Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Power of Fiction


Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most influential public intellectual in America.  Jesmyn Ward, a pretty impressive writer in her own right, recently spent some time with him at the New York City coffee shop where Coates likes to write.  Coates has just completed his first novel: The Water Dancer.  Ward’s piece at Vanity Fair is an excellent read for what it reveals about Coates and what it reveals about the anxiety that another writer feels when interviewing a public intellectual of Coates’s stature.

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to do that work. Coates articulates this anxiety perfectly when he talks about the difference between the purpose of nonfiction and the purpose of fiction. Creative nonfiction, he thinks, “is not up to the task of humanizing. That’s not what it’s for.” He continues, “Also, I’ve got to tell you, you go to a very different place when you have to imagine a single person, versus write about mass. It’s not the same. I wonder, like, how you deal with the central tragedy and violence and darkness and horribleness that is happening, and the dehumanization without writing a work that itself dehumanizes.” He shakes his head. “My mom, actually, she can’t finish it”—The Water Dancer—“and… I actually feel like I intentionally held back. I feel like Hiram was very privileged in terms of being a slave.” He takes another bite of food. “How do I write about something, as horrible as it is, and not repeat the thing? You know what I’m saying?” And, he repeats, he has to resist the American legacy of myths. He has to resist the lure of the adventure story. He has to resist the lure of the cowboy. He has to resist the lure of the savior. It’s a hard thing to resist the great stories of your youth in an effort to discover new myths, new heroes, new legends that reveal a wider reality.

One of the things Coates must now do is figure out how to balance the two: how to write nonfiction and fiction, how to juggle his renown with his calling. “So many writers and so-called public intellectuals are driven by their desire for fame, celebrity, and money that this is practically all they see when they see someone like Ta-Nehisi. But he does what he does out of a deep sense of responsibility that has never changed,” says Jackson. “It’s a responsibility to his family—to his parents, his wife, his son. But also a sense of responsibility to black people. This is not to say that he fetishizes race or that he’s a nationalist. But that he knows that black people are keepers of a sacred tradition, not just of resistance, but artful, creative, generative, and generous resistance in the name of truth.”

Read the entire piece here.

Wendell Berry: “What I stand for is what I stand on”

Berry BrushWendell Berry has a new book out.  It is a collection of essays, short stories, and poetry titled The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings.  Brian Barth reviews it at Modern Farmer.

Here is a taste:

In his latest book, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings (available in November from Counterpoint), Berry continues to rage against machines: the laptops and high-tech tractors he believes are causing us to lose touch with each other and our environments. He laments the “dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and carryout meals.”

Yes, Berry’s a bit of a curmudgeon, who likens our smartphone obsession to drug addiction and prefers horse-drawn plows to simulated horsepower. He writes longhand before his wife, Tanya, converts the manuscripts on a Royal Standard typewriter. Such anachronistic tendencies, however, point to more than mere nostalgia—namely, a clear-eyed view of the ways in which modern society is wrecking the Earth under the guise of progress. As the journalist David Skinner noted in 2012, “Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times.”

God willing, the times may have finally swung back around to meet the man. Though Berry would no doubt heap scorn upon today’s $8 heirloom tomatoes and $200 farm-to-table dinners, he did participate in the new documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, produced by Robert Redford and Nick Offerman. The reluctant subject never shows his face in the film; rather, he shares selections from his work in powerful low-pitched voiceovers. (Visit lookandseefilm.com for information on how to host a screening.) Not coincidentally, the rare photographs on these pages were captured by his intimates: former students and dear friends.

Read the rest here, including a new Berry poem.


Do Universities “Police the Imagination?”

RisingMadison Smartt Bell, an English professor at Goucher College, a writer, and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins his Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Policing the Imagination” with this story:

In the latest issue of Write, a publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada, its then-editor, Hal Niedzviecki, argued that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and to write about them. There was an immediate outcry from other contributors and union members. The union apologized for what Niedzviecki had published. Niedzviecki resigned as editor. Newscoverage made it clear that he had effectively been convicted of disbelief in the concept of “cultural appropriation,” which in the view of his accusers amounts to a form of heresy.

The identity politics informing this scandal and other recent and similar episodes (such as the novelist Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year) date back to the 1990s. Since then, an unwritten rule prohibiting a member of a particular identity group from speaking as if from within the experience of another identity group has gained power, and nowadays it is often very loudly and stringently enforced. A kind of silencing ensues from the enforcement.

He then describes, as a white male, how he has spent his entire career writing fiction from the point of view of African Americans and Haitians.

