Archives for category: Literature

Megan Schmidt wrote in Discover magazine about the value of reading fiction. Although written a year ago, this article is timely because it decisively refutes one of the central tenets of the Common Core, which encourages teachers to spend increasing amounts of time on “informational text” while decreasing time for literature.

She began:

Would the world be a better place if people read more books?

Of course, asserting that reading can fix the world’s problems would be naive at best. But it could help make it a more empathetic place. And a growing body of research has found that people who read fiction tend to better understand and share in the feelings of others — even those who are different from themselves.

That’s because literary fiction is essentially an exploration of the human experience, says Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto.

“Reading novels enables us to become better at actually understanding other people and what they’re up to,” says Oatley. “[With] someone who you’re married to … or a close friend, you can actually get to know them. Reading fiction enables you to sample across a much wider range of possible people and come to understand something about the differences among them.”

Perspectives on Empathy

Psychologists have found that empathy is innate, as even babies show it. And while some people are naturally more empathetic than others, most people become more-so with age. Beyond that, some research indicates that if you’re motivated to become more empathetic, you probably can. Although there are many ways to cultivate empathy, they largely involve practicing positive social behaviors, like getting to know others, putting yourself in their shoes and challenging one’s own biases. And stories — fictional ones in particular — offer another way to step outside of oneself.

Fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character’s mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age. Words on a page can introduce us to what it’s like to lose a child, be swept up in a war, be born into poverty, or leave home and immigrate to a new country. And taken together, this can influence how we relate to others in the real world

Sometimes, empathy is described as the glue that holds society together. Without it, humankind probably wouldn’t have gotten very far. Our ancestors depended on acts of caring for survival — such as sharing resources, help with healing the sick, and protection from predators. And we’ll probably continue needing empathy to move forward. Yet, at this particular moment in history,it can feel like empathy is on shaky ground.

From this perspective, it seems that our current test-driven regime and neglect of literature are promoting the wrong values. Selfishness, competitiveness, hyper-individualism, lack of empathy.”

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration devised highly successful programs to create jobs and at the same time, perform useful public works, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put young men to work, with a salary, food, and shelter while they performed manual labor related to the conservation of natural resources in rural lands owned by governments. Another worthy New Deal initiative was the Federal Writers’ Project, which hired writers to document their time and place.

Scott Borchert wrote a history of the Federal Writers’ Project. He recently wrote an opinion piece about proposed legislation to revive a new Federal Writers’ Project for our time.

Nearly eight decades ago, the Federal Writers’ Project — the literary division of the New Deal’s vast jobs creation program — met an untimely demise at the hands of its enemies in Congress. Now it seems that Congress may invite its resurrection.

In May, Representatives Ted Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernández introduced legislation to create a 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project. Inspired by the New Deal arts initiatives — which produced government-sponsored guidebooks, murals, plays and more — their bill is a response to the havoc unleashed by the pandemic on cultural workers in all fields.

Here’s how a revived F.W.P., as currently envisioned, would work. Instead of hiring impoverished writers directly — as the Depression-era F.W.P. did — the new program would empower the Department of Labor to disburse $60 million in grants to an array of recipients, from academic institutions to nonprofit literary organizations, newsrooms, libraries, and communications unions and guilds.

These grantees would then hire a new corps of unemployed and underemployed writers who, like their New Deal forebears, would fan out into our towns, cities, and countryside to observe the shape of American life. They’d assemble, at the grass-roots level, a collective, national self-portrait, with an emphasis on the impact of the pandemic. The material they gathered would then be housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The new F.W.P., in other words, would revitalize and repurpose portions of our existing cultural infrastructure. The plan is drawing support from the Authors Guild, PEN America and the Modern Language Association, as well as from labor unions. Never in the almost 80 years since the dissolution of the original F.W.P. has there been such a unified and resonant call for its return.

