Oxford American: New Books

Photograph from Richard Misrach’s “Destroy This Memory” (2010)

In 2011, I wrote a column for The Oxford American, reviewing new books. Below are the two essays I published.


Spring 2011: “Varieties of the Great White Man”

In the winter of 1986, after William Styron emerged from a period of crippling, suicidal depression, he suddenly became aware of, and ceased to be indifferent to, the suffering he had caused his family in the past quarter century—the fact that he had been an incorrigible, self-serving bastard. “Like Scrooge, Daddy had beheld his unreconstructed self and had recoiled in horror,” writes his daughter, Alexandra Styron, in Reading My Father. “Too late, he had surveyed the beauty of his life, neglected and abused, and watched helplessly as all of it slipped from his grasp.” In the novels Lie Down in DarknessThe Confessions of Nat Turner, and Sophie’s Choice, Styron had powerfully limned the inner lives of his characters, but only now, in his sixties, did he subject his own life to honest examination. The result, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, turned him, suddenly, unexpectedly, and somewhat ironically, into the preeminent interpreter of the mind’s wilderness.

This episode of tribulation and redemption is one of many frames used by Alexandra to explain the vagaries of her father’s behavior, and her own life in relation to it. She breezily fuses stories from her privileged childhood in Roxbury, Connecticut (with summers on Martha’s Vineyard) and fragments of her father’s life, as told through the ream of letters he sent to his own father, interviews with his luminary friends, archival documents, unfinished manuscripts, and James West’s authoritative 1998 biography. As the title suggests, Alexandra is more interested in treating her father as a text than in dissecting his books. How, she asks, was this headstrong boy from Newport News, Virginia, lionized and indulged, loved and feared, made into the exemplary Great American Writer, then finally unmade? How did he haunt her, mold her, and yet remain a stranger? Perhaps most importantly to her, “How could a guy whose thoughts elicit this much pathos have been, for so many years, such a monumental asshole to the people closest to him?”

Styron moved to New York City at twenty-two, after graduating from Duke, and began attending workshops at the New School. “If Hawthorne could take 12 years to teach himself to write,” he told his father in a letter, “I can certainly take a year or so, or however long it will be.” Remarkably, he published Lie Down in Darkness only four years later, which established him as the next Faulkner, only four years later. By the time of Alexandra’s unintended birth—her mother, Rose, heir to a department-store fortune, had already born three children—the forty-one-year-old Styron had come to embody the WWII generation of writers, whose grandiose novels tackled epoch-defining ideas, and who drank and philandered profligately. When he wasn’t locked in his office, he spent much of Alexandra’s childhood stomping through the house, inebriated, berating his wife (when gaps in her travel schedule marooned her there) and children—and occasionally hosting outstanding parties. The parenting was mostly outsourced. Alexandra installed herself in front of the television, neglecting schoolwork, showing little interest in anything beyond horses until as a teenager she adopted the persona of an actress.

While Alexandra competently pieces together impressions of the father she hardly knew, her “reading” hardly enriches the text. Styron remains indistinct, perhaps because he so completely gave himself over to his work. (This is a man who posted above the door to his office Gustave Flaubert’s dictum, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”) As it progresses, Reading My Father focuses on Alexandra’s effort to untether herself from Styron, to comfortably inhabit her own lesser, happier life. “Irascible as he was,” she writes, describing her adolescence, “I didn’t know what, or who, I’d be without him.” The story of her father’s long decline—his inability to complete a fifth novel, the violent return of his depression in 2000, the subsequent deterioration of his mind until his death six years later—becomes the story of her own liberation. The apotheosis arrives with Styron’s second depressive episode, complete with electroshock therapy. Though he is a shell of a man, Alexandra is still troubled by his insouciant response to the publication of her first novel, All the Finest Girls, in 2001. “I was too old to let him steal my happiness,” she writes, neatly packaging the father’s death as the daughter’s rebirth.

“Your father was a real writer, a real artist,” Peter Matthiessen tells Alexandra. “And so, goddamn it, if you have to indulge somebody like that, you do.” That attitude may be démodé, but it goes without saying that we tend to allow artists, writers, musicians, athletes, and movie stars their foibles if we believe their work enriches our experience of life. Compared to Styron’s struggles with his art—and the products of his triumphs—the stakes of his daughter’s trials seem rather trivial. Despite his ogreish behavior, one badly wants for Styron to suppress his demons, to finish that final novel; one might like for Alexandra to successfully find herself, but only for as long as the page in which she’s attempting to do so is open.


