Foreword: Moving On
When excited about a piece of writing, I often sense a largeness to it that exceeds what I first fully understand. As an editor, I’ve had that experience too often to remember. I love something and then struggle to articulate why, and it may take me a while to do so with any certainty. Perhaps it comes from rightness of form and richness of theme, including a necessary ambiguity in the subject. I may not fully get it at first because often the best writing is, in fact ,wonderfully complicated, both in what it is about and sometimes in the way it’s done. Literature has an almost biological element: its DNA shows similarities to past writing as well as newness and variance. It carries a suitcase or wears at least some of its clothes from the past. It doesn’t simplify life but sees and shows its messiness. This is shown in much of this issue, with the theme of moving on while at the same time still in ways still carrying the past.
Foreword: What You Live For
What You Live For
One would like to think the pandemic has inspired us to be more productively introverted, weighing what we are doing and why. But of course, the truth is that the pandemic has given us little choice but to be more introverted and self-evaluative. Regardless of the terrible way it has come about, it may be useful to look under the camouflaging dust of “normal” life and ask a few existential questions. What have we genuinely missed about normal life, what do we really care about, and how should we admit to changes?
Foreword: True Confessions
In 2007, during the events surrounding the funeral of my mother, Betty Speer Morgan, who was one of my heroes, my brother and I shared childhood stories, including one that our mother herself had told us not that long before. When we were children—he about six, me three—we had driven her nuts with endless sibling bickering, breaking things and chasing each other around the house. One day, when one of us broke yet another china dish, she had had enough. She got so angry that she proceeded to throw the rest of her china, all of it, piece by piece, out the front door of the house. In the confessional mode, I then remembered that for three or four years after our family had moved to the small motel where we lived, and which we ran as a business, with both my brother and I renting rooms to soldiers and their families from Fort Chaffee, I had stolen money out of the cigar box that we used for a cash register—as much as a couple of dollars at a time to go to the movie or buy cokes. My brother was surprised and mildly shocked by this and expressed as much. Later, as we were driving past the place where the motel had stood, he asked if I had forgiven him for throwing me through the glass shower door. I told him that I hadn’t because I didn’t remember his doing it. “I did it three separate times,” he told me. “I felt guilty about it for years afterward.”
Foreword: 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 many of us imagine human lives to be stable, a simple factual recounting of what happens through time proves that they seldom are. Surprises and shocks are in store for most of us. Bruce Feiler’s new book Life is in the Transitions discusses this idea abstractly and by example from detailed interviews of hundreds of individuals. They show that fixed patterns do not work well as life predictors in such areas as jobs, health, and personal commitments. They also suggest that insofar as we need a set of presumptions about our futures, it should allow for and expect transitions—not just small alterations but big changes. I appreciate this idea because it matches my own life experiences and because it is suggested by the radical changes in understanding in most areas of knowledge, from economics and history to the hard sciences.
Feiler points out that early worldviews were based on natural and cyclical time, partly because of the prevalence of agriculture in human life. Early mythologies were seasonal, though there were exceptions that admitted to linearity or the unexpected, for example in classic religious thought and literature. The nineteenth century moved to a worldview based on mechanical time, which is regular and linear. By the early modern era, the idea of life following a circle had been replaced by a concept of its proceeding through ages or phases or stages that were essentially predictable and fixed.
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 unlikely for several days. After three weeks in a hospital bed, he told me, “You don’t want to get this, Morgan.” Another friend, a writer and recently retired emergency-room doctor, sent me an e-mail summarizing the basics that he had learned about the virus from reading medical articles. He asked, too, if I remembered that in 1969, I had had a gun pulled on me by a revolutionary housemate. I didn’t, oddly enough, although I do remember this housemate repeatedly yelling at me for not being purely and totally revolutionary enough, and I do remember inhaling plenty of tear gas at demonstrations.