Then again, this is the first time in generations that writers have faced the kind of sustained economic hardships the F.W.P. was designed to address in the first place.

The best reason to support a new F.W.P. is also the most obvious. Like its predecessor, the project would be an economic rescue plan for writers, broadly defined: workers who have been grappling with a slowly unfolding crisis in their industry for at least a decade. Even before the pandemic, the combined stresses of the digital revolution, the so-called gig economy, severe cutbacks to local journalism outfits, and other related developments made writing a precarious business.

Then came 2020 and an economic shutdown that exacerbated all these trends. Not every writer felt the worst of it. Book sales went up and the most successful authors, journalists and editors continued to work relatively unimpeded. But less secure writers — and many millions of white-collar workers in writing-adjacent fields — were not so lucky.

A new F.W.P. would deliver a much-needed economic boost, especially if we follow the original project’s example and define “writers” as broadly as possible. That means throwing open the doors to librarians, publicists, fact-checkers and office assistants, as well as beat reporters, aspiring novelists and junior editors. The original F.W.P. considered all such people “writers” as long as they needed jobs and could successfully carry out the tasks of the project.

But writers aren’t the only ones who would gain from a new F.W.P. The project’s documentary work would make an invaluable contribution to the nation’s understanding of itself. Think of the vast treasury that would accrue in the Library of Congress, forming an indelible record of how ordinary Americans live: not only how we’ve weathered the ordeal of the pandemic and mourned the dead, but also how we work and relax, how we think about the burdens and triumphs of our pasts, how we envision the future.

There is tremendous potential in this undertaking. Clint Smith, writing in March in The Atlantic, argued for a revived F.W.P. that would collect the stories of Black Americans who survived Jim Crow, joined the Great Migration, and fueled the civil rights movement — a contemporary echo of the original F.W.P.’s work collecting narratives from formerly enslaved people in the 1930s.

This is right, I think, and crucial. A new project should also grapple with all the major forces that have shaped our moment, from the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt and the collapse of organized labor, to the rise of the women’s movement and gay liberation, to the impact of species extinction and climate change.

The critic and educator David Kipen, a driving force behind the legislation, believes a new F.W.P. would carry out “domestic cultural diplomacy” — the project, as he put it, “might just begin to unify our astonishing, divided, crazy-quilt country.” Today, as we face increasing alienation, division and political tribalism, this quest for national understanding is more urgent than ever.

Recreating the original F.W.P.’s geographical capaciousness would be a key to this effort. In the 1930s, the project had offices in every state; for a time, federal writers were on the ground in every county. This forced the project to include communities far removed from the levers of power — and from one another. A new F.W.P. would also need to cover the nation from coast to coast and border to border. And today’s federal writers would need to be as diverse as the populations they documented.

The original F.W.P. remains a source of inspiration, and rightly so: Its American Guide series is still read and admired, and the reams of material it gathered — including life histories, folklore, recipes and much else — have fascinated countless scholars and curious citizens alike. But its story contains warnings we ought to heed. The project faced opposition from the start. Some critics mocked the F.W.P. boondoggle and jeered at the “pencil-leaners” who staffed it. Others fixated on the presence of radicals, real and imagined, and even accused the F.W.P. of creating a “Red Baedeker.” (Unremarkably for the Depression era, Communists and other radicals did work for the project, as was their explicit legal right; the claim that they controlled it was, and remains, absurd.)

The F.W.P. and the other arts projects, especially the Federal Theater Project, drew such scorn in part because they were perceived to be the New Deal’s soft cultural underbelly: easy targets for critics who sought to undermine the Roosevelt administration’s robust (if also limited) government activism on behalf of the poor and the working class.

