Foreword | January 24, 2019
This issue’s story “Relatable Influence” by Bradley Bazzle calls to mind the change in the word “influencer” over the last few years from referring to someone who has a significant impact or serves as an inspiration in one’s life—an important character such as a grandparent, teacher, writer, or entertainer—to the current “influencer” who stimulates you to buy something: a marketing celebrity or personality on the Internet. Bazzle’s story is about a mom blogger who worries that her increase in followers is leveling off and hires a famous photographer to promote her image. He proves to be a disruptive force with methods the narrator can’t fathom. “Relatable Influence” is an arch and slyly satirical story about social media influence, and it has much to do with the difference between the old-fashioned meaning of that term and the current meaning, as well as with people’s difficulty accepting change.
The story stirred a conversation among our editors about our own influencers at different life phases and how, over time, even what seem like vital ones may become less so as personal issues evolve. Some of our own influences were really important and some simply added to our lives’ enjoyments—and indeed even the important ones changed over time. Such musing may cause a flash of melancholy, fond or otherwise, but the larger fact of universal impermanence makes it hardly a surprise that influences evolve or wane. Over historical time, broad human knowledge and history change at an amazing pace, just as over geological time rivers find different routes, mountains wear down or spring up, and so forth.
I recently read an article that provides a notable example of the progress of knowledge of what might be called the largest subject—the shape and size of the universe. The article made the point that in cosmology, the models keep evolving. One of the current models describes about 2 trillion galaxies or 2000 billion galaxies by the American math system, spread over about 13 billion years of time (depending on how you figure it; fifty-some more billion by another method), arranged in weird spiderweb-like clusters. Some places show a relative density of galaxies, while others appear to be vast regions of nothingness, or at least include nothing detectable. Quite a change from the heliocentric Copernican model or even the early Big-Bang models of less than a century ago. Yet such evolving representations occur not just in physics and biology and geographical science but in every area of thought, the humanities as well.
Like the sciences, the humanities evolve in almost parabolic curves as we learn more and take note of different elements of a full subject. I am reading These Truths, Jill Lepore’s new single-volume history of the United States. She admits at the start that it’s a nearly impossible task to survey the history of the nation in one volume—offering, for example, only a brief discussion of the War of 1812—but she offers a wonderful, compressed look at how much our history has evolved over the last twenty years. Lepore is a realist about the settlement of the Americas, and without being hamstrung by political correctness, describes fairly directly the succession of events that went into the organizing of this great nation. American and United States historians now have at their call far more knowledge of such subjects as population movements, economic and religious motives for settlement, slavery, Native American relations, and the conflicts between the almost mind-numbing variety of populations and cultures at play in the Americas.
Because the Americas offered so much space compared to the livable space in Europe—five times more—in 1492 it was both more widely settled and more populous, with about 75 million people compared to Europe’s 60 million. Europeans, despite dying in droves from the rigors of crossing the Atlantic and early settlement, particularly in the Caribbean, carried with them diseases that killed tens of millions of Native Americans. Between 1500 and 1800, two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas, bringing with them 12 million slaves. The diseases that resulted from their arrival killed some two-thirds (about 50 million) of the native population. Much of the early work and building in the new settlements was done by slaves, not just in places where the first real money was—the tobacco, rice, indigo, sugar, and cotton plantations of the Caribbean and Southern states—but also in New York, Philadelphia, New France (Quebec), and New Spain (New Orleans). The result was that from the earliest colonies through our Enlightenment-inspired writing of a Constitution, there was a pervasive and ongoing paradox regarding the issue of slavery.
One of the early influencers of US history was John Locke, whose Enlightenment thought was a major contributor to American independence, including the concepts and even some of the phrasing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet Locke’s work as the secretary to the Earl of Shaftsbury had likely included helping draft the original Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which explained away and rationalized slavery. This fact of realizing that slavery was a “vile and miserable state of man” (Locke’s own words in Two Treatises on Government) clouded the thoughts of many of the founding thinkers of our nation, including James Madison, slaveholder and principal author and promoter of the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson, who fathered at least six children by the black housekeeper and servant Sally Hemings, his “concubine” from her teenage years until his death. The figures behind the grand American experiment knew from the start that slavery was going to become an explosive issue. Slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire in 1833, which proved to be one of the principal causes of the Southern states deciding to fight for American independence. In short, it was a substantial, publicly rationalized but also publicly argued issue from before the founding of the nation.
Lepore’s history helps us get real and recognize a little more of the obvious. True history, insofar as it can be hypothesized, contains a great deal that has been forgotten or is not well understood in the accepted history of any given period. Many quite obvious realities and influences have to be rediscovered. Nuts-and-bolts research in the sciences, arts, and applied arts provides revealing instances of that same fact. For example, even in an art or applied art as recent as moviemaking, historians of the genre have rediscovered what was plainly known at the time it was happening—that women were important pioneers in most aspects of the work and business, particularly through the silent era. Or in literature, where even a most casual look at the actual contents of early periodicals, now accessible online, reveal a similar rediscovery of what any literary editor of the nineteenth century knew—that in Britain and America, at least, there were as many or more women writers than men.
