One cannot tell the story of our nation without also telling the story of our wars. And these often harrowing tales are best told by the men and women who lived them. Today’s American military is the best trained and best educated in our nation’s history. These men and women offer unique and important voices that enlarge our understanding of the American experience. Looking at the great literary legacy of soldier writers from antiquity to the present, I cannot help but expect that important new writers will emerge from the ranks of our latest veterans. Dana Gioia, chair NEA
Gioia is describing “high seriousness”; great art brings laughter, even belly laughter, but is, in the end, highly serious about the nature of man.
I�ve never liked modern poetry much, but a survey course in the second half of American lit has to spend time on Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. It may look at Williams and Pound. The �has to� probably signals my age and the fact that I spent the eighties and into the nineties ignoring lit crit. So be warned, this is an amateur at work. Still, I do believe it �has to�, so I�ve been trying to come to terms with them and only intermittently succeeding. Soon, however, I noticed how central to modernism was the break with tradition of World War I: Frost returned as the war started, with his first books at the critic�s; Eliot stuck in England came to feel at home there while writing of the alienated �Prufrock� in 1917; and Stevens, too, found his unique form during those years, as �Sunday Morning� was published in 1915. We generally think of World War I poets as Brits and with good reason. They fought the war, took it as their subject; some died, others were scarred. These Americans (unlike Hemingway, e.e. cummings, Faulkner) were not affected directly. But it is interesting, possibly important, that they as well as many others found their distinctive voices at that time.
Arts & Letters links Norman Lembrecht�s �Makers of the Modern World� about World War II culture. Lembrecht contends
Even more remarkably, the cultural rebirth contradicted the old adage that when the cannons roar the muses are silent. This was a war when, for the first time in history, every civilian in combatant countries was at risk of bombardment, dispossession or deportation. Yet the closer the threat, the more urgent was the public demand for spiritual catharsis � not in the old remedies of religion, ideology and alcohol but in the distilled products of artistic imagination. If one image prevails it is of thousands of bank clerks, civil servants and canteen staff queuing in their lunch hour to enter a National Gallery, denuded of art and under constant threat of air raids, where the white-haired Myra Hess was to play a piano sonata by Beethoven.
I�m not sure if we want to be all that dismissive of �religion, ideology, & alcohol� as ways to find meaning in a chaotic world, but such conflicts do make us take our mortality, our sense of good and evil, our relation to the larger and longer history of man as well as art and ourselves, indeed, all of these, more seriously. If war-time conditions make such introspection and art an unaffordable luxury, that doesn�t mean the sentiments aren�t there. We are prodded awake. We see consequences. We see responsibility writ large.
World War I gave birth to modernity and it was echoed in the poetry of these men � each remarkably different but each trying to give meaning to what they see at first (perhaps always see) as emptiness. Stevens� biographer notes that his was the
“m�tier of nothingness�; Eliot describes the isolation of Prufrock (1917), and Frost, well, at the center of Frost is always that emptiness, that sense that �They cannot scare me with their empty spaces / Between stars–on stars where no human race is / I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.� Of course, each is profoundly influenced by the stark vision that arose not only from World War I, but also from the ideas that flourished in the teens. These consistently emphasize the material, reinforcing the distrust of abstract and noble words that cover base action and that prompt the cynicism so often following war. Howell�s �Editha� and Crane’s Red Badge of Courage are filled with irony; irony & realism & the retreat to regionalism all followed the carnage of the Civil War. After WWI, this was probably best expressed by Hemingway’s impatience with meaningless and grandiose speeches; he emphasizes, instead, the tactile, the real.
But before there was Howell there were the writers of that war. Whitman emerged a mature poet, ready to weld together the nation that had survived. But, he had begun a decade earlier to find his voice. Let�s consider quite possibly the greatest period in American lit, the one Matthiessen described as the American Renaissance. The shape the Renaissance would take is seen in the �coming to consciousness� described by Frederick Douglass; his 1845 autobiography emphasizes the role of western culture in awakening him, his powerful description of what reading � what consciously becoming a separate, aware person who was also linked to writers of centuries before – wrought in him. First he knew wonder, then sorrow at his enslaved condition, and then purpose. Experience taught him that art & words were inextricably bound with consciousness. In the 50�s Emerson�s popular lectures made his audiences acutely self-conscious; he hoped, indeed for self-reliance (the title of perhaps his most popular speech/essay). And between 1850 and 1855, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Uncle Tom�s Cabin, Song of Myself, Walden, and Representative Men were published Meanwhile, Martin Johnson Heade in 1859 expressed the intensity of the brooding sky and quiet before the Approaching Thunder Storm. Larry Reynolds argues these writers were heavily influenced by the revolutionary world of 1848 Europe. Perhaps (quite probably) this is true. But the storm is coming on, not passing. And surely some obsession with Europe arose from a projection of what all must have felt would be the inevitable conflict at home; it concentrated their minds, on what was and what was not important, on the relation of man�s law to God�s law, of the self to the society. (As now, perhaps, Europe prefers obsessing with what they perceive to be our problems rather than their own.)
This may well have been unconscious and only in our hindsight do we see its dark shadow falling across this time; nonetheless, they were quite aware of the Compromise of 1850�and the need for such a compromise to duct tape together a union destined to break apart. These writers were northerners, anti-slavery (though Hawthorne was hardly fervent). But the Fugitive Slave law brought slavery home to New England. It motivated the most popular and least complex of these writers, Harriet Beecher Stowe. And it prompted motifs that weave their way through Walden of man asleep, dead, and unconscious. Awakening is empowering, but open eyes are sharply observant, thus the sarcasm of �Slavery in Massachusetts.� Awakened, Thoreau feels Massachusetts, and therefore, he himself, are implicated and tainted by slavery.