The situation today would most likely be worse. Opponents will complain about excessive spending or subversive elements in the F.W.P.’s ranks. But this is no reason to hold back. In the 1930s, the project’s staunchest enemies — nativists and white supremacists among them — denounced the F.W.P. as the worst kind of left-wing folly. But the project found supporters in chambers of commerce, travel associations, and, especially, the commercial publishing houses that released most of the F.W.P.’s books. In fact, 44 of those publishers issued an open letter in defense, arguing that no single private house could have accomplished what the F.W.P. did in a few short years, under conditions of enormous strain, and that curtailing the project would be “a severe deprivation to the reading public and to the enrichment of our national literature.”

They recognized what the nation stood to lose when the F.W.P. was destroyed, and they were right. Now, generations later, we have a chance to bring the project back. Let’s take it.

David Kipen, the “driving force” behind the proposal, wrote about it in the Nation.

The literary world was astonished when the Nobel Prize Committee gave the prize for literature in 2016. Never before had the prestigious award gone to a writer of songs. Dylan was not present at the awards ceremony but wrote a lecture that was released in June 2017.

At the time, I didn’t read it. Probably you didn’t read it either. I can’t quote it in full because of copyright restrictions, but you can find it here. I found it exhilating to read, and I think you will too.

Dylan speaks of the musicians who inspired him, but his main theme is the relationship between literature and music. He writes at length about the books that shaped his values.

He wrote:

When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.

But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.

Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.

He then goes into detail about the impact that these three books had on him. You cannot understand his music without reading his passionate emotional attachment to these three books. We will forgive him for saying that he read these books in “grammar school,” as they were customarily taught in high school (if at all).

The publisher of the many books written by Theodor Geisl (“Dr. Seuss”) announced that it was suspending publication of six books that contained demeaning drawings of Asian and African figures.

The books that will no longer be published are:

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”

“If I Ran the Zoo”

“McElligot’s Pool,”

“On Beyond Zebra!,”

“Scrambled Eggs Super!”

“The Cat’s Quizzer.”

Having written a book in 2003 called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn, I have a long-standing interest in censorship of books, textbooks, and tests. In that book, I came down on the side of free speech and freedom of expression. I did not grapple, however, with the real dilemma presented by books that contained hateful images, even if they were not seen as such when they were first published. I was looking instead at organized efforts to cleanse publications of anything that might offend anyone, like a reference to a cowboy or a landlady or a man wearing a sombrero or an elderly person using a cane.

I wrote about campaigns to remove Huckleberry Finn from class reading lists, to revise Shakespeare to remove bawdy language, and to remove all gendered roles from books.

If I had the chance to revise The Language Police, I would express a different opinion today. I don’t think that children should be required to read books that contain images that are insulting to people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, or religion.

Dr. Seuss wrote wonderful books that did not contain objectionable images. His work will survive. I actually met Theodor Geisl (Dr. Seuss) at a dinner party at the home of Robert Bernstein, the publisher of Random House. He was not a racist or a sexist. The messages that I got from the books I read to my children were humorous, funny, anti-authoritarian, and very appealing to children. My sons learned to read because we read Dr. Seuss so often, again and again, books like “Cat in the Hat” and “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” Those books taught them the playfulness of language. We also read “I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew,” which had a very important lesson about not imagining that there was some ideal place out there “where they never have troubles, at least very few,” and that it is best to confront the problems you have in the here and the now. I memorized the opening lines of “Happy Birthday to You” because of its wonderful, wacky rhymes. Another favorite “Yertle the Turtle” was an implicit critique of big shots who tried to lord it over everyone else.

So I write as a mother and grandmother who admired Dr. Seuss’s works. Those that contain racist and insensitive images dishonor him. Any offensive images should be cut out.

Republicans have suddenly become big fans of Dr. Seuss, who was a liberal Democrat and a passionate anti-fascist (Antifa). They say that withdrawing his books because of racist imagery is “cancel culture.”

Donald Trump Jr. has been especially vocal about the harm of “cancel culture.” He is suddenly a fan of liberal anti-fascist Dr. Seuss. Real “cancel culture” is trying to cancel the results of a national election because you lost. Real “cancel culture” is suppressing the votes of people who are likely to vote for the other party. The worst “cancel culture” is using your power to cancel democracy.