If Styron was buffeted by the forces of Eros and Thanatos, Bill Clinton seems positively forged by them. And as with Alexandra Styron’s account of her father’s life, reading Michael Takiff’s A Complicated Man makes one desperate for Clinton to realize his potential, bereft when it becomes apparent he will not, and, ultimately, spiteful of the false promise of Boomer idealism. Takiff offers few revelations in A Complicated Man, an exhaustive oral history of the former president’s life and years in office, but he does provide an intriguingly kaleidoscopic view of what may be the most overdetermined man in America. According to Takiff’s myriad interview subjects, which range from childhood neighbors to members of Clinton’s Cabinet to political rivals, Slick Willie is a genius and a fool, courageous and cowardly; a “people prostitute” who “always succeeded in having it all”; a “hell of a listener” who is “as engaged talking to a sick three-year-old as he is talking to Nelson Mandela.”

At his best and at his worst, Clinton is all—which is to say way too many—things to all people. In December 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal crested, the President gave a speech before the Palestinian National Council in Gaza. “You and they must now determine what kind of peace you will have,” he told the five hundred delegates, having persuaded them to revoke the articles in their charter calling for the abolition of Israel. “Will you begin to see each other’s children in the way you see your own? Will they feel your pain, and will you understand theirs?”

“At the end the Palestinians stood up and cheered,” says Martin Indyk, one of Clinton’s top diplomats in the region. “They had tears in their eyes. I went up to Hillary and embraced her. I said to her, ‘He’s an amazing man.’ She said, ‘He certainly is.’ ”

Five days later, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives. “He lied his way there, and he lied when he got in there,” Lucianne Goldberg, a conservative critic who was instrumental in publicizing the Lewinsky scandal, said of the affair. “He cheapened the office. He was the guy who would lean out of the car and bang on the side of the door when you walk by on the street. He was the not-so-cool seducer all women had known.”

Most of us have at various times agreed with Indyk and Goldberg. Clinton, who seems to have emerged from the womb engrossed by politicking—even high-school friends sensed presidential aspirations—is capable of inspiring incredible optimism and, on occasion, marshaling it brilliantly. Friends and foes alike find his intellectual curiosity and deep empathy remarkable. But, throughout Clinton’s public life, the man’s considerable attributes have been overshadowed by the effort to package himself in a way that would resonate with the broadest possible public, and by the tendency of the person to disappear into the persona. Clinton’s cardinal weakness is the desire to be liked, which former speechwriter David Kusnet says can be traced to his troubled childhood (emblematized by the incident in which the fourteen-year-old boy wielded a golf club to defend his mother from his abusive stepfather): “He probably came closest to the edge, emotionally, of anybody who’s run for president.” The result is the polysemous politician, not only offering varieties of meaning for all demographics but seeming to embody, and oftentimes promising to enact, whichever beliefs they happen to harbor. For Clinton’s critics in the culture wars, this openness—a byproduct of deconstruction and political correctness and welfare queens and all else rotten with the country; the inverse of Reagan’s resolve when facing down the Evil Empire—may have been as execrable, and as effective fodder for what Philip Roth has called the “ecstasy of sanctimony,” as the white stain on the blue dress.


Some great men are not so complicated, and have God on their side, as well as Appalachian miners and gospel devotees—a fearful constituency. The itinerant Pentecostal preacher and singer-songwriter Brother Claude Ely, a.k.a, the Gospel Ranger, is one such man, as his great nephew, Macel Ely II, shows in Ain’t No Grave. This hagiography (which includes a disc of rare recordings) draws on interviews with “over 1,000 elderly mountain people,” and at times seems designed to compile every scrap of testimony to Ely’s geniality: “He forged an indescribable bond with these people that lasted a lifetime”; “Everybody just really enjoyed him”; “His dedication unto God was great, but his wit and humor was neat, too.” But despite Macel’s best efforts to turn Brother Claude into a hillbilly Mr. Rogers, and his tendency to gloss over the extraordinary weirdness of his adherents’ folkways, there emerges from the miasma of gentle praise a portrait of an unlikely maverick forging an original style—rollicking, shambolic spirituals—in makeshift Appalachian churches.