In this issue, Peter Gordon’s story “Elizabeth” sets the romantic passion of just-marrieds against a backdrop of lavish celebration, but with darkness hovering at the edges. Into his story of a newlywed couple who’ve just married at a Boston hotel walks Elizabeth Taylor, who congratulates them on their wedding when she notices their clothes. “This was during one of the fat periods of her life when she went on months-long gluttonous rampages where her reckless appetite haunted her every waking minute,” says Gordon’s narrator, the young groom; but then he comments, “Her violet eyes were the brightest things I’d ever seen; I didn’t know someone’s eyes could actually burn like that.” An unexpected gift from the famous actress and sudden tragedy in the hotel’s ballroom heighten the shocking randomness and transience of life that pervade the story.
Ed Falco’s narrator in his humorous but covertly serious story “Balls” is a naive twenty-year-old from the East, transplanted to Chicago and living there at the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the subsequent riots in the city. Amid the danger and drama of the rioting, he has a naive yet erotic encounter with his next-door neighbor, a young woman of Armenian descent with a partiality to sporting equipment. It’s a precisely tuned story about how, especially in youth, sheer proximity and a shared ordeal can lead to intimacy.
In her essay “The Day the King Died,” Susan Kellam writes about her experience at the death of one of the important entertainers of the last century. Kellam was a journalist working for Rolling Stone in August, 1977, when Elvis Presley died. The magazine had just moved cross-country from California. Staff hadn’t even worked out their protocols in the New York office yet, and now their planned debut issue was upended by the death of a rock icon. The essay describes the influence of such events in private lives and also on a public scale.
Jillian Weiss’s essay “Awakening to Jake” describes her adopted brother, Jake, who is African American and autistic. In her essay she comes to terms with the risks he faces from self and from law enforcement and describes her increasing awareness of those risks as news stories about black deaths at the hands of law enforcement have become commonplace. The essay is an affectionate portrait of a troubled young man who could easily become a victim and a statistic. It’s also a working-out of Weiss’s raised awareness and fear. “Perhaps my fear for Jake’s life is fueled by presumption and pessimism, but he’s been fighting for his life since before he was born,” she writes.
In “Savage December,” Dennis McFadden’s compassionate rogue and con man Lafferty, who appeared before in our pages in “The Three-Sided Penny,” (TMR 30: 4) shows up again, but now Lafferty is aging. He’s losing his charm and influence with younger women and his sense of control over his own destiny. A while back, he had a long-term fling with a homely pregnant woman, Molly—long enough to see her son born and get to know him. When he finds out that Molly has been conned out of a valuable item she acquired during their time together, he recruits an old drinking buddy and steps in to set things right—but ends up, as he always has, trading in loyalty for personal gain.
Catherine Pierce’s powerful poems examine the influences of our cultural progenitors and inheritors. Her poems weigh the worth of nostalgia, lament past mistakes, and hope that old sins will be righted. “Danger Days” challenges a generation tempted to stay passive, like the absent, “unghosted” parents in ’80s teen horror movies. In an age where we watch real-life horrors play out on the “phone and laptops and TVs flicker.” Brian Swann’s poems, bold in voice and content, are haunted with the immortal presences of Aphrodite and Homer, pop-culture gods like Basquiat, Jay Z, and Lady Gaga. A street-smart coyote asserts his timelessness in “The Return of Coyote,” and in “Plain and Simple,” the speaker contemplates the uses, history, and interpretations of language. Swann’s poems understand that the answer is both complicated and profoundly simple. Miho Nonaka’s elegant poems reflect on the influences of fairy tales, cross-cultural and intra-cultural borders, and the pull of untranslatable nature. In “Border,” nature offers the possibility that “there must be a world beyond such/a series of self-projections.” Her poems show how our influences sing, shape, and free us.
Kristine Somerville’s visual feature “Mark My Words: The Power of Text in Art” showcases eight contemporary artists whose work highlights the diversity of materials and messages possible when using the written word as the primary focus. These artists are part of the avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century in that it broke away from the representational nature of European art, offering words as a more immediate source from which to draw meaning and inspiration. Our Curio Cabinet, “You Wouldn’t Know Her from a Man: Male Impersonators of the Victorian Music Halls,” describes the life of Vesta Tilley, who with her father’s help started at a very young age playing male roles in Victorian music halls, eventually becoming the first superstar in that genre. Women playing “pants parts” in theatrical productions has a long tradition, but it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that women performing comic male roles in opera, burlesque, and pantomime flourished. The early 1860s marks the presence of male impersonators in music halls, with their lively comic portrayals of male characters slowly becoming a regular part of the lineup. These talented women performers took pleasure in lampooning the foibles and eccentricities of various socially recognized types of the opposite sex: the swell, the young spoiled rich man, the overeager public servant, the clueless oaf sowing his oats. The amusing thing about Tilley was that she was so loved by both British and American audiences that she became an early influencer of styles, with young men both laughing at her characters and adopting her flamboyant dress styles.
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