The wounded Republicans who decry “cancel culture” are worried that the white male dominant culture in which they grew up is slipping away. Trump Sr. said he would put an end to “political correctness,” so that it would once again be fine to make jokes about women and people of color.

Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect expressed his opinion in a Seussian poem:

Kuttner on TAP
If We Ran the Zoo
A lefty named Ted used his art to fight bigots
His books and cartoons were like tolerance spigots.
He located his parables on islands and zoos
And adopted the sweet pen name of Doctor Seuss.

Some of his Sneetches had bellies with stars
They dissed other Sneetches with none upon thars.
The north-going Zax dumbly blocked the way
Of the south-going Zax so that neither could play.

So many of his stories had the same takeaway:
No one is privileged, no race should hold sway.
Our kids grew up with Ted’s tales as teachers
Absorbing the lessons along with the creatures.

Some of his stories were merely in fun
But Ted Geisel’s great cause was to put hate on the run.
His wartime cartoons in the great conflagration
Attacked every brand of discrimination.

In The Lorax Geisel was an early enviro
On gender roles, he was also a tyro.
When Mayzie the bird got weary of egg duty
Horton pitched in and hatched a beauty.

Of course good Doctor Seuss lived in a time
When stereotypes were as common as grime.
Once in a great while, one crept into his whimsy
But against his good deeds the charge of bigot is flimsy.

So swap out some pictures
But please keep the text
And watch who you cancel
For you could be next.

My hunch, having met the real Dr. Seuss, is that if he were alive today, he would change the illustrations in the offending books. And he would applaud the decision to revise them. He was born in 1905; he lived in a time when racism was commonplace and acceptable. It is not any more. And it should never be again. And Dr. Seuss would agree.

Jenny Offill wrote a new introduction to a new edition of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” which will by published this month by Penguin Classics. It was excerpted in the New Yorker. Her beginning reminded of something that Fred Hechinger, longtime education editor of The New York Times, wrote long long ago. He said that the definition of a classic, to him, was that it changes in meaning as the reader gets older. You read the classic, and the classic reads you.

It begins:

In 1916, Virginia Woolf wrote about a peculiarity that runs through all real works of art. The books of certain writers (she was speaking of Charlotte Brontë at the time) seem to shape-shift with each reading. The plot might become comfortingly familiar, but the emotional revelations within it change. Scenes once passed over as unimportant begin to prickle with new meaning, as if time itself had been the missing ingredient for understanding them. Woolf went on to describe the works she returned to again and again:

At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.

For me, “Mrs. Dalloway” is such a book, one to which I have mapped the twists and turns of my own autobiography over the years. Each time, I have found shocks of recognition on the page, but they are always new ones, never the ones I was remembering. Instead, some forgotten facet of the story comes to light, and the feeling is always that of having blurred past something that was right in front of me.

Andrea Gabor has written recently about the importance of civics education. She has reminded us that the obsession with standardized testing has robbed students of the joy of learning and consumed time that could be better spent in other ways.

The 22-year-old Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who spoke so beautifully at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, reminded her that we have lost the study of poetry in our mad Race to Leave No Child Behind and to force testing on every student and teacher.

I heartily agree with Gabor. I have always loved poetry. I edited two collections that included many iconic poems: The American Reader and The English Reader (with my son Michael). During a time when I was grieving the loss of a child, I read poetry and found solace in a poem by Ben Jonson. When my children were young, we read poetry together, and they learned the fun of wordplay.

Gabor writes in her article about the need to allot more time to reading and writing poetry.

For too long, poetry has been treated as impractical, and even frivolous, with just 12% of the U.S. adults reporting, in 2018, that they had read a poem during the previous year. Perversely, that sad metric represented a major improvement over the previous decade, when annual poetry reading fell to below 7%. With schools encouraged to focus on practical subjects such as math, science and engineering, and a growing emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core standards used to help states and school systems decide what to teach, poetry has become an afterthought.

