great american __________

September 4, 2009


As the Senator from Massachusetts was memorialized in front of family and friends and presidents and representatives and lots of cameras and therefore probably also millions of ordinary, regular people around the country watching at home, I started reading a book because there was nothing good on TV. I mean, there was the coverage of the memorial, of course, but it seemed to me like the coverage of the memorial had been going on for days and days already and I just couldn’t really make myself watch any more of it, I was by this point pretty tired of hearing about the Senator and his life and work; no matter how great he might have been and what he might have represented when he was alive, my feeling was he was dead, okay, he was gone, so let him die, let him go, please return to regularly scheduled programming.  I liked and agreed with his liberal voting record; I thought the cultural myth of his family was fascinating; I hoped that the force of his memory in the political consciousness would be enough to help push through real, good healthcare reform, I felt all of these things, sure, it was just that I personally didn’t want to hear about any of it anymore, it was enough already. When we tuned in on Saturday evening, while dinner simmered on the stove, the (physical) memorial was just ending. “It’s pretty clever of them to time it like that, with the news,” my dad said. Amid the live coverage of the post-memorial events, a video package was repeated over and over again which featured the requisite soundbites from the eulogies given by President Obama and a cute little blond girl and the Senator’s son who has one leg and who the Senator helped up an icy hill once when he was a child, all of this interspersed with shots of the big casket draped in white cloth center stage. When the video package wasn’t playing, Brian Williams was seemingly reporting from inside some sort of boat or something, with big geometric windows behind him overlooking the sea and the sunset. On MSNBC, there was a roundtable with Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews and maybe some other guys, I’m not sure, and they were having a real old school bull session replete with all the wistful, sepia-toned inside baseball kind of stuff that you would expect; as the hearse rolled along past onlookers and monuments, Chris Matthews told us all a story about how Jimmy Breslin had interviewed John F. Kennedy’s gravediggers instead of covering the funeral story in the normal way like all the other reporters did. That’s real journalism, he said, that stuff, he said, as he sat in an air-conditioned studio and watched the hearse move through the streets like all the rest us of at home.

I was tired of this news crap myself so I picked up a novel from the bookshelf in my bedroom and sat down on the couch and opened it. My dad was on his laptop writing an e-mail to a friend and half-watching; across the living room from us, the screen continued to show the telephoto procession of the big black hearse’s trip through the city, the scene filmed from rooftops and cranes and helicopters hovering carefully in the air above everyone. I turned down the volume on the TV (to just turn it off altogether seemed wrong and besides is not something we really do in my family’s home as a matter of principle), opened my book, and began to read. The first chapter of the book began with the first person narrator making some vague statements to us that don’t make any sense when we read them but will obviously become VERY IMPORTANT in retrospect; this is the MYSTERY of reading the novel. “When you’ve been involved in something like this, no matter how long ago it happened,” the first line of the book goes, “no matter how long it’s been absent from the news, you’re fated, nonetheless, to search it out.” We readers don’t yet know what “it” is and we won’t for some time, but we learn fairly quickly and efficiently that our narrator is a higher-up at a local daily newspaper in the Northeast, the “Speaker-Sentinel,” something he is eager to tell us about in his thoughtful and self-serious way: “We’re the last of the local dailies not to have sold to McClatchy or Gannett or Murdoch, and though we recently stopped publishing on Sundays we still put out a very good morning edition the other six days of the week, a paper that we write ourselves and have for a hundred ten years. Though I suspect that it too is coming to an end.”

In between vague ruminations on life, the universe, and everything (“if children don’t make you see things differently–first bringing them into the world and them watching them go out into it–then God help you”) and notes on the death of newspapers (“we like to send our own people on stories, even if the wire services have us bound and tied”), the narrator sets the scene for us. It’s a “Saturday in late September…a heat wave had killed lawns all across the state and the smell of rotting apples was drifting up from the meadow.” In this heat, “crowded beneath the shade of the great bur oaks,” a great number of people are gathered for a funeral, “probably six hundred people at the morning eulogy…at least a thousand at the burial, which was open to the public.” The funeral, it turns out, is for Senator Henry Bonwiller, “the greatest liberal member of the United States Senate since Sam Rayburn and a defender of all the causes that poor people and working people and unions have ever embraced.” This is a big media event; the narrator notes that “The New York Times gave the news an above-the-fold headline on page one and a three-column jump in the obituaries…The Boston Globe ran an editorial in the right-hand front column, under ‘The Country Mourns,’ and ended with ‘this is the close of a more beneficient era.'”

