Foreword | July 25, 2017
This issue—particularly its fiction—is replete with instances of darkness and turmoil in personal lives, and I wonder if this might be because fiction so frequently holds a mirror to the world in which it is created: writers are already metabolizing the historical moment. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, too, of past turbulences. It might be useful now to look at the previous century, if only to try to avoid repeating some of the same mistakes. The 1900s opened with a set of presumptions that didn’t work out. What many assumed was going to be a century of extended peace turned into an almost gothic time of warfare, economic disruption, and darkness: first an unexpected world war, followed a decade afterward by a worldwide depression, and then an even larger world war that stamped and defined the century as the bloodiest in history. Before the century was even finished, a cold war followed, with its several attendant wars and conflicts that comprised not just Korea and Vietnam but also the Chinese Civil War, along with about ten others.
The Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy were nations that could each boast a rich cultural and intellectual history. So how were they taken over, in the 1930s, by heads of state who got sixty million people killed (adding to the twenty million of World War I)? Of course, history is full of brinkmanship and warfare. We repeatedly demonstrate that we can outdo ourselves with destructiveness—and yes, the bombs and artillery did get shockingly more lethal; all of that is well known. I’m reading a biography of Adolph Hitler during his rise to power, an 1835-page book by Volker Ullrich, that offers some interesting clues to how this man—who wins the gold medal for Chief Lunatic of the Last Century—came to power in Germany.
The short answer is that most of Hitler’s ideas and goals were quite apparent. He became a rabble-rouser in his twenties, after barely getting by as an artist in Austria and then Munich. Before World War I, he strongly identified with the radical pan-Germanic nationalist movement, opposing internationalism and agreeing with many fellow Austrians’ fears that they were losing their jobs to immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe. Ullrich believes that Hitler’s extreme anti-Semitism was less obvious during this early period, even though Vienna was full of anti-Semitic movements and opinions. Hitler did not invent hyper-nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and all the other hateful ideas that he later pushed so hard. He picked them up from threads in popular culture and refined the use of them, becoming increasingly skillful at molding his speeches to play upon the prejudices and fears of the middle and lower classes of Austria and Germany. After moving to Munich, he made his name as a beer-hall speechmaker, using a range of political positions from the far right to the left, depending on his audience. He eventually named his party the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, even though subsequent governmental appointees primarily came from the bases of banking, industry, and the military and had nothing to do with workers. His delusions of German cultural and national superiority played well to both the haves and the have-nots in a country that felt cheated by the Treaty of Versailles, spates of hyperinflation, and the worldwide Depression.
Hitler’s modus operandi was to kick out anyone who threatened him, firing them or dismissing their decisions, if they occupied a governmental role. One official whom Hitler overrode was a conscientious state auditor who determined in October 1934 that the Chancellor owed over 405,494 Reichsmarks in income taxes. Hitler quickly appointed someone to overrule this decision and paid no personal taxes then or later. He also continually escalated the brutality of his regime by killing groups of people through Nazi “street movement” rioting and murder. After the Nazis were fully in power, he continued to use orchestrated riots and began to openly use the SS to eliminate political enemies.
The Führer slipped into power by appealing to the frustrations of both ends of the class spectrum with promises that sounded desirable if not entirely credible, as well as by persistently currying favor with the elderly President von Hindenburg. He also employed new methods of transportation and communication, hopping around Germany by air and maintaining a grueling schedule of carefully orchestrated speeches to large crowds. President von Hindenburg appointed him as Chancellor in January 1933. Prior to that, his party had undergone several years of ups and downs in elections, never winning a majority of positions. When Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor, it was widely speculated in German newspapers that two of the more prominent members of his cabinet would mitigate Hitler’s extreme ideas and he would not last long in this position.
Once in power, Hitler stripped authority from established political offices and gave it to individuals of his choosing, operating in a continual “state-of-emergency” mode, which resulted in “unprecedented degrees of corruption, patronage and outright embezzlement” by the appointees, according to Ullrich. He promoted and mediated rivalries among his close officials. For example, infighting occurred between his finance minister, Hjalmar Schacht, who by 1934 feared that Hitler was going to bankrupt Germany with rearmament, and Hermann Goering, who figured Germany would do fine once it moved into war mode. Schacht tendered his resignation, which Hitler didn’t accept at first, keeping up the rivalry between the two; then, after the war started, he fired Schacht. Avoiding traditional governmental roles and institutions, denying or condemning anyone who resisted him, promoting rivalries, and keeping things in a state-of-emergency blur: in brief, his approach was to gain control and then maintain it no matter what it took.
By the time he launched the war and introduced the concentration camps, his scapegoating attacks had grown to target every sort of “undesirable” element—Jews, homosexuals, criminals, foreign soldiers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other groups. At the end of the war, 3.5 million German nationals were still in concentration camps and 11 million had been killed in them.
Personally, Hitler was capable of being charming and attentive, and even acting genuinely interested in the opinions of others. He gave birthday gifts to the wives of members of his close group, inquired about their families, and held regular gatherings in his mountain retreat, Berghof, in the Bavarian Alps. Ullrich devotes significant effort to describing daily life at Berghof, if only out of natural curiosity at how civilized and domestic Hitler could appear to be. Ullrich’s overall view of life in this domestic “retreat” is that despite its pleasant routines of dinners, nightly movies, Wagner, and conversations about art, it was in fact a place of continual work. Hitler never in his life separated work from play and quite often launched into hours-long monologues that occasionally ended with his falling asleep while he was talking. Insiders were both eminently aware of and cooperative with Hitler’s plans. Those plans were to retake lands Germany had lost in both east and west after the war, then to expand and dominate Europe and create a “thousand-year Reich” complete with vast stadiums, buildings, causeways, railroads—in short, a “new Rome.” Despite later denials by survivors from this group, they clearly knew Hitler’s plans, just as anyone in the public who was paying the slightest attention knew, certainly by mid-1938, that he intended to rid Germany and Austria of all Jews.