It shouldn’t be. Poetry can be inspirational and teach important lessons about communication (thanks again, Amanda Gorman). It can even be practical, as poetry-loving business executives have long asserted. Elevating the role of poetry also could serve as a low-cost way to bolster student creativity and engagement.

For children, poetry serves as a key to literacy with the rhythm and cadence of books like Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” helping even the youngest decode words and meaning, while its absurd rhymes make reading fun. Think of Thing One and Thing Two and the havoc they’ll do.

As children get older, the metaphors and ambiguity of more complex poems serve as an intellectual puzzle, helping youngsters analyze, make connections between words and concepts, and foster critical thinking. Poetry teaches grammar in bite-sized stanzas. Great poems embed unforgettable images and teach the power that a few spare words by Carl Sandburg can convey:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Gorman herself described the research skills that her inaugural poem employed, including examining the work of earlier poet laureates, as well as the oratory of Fredrick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. She drew on the musical “Hamilton,” which pays homage to hip hop and rap, the street poetry that rose out of economic devastation in the 1970s. And she examined tweets following the Capitol riot, which inspired the line, “We’ve seen a force that would shatter this nation rather than share it.”

For Gorman and Biden, who both wrestled with speech impediments, reciting poetry paved the way to eloquence. Gorman has trouble pronouncing Rs, so she practiced the rap lyrics of “Aaron Burr, Sir” from “Hamilton.” To help him overcome a stutter, Biden recited the poems of William Butler Yeats.

For poor children, from New York City to New Delhi, poetry serves as an especially important outlet for self-expression and even for promoting mental health. In Allison Baxter’s class of English-language learners at West Chicago high school, teaching Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” is a key to understanding Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” The poem begins:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

The sophistication of the language and grammar in both the poem and the play provide a welcome challenge for students who relish reciting excerpts from both works, Baxter says. They also offer a window on the Chicago of Hansberry’s youth and an opportunity to help introduce students to their adopted city. 

Poetry has its real-world uses, too. Sidney Harman, the founder of the audio-technology company Harman Kardon, once famously said: “Get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers.” (Harman endowed a writer-in-residence program at Baruch College; I’m on the program’s selection committee.)

Consider the frustration of Wes Chapman, a health-care technology entrepreneur, who once rejected dozens of applicants for a marketing job at his Hanover, New Hampshire-based startup M2S — English majors from Dartmouth College, his alma mater — because none of them could identify a favorite poem or poet. “Marketing is a job that requires command of language and understanding how words and images influence people,” says Chapman, who notes that the scientists he worked with, at the time, recited poetry. Although Chapman favors 19th-century verse, he eventually hired a young woman who was able to recite a poem by Maya Angelou.

Poetry is an important part of the liberal arts tradition, which is again being seen as a key to business success.

School principals should encourage teachers to make time for verse. And states and districts should help fund the kinds of organizations — including libraries and student clubs — that offer resources and outlets for student poets. And with states advocating for the federal government to suspend standardized testing this year, in recognition of the difficulties posed by the pandemic, schools could be encouraged to produce year-end projects instead, including those focused on poetry.

Inspiration, creativity, joy, critical thinking about language and its nuances: these are the lessons of poetry, and they matter more than bubbling in the right answer. That is, if you care about real education.

Sara Stevenson was a middle school teacher and librarian in Austin, Texas, for many years. She wrote this post in response to the current crisis, which reminded her of Lord of the Flies.

She begins like this:

Several editorialists have compared recent events to the 1954 classic and bane of high school students for decades, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding. As a former high school English teacher, I taught the novel about a group of British school boys, early teens and younger, whose plane wreck lands them on a deserted island with no adult supervision.