He concludes with his thoughts on liberal arts education:

…an essential goal of liberal-arts education is to broaden the views of students and improve their capacity for empathy by exposing them to kinds of people different from their kind. A great deal of that work used to be accomplished by reading imaginative literature under the umbrella of the now-rapidly dwindling English major. Now that so many students would rather write than read, it’s incumbent upon us as teaching writers to get the same job done.

Writing isn’t only about self-expression, I argue. It’s about imagining the lives of others and representing them in a convincing way. So you, students, are encouraged to think and write outside your identity group’s comfort zone. If you bring us Tonto, you can expect to be reproached for that. But if you research and learn in good faith, if you imagine in good faith, if you compose with enough artistry and conviction, you might bring us back something that enlarges our view of the world and the people in it, even as it expands your own.

To make that happen, I tell the students, requires a community of trust — but we don’t automatically have that now, when we have just convened our group for the first time. Now is when we have to start building it — right now, without delay.

So far I’ve been able to get that approach to work in my classroom … but maybe it’s not such an accomplishment to create the necessary community spirit in a group of 15 young people who already share a number of good intentions. Outside the academy, the stakes are much higher. If there was ever such a community of trust in the American national discourse, it is a shame that we have lost it, and we need to get it back. We need to abandon the fortified positions into which identity politics has forced us, and find a way to make ourselves not only heard, but understood, across the chasms that divide us.

So I wonder how this works in the history classroom?  I think it is fair to say that even though I am not a scholar of American slavery, I know more about slavery than nearly all of my students.  Does this mean I am not in a position to teach about the subject?  I don’t think any historian would say this, but it does seem to be the logical end of the kind of identity politics Bell is talking about here.

I want my students–all of them–to be able to see the world from the perspective of someone who is different.  As Bell puts it, I want to “broaden their capacity for empathy.” Sometimes this requires an act of the imagination.  I want my white students to engage deeply with the story of slavery in seventeenth-century Virginia, the life of Frederick Douglass, the plight of 19th-century African American Philadelphia businessman James Forten, and the sorrow of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.

I want my male students to encounter the boldness of Anne Hutchinson.  I want to expose them to the late 18th-century female community on the Maine frontier that was cultivated by the midwife Martha Ballard.  I want them to understand colonial America from the perspective of “Good Wives” and see the American Revolution through the eyes of Judith Sargent Murray or Phillis Wheatley.

I want my African American students to understand Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson on their own terms, not through some kind of twenty-first century grid that makes them one-dimensional characters that lack complexity.  The same could be said about Western Civilization more broadly.

I do all of this not primarily because I think the ideas of these men and women are right or wrong, but because the encounter with their voices and their stories forces students to think in a more nuanced way about these historical figures–a way that recognizes their humanity and their brokenness.  This kind of reflection might even help my students to reflect more deeply on the social and cultural issues that they believe to be important in their everyday lives as they seek to live justly in this world.

Marilynne Robinsion Wins Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction


Here is the press release:

Acting Librarian of Congress David S. Mao has announced that Marilynne Robinson, author of such critically acclaimed novels as “Gilead” and “Home,” will receive the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction during the 2016 Library of Congress National Book Festival, Sept. 24.

The National Book Festival and the prize ceremony will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

The annual Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction honors an American literary writer whose body of work is distinguished not only for its mastery of the art but also for its originality of thought and imagination. The award seeks to commend strong, unique, enduring voices that—throughout long, consistently accomplished careers—have told us something new about the American experience.

Mao chose Robinson based on the recommendation of a jury of distinguished authors and prominent literary critics from around the world. He said of the selection, “With the depth and resonance of her novels, Marilynne Robinson captures the American soul. We are proud to confer this prize on her and her extraordinary work.”

“American literature has been a kind of spiritual home to me for as long as I have been aware of it. So this award could not be more gratifying,” Robinson said.

Previous winners of the prize are Louise Erdrich (2015), E. L. Doctorow (2014) and Don DeLillo (2013). Under its previous name, the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for fiction, the awardees were Philip Roth (2012), Toni Morrison (2011), Isabel Allende (2010), and John Grisham (2009). In 2008, the Library presented Pulitzer-Prize winner Herman Wouk with a lifetime achievement award for fiction writing.

Robinson was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, in 1943. She is the author of four novels: “Lila” (2014), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; “Home” (2008), winner of the Orange Prize (UK) and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; “Gilead” (2004), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and “Housekeeping” (1980), winner of PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. Her five nonfiction books include “The Givenness of Things: Essays” (2015) and “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought” (1998).

