friends and lovers form a makeshift family as they struggle to find their place and awake to their true desires. After the dissolution of the civic-military dictatorship in 1985, formerly forbidden romances are allowed to take root and the characters learn how to live under democracy. De Robertis does a fine job of probing the harsh realities of what it takes to carve out a life of freedom under an oppressive government.”

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Axiomatic: “Examining the theme of trauma and grief over the course of five extended essays, cultural historian Tumarkin (Otherland) presents a remarkable tour de force. Each essay derives its title from a different axiom—to pick two: ‘You Can’t Enter the Same River Twice’ and ‘Time Heals All Wounds,’—and explores an easily sensationalized subject, such as, in the latter, teen suicide. That the essays come across as original is a testament to their artful construction, as they organically navigates the networks of a community and evoke a larger system through its smaller components. ‘Time Heals All Wounds’ delves into the repercussions of teen suicide for families, schools, and communities, and moves through different stories as if they were all part of the same larger case. In addition to trauma, the essays also touch on the effects of time, as in ‘History Repeats Itself,’ about a lawyer whose commitment to ‘being embedded in the community, walking the streets, using the same public transport as my clients’ causes Tumarkin to reflect on how time ‘lets trust stick, and relationships take anchor.’ Perhaps most impressive is how Tumarkin openly courts, yet escapes, cliché. These essays will linger in readers’ minds for years after.”

Whose Story Is This? by Rebecca Solnit

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Whose Story Is This?: “Solnit (Hope in the Dark) highlights gains in the reframing of the American narrative in her incisive latest essay collection. The new narrative, she argues, is progressive and wider in scope, and makes room for the voices of women and people of color. In a moving open letter to Christine Blasey Ford, who testified to the Senate during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while the two were in high school, Solnit notes the cultural and legislative changes that came about after Anita Hill’s testimony to demonstrate how the results of such an act of bravery ‘rippled outward in all directions.’ In ‘The Problem with Sex Is Capitalism,’ Solnit explores the entitlement that causes some misogynist men to become violent when denied access to women’s bodies; in ‘If I Were a Man’ she enumerates the challenges of being a woman devoted to her career in a society that still expects women to sacrifice their own ambitions in order to be a caregiver and supporter of others. The collection’s standout, ‘A Hero Is a Disaster,’ suggests a reevaluation of the American ideal of ‘rugged individualism’ to reflect the fact that America’s (and the world’s) problems cannot be solved by single actors, but by ‘movements, coalitions, [and] civil society’ working in tandem. Solnit reasserts herself here as one of the most astute cultural critics in progressive discourse. This brief but trenchant collection will please her fans.”

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Quichotte: “Rushdie’s rambunctious latest (following The Golden House) hurtles through surreal time and space with the author’s retooled Don Quixote on a quest for love and redemption in an unloving and irredeemable U.S.A. In this story within a story, Sam DuChamp, author of spy thrillers and father of a missing son, creates Quichotte, an elegant but deluded, TV-obsessed pharma salesman who strikes out cross-country with the son he’s dreamed into existence, to kneel at the feet of an actress by the name of Miss Salma R. Quichotte and son Sancho brave Rushdie’s tragicomic, terrifying version of America, a Trumpland full of bigots, opioids, and violence. They experience weird, end-of-time events—people turn into mastodons, rips appear in the atmosphere—but also talking crickets and blue fairies offering something like hope. Allowing the wild adventure to overwhelm oneself is half the fun. Rushdie’s extravagant fiction is the lie that tells the truth, and, hilariously, it’s not lost on the reader that he shares this Falstaffian and duplicitous notion with none other than Trump (who is never named). Rushdie’s uproarious comedy, which talks to itself while packing a good deal of historical and political freight, is a brilliant rendition of the cheesy, sleazy, scary pandemonium of life in modern times.”

Also on shelves: Chimerica by Anita Felicelli.