Watching the images of the Trump mob assaulting the Capitol, the parallels with the novel stood out sharply, especially images of Jake Angeli, the face-painted “warrior” in a Viking hat, also known as QAnon Shaman.  

In The Lord of the Flies, when the boys first realize there are no adults, they are jubilant. Soon the boys choose their first leader, Ralph. Piggy, the bespectacled intellectual, advises the naturally popular Ralph as the boys create their own parliamentary rules of order and assign roles for keeping a signal fire burning and hunting pigs for meat.

Jack, the charismatic bully, leads the group of hunters who gradually defect from Ralph’s rule. Jack’s pig hunts morph into hunts for an imagined Beast, a shared hallucination the boys all fear. Simon, the “Christ figure,” warns Ralph and the others that there is no beast, that “the Beast is us.” When Simon appears alone on the beach in a mist, the boys in a frenzy, mistake him for the Beast, shout “Kill the Beast, spill his blood,” and murder him. 

Later Roger, the sadist, becomes Jack’s henchman and levers a giant stone to crush Piggy, the voice of reason, who is trying to make peace as all but some “littluns” have defected from Ralph’s leadership.

When a Royal Navy crew finally discovers the boys, Ralph is being chased to death by Roger and the other boys with their sharpened spears. The naval officers shake their heads at the idea that British boys had turned into such savages.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, shares ideas about teaching in difficult times.


My high school and GED students always loved wrestling with the ideas presented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bruce Springsteen. I’m sure they would now agree that America needs both – Coates’ Between the World and Me, centered around Coates’ letter to 15-year-old son, and the 71-year-old Springsteen’s Letter to You. Actually we need both masterpieces and Kamilah Forbes’ HBO adaptation of Coates’ advice on how to “become conscious citizens of this beautiful and terrible world.”

Coates’ Between the World and Me tackles “the question of my life,” which is “how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream.” It focuses on the fatal police shooting of his fellow Howard University student, Prince Jones. It illustrates how “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

But as Michiko Kakutani observed in her New York Times review, such assertions “skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made,” but Coates occasionally acknowledges there have been improvements. Kakutani writes, “His book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.” And, seeming to concur with that interpretation when discussing the HBO presentation, Coates says it is evidence that “the story America tells about itself and how it tells it is a statement on how much things have changed.”

In the wake of the string of murders by police of unarmed black Americans that are now videotaped, the brilliant 80-minute program prioritizes the police shooting of Prince Jones in Prince Georges County. The location is important because Between the World and Me described the county as a “great enclave of black people who seemed, as much as anyone, to have seized control of their bodies.” But even there, “Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all of the fears that marked it from birth.”

It takes a full book, however, to recount the story of Coates who was raised in Baltimore, the son of a Vietnam veteran, who was a Black Panther and a librarian. As a student, Coates missed the wider historical context of racism. But the Howard faculty did “their duty to disabuse me of my weaponized history.” He reached a balance, however, and as an Atlantic Magazine reporter he drove a revision of the history of the New Deal, the post-WWII Fair Deal and the GI Bill. Despite the good they did for white people, Coates documents the lies perpetuated by these chapters of the “American Dream.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, that leads to another set of truths found in Springsteen’s lyrics, as well as his autobiography, exploring the “Pax Americana” of his youth. He explains how working class kids or, at least, white youth during “the American Century,” were “destined to live the decent hardworking lives of their parents … if they could scoot through these years of wild pounding hormones without getting hurt or hurting someone else.” Bruce was acculturated into a value system where you “remain true to your crew, your blood, your family, your turf, your greaser brothers and sisters and your country. This was the shit that would get you by when all of the rest came tumbling down.”

As told in “My Hometown,” when Springsteen was 8-years-old, he would sit on the lap of “my old man,” a troubled World War II veteran who was the beneficiary of the GI Bill, and see its bounty, riding “in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town.” Springsteen’s dad would “tousle my hair and say son take a good look around, this is your hometown. This is your hometown. This is your hometown. This is your hometown.”