After the funeral ends and almost everyone has left the cemetery, the narrator, who has some mysterious connection to Henry Bonwiller which will not be explained explicitly for a couple of hundred pages yet but which you will probably put together anyway way before that (hint: it involves the shadowy car-accident death of a young woman named “JoEllen Charney”), sticks around.  He stands there and watches as the grave diggers go about the ritual of the burial, just like Jimmy Breslin did when JFK was buried. “Even when they’re burying a senator, grave diggers swear and spit and ash their cigarettes onto the grass,” he tells us.  I read this line and looked up from my book at the TV and saw the hearse continuing to slip in slow motion through the empty streets of Boston, heard Matthews and Olbermann intoning about how the Senator’s death represented the end of an era; I looked down and read about the burial of this fictional Senator who “was a complicated man, to say the least,” but “a man who, if certain chips of fate had fallen certain other ways, might once have been president of the United States.” I looked up, I looked down, I didn’t know where to look.

inter1This is not some forced coincidence I’ve created here, I swear to you and God and anybody else, I’ll swear on a Bible like a real life elected official if you want, I am not inventing this scene for the sake of literature or because it neatly ties together disparate fragments of experience in order to create meaning and form, this is just literally what happened to me on Saturday evening (I know, I’m a real party animal), I was watching the memorial of Ted Kennedy and then, completely by chance, I started to read a novel about a character modeled very closely on Ted Kennedy, a novel which begins with a description of his funeral, a fictional version of the same funeral I was still half watching in real life at the same time. I guess if I want to make you believe something unbelievable like that, I should explain the circumstances surrounding it, that’s what’ll make you trust me, right? Well, I didn’t pick up the novel for some kind of ready-made resonance or so I could write something like this or even because I wanted to read it in particular, I just picked it up because I didn’t really have anything else to read and I wanted to read something so I could stop watching the funeral on TV. I didn’t have any new books of my own to read at the time, I don’t have the money to buy any but the really important ones, but luckily there were still a few galleys that I hadn’t looked at on the shelf in the bedroom and so that’s where I went.  When I was in high school and college, my mother worked at a small bookstore in order to help our family make ends meet and the real bonus of this particular job was that, because of the beneficence of her boss, the two of us were allowed to bring home as many galleys and Advanced Reader’s Copies as we wanted. We carried piles of these books home every couple weeks in big paper grocery bags; the cost of the amount of literature we consumed in this way over the years would probably easily total in the thousands of dollars if tabulated accurately. This was how that I became acquainted with some of my favorite authors and books, since books, especially new books, were so expensive and my family had plenty of other things to spend our money on. My mother hasn’t worked at the bookstore for about a year and a half, but we still have a small cache of galleys and Advance Reader’s Copies on a shelf in my bedroom and though they’re old and therefore “advanced” in a different way than they were before, they still yield certain pleasures, if only the pleasures of reading something new without having to buy it. One of these galleys on the shelf is and has been for a while America, America, a story about the impact of politics and money on a young boy’s life in the nineteen seventies which was written by Ethan Canin and released by Random House in the summer of 2008, just after it was announced that Ted Kennedy had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  Since moving back in with my parents earlier this year, I had seen America, America there on the shelf in the bedroom many times, but had never been interested in reading it until Saturday evening, when I started reading it for whatever reason, probably just because I’d read almost all the other books on the shelf and, like I said, I needed something to read, the way you might need a beer or a sandwich or a hot shower. The back cover of the book says “These are uncorrected proofs. Please do not quote for publication until you check your copy against the finished book.”  Oops.

In July, I got this e-mail from a former student of mine who I hadn’t talked to to since I left the the country where I taught him last year. When I left them last year, I gave all of my students my e-mail address so they could write to me if they wanted to; none of them ever did besides this kid. I was not at all hurt or offended by the fact that they didn’t write me, although I guess I can see where a more sentimental or emotional person might have been.  It’s hard to take it personally, though.  My students, even the youngest ones, were overworked and busy to the extreme and this was not a thing which was probably ever going to change for the better in their lives but only get worse until they graduated, so however they might have felt about me and however they might have cried and hugged me and said they would miss me the day I left, and however much they might’ve wanted to write me, they simply wouldn’t have the time to do so and in fact probably already their memories of me have receded into dark and unused corners of their mental space, the same way my memories of most of them have. This is all perfectly fine, of course, it’s just a natural process of aging and growing up; you move on, you forget things and people which were once a part of your life. Besides, I know that I’ve never written any of my old teachers, even teachers who meant a lot to me, unless there was some occasion where I needed something from them, when I had some concrete purpose for writing them. There’s something gross about that which has always made me uncomfortable and yet I’ve never done anything about it.  Anyway, here is the e-mail that my student sent me:


I thought the e-mail was pretty funny and adorable and I was happy to do this small favor for him (the speech was only two paragraphs long), so I quickly edited the text and sent it back his way and completely forgot about him again for a while. A little over a month later, the student sent me another e-mail requesting another edit of another Model UN speech, the message in the same cute, funny voice.  This time, maybe because the speech was longer or maybe because I was doing it for the second time or for whatever reason, I thought about it a little more, whether it was really right for me to be doing this, whether I should continue to help him.  When I had been a teacher, I had done things like this for my students all the time, things which fell in the gray area between “helping them do it themselves” and “doing it for them,” but the practical fact that it was my job to do such things then and that I would have been fired if I hadn’t done them helped me not think too hard about the ethics or morality of my situation (also, back then I almost always did this kind of “editing” in the same room with the student sitting beside me and participating so there was at least the pretext of “teaching” to the situation).  On the first day of my job at the academy where I taught, I was asked to “edit” the applications to elite prep schools in New York and Connecticut for another student, the son of the CEO of a large alternative energy company, I soon realized based on the kid’s English ability that “edit” basically meant “ghostwrite”; I had a twinge of guilt about doing this (not only for myself, but for this kid I was sending to a foreign school he was probably not prepared for) but again, I had to do it because if I hadn’t, I would’ve been out on my ass in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language or have any money.  Now, though, I was wondering whether it was right or fair for me to be helping this kid do something that he was supposed to do himself when nobody was forcing me to do so.  The student was never one of the most devoted or hard-working kids I taught and, at the fantasy model UN I saw in my head, I imagined his speech beating the speech some other kid, some smart kid who had spent a lot of time and worked really hard to write a good speech but didn’t have anyone to help him do it because his parents couldn’t afford that kind of help.  That didn’t seem right.

