Sunday, July 26, 2009

The American Novel and American Politics III

Among those lamenting the failure of American novelists to write politically significant works is the author Tom Grimes. Writing “On Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago" in the literary periodical Tin House No. 37 (Volume 10, No. 1, 2008; unfortunately not electronically archived), Grimes notes a common tendency in writers who came of age in the sixties to have moved away from interest in the larger forces that govern American life -- Mailer's forte -- to writers who looked close up, such as Raymond Carver, “whose unadorned prose was, according to literary critics, a reaction to our defeat in Vietnam." As storytellers,” Grimes goes on, “many of my contemporaries had moved from macro to micro, from prophecy to ambiguity, from revolution to revelation, from apocalypse to epiphany. But I didn’t have a choice.” For Grimes, the exception to the rule, what mattered was “ Mailer’s combination of concrete imagery and abstract speculation, his attempt to capture America on a grand scale.” (p. 109)

A novel that would bring American literature back to its heretofore serious engagement with living social and political reality would combine the macro and the micro. Jean-Paul Sartre back in 1947 in his What is Literature claimed that the writer must never lose track of “the importance of economic, religious, metaphysical and political factors in the constitution of the person.” (NY: Harper and Row, 1965), 86. Note this sentence carefully. Sartre is not arguing that we place the figure in his or her historical context; the figure is already constituted by those various axes that make up that context: language, custom, beliefs, etc. are present in the person, even though the decisions that person takes are formed within what the existentialist Sartre called the person's radical freedom. That is, one is not only the product of social forces and facts; one chooses one’s projects autonomously, and thereby transcends that facticity. In short, the macro and the micro are dialectical aspects of the living person. Thus a literature responsive to the age and responsible for clarifying life would be populated with figures who are formed within this dialectic of larger forces and the struggles to harness or oppose those forces.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Note on Criticism and Politics

Carol Iaciofano, a Boston-based writer, has written a very fair review, "Bernstein: the man, musician, his politics," published in the Boston Globe and on-line at, of my Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician. I've been getting some reviews, and noticing that some reviewers belabor me for not having written the book that they think I should have written. Ms. Iaciofano, on the other hand, has written about my book as I wrote it, and for that I am most grateful.

I especially want to quote a line of signal importance from Ms. Iaciofano's review: "This is a biography with a political focus, but it’s a full biography, one that knocks over caricatures of a celebrity musician who merely played at politics." Ms. Iaciofano has touched on a matter of central concern, the wrong-headed idea that anyone achieving celebrity status in areas outside politics, academia or business is politically mindless. Those holding this notion assume that actors, musicians, painters, poets and other writers are superficial, frivolous, unworldy, unable to think abstractly, to synthesize across disciplines, in short, unable to make critical judgments about what is going on in the larger public sphere. But anyone who understands artistic achievement knows the intensity of disciplined intelligence and exercise of critical faculties necessary for success. Of course an orchestral conductor who excels in the interpretation of the most complex musical scores, or an actor who excels in the interpretation of a script, may choose not to engage himself or herself in the political sphere; but only a superficial and thoughtless individual will claim a priori that conductors or actors are a disabled lot who cannot make informed judgments about the policies and decisions that determine the ethical life of the nation.

As regards Bernstein, Ms. Iaciofano has correctly read the evidence: he was a very well-informed citizen who understood only too well the drift and contradictions in American life, and for that matter, the cascading crises of the 20th and now 21st centuries.