Robinson’s many other honors include the American Academy of Arts and Letters Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Fund, the National Humanities Medal, and the American Academy of Religion in the Arts Award. Robinson, a longtime faculty member of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Robinson lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is a deacon for the Congregational United Church of Christ.

Teaching Evangelicalism Through Fiction

Philip Jenkins has been blogging like crazy over at The Anxious Bench.  (I should add that I am on a bit of a hiatus, but will return with my weekly post next week).

 In yesterday’s post, he wonders what it might look like to teach a course on American evangelicalism using fiction.  Here is a taste:

But here’s a thought. Imagine you wanted to teach a course on Evangelical Christianity, past or present, what novels or similar texts might you use? One problem of course is that for many years, evangelicals had real doubts about the whole world of novels, which they associated with frivolity and immorality, and that’s why there is no evangelical Jane Austen. On the other hand, Puritans like John Bunyan have a good claim to have invented the English novel as a genre  – Pilgrim’s Progress, or The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. They were after all fundamentally interested in exploring the inner landscapes of the mind and soul. But for later years, the pickings are scarcer. I love for instance to use Lewis’s Screwtape Letters as a teaching tool, but what else leaps to mind? I’m not necessarily referring to books that happen to be authored by evangelicals, unless they centrally address those distinctive religious themes.

In particular, what American books illustrate evangelical approaches or mindsets at first hand in a way that we can only draw out with difficulty from sober textbooks? Well, there’s Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, but what else? And what is accessible to a modern readership?

Jenkins’s mentions Elmer Gantry in his post, but are there any other novels that provide a window into American evangelicalism?   Head over to The Anxious Bench and leave your comment.

Did Stephen Ambrose Actually Interview Eisenhower?

Yes, but they were not extensive as Ambrose has led us to believe in his many books on the president. In a New Yorker essay titled “Channelling Ike,” Richard Rayner explains how Ambrose only met with Eisenhower three times. Ambrose claimed he spent “hundreds and hundreds” of hours with him. Here is a taste of Rayner’s piece:

…Before publishing a string of No. 1 best-sellers, including “Band of Brothers” and “D-Day,” Ambrose had made his name chronicling the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than half of the thirty-plus books that Ambrose wrote, co-wrote, or edited concerned Eisenhower, and Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969.

“I was a Civil War historian, and in 1964 I got a telephone call from General Eisenhower, who asked if I would be interested in writing his biography,” Ambrose said in a C-SPAN interview in 1994. In another interview, he added, “I thought I had flown to the moon.”

In Ambrose’s oft-repeated telling of the tale, Eisenhower contacted him after reading his biography of Henry Wager Halleck, Abraham Lincoln’s chief of staff. “I’d walk in to interview him, and his eyes would lock on mine and I would be there for three hours and they never left my eyes,” Ambrose told C-SPAN. “I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and going up two days a week to Gettysburg to work with him in his office.”

Last November, Tim Rives, the deputy director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, in Abilene, Kansas, moderated a panel that celebrated Ambrose’s writings, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the completion of his two-volume Eisenhower biography, a work that is still regarded as the standard. Rives was looking for items to put on display at the event when he came across previously unpublished source materials that debunk the Boswellian tale that Ambrose loved to tell.

In a letter dated September 10, 1964, Ambrose, having recently joined a team of historians at Johns Hopkins who were preparing Eisenhower’s papers for publication, wrote to the former President, introducing himself: “For the past six weeks I have been reading your World War II correspondence and feel I am getting to know you intimately; therefore I think it only fair that you have the opportunity to see some of my writing.” He enclosed two books, one the biography of Halleck. About a month later, on October 15th, Ambrose sent another letter. “It therefore seems to me that the time has come to begin the scholarly biographies of the leaders of World War II,” he wrote. “I would like to begin a full scale, scholarly account of your military career.”

The two men finally met two months later, on December 14th, when Ambrose’s boss, Dr. Alfred Chandler, took him to Gettysburg. “I want the General to meet Dr. Ambrose,” Chandler wrote in a letter to Eisenhower’s office.

Rives was interested to discover that, contrary to Ambrose’s claims, Eisenhower never approached him to write his biography. By telephone the other day from his office in Abilene, Rives said, “And, I’m sorry to say, these weren’t the only problems.”

Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled and his activities were documented by his staff, particularly by his executive assistant, Brigadier General Robert L. Schulz, who kept meticulous records of his boss’s schedule and telephone calls (now part of the Abilene archive). These records show that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together. The footnotes to Ambrose’s first big Eisenhower book, “The Supreme Commander,” published in 1970, cite nine interview dates; seven of these conflict with the record. On October 7, 1965, when Ambrose claimed that he was interviewing Eisenhower at Gettysburg, Ike was travelling from Abilene to Kansas City. On December 7, 1965, another of the purported interview dates, Eisenhower was at Walter Reed Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., and saw only General Arthur Nevins, his neighbor and farm manager; George Allen, a golf and bridge pal; and Gordon Moore, his brother-in-law. He dined that evening with his son, John Eisenhower. On October 5, 1967, rather than hobnobbing with his young biographer, Eisenhower met with General Lucius D. Clay, the former military governor of occupied Germany and a close friend, and, after Clay left, he talked politics over the phone with Walter Cronkite and called his attorney to discuss a trust fund for his grandchildren. The former President was very busy that day, but he didn’t meet with Stephen Ambrose. On October 21, 1967, another footnoted Gettysburg date, Eisenhower was on vacation at Augusta National Golf Club. He was still there on October 27th, when Ambrose claims that he again interviewed his subject in Gettysburg.

Is it possible that Ambrose met with Eisenhower outside office hours? John Eisenhower told Rives that such meetings never happened: “Oh, God, no. Never. Never. Never.” John Eisenhower, who is now eighty-seven, liked Ambrose, and he recalled, too, Ambrose’s fondness for embellishment and his tendency to sacrifice fact to narrative panache.

Ambrose continued to draw on his supposed Eisenhower interviews in subsequent books, including the two-volume biography, although in the later footnotes the specific dates were replaced with vaguer notations, such as “Interview with DDE.” As the citations grew more nebulous, the range of subjects that the interviews allegedly covered grew wider: the Rosenberg case, Dien Bien Phu, Douglas MacArthur, J.F.K., quitting smoking, the influence of Eisenhower’s mother, Brown v. Board of Education, and so on…

The Lent 2010 Edition of The Cresset Is Here!

The Cresset describes itself as a “review of literature, the arts, and public affairs.” It is one of my favorite religious magazines. Check out the Lent 2010 issue. The following articles caught my eye:

Gretchen Buggeln, “The Shape of a New Era: Valparaiso’s Chapel of the Resurrection in Historical Context.” This is must reading for anyone who has worshipped in the Chapel of the Resurrection, the largest college chapel in the United States.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, “The Incarnational Vision of Marilynne Robinson: Challenging Sovereign Selves.” This is an extended review of Robinson’s novel Gilead. I am in the middle of reading Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, and I must confess that I am having a hard time getting into it.

An excerpt from Philip Clayton’s book Transforming Christian Theology (Augsburg Fortress). Here is the first paragraph excerpted:

Soon after my conversion I was asked to be a “counselor” at a Billy Graham Crusade. I served in this role many times, which I suppose means that I have “won many people for Christ.” The biggest crusade I participated in took place in a large sports stadium. When the evangelist called for people to convert to Christ and the organ started to play “Just as I Am, without One Plea,” counselors like me would gradually stand up all over the stadium and make our way to the altar that had been set up in front. (They never told us this, but obviously this huge group of people that was popping up all over and walking to the altar would give the audience the impression that about a third of the people who had come to the meeting were converting to Christ. You’d almost feel left out if you didn’t go forward!) We could all recognize each other by a particular sign, so we could tell who had actually come forward to get converted, and we each picked a convert to counsel by standing on his or her right side. After we explained Billy Graham’s Four Spiritual Laws to our convert-candidates, we prayed the Sinner’s Prayer with them, and they were saved. We had to make sure that they were safe from any doubts that Satan might bring to them the next day (like, “Was that for real?”). So we would have them memorize a simple jingle to help them hold out against the devil’s temptations. It went: “God says it in His Word. I believe it in my heart. That settles it forever.”

Peter Meilander, “The Risks of Avoidance” discusses the “pantybomber” and health care.

Cordell P. Schulten reviews my colleague Richard Hughes’s, Christian America and the Kingdom of God.

Happy reading!

Looking for a Good Immigrant Novel?

I just finished Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. It is a wonderful depiction of a young Irish woman in the 1950s who comes to Brooklyn in search of work. Not only does she find a job in a Brooklyn department store, but she falls in love with a young Italian man who happens to be a die-hard Brooklyn Dodger fan. The book moves slowly as Toibin takes his time developing his lead character, Eilis Lacey. But by the end of the book you care deeply about her and the momentous decisions she must make as she straddles life in the Old World and the New and the tension between her Irish roots and her American dreams. I really like the way Toibin portrays the diversity of 1950s Brooklyn. The depictions and juxtapositions of Irish culture and Italian culture are really well-done.