But. you know, fuck it, whatever, how could I say no to someone who put an ellipsis in the middle of “desperate” and coined the word “thankness” and spelled my name incorrectly in a letter asking me for help?  When I taught this student, it wasn’t a normal class but a private test prep lesson that he took with this other girl his age (eighth grade) several times a week.  His name was Min Woong and her name was Min Ji and they looked maybe a little alike and I, for some reason or another, could not for the life of me remember which one was which at first, I just couldn’t get their names right.  These names are comparatively easy to pronounce compared to some of the others I had to learn to try to say, but even though I could say the names, I couldn’t manage to attach to them to the correct person.  After a couple of sessions worth of awkward stumbling around this subject by me (“Okay, now you…no, you, you), the two students graciously offered, as many foreign students with stupid and underqualifed American teachers do, to go by English names in class.  Min Woong thus became “Superkiller” (his online gaming tag) and Minji became “Hermione” (her favorite Harry Potter character).  This was much easier for me to keep straight, for obvious reasons.  “Superkiller,” I would say, “please listen and then respond to the prompt about Michelangelo.”  He would listen to the prompt and then begin: “The sixteen chapel is a beautiful art in Italy.  It has many big pictures…”

All this is to say that I couldn’t really turn Min Woong down, whatever my ethical qualms, and so I started to edit the speech for him.  As I went through it, basically restructuring every single sentence, I found that my problem wasn’t ethics or morality, it was something else entirely.  My problem was The West Wing.

At the time when I got Min Woong’s e-mail, I had been having a lot of anxiety attacks (really, more like one long, chronic anxiety attack) which made me feel, among other things, like I couldn’t breathe, and the bad feelings that I was having were often the worst when I was trying to go to sleep at night.  One of the things I would do at night if I felt so bad about the progress of my breathing that I couldn’t go to  sleep was listen to episodes of The West Wing, a show that I hadn’t watched when it first aired but had consumed in the manner of an addict for two hours a day every day on Bravo the summer after my sophomore year of college.  I hadn’t seen or thought about The West Wing much since then but when I came across it by chance this summer, I was reminded of how good it had been and soon began watching an episode every night before I went to sleep, a process which soon became just listening and not watching.  This is because, despite the directorial chops of one Thomas Schlamme and the, you know, acting of the actors on the show and everything, once you know what the characters look like, The West Wing functions perfectly fine as a radio play, probably as well as it does as a television show if not better.  It’s all about the dialogue, of course, that rapid fire Aaron Sorkin back-and-forth which is like, I don’t know, if every tennis match was the Wimbledon Final.  The dialogue is so freakishly perfect and sure of itself and so completely alien to the dirtiness and ugliness and just plumb dumbness of most real world talk that you and I do every day that it’s comforting and soothing in some way; you always know that whatever bad things may happen in the episode you’re watching that nothing will really go wrong where it counts, that all conversation will be free of doubt or fear or the possibility of even a single flub or misstep, that the words will sparkle and dance.

My problem with editing this kid’s Model UN speech after listening all these episodes of The West Wing was that I was making it really, really good, like a million times better than even what I (a native English speaker) could have done when I was his age.  Besides grammatical errors, the kid had made some ridiculous points and absurd leaps of logic (basically his thesis was that his success as an individual would completely and totally make or break the success of the entire country where he lived) but I cleaned all these up and added idioms and rhetorical feints, glossed it up so much that even the stupid parts sounded smart.  After I finished my edit and read over the thing, I was so proud of myself and what I had done to his words, how I had made them right and strong.  I felt filled with energy and light and power, like I could do anything, I felt the way that characters on The West Wing look after they do something serious and important with words and rhetoric and language and they stand there smiling silently at one another as orchestral strings swell around them playing that familiar, faux-patriotic theme music.  I felt so good.  Then, just before I sent the edited speech back to Min Woong along with a note wishing him luck in Seoul, I realized that if he read the speech I had given him in front of the Model UN that there was no possible way that anybody would ever believe he had written it, that even if somebody did they would realize he hadn’t after about a minute, that I had gone too far.  I went back over the original draft of the speech and quickly edited it again, this time just for grammar and basic usage stuff, and then sent it back to him along with a few suggestions about how he might improve it.