The events starting in Minneapolis and quickly spreading throughout the rest of the nation over the murder of George Floyd are indeed reminiscent of that year. Protests and less-than-peaceful demands for justice seem called for now, as they also did then, after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, along with what seemed like the endless dragging out of the Vietnam War. “So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim says after the latest disaster in the endless series of disasters in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Pandemics and racism and riots and the lack of national leadership make us think, “So it continues to go–and when will it stop?”
This issue of TMR reminds me of the basic ideas of Stoicism, a philosophy that arose long ago as an approach to dealing with the seeming harshness and unfairness of life. Stoicism in different manifestations has been one of the more resilient philosophies in Western thought. It began with the teachings of Zeno in the marketplace of ancient Athens, and it lasted through six centuries of Greek and Roman thinkers, including Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It influenced the epistles of the Christian Paul and many later classics of European literature. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy begins with an epigraph from Epictetus—“Not things, but opinions about things trouble men”—ironic in this case, since Sterne’s antihero is so overloaded with bookish doubts and opinions that he does well to get out of bed in the morning.
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 Christian Schönbein (13 Nov 1845), The Letters of Faraday and Schönbein, 1836-1862
Michael Faraday’s note to his friend Schönbein describing what he was learning about magnetism, electricity, and light was understated, considering that he had just helped crack open the door of what would become modern hard science. James Clark Maxwell’s book about the interconnectivity of light, electricity, and magnetism, published twenty years later, had an influence as profound as Newton’s Laws. In providing the “second great unification in physics,” Faraday and Maxwell ushered in twentieth-century science to a degree that Einstein said, “I stand on the shoulders of Maxwell.”
Elemental forces are as present in the arts as in the sciences. Attraction and repulsion, positive and negative, illumination and darkness, disruption and symmetry are pervasive in both the methods and substance of art. Like alternating current and atomic structure, literature offers protagonists and antagonists, stasis and movement, magnetic and repellent characters, light and dark tones, every emotion and its opposite.
Foreword: Luminous Road
Our literature came into a sense of purpose and identity after the Civil War, during the rise of the magazine as a widespread source of American writers. While there was an urgent need to see the United States as a unified nation, there was at the same time—among writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin, and Mark Twain–an interest in the variety of America’s culture, history and geography that came to be called the Local Color movement. “Americana” is a plural noun—naturally so, since it celebrates diversity in the histories, dialects, and customs of different areas of the nation.
It could be argued that in earlier centuries the sciences evolved no more quickly than other areas of thought. Until the Enlightenment was well under way, there were significant gains in understanding languages, classical literature, textual research, history, and other areas of the humanities, while in the sciences many old ideas persisted despite strong evidence to the contrary. Ptolemy’s second-century view of the universe was revised by adding “cycles” and “epicycles” to planetary movement to justify the geocentric model for over fifteen hundred years. Systematic bloodletting was used for about three thousand years to cure physical ailments—well into the nineteenth century, even in the United States. Reading a popular medical book for background of a novel set in the late 1880s, I was surprised by how little was known about human biology even then, with over half of the cures and medicines described being irrelevant or even toxic.
The sciences obviously reached a turning point with Darwin, however, and by the early twentieth century they were moving at a vertiginous pace, with Einstein’s new picture of the universe and relativity, followed almost immediately by quantum theory’s bizarre world of subatomic physics. Then came the Big Bang theory, predicted in 1948 and confirmed twenty years later by Bell Lab scientists: A proto-universe almost too tiny to describe suddenly “blows up” and begins expanding, producing a jumble of fundamental particles, until now, 13.7 billion years later, we infer a universe spread over a size that can only be guessed to be about seven trillion light years across. These kinds of colossal changes in both the physical and life sciences were added to in the past half century by amazing strides in areas such as the geosciences, genetics, microbiology, and medicine.