But even this dream for white industrial workers was foreclosed. Deindustrialization led to racial violence and with the shotgun blast which signaled, “Troubled times they had come to my hometown.”

It is no criticism of Coates’ wisdom to say it should be complemented by Springsteen’s story of economic injustice done to “black and white” which derailed the progress that was once real. “The Boss” sings of the tragedy which undermined much of the best of the “American Dream:”  “They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks. Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.

Your hometown. Your hometown Your hometown.”

Three decades later, Springsteen’s “American Skin” also supplements an understanding of the mindsets which have murdered so many black bodies. He begins the story of the “41 shots,” in Harlem, which kill Amadou Diallo as he tried to give his wallet to the police, through the cops’ eyes as “as they cross the bloody river to the other side.” Springsteen then sings about a black mother giving “the talk” to her son:

If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama, you’ll keep your hands in sight”

He concludes:

Is it a gun (is it a gun), is it a knife (is it a knife)
Is it a wallet (is it a wallet), this is your life (this is your life)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin

During this era of “Deaths by Despair,” which took off in the white working class America that helped boost Trumpism, Springsteen is the “last man standing,” the only survivor of his original band. He also uses multimedia poetry to make sense of America’s “dark evening stars. And the morning sky of blue…”

He has:

Got down on my knees
Grabbed my pen and bowed my head
Tried to summon all that my heart finds true
And send it in my letter to you

The CD doesn’t include the word “Trump.” I only saw what I believe is one clear reference to  him in “The Rainmaker.” It begins with “Parched crops dying ‘neath a dead sun. We’ve been praying but no good comes.” As they face, “The dog’s howling, homes stripped bare,” they admit, “We’ve been worried but now we’re scared.”

This fear opens the door to “the Rainmaker, a little faith for hire.” And the Rainmaker says that “white’s black and black’s white.” 

Getting back to the essential contribution of HBO’s Between the World and Me, Bruce Springsteen is my favorite poet/musical artist, but Kamilah Forbes draws on an all-star cast who place Coates’ “tactile, visceral” account of the “central truth” about the “domination of black bodies” in a profound context.  I’d say the amazing power of the images of the “entire diaspora” successfully allow Coates to speak the hardest truths without becoming excessively morbid. To really grasp Coates’ contribution, his indictments of America must be read along with the celebration of the multicultural, multigenerational expressions of black families, music, dance, art being sketched on the screen, and indomitable energy that Forbes brings together.

(I must also add that those touching scenes remind me of Springsteen’s videos of family, friends, and fellow musicians.)

The film version of Between the World and Mecombines historic and contemporary images family photos and videos, such as a baby boy feeding a candy bar to his dad, as well as historic battles, and the joyous dancing of children who would be killed, unarmed, by the police. Coates’ descriptions of Howard University as his “Mecca” juxtaposes the exuberant expressions of college students’ performances with that of tailgate parties of alumni reliving their Howard energies. Coates concludes this compilation of photos and films by saying they hold “power more gorgeous than any voting rights act.” 

Coates’ book – as opposed to a television special – had the space to acknowledge that white Americans also are a “new people.” They are “like us, a modern invention.” Coates concludes, and the awesome cast of the video also demonstrates how, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”

I expect Coates would agree that both the indictments and the glories of American culture can be best understood when his books’ horrific truths are juxtaposed with both – the multiple genres of the HBO presentation and Bruce Springsteen’s versions of history which are also presented in multiple genres of lyrics, music, autobiography, and film.    

From Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac”:

Today is the birthday of the poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros (books by this author), born in Chicago (1954) and best known for the highly acclaimed coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street (1984). Although the book was largely ignored when it was first published, its popularity grew, and soon Cisneros became the first Mexican-American woman to sign a contract with a big American publishing house. The House on Mango Street has since been translated into a dozen languages and has become required reading for middle schools and high schools throughout the United States.