How much do you forgive a book its faults before you give up on it, where do you draw the line? Also, how do you decide which of these faults are problems with the book and which faults are actually yours as a reader? I’m on page 364 of America, America and it hasn’t really been smooth sailing between the two of us, not by a long shot, but I’m not quite sure who to blame or what the answers to these questions are. It’s a book that annoys me in so many ways and yet I keep reading it, page after page.  The basic structure of the thing is that there are two narratives; the present day story in which the old newspaper man narrator muses on family and life and culture and then the historical narrative of his coming of age in the nineteen seventies amid cultural change and political intrigue.  The main problem with this structure is that there is absolutely no plot or drama or anything really to the present day narrative at all and the two characters who inhabit it are completely infuriating and annoying; the narrator is obsessed with CHANGE AND TIME PASSING AND THE DEATH OF THE OLD WAYS, which in his mind mostly manifests itself in tedious and painfully serious discourses on things like how people don’t have farms anymore (“Our poor dike-building settlers at the turn of the eighteenth century thought they’d find a miracle soil.  There was even a land rush.  Muck farming, they called it…”) and how old brands and stores have been replaced by new brands and stores (“And that was the beginning of the way things have turned out now, with our Crate & Barrel and our Lowe’s and the news of an Ikea opening by spring”…”Although dusters have become a status item around here lately–you see them in plenty of Toyota Highlanders parked at the upscale malls–they’re also as utilitarian a piece of clothing as has ever been stitched by man”). The narrator, over the course of his monologue, gently pelts us with various well-worn homilies and vague platitudes about what he has come to learn about FAMILY and PARENTING but never actually explicitly describes or shows in scene the sacred and beautiful children he has learned these LESSONS from or how he has learned them outside of one (actually pretty good) scene two-thirds of the way through the book.  The other character in the present day story, not even worth mentioning by name, is a plucky pseudo-hippie autodidact who infuriatingly overuses the word “sir” (which I think is supposed to make us like her?) and spends almost all of her time engaging in these painfully unfunny faux-screwball expository dialogues with the narrator. Here is a fragment of the illuminating scene in which he describes to her the difference between the old ways of reporting the news and the new ways of reporting the news:

“Things were different then, Trieste.  There were no computers.  There was no Internet and no e-mail.  Reporters used the phone.  And teletypes.  I don’t know if your generation understands that.  I don’t know if your generation even knows what a teletype is.”

“Of course we do.  Or I do.”

“Then you’re unusual.”  I went to the window, where the rain glittered in the streetlamps.  “Editors felt they had to verify stories,” I said, looking out into the dusk.  “Before they ran.  There was a whole filtering process.  Interviews.  Witnesses.  Checks.  Rechecks.  And the question–is this relevant?  Is this news?  It was still asked.”  I turned back to her.  “Believe it or not.”

“You don’t think it was relevant?”

“Of course it was relevant.  But in those days all the papers had their own reporters.  Not just the Times.  They sent them out to do their own stories.  It took a combined effort.  And a combined effort takes time.”

She buttoned the duster and pulled the collar up around her neck.  “So that’s what you think it was, Mr. Sifter?” she said finally.  “Editors checking their own reporters’ sources?”

“As I said, Trieste–there was no Internet then.  No Matt Drudge.  No Daily Kos.  No Andrew Sullivan.  No blog-world.”

“Blogosphere, Mr. Sifter.”

“Thank you.”

The other narrative, the story of the 1970’s, is a lot better than all this but is still wracked with annoying tics and flaws.  There are the standard Boomer historical fiction problems, like the annoying need to constantly reassert where we are in the timeline by using needle drops of old pop songs and clichéd newsreel images as historical markers (one of a number of chapter openings using this technique begins: “1972 was a year of change for the Democrats.  The Chicago convention in 1968 had left bitter memories.  Mayor Daley’s cops swinging truncheons in the crowds  National Guardsmen pointing grenade launchers off the Congress Street Bridge…”)  But more than this, as the narrative progresses and the story holds more and more things, there is just the general sense that this is a book that is describing unreal people in an unreal world, however much at the same time the resonances of the story with Ted Kennedy’s life push the narrative up against fact and imbue it with stolen authenticity.  Of course, my beloved West Wing (to break down for a moment the thin walls between the fragments of this essay) is pretty damned unrealistic and ridiculously earnest and over-sincere, too, but Ethan Canin just doesn’t seem to be able to muster enough authority to make me believe in these people in his novel the way I believe in the characters on that show.  There is a patently absurd scene fairly early on in which the young working class narrator and the patrician industrialist who has taken a shine to him go out together and shovel a path through deep snow in the twilight and, as they do, the old man describes for several hours (!) the history and philosophy and major quotations associated with each and every single president, a scene that even Aaron Sorkin at his very best could not hope to render plausibly, much less powerfully.  There is also this incredibly broadly painted salty old journo named Glenn Burrant who calls people “kid” and drinks a lot of brown liquor and in one moment in one scene completely changes the entire trajectory of the young narrator’s life by suggesting that he…wait for it…hold on…read a newspaper.  One reviewer who was generally positive about the book still noted that the main story is “steeped in an elegiac nostalgia for a lost innocence that never was.”  Even as an optimistic and hopeful person who generally and genuinely wants to believe the best in everyone, including politicians (however impossibly hard most of them they may make it for me to do so), the way these people talk and think and behave often seems completely ridiculous, and though I think this is a book that is probably written for an audience older than me, I doubt that many of them would find it particularly true, either.