Evolution in the creative arts is subtler than in the sciences and even many of the other areas of the humanities, such as history. In the arts, there are of course changing methods of distribution and production, such as printing, movies, and the Internet, but the basic nature and subject matter of the arts may be less inclined to evolve categorically away from their past. This encourages me to keep several grains of salt on hand for the writer or critic who claims that an entirely new artistic approach is redefining literature.
Literature continues to deal with the same broad scope of human drama and collisions, suffering, treachery, villainy, and comedy that it long has addressed. Methods of storytelling are surprisingly resilient, too. Our oldest extant narratives, orally created two or three millennia ago—the Iliad and Odyssey and parts of the Old Testament—comprise elements still used today, including heroes and antiheroes, characterization, conflict, narrative progression and framing, plots, crises, themes, motifs, as well as rhetorical devices such as figures of speech and climactic structure. A talented young fiction writer whose novel I am currently reading uses epithets in his novel-in-the-making—not quite the “born from Zeus” or the “swift footed” ones of the Iliad—but epithets, nevertheless. Redefining and discovering different trends, writers, groupings, and periods in the arts can be useful, if only to help understand and promote them, but it should be done with humility. A good production of Shakespeare can electrify you or me and be as powerful and relevant to us as it was to a citizen of London four hundred plus years ago in the original Globe Theatre, no textual changes necessary.
The aged King Lear is so self-satisfied and doting toward his three daughters that he divides his kingdom among them, causing a civil war that kills almost every major character in the play. The basic stories in much of our canon of literature are hardly subtle. Their power and wisdom come from the discoveries about human nature and behavior through characters and their struggles. Beware of pride-bound, stubborn, pigheaded leaders—yes and beware of the idea that the themes of classic literature are “irrelevant” today. The resiliency of literature comes also in the clear and perfect expression of the moments and moods of life through language, many examples of which cannot be forgotten—Hamlet with the skull of his jester, Keats and his nightingale, or the sheer poignancy of Nick Carroway at the end of Daisy’s dock, looking out on the green light, thinking “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This issue of TMR calls to mind the theatrics, collision, fabular tension, and melodrama of classic literature. Daphne Kalotay’s story “Providence” is an interracial and age-spanning romance in which a forty-five-year-old African American woman has isolated herself in singleness and become increasingly uneasy about relationships in an era of heightened awareness of racial issues. There’s a mutual attraction between her and a significantly younger, mildly autistic neighbor, whom she has for seemingly good reason rejected in the past. Yet, after she has an idiopathic seizure while jogging, what follows forces her to reexamine her suspicions about men and about the barriers between people.
Lisa Taddeo’s story “Singapore” is fueled by impulse, anger, and violence. The mother protagonist, on a trip to the market with her toddler daughter, is abducted by a knife-wielding man who crawls into the back seat from a hiding place in the trunk. She realizes that he is intent on raping and killing her and her child. The story takes us—through flashbacks that convey the mother’s edgy, risky, sexually adventurous life and her ambivalent attitude about men—to a terrible but earned conclusion. It’s a story built on character as much as on action, and it is melodramatic in the best ways.“Gateway to the Arctic” by Jedediah Canon is another story of violence, a possible murder. It is told from the point of view of a father, a retired professional, whose son, a wildlife biologist, has been arrested and charged with murdering his colleague while the two were working alone together on a remote island off Alaska. There are no witnesses and only circumstantial evidence and the son’s history of Asperger’s. The father is suffering a severe medical problem at the same time as the trial and has by this combination of events reached a point almost as bleak as the Arctic weather. The story leads unswervingly to a powerfully ambiguous ending.
This year’s Smith Prize fiction winner, “Salt Land,” is Amanda Baldeneaux’s first published story. Set in Texas, it deals with the topical issue of oil fracking. Just widowed, Evaline Gillie has a degree in geochemistry and has worked for the oil company that leased mineral rights to the oil beneath her late husband’s family farm. While the town worries about her decision to cremate him rather than bury him, she suffers from the far darker fear of what will happen when they discover that the land is soon to be subject to forced pooling and that a recent large spill of salt wastewater by the oil company is rapidly poisoning vast areas. Her future plans make for a grim but shockingly real commentary on the attitudes of too many people toward spoiling of the land.