Cisneros was the third child — and the only girl — in a family of seven children, and she spent most of her childhood rootless, moving back and forth between Chicago and Mexico City. Because her father felt that daughters were meant for husbands and not necessarily careers, she was free to study anything she wanted in college, including something as “silly” as English. But like many young Mexican-American women, she was expected to live at home — either until she was married or kicked out because of what she calls “some sexual transgression — you know, you’ve had a baby or you come out and say you’re gay.” Cisneros found her way out in poetry. “I said that I needed a place of my own to write, which was true. But I also wanted to have freedom to lead my life and to fall in love and to do things I couldn’t do under my father’s roof.”

Cisneros studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but she felt disconnected from her fellow students there. “I didn’t want to sound like my classmates; I didn’t want to keep imitating the writers I’d been reading. Their voices were right for them, but not for me,” she wrote later. When she realized that, she felt free to draw from her own background to tell the story of Esperanza, a Latina girl who is growing up in a rundown Chicago neighborhood and dreams of living in a real house. That book became The House on Mango Street.

From Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac”:*

It’s the birthday of poet and artist William Blake (books by this author), born in London (1757). He was four years old when he had a vision that God was at his window. A few years later, he went for a walk and saw a tree filled with angels, their wings shining. He had other visions, too: he saw the prophet Ezekiel sitting under a tree, and angels walking with farmers making hay.

When Blake was 10 his parents sent him to drawing school, and at the age of 14 he was apprenticed to an engraver. After seven years, he went into business for himself, and a few years later he privately printed his first book, Poetical Sketches (1783). It was a total flop — it wasn’t even mentioned in the index of London’s Monthly Review, a list of every book published that month.

Not long after that, Blake’s beloved brother, Robert, died at the age of 24. Blake spent two sleepless weeks at his deathbed, and when he died, Blake claimed that he saw his brother’s spirit rise through the ceiling, clapping its hands with joy. From then on, Blake had regular conversations with his dead brother. A year later, Robert appeared to William in a vision and taught him a method called “illuminated printing,” which combined text and painting into one. Instead of etching into a copper plate, Blake did the opposite: he designed an image in an acid-resistant liquid, then etched away everything else with acid, leaving a relief image, and he applied color to both the raised and etched parts of the copper plate. Illuminated printing — or as it’s now known, relief etching — was a huge breakthrough in printing. Blake wrote: “First the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged: this I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.”

Blake used this technique for many of his great works, including Songs of Innocence (1789), Songs of Experience (1794), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), and The Book of Los (1795). Throughout his career, he continued to see visions — in addition to communing with the spirits of relatives and friends, he claimed to be visited by the spirits of many great historical figures, including Alexander the Great, Voltaire, Socrates, Milton, and Mohammed. He talked with them and drew their portraits. He was also visited by angels and once by the ghost of a flea, whose portrait he drew. He wrote: “I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation [..] ‘What,’ it will be Question’d, ‘When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host.”

Blake died at the age of 69. He spent the day of his death working on a series of engravings of Dante’s Divine Comedy. That evening, he drew a portrait of his wife, and then told her it was his time. A friend of Blake’s who was there at his deathbed wrote: “He died on Sunday night at 6 o’clock in a most glorious manner. […] Just before he died, His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten’d and He burst out into Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.”

At the time of his death, Blake was an obscure figure, best remembered for his engravings of other peoples’ work, or maybe his one famous poem, “The Tyger.” Among those who knew more about his life’s work, the consensus was that Blake was insane. Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which he had engraved and painted by hand, had sold fewer than 20 copies in 30 years. It wasn’t until more than 30 years after his death that a husband-and-wife team, Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, published a two-volume biography of Blake that firmly established him as a brilliant and important artist.

He said, “Without minute neatness of execution, the sublime cannot exist! Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas.”

This entry had to appear today because it is Blake’s birthday.