Yet even after I have described all of these problems that I have with it, I still keep reading the book, and as I keep reading, I worry more and more that the real problem is not the book at all, it’s me.  I’m scared that I’ve lost something and I don’t know how to feel right about a book anymore, that I can’t give myself over to a story the way I once might have been able to, before I had read so much and so deeply and become so jaded and demanding about what literature was supposed to give me, what I wanted from it.  America, America is not a great American novel by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t think, but it’s still at least a fairly good one born of the sort of ambition and passion which probably should be rewarded, if not with money or critical accolades then at least with the movement of eyes over its pages, and yet I can’t imagine recommending it to anyone or telling them they should read it, it’s just not a thing I would do.  My personal model for the great American novel is probably Underworld, which is a book that I don’t think is any less serious or earnest or concerned with CHANGE AND TIME PASSING AND THE DEATH OF THE OLD WAYS than America, AmericaUnderworld, though, is full to bursting with the kind of word magic and poetic beauty that Ethan Canin in this book I’m reading now can never really seem to create for me, though not for lack of trying; in a scene late in the novel which I have to read as (perhaps unconsciously) meta, the old narrator tells us that, though he has always worked really, really hard and tried to learn as much he could, he doesn’t have and hasn’t had and never will have the kind of true genius and brilliance that the young intern who he is mentoring already seems to possess.  All this said, Underworld is a novel which, despite being very readable and not particularly “difficult” in the way that other “big books” can be, was still so frustrating at times that it took me like three tries over as many years to actually read the whole thing, whereas right now I’m finishing America, America in just a few days, quickly turning through page after page to get to the end.  These two books I’ve chosen share a fair amount of things in common — both try to tell a big, serious American story using cinematic techniques and multiple voices and point of views and jumps back and forth through decades of time — but they’re also different in just as many ways.  When America, America came out, Heller McAlpin wrote, in the Los Angeles Times

“It’s refreshing — and almost quaint — to see someone try to write a Great American Novel in the 21st century. These days, writers are more apt to pursue the Great American Screenplay or the Not-So-Great American Ironic, Postmodern Fiction. But Ethan Canin’s sixth book, with its flag-waving title, America America, is a big, ambitious, old-fashioned, quintessentially American novel about politics, power, ambition, class, ethics and loyalty.”

These categories are obviously absurd but even in their absurdity contain at least some truth, I think, just Ethan Canin’s book contains some things which make it worth reading.  A few hundred pages into America, America there is a letter from a mother who knows she is dying to her son who is far away from her at boarding school, a letter which is one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful things I think I’ve ever read in my entire life; I literally kind of wish I hadn’t read it at all if only because of the wave of sadness that is washing over my heart right now just thinking of it is still almost too much for me (the fact that there is a patently stupid scene later on in which the narrator has an imaginary conversation with his dead mother about ironing does not even really diminish the power of the letter, that’s how good it is).  Underworld, though it offers so very many emotional and aesthetic and sensual pleasures, though I think it is in many ways the “best” book I’ve ever read, never once hit me in the gut as hard as that letter did, I don’t think, even as DeLillo’s prose was crackling with electricity and fire and singing impossible songs right into my ear.

Really, though, I don’t want to keep talking about which novel is “better” or more worthwhile or get into any kind of status/contract or language/story debate or anything, because it’s a lot more complicated than that but also because I don’t care about that shit, what I care about really is me and how I can’t seem to read the way I used to, how I can’t seem to feel fully the force of words and literature the way I once did.  America, America is the first book I’ve read in a while that’s really made me feel (if only in bits and pieces) anything like I used to feel about reading when I was younger and yet, as I read it and feel things because of it, I can’t stop my brain from thinking what a weak book it is and how many bad and ugly choices it’s filled with.  I just can’t seem to read it right, I can’t stop seeing the flaws, I can’t put on my blinders.  Inside of me, I feel this abstract and mysterious and yet very real loss of my ability to read the way I want to read and feel the way I want to feel and I don’t know where to lay the blame for this, if blame can even be laid, whether it’s the hardening of age and experience or the influence of the Internet on my attention span or if I’ve read too much or not enough, I don’t know what it is that’s keeping me from really and truly reading a book the way I feel it deserves to be read, the way I used to be able to.  I don’t know what the problem is, I really don’t, but I just feel this deep loss as a reader because of it and the fucked up thing is I’m finding I can only describe it to you in vague generalities and abstractions cut together in cinematic fragments, that I can only talk about it in the way that the annoying, self-important narrator of this book I’m reading about America keeps doing.  I keep feeling like I am him but him is not the he who I want to be inside and, like, what I do about this, do I embrace his ugly language because it comforts me and holds me or do I criticize it because I know that somehow it could be better, that I could be better, and how do I resolve this paradox?  I don’t know so I keep reading or at least trying to.