Brother Claude began preaching in the 1940s, when Pentecostals were rare in America, occasionally persecuted, and referred to as “gobbling turkeys” because of their tendency to speak in tongues. At a time when churchgoing meant sitting and silently praying, Ely took to the pulpit with a guitar and had his congregants ecstatically clapping, singing, and dancing in the aisles. (As white Southerners migrated to the midwest, Ely expanded his range, and his radio presence.) He tapped into the collective anguish of the country’s most destitute people, articulated their yearning for salvation, and fused their Anglo musical traditions with black slave chants, all in words delivered to him by God: “When you hear that trumpet sound/Gonna get up out of the ground/There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.” These services, which were recorded and released in a handful of 45s and LPs in the 1950s and ’60s, are frenetic and inspired—the sounds of people messily coming to life together. (The CD included with Ain’t No Grave contains a number of contemporary renditions of Ely’s songs and one lengthy sermon by the Gospel Ranger himself.)

Ely rarely recorded in the studio, despite having a contract with a major label; his records influenced Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, among many others, and would have likely become widely popular had he not refused to perform secular music. “When he sung,” says one woman who saw Ely preach, “it was like he was gonna shake it open right there.” Then one day he did. On May 7, 1978, at fifty-five years old, Ely was preaching to his congregation at Charity Tabernacle outside of Cincinnati. He sat down at the organ and began playing a composition called “Where Could I Go but to the Lord.” Suddenly, he fell backwards from his bench. “Church was fixin’ to break,” recalls his widower, Rosey. “All I knowed was to scream his name.”


Summer 2011: “The Nuance Brigade”

Richard Misrach’s Destroy This Memory, a book of photographs of New Orleans in the months following Hurricane Katrina, begins with a punishing quatrain: “Help! Help!” “Help.” “Fuck Fuck.” “Seek God.” Those lines are scrawled across the roofs, walls, and boarded-up windows of the abandoned houses and shops that Misrach photographed between October and December of 2005. Each of the book’s sixty-eight pages contains one image, and each image contains a message in lurid bold letters, the graffiti standing out against muddied and miasmatic backdrops. Misrach’s combination of majesty and irony has made him the Ansel Adams of postlapsarian America; he is known for epic, large-scale images of natural and unnatural landscapes, from Southwestern deserts tainted by missile ranges and littered with the carcasses of irradiated cattle to derelict vacation homes strewn around the toxic Salton Sea. But in New Orleans, Misrach humbled himself. Using only a handheld fourmegapixel camera, his palette is limited, the composition minimal, with a few of the photographs showing the frame of Misrach’s car window—from the inside, suggesting he thought it best not to get out. The scenes are depopulated, and their ghostliness—a crib is marooned in a yard, standing before a tipped-over trailer emblazoned with fuck you; a patio umbrella stands upright amidst felled trees and the rubble of a destroyed house; an athletic trophy is perched on the hood of a battered Blazer—is difficult to reconcile with the immediacy of the written messages.

One is left with the impression that Hurricane Katrina turned the city into a blank page, which residents filled with their own singleline stories before fleeing. Destroy This Memory does little more than document and sequence them, but the result is overpowering and, even with the surge of remembrances and commemorations vying to define what “post-Katrina” New Orleans means, it feels necessary. Unlike much documentary work chronicling the storm and its aftermath, Destroy This Memory, which was also shown as an exhibition last year at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the New Orleans Museum of Art, is composed entirely of the voices of residents and yet also defined by their absence. The narrative that emerges is a crude blues, with the verses consisting of pleas to God and State Farm, imprecations aimed at looters and President Bush (YEP, BROWNIE, YOU DID A HECK OF A JOB), gallows humor (WATERFRONT PROPERTY FOR SALE), and cryptic testimony (I DIED HERE WAITING FOR AN ADJUSTER). One can hear Beckett just as well as the many songs written after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (among them “When the Levee Breaks,” by Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie). In addition to artist and documentarian, Misrach seems to have become a kind of latter-day folklorist.