This issue of the Missouri Review foregrounds the turbulence of history, and of individual lives. The lifelong impact of war atrocities, even on those who are simply witnesses, not victims, is the subject of our Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning story: Jason Brown’s “Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead” is partly set—at its heart—in the memory of seeing the remains of a concentration camp at the end of the Second World War. It concerns John, a very elderly New Englander, retired English teacher, veteran, and widower, and his new romance with his neighbor, Isabel, eighty-five, whom he has known since they were young. When he sneaks off to see Isabel, John ends up telling her about a horrific concentration-camp scene he witnessed at the close of World War II, an experience he has kept to himself for decades. Her response to this awful secret is an almost frightening denial, and it leads to a dramatic denouement. It is a richly toned story with a darkly comic thread despite its subject.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s “Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss” is another dark comedy—this one leading to a realization of the irrelevance of fame in a mortal, conditional, quickly changing world. The protagonist, Chandra, is a famous Cambridge economics professor who is once again—how could this be?—passed over for the Nobel Prize. In an absent-minded moment, his bad day suddenly becomes much worse, leading to a series of realizations that make clear to our glum professor that not getting the Nobel Prize might be the least of his troubles.
John J. Clayton’s story “Joy” is about a psychologist approached by a terminally ill patient to help her make sense of her life before she dies. In the process of counseling her, he begins to question the human tendency to live “a diminished life” to avoid risks, which has kept his patient, and himself, from experiencing joy. The turbulence, as well as the epiphany in this story, derives from weighing the quality of a life about to end. Edward Hamlin’s “A Small but Perfect Happiness” is a slyly gothic tale about a woman who is also being haunted by mortality. Sandra is a recent widow and mother of one son, Curt, who has moved to Italy with a beautiful and cultured Italian girlfriend. In the wake of her husband’s and mother’s deaths, Sandra is trying to establish a new normal, but frequent texts from her son interrupt her plans. Soon the texts, with accompanying photos, become more ominous, leading to a crisis that is both harrowing and weird.
C Pam Zhang’s “And How Much of These Hills Is Gold” is another tale with a gothic tone, this one set in the American West. Two young Chinese American characters are navigating a hostile mining-country landscape in the wake of their abusive prospector father’s death. It is a gritty and surprising story about survival and luck.
In Tyler Keevil’s Smith Prize-winning essay, a young man is employed in a small, privately owned factory cutting metal without safety goggles when a piece of “swarf” flies into his eye. The accident surprises neither him nor his boss, because the economy is rough and it seems symptomatic of a general malaise and sense of defeat: “We were like soldiers who simply didn’t bother to put on their helmets before heading into the fray. We expected things to go wrong. Things were going wrong. People were losing their jobs and companies—ours and others—were going bankrupt. Mortgages were being foreclosed. Banks were failing. . . . All going, or gone,” writes Keevil. The essay evokes a somber mood and tone, as a single event radiates outward to illustrate a larger, unsolvable situation.
Robert Wrigley’s memoir “Nemerov’s Door” concerns the author’s late father, a civilian Air Force employee and car salesman. The essay focuses on two points in their relationship—a meeting with Howard Nemerov when Wrigley was a very young poet, and his father’s death many years later. At the center is Wrigley’s meditation on and homage to Nemerov’s poem “The View from an Attic Window.” He contemplates the relationship of his craft to his father’s love of cars and planes and sees that what we are comes from both our lineage and our chosen vocation.
In Jacqueline Kolosov’s interview with Andre Dubus III, the author talks about growing up poor, as the son of a single mother divorced from his writer father. After holding back and being a passive observer to violence against his family, young Dubus decided to fight back, and his young adult years were riddled with violence, until he discovered his talent and interest in writing.
Karen Skolfield’s Smith Prize-winning poems use her service in the Army to explore issues of language and gender. Brutal and lyrical, they wrench open the devastating experience of war. Whether tracing the etymology of the grenade back to the “red pulp” of the pomegranate or exploding stereotypes of men and women alike, the poems upend traditional notions of war. Heather Treseler’s ferocious persona poems reimagine the mythological figures of Daphne, Persephone, and Demeter. A young woman is turned into a tree and endures “girlhood’s sweetly rotting body.” Another hears the thumps of souls raining down on the root-cellar underworld she shares with her husband. Treseler’s poems are somehow both contemporary and classical, seething with sublime threat. The images in Nancy Takacs’s poems ripple with tension, holding together both yearning and uneasiness, as blown-up, dead stars nevertheless hide the holy, and a sunrise “reels in its cup of flowers” from the speaker who only wants to keep that light. Both meditative and uneasy, Takacs’s work complicates ideas of the pastoral and devotional.
Paintings by the subject of our art feature, Emily Carr, are highly regarded in Canada for the way they capture the wilderness and spirituality of early twentieth-century British Columbia through sculptural landscapes and bold colors. In her visual feature, “London Times: The Boarding House Pictures of Emily Carr,” Kristine Somerville presents six rare pieces from Carr’s early work, depicting life in the boarding house where Carr stayed during her studies in London. With saturated colors and flattened perspectives, the images capture the small dramas of Victorian women abroad, prefacing the work that would later make Carr famous.
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