When I was teaching literature and composition in another country, one of my favorite lessons to teach was about Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric, or at least a very basic version of what I thought that I knew about Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric which was mostly based on a paragraph in David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” and a section in a college English textbook I was cribbing lessons and photocopying stuff out of and some various other crap I had Googled and thrown together. On our whiteboard, in fading blue marker, I described the logical appeal, the ethical appeal, and the emotional appeal, these different ways of trying to convince your audience to agree with you or support you or believe what you believe. After this short lecture, in order to make these abstract and theoretical ideals more concrete and also in order to show my students how pervasive this stuff is in every form of speech and writing, how all utterance involved rhetoric in some way, I did an exercise in which the students had to try to convince their mother to give them more pocket money using only the logical appeal (“I’ve done a scientific study of the amount of pocket money that all my classmates receive by interviewing a group of my friends and I’ve figured out that I get 18.3% less money than anyone I know. That doesn’t seem very fair and equitable to me, does it seem that way to you, Mom?”), the ethical appeal (“I just feel like I’ve been working really hard around the house, Mom, you know that, you’ve seen me helping clean up in the kitchen and stuff, and, well, my grades are really good, of course, I’ve been doing extra violin practice every day, and I just feel like I’ve really been trying hard to be a good son to you and dad and I was wondering if you might be able to give me a little more allowance”), and the emotional appeal (“What? Oh, I’m fine, I’m just a little sad today, I guess. Why?  Well, I went out to lunch with my friends today and everybody ordered their food and everything, but, um, I didn’t have enough money for anything so I just kind of sat there and watched them as they ate, it was just kind of depressing and I was really hungry and wished that I could eat with them, too.”)

“Why don’t you tell the truth to her?” I remember a student asking me after we did this exercise once.  “Why don’t you only say the truth?” she asked again, pushing her glasses up on the brim of her nose.  She looked confused.

“Yes, you should tell the truth” I said, “you are telling the truth, but the question is how will you tell it to her, how will you say it, what can the truth get you?”

To tell you the truth, actually, this little exchange I just described may not have really happened in so many words, I may be embellishing some event that actually did happen or I may, you know, have just invented it right here our of nowhere for the purpose of this thing, to express an issue I feel inside about rhetoric and the truth, about the invisible line between the use and abuse of language, I may have just invented it, but I guess felt like I’d built up enough credibility with you so far by telling you all these true things I already told you about that you would believe me even when I wasn’t telling the truth and now as I tell you about all this stuff and reveal that I wasn’t telling the truth I’m rebuilding that credibility again, like, you know, that lie wasn’t even really a lie, no, it was a private joke between us, it only existed to bring us together (hopefully), not to tear us apart.

After our class exercise in rhetoric, we would always watch one of two videos as a demonstration of political rhetoric, sometimes both, this distinction depending on if I had a headache or if my students were talkative and participating a lot that day or if there was a much time left before the bell rang. Since I was teaching this class in 2008, one video was always one of Barack Obama’s big campaign speeches.  At the time, I was very excited about Barack Obama, as excited as someone as generally apolitical and jaded as I am can be, and I think I managed to communicate some of this excitement to my students as I described the various ways he was trying to sculpt the truth and manipulate them with his words, the way he used his language to make his points and create feelings.  My students were generally interested in Barack Obama and attentive to his speeches, maybe because he was all over the news they were forced to read and write about every day for homework or perhaps only as a response to my interest in him, to be good students.  Personally, watching those speeches now that the heat of the moment is over, I’ve come to feel that Obama, though he is a very good speaker, is not really a great one, and I think I was more in love with what he represented to me than what he actually said or how he said it (I still sometimes feel this way).  In class, we would kind of watch part of one of his speeches but we wouldn’t really talk about it in and of itself, we would talk about the campaign and policy and American culture.  This might not have been the best lesson in the world or anything, but to the students I’m sure it was better than reading some boring old book about rhetoric, at least.

The other video we watched was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  When I first started teaching this lesson, I would always preface the viewing of the “I Have A Dream” speech (or occasional readings of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”) by saying something like “I know you’re probably tired of hearing about Martin Luther King, but you know what, he’s important and so we’re going to watch this video anyway.”  This was, of course, a rhetorical feint (here, take this medicine, yeah, I know it doesn’t taste good, but you need it), but it also expressed basically how I felt about Martin Luther King, how when I was a child in school I kind of felt like he was force-fed to me year after year and I had had too much of him and I didn’t really need anything he had to offer anymore; I felt like he was kind of used up and gone, that his aura had dissipated.  I’m not saying that MLK was useless or unimportant, of course, I’m just saying that when I was growing up and learning about a very simplistic image of him that he didn’t seem to have anything to offer me, which was fine, maybe I wasn’t the person he was supposed to offer things to anyway.  There is some pithy and aphoristic saying about education about how if a teacher calls something a “classic” that immediately students want nothing to do with it (I don’t know the actual saying) and this is basically how I have always felt about Martin Luther King, that, yes, he was important and that, no, I didn’t care.

But now I was the teacher and it was my job to teach the classics and try to make them interesting and important and so I was doing it the best I could (it turned out that all the students in the country where I was teaching had had no real exposure to MLK , so they weren’t all burnt out like I was).  The way we watched the “I Have a Dream” speech was projected onto the whiteboard at the front of the class by an overhead projector hanging from the ceiling and connected via a wire that ran along the wall to my computer.  Before class, I had pre-buffered the speech on Youtube and so, when I told her to, the student closest to the door would go over and turn off the light and then we would all sit there in the dark together, in the glow of the white screen, and I would press play, instantly animating the black and white image hanging above us.