According to Alan Lomax, the paramount American folklorist until his death in 2002 at the age of eighty-seven, the point of that job is to “link the people who were voiceless and who had no way to tell their story with the big mainstream of world culture.” Lomax labored on a stupefying number of projects in his pursuit of this goal, and his biographer, John Szwed, seems to have noted all of them in the exhaustive Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. Alan, the son of renowned Texas song collector John Lomax, was a celebrity folklorist—such a thing did exist—by the time he turned twenty-three. In 1932, the duo loaded a car with half a ton of recording and disc-cutting equipment and headed out into the field, focusing their efforts on Southern prisons whose inmate-singers’ repertoires were least likely to have been corrupted by the advent of radio. Afterward, they headed north and did the lecture-hall circuit, playing their recordings for enraptured audiences. “For the first time,” Alan remarked, “America could hear itself.” Two years later, they introduced New York City to Lead Belly, the twelve-string guitarist, singer, and convicted killer they had encountered in Louisiana’s infamous Angola penitentiary; the front pages heralded the arrival of the Lomaxes’ “Murderous

“I had to face that here were the people that everyone else regarded as the dregs of society, dangerous human beings, brutalized,” Lomax wrote, “and from them came the music which I thought was the finest thing I’d ever heard come out of my country.” He dedicated himself to collecting and disseminating what he deemed to be the keystones of our national culture. Whereas the hobbyists and Harvard literature professors who trekked to Appalachia searching for British ballads were strictly concerned with lyrics, which established a link between the U.S. and the classic literature of Britain, Lomax relished, and was among the first to record, the music. And rather than limiting himself to hillbillies, Lomax sought out the ebullient dirges of the Delta blues, the symphonic chants of black work songs, the Creole roots of New Orleans jazz—the whole miscegenated mess of the American tradition.

Lomax worried that these songs would be lost as the country drifted toward homogeneity, and that the radio would eradicate regional music even from places like Angola. But he was also excited by the nascent awareness of a national identity spawned by the New Deal and the emergence of mass media. Folklore, to him, meant the possibility of a “culture of the common man,” and modernization allowed him to spread that message in venues as multifarious as his source material: Lomax was, at one time or another, a radio documentarian, a popular DJ, an award-winning author, a concert promoter, a leftist activist, a record producer, and head of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. This swell of activities occasionally overwhelmed Lomax, who despite his successes suffered from chronic self-doubt, much of which stemmed from his relationship with his father. Likewise, his to-do list bursts the banks of Szwed’s biography, with Lomax the man disappearing into the manically moving and shaking “pied piper of the Other America.” Szwed, who has also written biographies of Sun Ra and Miles Davis, is heavily reliant on Lomax’s own publications and letters, and provides scant exegesis or insight into his subject beyond what Lomax supplies. When it comes to his romantic failings, Szwed offers Lomax’s contrived Freudian explanations (he was an early adherent of psychoanalysis) and is otherwise mystifying: a would-be wife is introduced and dismissed in the space of a paragraph; Szwed notes in passing that Lomax slept with a woman who was not his wife and then, twenty pages later, tersely announces that the couple’s twelve-year marriage ended as “affairs piled up on their doorstep.”

Throughout his life, Lomax tried to infiltrate the mainstream with a sensibility foreign, even anathema, to it, prompting Americans to do what they oftentimes seem least willing to do: regard themselves and their history honestly and humbly. But late in his career, after spending years gathering European songs for an abbreviated series of records called World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, he turned away from the people and devoted himself to cantometrics, a kind of unified theory of folklore—and, later, of all art—that he hoped would lead to a “science of aesthetics.” One cannot help but see in the gulf between this Lomax and the eager popularizer of his youth the erosion of the promise of New Deal America. “I have grown almost to detest ‘Western civilization,’ ” Lomax wrote in 1959. “We are so rigid, so complacent, and so careless of human values that we cannot accept another group on its own terms. We must somehow force them to become like our guilt-ridden, tense, and rather miserable selves.”


And what better place to turn for a glimpse of our rather miserable selves than Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Editor Alan Gribben has updated both novels for modern sensibilities by excising “two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers”: “Injun” (to Gribben, “the I-word”) becomes “Indian”; “nigger,” used 219 times in Huckleberry Finn, becomes “slave.” (And for good measure, “half-breed” becomes “half-blood.”) Twain’s original Huckleberry Finn was a harbinger of American realism, a disparaging view of the pre–Civil War South as seen through the eyes of an impish innocent. What might have been a pastoral idyll is marred by the interventions of King and Duke and other sinister figures, and complicated by Huck’s ambivalent relationship with the runaway slave Jim, whom he sometimes treats as a genuine friend (though perhaps because Jim is “white inside”) and other times as dispensable. We see in this child the push and pull of individual conscience and social strictures, a schism that mirrors Twain’s own belated rejection of slaveholding culture.

