Foreword | April 24, 2018
Over the centuries, heroes in literature have metamorphosed from god-like leaders to all-too-fallible humans. Prince Hamlet—brilliant, bedeviled, articulate, self-destructive—is an unforgettable early archetype. By the past century, literary protagonists had become complex human beings, even antiheroes, whose lives still represented something greater than their own failings. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is a modern antihero who in the pursuit of the love of his life creates an ill-fated—even if well intended and grandly American—palace of illusion.
Richard Poirier in A World Elsewhere noticed a tendency in American literature, especially in comparison with British literature, to displace the real with the imagined and the realistic with the romantic. America’s emblematic literary characters aspire to freedom, fulfillment, and even heroism, as opposed to achievement or thoughtful morality. Instead of learning the social and moral lessons, like many of Jane Austen’s or Charles Dickens’s protagonists—better judgment, kindness, honesty—the American often wants something grander. Melville’s Captain Ahab lives to obliterate a self-created representative of evil and nihilism—the white whale. Hawthorne’s characters struggle for self-realization against social constraint. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen grows up experiencing white poverty in West Virginia and moves to Mississippi, where he tries to turn himself into a grand Southern patriarch. In the process, he succumbs to the self-annihilating racist mythology of the Old South, and his seemingly invulnerable, satanically large life is ended by the slash of a scythe at the hand of a hillbilly backwater man not unlike Sutpen’s kinfolk.
The unreality of history since the great wars of the last hundred years may have contributed to this tendency toward large, menacingly dark romantic stories in American literature. Eliot’s defining poem “The Waste Land” rose from the ruins of World War I. World War II was the setting of some of the most important early postmodern novels. Yossarian of Catch-22, Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity’s Rainbow, and Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five all embark on unrealistic and increasingly absurd and desperate quests. In worlds this extreme—where Dresden is melted to the ground by firebombs and V-2 rockets fall on London—characters wander into fantasyland, forcing fiction back toward myth. And in later work by visionary African American writers, the absurdly evil institution of American slavery is addressed in novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad: ambitious historical fictions in which women (Morrison’s Sethe, Whitehead’s Cora) act heroically and violently for the goal of freedom.
Poirier believes that despite threads of dark romanticism in American literature, there are obvious optimistic elements in our urge for freedom, self-definition, and heroic reimagining. “Build therefore your own world,” said Emerson. Many of my favorite American novels are from the age of High Modernism, with its mix of realism and romance. In Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether takes up the charge to free his wealthy fiancée’s son Chad from the clutches of a presumably exploitive European woman. Strether goes to Europe and slips into his own series of attractions, relishing the freedom of experience that he finds there. As Strether eventually tries to bring Chad home, the reader questions whether the American is naively deceived by manipulative Europeans. Ultimately, though, if Strether’s loving appreciation of Europe is misguided, he has also experienced the richness of the old world and is expanded and refined by it.
In this issue of TMR, there are several wonderful examples of hidden strength and valor. In Sara Read’s “Kimmo in the Pisgah,” her first published story, C. J. is an Appalachian teenager who appears destined for a future of juvenile offenses that will escalate into more serious ones and a wasted life. His grandmother, who is raising him and his sister, decides to send him to a distant relative, “Uncle” Kimmo, an eccentric Finn who lives alone in a mountain cabin and makes knives for a living. The young man is angry and annoyed but gradually falls under Kimmo’s spell, learning to appreciate his solitary and Spartan way of life and developing a sense of self-worth. In the story’s retrospective ending, C. J. reflects that the time on the mountain saved him and wishes there had been a female version of Kimmo to do the same for his sister, whose life degenerated into addiction.
Tamara Titus is the winner in fiction in the 2017 Smith Prize contest. Her story “Exit Seekers” is about Ben Gibson, a diabetic amputee with a nicotine habit living in a care facility. In the nursing-home environment, with extremely limited freedom, surrounded by people with various deficits, Ben is a crusty and jaded moral barometer who somehow retains his humanity and kindness despite his circumstance. The story ends with a symbolic act of rebellion that underscores the loss of ability and very limited freedom people have in end-of-life care.
The story “The Resurrection of Ma Jun” by Denis Wong, a 2017 Smith Prize runner-up, is set in Shanghai, where the Ma family, ethnic Muslims, moved after the birth of their second child, Jun; the move has taken them away from their religious community. The parents hide their religion so that Jun’s father can keep his job and they will not be persecuted. In a series of events beginning with the accidental near-death and hospitalization of Jun’s older sister, Jun’s experiences demonstrate how being of a certain class or ethnicity can turn mere survival into a challenge. Trying to get beyond that to a world of hope and choice is itself a form of heroism.