As the speech went on, I would occasionally pause the video and offer whatever knowledge and understanding I had to my students.  “This is an extended metaphor,” I would say, freezing the big face stretched across the screen as my students underlined or highlighted the sentence in the written text they were following along with.  “This is alliteration.”  “This is Shakespeare, this is from the Bible, this is an old song.”  “This is repetition, this is a poetic image.”  “This is the logical appeal, this the ethical appeal, this is the emotional appeal.”  “This is a shift into a new idea, this is a change in tone.”  “This is beautiful.”  I would say all these things and not just in the stark and detached way that I’m saying them to you now, I would explain them to the kids in plain and simple language they could understand, would talk about how an image made a stronger feeling than a statement, how the cadence and melody of the voice rose and fell and with their trajectory underlined words and phrases with pauses and stress, how the repetition worked like a chorus in your favorite song, how you just wanted to keep hearing the chorus over and over again, I would say all these things, I would explicate and annotate every word and phrase I could.  I would say all these things to the kids and try to teach them what I thought I understood, try to reach them somehow, but eventually I would get to a point where I wouldn’t be saying anything at all anymore, where I would just be sitting there at my desk like all the other students at their desks, sitting there in the dark and watching and listening to something I could believe in.



11 Responses to “great american __________”

  1. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:




    3. DO BETTER!@#E@

    • peregrine Says:

      1. If you keep writing it, perhaps there’s something you haven’t been able to articulate yet? I find shifting genres helps me get at the thing I’m missing, sometimes, maybe that would help you think through it, even if you don’t think you get anything publishable out of it.

      2. But Critical Shopper was so good! Like, good good, regardless of my bias towards all things food-related. Thinking about it, I think it’s because the link between consuming words and consuming food is one with depths to plumb, and this topic, on rhetoric and novels and all that, is a little squishier and harder to write, particularly when using the tools in question rather than writing, say, a reference piece about the tools.

      3. I always feel this way. Hazard of the trade?

      • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

        1. Oh, this first one was actually a ref. to the original ending which was there for like three hours after publishing and isn’t there now and probably wasn’t when you read it. It’s these two final paragraphs:

        “There should be a moment right here where in the darkness a young child tugs on my arm and tells me something simple and wise about “truth” and this would be a strong enough moment for me to hang an ending on, to finally finish this thing in a satisfying way.  I don’t remember any such moment, though, I just remember watching the screen and listening to the voice, and so I don’t know how to stitch all this together or what it means, I can’t seem to keep up the facade anymore.  This is the way it always seems to go for me as a writer, I build this mountain of rhetoric and then, when I finally get to the top of it, there’s nowhere left for me to go and I’m just stuck up here, alone and exhausted.  In the end, the strength of my emotion always outstrips my logic and language; the force of my hope blinds me from seeing my errors until it’s too late to correct them, until there’s no way back.  This is my fault as a writer and and rhetorician, probably, but it’s probably one of the only things that keeps me alive as a person, this overflowing of hope, this belief.  How else could you live now, in this time?  I’m as cynical and skeptical about politics as anybody but there are people out there right now who are saying that the president shouldn’t be able to talk over a television screen to kids in schools about how they should work hard and do their best, ordinary people saying this honestly and sincerely with a straight face that the president of our country should not be allowed to deliver a boring twelve minute address to kids at school, that this is a wrong thing.  These reports are exaggerated for effect by the parties and the media, just like the reports from the town halls, I know, these outliers don’t represent that many people, really, I know (I hope) but they do represent something, they do represent an idea, I think.

        They represent, to me at least, the idea that there are people here in my country who don’t even want to try to learn anymore, that don’t even care about trying to read or hear or see something new and different and think about it and decide whether it’s good or bad or not, to weigh different sources against each other and find connections and correct untruths, people whose beliefs are so hardened and unbreakable that there’s no changing them no matter what and all they want to do is shout stupid and mean things as loud as they can.  Maybe there have always been people like this, people who don’t care about learning, but we live in a time where there’s more information and knowledge available to more people than at any other point in history and it’s so scary to me that there are people out there like this who couldn’t give a shit about any of it, that don’t care about trying, that don’t want to make things better, that seem to just want to fuck things up.  Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know.  When you’re reading novels in school, you’re taught that the best literature humanizes everyone, that there are no “black and white” characters but only “shades of gray,” that we are all human and these truths are self evident and et cetera, but you know, I see these people with their lies and their misinformation and all their bad faith and I don’t know how to make any of them someone I can understand and love and empathize with, however much I try.  Not that I’m some genius or saint, of course, not that I really know what the hell’s going on myself or what the solution is to anything that’s going on, obviously, but I’m trying to understand, at least, I’m doing what I can, and what everybody should be doing, genuine and honestly trying.  That’s why I’m glad for you, the person who is listening to this right now, reading these words, living in the world with me and sharing the experience.  You are out there, trying, and maybe because of it you can take these broken pieces of mine and put them together, can make them into something worth hoping for, something worth believing in.  I believe in you, if in nothing else.”

