Foreword | March 01, 2005
In 1729, Jonathan Swift published “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland, from Being a Burden to their Parents or Country,” advocating that the young, healthy children of Ireland be fattened and marketed “as a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food.” These tender young things would offer high quality meat, “whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled,” and be a fine addition to British cuisine. Furthermore, most beneficially, they would help solve the unfortunate Irish fiscal problem. Needless to say, reading “A Modest Proposal,” whether in 1729 or 2005, makes it impossible to avoid thinking about what was really going on in an Ireland controlled by England’s colonial government.
Good satiric send-ups, whether literary or dramatic, are surprisingly rare, possibly because satire quickly grows tiresome when too angry or too silly. In this issue, we interview a crew who has inherited the Swiftian tradition at its best-Jon Stewart and his co-authors of America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. Stewart anchors Comedy Central’s Daily Show, which won the last year’s Television Critics Association award for outstanding news and public affairs. In both the television show and this wildly confessional history “textbook,” the writers uncover what’s almost true—and in surprisingly many cases is true—about American history.
Jeff Hammond’s “Bad Scouts and Nervous Indians,” this year’s Editors’ Prize winner in the essay category, is a wry memoir about a solitary boy and his father who manage to have fun together despite their equally unsociable personalities. Suzanne Feldman’s prize-winning story “Secret Histories” has the feel of a memoir as well in its depiction of an art-school graduate who must finally begin to face the real world. Davis McCombs’s Larry Levis Prize-winning poems are about tobacco farming, of all things, and they are loyal to the language and imagery of place yet at the same time beautifully lyrical.
Sam Pickering’s “On the Genteel” is a confession about an equally unlikely topic. The author identifies with a literary mode that is seldom even mentioned except as a disapproving term for one of the brief vogues that pre-ceded “modern” writing. Sam doesn’t like for it to be revealed that he was the prototype for the teacher (played by Robin Williams) in the movie The Dead Poets Society, but this essay gives a sense of why he inspired such a memorable character. It dramatizes the far-reaching charm of reading books, not as being merely purposeful, sensible behavior, but as something looser, at times wilder and more fun.
While Sam Pickering discusses the broad experience of reading from the perspective of a seasoned writer and reader, Jeremy Jackson’s lyrical reminiscence, “Food, Animals,” ambles back in time to recreate his ten-year-old perspective on farm life. In its near-perfect recall of a sensual life lived very close to nature, as well as in its rendering of an acutely perceptive child’s consciousness, the essay reminds me of one of the fathers of confessional literature, Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose autobiographical Confessions begins with Rousseau’s remarkably (and fascinatingly) detailed memories of his childhood.
Twenty-eight years of reading for a literary magazine has led me to appreciate that plot and apparent mood seldom convey the full effect of a great story. Paul Eggers’s terrifying, moving “This Way, Uncle, Into the Palace,” is just such a story—confessional, dark, yet at the same time mysteriously and beautifully hopeful.
Saskia Hamilton has edited the correspondence of poet Robert Lowell (to be published this June by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), from which we here offer a handful of letters for your enjoyment. Lowell and Sylvia Plath, his student at Harvard, are regarded as the archetypal confessional poets, although neither of them was limited to that kind of writing. Lowell in fact began his career as an ambitious and brilliant formalist, who in 1946 won the Pulitzer Prize foLord Weary’s Castler . He came to his confessional self, best exemplified by Life Studies and For the Union Dead, through a much-resisted appreciation for Beat poetry and an attempt to deal with his own lifelong torment of manic-depression. A brilliant, energetic, sometimes crazy letter writer, Lowell was frequently in mental hospitals. Yet as these examples show, he developed and maintained friendships with dozens of people, particularly writers such as Edmund Wilson, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost.
As our long-time readers will notice, this issue of The Missouri Review shows some changes in format. We’re a little bigger and a little brighter. We hope you enjoy.
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