“Coach Schwartz” by Andrew De Silva is another 2017 Smith Prize runner-up and a first story publication. Ryan, a professional tennis player, has left the sport at age twenty-five to raise his niece after his mentally unstable brother abandoned her. They live in a Chicago suburb, where Ryan coaches tennis in high school and is having a halfhearted affair. An unlikely surrogate parent and mentor of youth in general, he lives in a prescription-painkiller haze. Deeply flawed though he is, however, Coach Schwarz doesn’t just take care of his niece but loves her, and he works to find talent in his team and to inspire them.
Jonny Diamond’s “Deadwood Soldiers Take a Cruise!” is a powerful story about trauma. Tyler and Bonnie are veterans of the war in Iraq who met there and married, and who now suffer from PTSD. They share their narratives during a retreat that Tyler’s father has paid for, hoping it will help them get past their alcoholism. Their memories reveal their codependency and despair, and the hope that in the end at least one of them may make a partial recovery.
Rose Smith is this year’s winner of the Smith Prize in the essay category with “Rachel’s Wedding,” Rose’s first literary publication. There is a sweetness along with quiet strength in the tone of this essay, which narrates the wedding of the author’s best friend since adolescence. Alternating scenes move between the lovely Jewish wedding on a lakeshore and events of the two girls growing up together with their small circle of friends. Smith evokes the importance of female friendships, especially ones that arise from a mutual difference from the crowd, which in their cases are severe impairments that they’ve endured since childhood. Both girls were blessed with smart, brave parents who advocated for them through their challenges. The present moment of the wedding shows that even the most harrowing issues in early life can sometimes be endured and transcended.
Sharon Doorasamy’s essay “The Meat Must Float” is a runner-up in the 2017 Smith Prize contest. She recounts meeting and getting to know her mother-in-law in South Africa, showing some of the misunderstandings that occur when people of two different cultures become members of the same family. Doorasamy encounters language and traditions that are mysterious for her, causing something of a tug-of-war in her life. Yet at the heart of the piece is appreciation for a profoundly strong older woman who through lifelong hard effort met the challenges of an underclass life.
This issue’s poetry includes the work of Meghan Plunkett, winner of the 2017 Smith Prize contest. Her lyrical poems are fierce and gorgeous with narrative and imagery. Often, Plunkett’s heroes are female characters who witness or experience violence, whether a young girl discovering her power and vulnerability or a battered dove escaped from a magician. “There is always a woman who smiles at the butcher,” Plunkett tells us.
Rick Hilles’s long poem excerpted here concerns his childhood physician, a Holocaust survivor who spent time in seven concentration camps. Hilles weaves an interview with the doctor into a stunning poem that focuses on the doctor’s chance encounter with the mysterious “O,” a fellow prisoner. It is a riveting account of bravery that meditates on history, memory, and legacy. F. J. Bergmann is a runner-up in the 2017 Smith Prize contest. Her poems are concise and unusual in their vision. In them, death means that you can “sign in for the wings— / and the harp, if that’s what you want.” Another protagonist mulls, “We all have cellular material that wasn’t ours / to begin with.” Compact works of art, these sharp, eerie poems hover above a world perched on the brink.
This issue’s Curio Cabinet offers glimpses into the world of Harry and Caresse Crosby’s Black Sun Press. Known for their partying more than for their business acumen, this charismatic American couple bravely established their press in Paris in the ’20s. At first only interested in publishing their own poetry, they broadened their list to include new authors—Kay Boyle, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Hart Crane, among others. As Sylvia Beach said, “They were connoisseurs of fine books, but better still, of fine writing.”
Kristine Somerville’s art feature “No Man’s Land: The Battlefield Watercolors of Claggett Wilson,” showcases the arresting artwork of a World War I hero who used brushes and paint to confront the insanity and horrors of the battlefield. Injured twice and poisoned with mustard gas on the bloody frontlines in France, Modernist painter Wilson lived to create what is today considered among the best American art to come out of the “war to end all wars.” His impressionistic style is theatrical, emphatic, and dynamic as he blends the mood and the emotion of war with its bitter realities.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Dec 11 2020
Foreword: Fighting Back
Fighting Back Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood. —Dante, The Divine Comedy While temperamentally
Sep 29 2020
Foreword: Facing It
An old friend of mine called me in early May to tell me that he was alive, after all. He had caught covid-19 and been on a ventilator, his survival
Jun 19 2020
Foreword: Elemental Force
I happen to have discovered a direct relation between magnetism and light, also electricity and light, and the field it opens is so large and I think rich. —Letter to