The Smith Prize winner in nonfiction, Jo Anne Bennett’s “Jamilla,” ponders the commitments and burdens that can occur when someone privileged helps someone impoverished. The essayist is an anthropologist working in Ghana, and the question she raises gives an honest look at the bottomless pain of Third World poverty, as well as the frustration and questions that one asks in the face of it. She writes, “This was a persistent dilemma: people around me lived in absolute poverty. They were ill. They were hungry. Their children were dying.My resources were limited. Who should I help? How to be fair? And why worry about fairness when the global economic system ground along oblivious of the suffering, acting as if half the earth’s population was an expendable embarrassment?” Bennett demonstrates that saving someone is not impossible, even when it may initially appear to be so, yet the larger issues keep coming back, and attempts to help are frustrating and at times seemingly futile.
In “Spinoza’s Landlady,” Robert Cochran depicts the controversy incited by the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher’s ideas, which questioned the authority of Scripture, resulting in him being shunned by his Amsterdam Jewish community. Cochran draws on early biography, accounts of those who knew him, and correspondence to assert that the loyalty Spinoza engendered in others was due to his own embrace of ordinary people and his ability to find among some of them a common goal. Cochran depicts this most challenging and, for many, threatening thinker as a person with a “gentle regard for his fellows that makes him the most lovable of philosophers.”
In Zachary Lunn’s poems, the past and present are at war. For him, those battles are both literal and figurative. He ponders the complexities of military valor, redeployment, and lineage. Bodies are bagged but rise from the dead, Humvees roar over bare deserts. He says of his parents: “Who knows the pains of their living, except we see them/ in our own beating hearts.” Lunn’s poems are stunning portraits of how vividly and sometimes perversely the past can live in the present. Vanessa Stauffer’s poems, fiercely feminist and lushly wrought, depict women breaking free from damaging patriarchal influences. Virginia Wolf, Nausicaa, “meangirls” and other muses come alive, their voices interweaving with Stauffer’s own coming of age. Our Smith Prize winner in poetry, Diane Seuss, writes unrhymed sonnets that reimagine and do homage to the form. They contain an exhilarating amalgam of pop culture and literary references, ranging from Herman Melville to Bill Hickok, James Joyce to punk rock. As Seuss says in “[My first crush was Wild Bill Hickok, not the actual guy but the guy who portrayed him]: “I was wise enough at age three to own my projections. I would become what I loved…” Her gorgeous poems capture our hauntings and contemporary lore.
The six illustrations presented in TMR’s Curio Cabinet offer a rare peek into the lives of a liberated German woman of the Weimar years, before Hitler came to power. As a young woman, at the outbreak of World War I, German artist Jeanne Mammen was forced to leave Paris for Berlin. Despite the cultural and intellectual richness of the era, she felt like an alien until she began to explore with notebook in hand the cafes, bars, revues, and nightclubs that were attracting Europe’s amusement seekers. Soon she became one of the few women artists of Berlin’s 1920s able to support herself with her illustrations, publishing them in lifestyle, fashion, and satirical magazines, until Hitler came to power, shut down magazines that did not promote the party line, and declared work like Mammen’s “degenerate.”
Following upon her popular urban art features “Street Disorder” and “The Urban Canvas,” in “Subversion: The Art of Rebranding the Message,” Kristine Somerville looks at contemporary artists who alter, satirize, and replace advertisements as a means of commenting on consumerism. “Subversion” offers a brief history of advertising as a science of manipulation, moves on to Pop art’s appropriation of the medium as a tool for social commentary, and then arrives at present day, where artists are openly and brazenly changing both the message and the medium.