        And I think on the one hand that ties together a lot of the threads and “explains” the essay in a way, but then I also feel that it’s too explicit about politics (a) and that it’s emotionally overheated in the hopes of being uplifting like a lot of my other big endings, a tic I am trying to get over (b) and I also feel like if I’m writing about trusting my reader to put together fragments and create meaning (i.e. that whitman quote) then I should, you know, let them without all that explaining crap at the end (c). I guess I wanted it to end quietly and without all the fireworks and stuff and while that’s the ending I want, I’m still not sure if that’s the better ending or if this is or something else. Probably won’t keep writing at it, though thanks for the advice.

        2. Thanks a lot, and yeah, that Franzen thing was probably the most popular thing I’ve ever written, but, I just don’t know, I keep relating everything back to writing and reading and while those are of course fundamental actions to the world and fundamental things to me, I want to be able to write about something without always going meta and engaging those two things and I also think that move of, like, “Oh, well here are all these criticisms of Michael Pollan but…oh snap, no I really like Michael Pollan,” as being something tired for me personally and while if I can do it artfully, that’s fine, I have to find better ways to hide it.

        3. Word.

  2. R J Keefe Says:

    What you need is Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter.” (I think.) Or perhaps something British: Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty.” Marilynne Robinson’s “Home” and “Gilead” may be a little too quiet for you, but they’re very strong. Unlike Canin and DeLillo, these writers mean more than they say. For a great big novel that’s got the best of Hemingway and Dostoevsky (and just about everybody “great”), there’s Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games.” Allez, courage!

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      Thanks, R J. I read “Home” in college and really didn’t care for it (it was too quiet for me, you’re absolutely right), but I don’t know much about these other ones and will definitely look into them.

  3. graham phone Says:

    I read your blog periodically but this is my first comment. Your posts are so long I have to read them in two sits, as I’m antsy and restless and suffer from an undiagnosed case of attention deficit disorder. So far I’ve only read up to the part where you wrestle with the morality of editing the Korean student’s speech. But I like the timely coincidence of picking up the roman a clef just as Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman are ruining the late senator’s funeral with their officious and garrulous commentary. It did seem almost too convenient at first, but when you mentioned the house full of free gallies and advanced reading copies, I believed you. My brother was/is a book reviewer and had an apartment that was like a book suppository at one time. He usually ended up selling the overflow to The Strand or other used bookstores, and some of the advanced readers copies wound up in my hands. So I definitely know what you mean about the perks of all that free literature.

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      Thanks for this comment, Graham, and I really appreciate your making the effort to read my stuff (the second part of this one isn’t quite as good as the first, but hopefully it’ll be worth it anyway). Also, though I think you meant “depository,” I really like your use of the word “suppository” for describing a big shitload of books.

      • graham phone Says:

        Oops – classic Freudian slip, I swear. Perhaps I was unconsciously appreciating the catharsis of reading and writing. Time to reach for the Pepto.

  4. peregrine Says:

    I see, it makes much more sense with those ending grafs. I was wondering why this one ended more abruptly than previous essays had. I’m with you now.

  5. j Says:

    I have been thinking about some of this stuff a whole lot because I keep reading these books that I just don’t enjoy but have to finish anyway to know what happened, just total boring plot-reading. And it makes me feel really shitty, weirdly so, that I’m seriously disliking what I’m reading and not getting much out of it and trudging on to know what the ending is, reminding me of probably the most important class I ever took where we had to read The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which I hated so much and did not understand what it was doing on the syllabus for this Literature course, until the very last day where the professor gave us this reading of the book that turned the entire thing around in this mind-blowing way, like THAT is how you read and that was kind of a stupid story but keeps coming into my head since I keep reading these books and of course there are books that just aren’t that good but I’m more thinking, you know, why isn’t this happening for me, what have I stopped seeing.

    I think what you said in your comment up there about not wanting to explain everything and to trust the reader is really interesting because I think your writing more than most any other place on the internet right now that I know of is the most honestly engaging stuff, that everything makes me think of something else and work to get through it, and that sort of consciousness makes ME want to be better because this just never occurs to me, I write pretty much to hear my own voice, and then I sit and read these books and can’t figure out why I’m not engaged by them when I’m not actively doing anything for myself.

    • songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

      Well, it’s good to know that someone else has been going through that (you know, it’s probably a weird side effect of the chemicals the nascent death panels are putting in the water). The other day I found a really good book that I’m (tentatively) enjoying quite a lot, so don’t give up all hope, you’ll find something right soon. Anyway, I really appreciate the compliment; I am still not sure about those paragraphs, whether it’s better or worse for the reader with or without them, but I think it’s better for me without them. I do think a lot about that, about the tension between wanting to give the reader pleasure and wanting to make him or her work for that pleasure in order to feel it more fully, even on something as simple as do I include a link to an idea or do I make someone open the google and search for it herself. Most web writing is built around convenience and speed and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that (I read a lot of it) but sometimes I think we need other approaches.

      I think you really underrate your writing, though I think I write largely for the sound of my own voice, too.

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