Gribben’s bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn diminishes the novel’s power to agitate readers rather than merely entertain. Worse, the impulse to expurgate suggests a distaste for confronting our history on its own terms. Gribben offers plenty of justifications, none of them satisfying. The Civil Rights Movement “sensitized succeeding generations of Americans to the manner in which language can affect thinking,” he writes, as if the word—already reclaimed by rap and fallen back into common usage, however awkward that may be for whites—might infect our minds. Well, What Would Langston Hughes Do? According to Gribben, Hughes spoke for all blacks when he said they “do not like [nigger] in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic.” Besides, the word makes Gribben uncomfortable: “I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs” in Twain’s books, and he has found that students and parents are relieved when he substitutes “slave” for “nigger” when reading aloud. Finally, he seeks Twain’s blessing. “As a notoriously commercial writer,” Gribben assures us, “he presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.” Never mind Twain’s belief that “the difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

The tragedy, and greatness, of Huckleberry Finn cannot be separated from the difficulty of reading “nigger” two hundred times. The repetition of the word is the locus of Twain’s frustrated desire to reconcile his democratic sentiments and his belief in the intransigence of Southern society (and the sensitivities of Southern readers)—the world as it could be and the world as it was. In the end, Twain lets the South have its way with Huck, who leaves the river, abandons Jim, and determines to “light out for the territory,” the West, that fantasia of real freedom. America will remain unredeemed, and Jim will die an n-word.


If Mike Huckabee, the other, lesser, boy from Hope, had his way, the lessons of Huckleberry Finn might be finessed into a dopey sports analogy. In A Simple Government: Twelve Things We Really Need from Washington (and a Trillion That We Don’t), the likely 2012 presidential hopeful compares his life to watching a basketball game on tape delay after hearing on the news that his team has won. “Christian believers” like himself are “dual citizens of both earth and heaven,” and they know that “even if the country should fail, God’s kingdom will not.”

Though he remains optimistic—this country was “brilliantly designed by its founders to be a kind of giant self-cleaning oven,” and we are now at the stage where “the dross of leftover food and debris is turned into charred ashes”—the former Arkansas governor and current Fox News personality seems to believe we are on the brink: debt-ridden, reluctant to assert ourselves on the world stage, out of touch with our foundational values. He runs through our many complex, politically fraught problems, and prescribes reining in spending and borrowing, eliminating the vestiges of the welfare state, drastically limiting the size and scope of the federal government, and unleashing our military might (which is to say, so long to “soft power,” the Geneva Conventions, habeas corpus, peacekeeping missions, not bombing Iran, etc.). But A Simple Government is meant to be evocative, not coherent, and the particulars of Huckabee’s arguments are more often than not jumbled, spurious, or absent. His greater theme is the need to return to traditional values, to a time when Americans relied on themselves rather than government, to the trickle-up morality that made this country exceptional: “Get your family right, and its strength will wind its way up to the highest levels of global power.”

Though he brandishes many think-tank briefs, he seems to believe more wholeheartedly in the transformative power of projecting folksiness, ridiculing “multilateral pie in the sky,” making bad puns, and stoking fears that Americans are being enslaved by Obama’s “nuance brigade,” which Huckabee describes (citing a single magazine article from 1926) as emulating the twenty-four/seven carnival of free love and abortion that was the Soviet Union. Of course, the author of this book is not really Mike Huckabee, but a manufactured persona called “Huck,” who is meant to embody the shibboleths and resentments of Tea Party populism. Unlike Twain’s protagonist, this Huck is not divided against himself, and, as his discussions of Mexicans, Muslims, liberals, and the poor demonstrate, he lacks the imaginative capacity for empathy and any interest in understanding beliefs that diverge from his own. He vilifies President Obama for identifying with his Kenyan ancestors and not just with “the story that we believe in, that inspires us, that we teach our children, and that we, as a nation, are willing to fight for.” Then, after excluding Obama from the national first-person plural, he dismisses him as “the kid in school who waves his A test score in front of the entire class but never gets picked to play baseball. He’s an arrogant nerd, and no matter how smart he is, he can’t hit, he can’t throw, and he can’t run.”

In the end, A Simple Government is not so much a plank as a character sketch, a cartoon. Fittingly, Huck understands other people to be cartoons, too. Recounting a trip to Afghanistan, he writes, “In terms of the overall culture as I experienced it, I was thinking Flintstones.”