Consciousness, as Douglass demonstrates, is both painful and empowering. Whitman�s buoyancy (�Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large�I contain multitudes.”) contrasts with Hawthorne�s �The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.� And Thoreau�s internalized journey contrasts with Eliza�s escape across the ice strewn river. Sure, they have different solutions and come from different visions � of religion and politics, of sin and redemption, of the individual and the community. But they share a moment in history and intensity, derived from their sense that the law as they knew it was not in harmony with what they believed just and wise, the true law.
They weren�t holding on to the past but surely they were afraid of the future. Awakened, they were concerned with the great and eternal conflicts. Their works change, deepen. (Early Hawthorne seems slight next to the depth of The Scarlet Letter; Melville�s travel works have little of the breadth of Moby Dick; Thoreau�s early naturalism does not reverberate as Walden does.) These old forms could no longer express the ideas of the newly aware, newly conscious, newly awake. Now, they were concerned, in work after work, with the relation between the great issues that have always faced man, made starkly real. Awake, they asked: what is our right relation to the great truths, to the community and to others; perhaps more importantly than in earlier art, they were concerned with our right relation to ourselves.
And so this decade (indeed, pretty much half decade) makes us reflect on Lebrecht�s point. With these writers we sense the psychological intensity. This is Dickinson territory; she, too, is writing by the late 1850�s. She describes �a certain slant of light� that �leads to internal difference / Where the meanings are� The intensity of the quiet, perhaps, in those years. Poe dies in 1849 and with him (at least in America and at this time) arguments a writer�s goal is �effect.� Never a �writer of ideas,� Poe values moving the gut. He understood best how to play the emotions, but his contemporaries are impatient with an aesthetic of art for art�s sake. On the contrary, they hope to understand, to explain, to put in proportion.
In 1855 or even 1865 few if any would choose the writers we now do to make up that Renaissance. And so, we might ask, is there some great poet, some novelist, some painter, some composer that is �getting it,� that has, with the efforts of the last years, developed a profound understanding of what human nature is, of the tragic and comic as well as an ability to express it? We won�t know now; maybe we won�t know for fifty years. It may well be worth watching for. The works may be anti-war, perhaps in the voice of Jaroslav Hasek�s Good Soldier Svejk or Joseph Heller�s Catch 22 and speak of corruption, venality, and man at his worst. Or they may speak (in tones Victor Davis Hanson and Homer would recognize) of heroism, leadership, pride, and a worthy, though bought with tragedy, goal. Or maybe both.
Who was awakened by 9/11? To whom did the world become clearer, more serious, more real. Who became a “serious” writer? Who has brought back from that awareness an art that will help us understand human nature, understand the tragic and the comic about ourselves, about all men? Who will have the ability Whitman believes is the poet�s responsibility � to give proportion? Much seems disproportional now, but whose poem will as Frost puts it, become �a momentary stay against confusion”? These were writers of seriousness, even recognizing how momentary that stay might be.
Perhaps the work anthologized and praised will come from the 500 Poets Against the War. However, just as likely this insight may come from a voice yet unpublished, perhaps by the catalyst of the workshops set up by Dana Goia. Perhaps because Gioia�s sister was in the military his perspective broadened. Perhaps because military blogging surely helped hone skills. Perhaps as he goes on to discuss, he was immersed in classical lilterature with its wars and heroism. Perhaps his years with X. J. Kennedy, a poet & gentleman of the old school, gave him a different appreciation of literature. Perhaps it is how he found in himself his own poetic voice. Perhaps, finally, it was because he came from business rather than the academy. But, whatever the reasons, Gioia’s take on the NEA seems revolutionary:
I would say that the major reform I’ve made at the endowment can be summarized pretty easily,” Gioia said. “Historically, the National Endowment for the Arts thought of itself as a federal agency that served artists. Today, the NEA sees itself as a federal agency which serves the American public by bringing the best of the arts and arts education to all Americans.”
So he initiated Home Coming and gave it the context noted above:
As a group of Marines, some battle-hardened in Iraq, gathered recently at Camp Pendleton to swap stories and get pointers on crafting them into fiction pieces, poems and memoirs, Dana Gioia was observing with a mixture of awe and pride.The workshop was part of Operation Homecoming, one of Gioia’s high-profile initiatives as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. It has brought writers like Tobias Wolff and Tom Clancy to military bases nationwide to coach veterans on their writing, some of which will be published in an anthology.
Gioia is drilling in territory rich with black gold.
Update: One of my friends sent a Gioia op-ed.
. In it, Gioia observes:
But a strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, the interest young Americans showed in the arts — and especially literature — actually diminished.
As people on this blog have repeatedly observed this is bad for a society in many ways.
The evidence of literature’s importance to civic, personal, and economic health is too strong to ignore. The decline of literary reading foreshadows serious long-term social and economic problems, and it is time to bring literature and the other arts into discussions of public policy. Libraries, schools, and public agencies do noble work, but addressing the reading issue will require the leadership of politicians and the business community as well.
I suspect that tv & media & computers are not all to blame – I read a lot more than I did five years ago, thanks to blogs & C-span. And I tend not to see schools and public agencies as doing quite as noble work as Gioia does, but, well, I do respect what he’s doing.
Posted by Ginny on May 18, 2005 03:57 PM