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Prosody in Motion | The Nation

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Prosody in Motion

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As you are no doubt aware, First Lady Laura Bush is a former teacher and has a master's degree in library science. This is all to the good. She's been getting rave reviews, too, for running an occasional literary salon--call the spinoff series The East Wing--and inviting the likes of Twain biographer Justin Kaplan, Langston Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad, W.E.B. Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis, New West historian Patricia Nelson Limerick and other prominent writers and historians. Many of the invitees have made no secret of their opposition to aspects of White House policy, notably over Iraq; asked about this by New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, Mrs. Bush replied, "There's nothing political about American literature. Everyone can like American literature, no matter what your party."

About the Author

Art Winslow
Art Winslow is a former literary editor of The Nation.

Also by the Author

This Fall Books issue explores the theme of the observant author.

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," some sage once wrote. Just so. As this issue went to press, the Museum of International Folk Art, a state-run institution under the aegis of the Museum of New Mexico, finally decided--in a debate that had been raging since February--to allow a computerized image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to remain on display. The artwork's offense? Our Lady was clad less than demurely, in a bikini of roses. The photographer Renee Cox (Yo Mama) sparked a similar controversy in New York with a portrait of the artist as a youngish woman--standing in for Jesus, at the Last Supper--unimpeded by clothing. The mayor of this fair city, which likes to consider itself the nation's art capital, hastily appointed a commission to assess the decency of art appearing in publicly funded venues. The fey breezes of our "culture wars" continue to blow, in other words, and you don't need a wind sock, either, to suss out their direction.

All of the essays assembled here relate in some way to this aeolian theme, whether it's the roots of political conservatism in the gusty person of Barry Goldwater or the history of feminism; the concussive moment in Birmingham nearly two score years ago or the sexual revolution in fact and fiction; the home-grown philosophy of pragmatism or the emblematic figure who famously wrote that our answers, friend, are "Blowin' in the Wind." As Casey Nelson Blake argues in the lead essay in this collection, though, the notion of the artist as a prophetic seer of sorts needs some radical updating as well--it often seems a cause without rebels, in fact.

The reductio ad absurdum of the situation, despite the fact that the sails of our public life may at times appear to be swelled out in vigorous debate, is that what we are left arguing over is the fittingness of a bikini in a work of the imagination. Annette Funicello, where are you?

Which brings us to another work of the imagination, this one beached on the gritty shores of copyright law and its interpretation: Alice Randall's novel The Wind Done Gone. You might have been reading a discussion of it in this issue, or from the book itself, if a federal district court in Atlanta hadn't found it "piracy" a few weeks back, for borrowing characters and scenes from Gone With the Wind. Randall's novel is told from a slave perspective, and bears mention here because the commercial question--would the trusts that own Margaret Mitchell's copyright be damaged--should be considered against larger questions of the nature of artistic invention, the process of cultural embroidering and the understanding of what constitutes literature in the first place. It was E.M. Forster, I believe, who spoke of creating "word masses" that we call characters; if we have a different "word mass" with the same name and perhaps even many of the same attributes, is the inflection of feeling in the reader--the received idea of "character"--the same? If anything can leave us culturally becalmed, stuck in the fetid doldrums with bad art, literary or visual or any other kind, it is the cutting off of spaces in which to reimagine the world. We hope you'll find that the following essays create some instead, to help you to do just that.

Apparently, no one passed that news on to New Jersey Governor James McGreevey. After he heard at the end of September that New Jersey's poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, had written and read at a gathering a long poem titled "Somebody Blew Up America," in which Baraka asks "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day," McGreevey demanded Baraka's resignation. Baraka refused to step down and the Governor lacked the legal power to fire him, whereupon state lawmakers began to ready legislation that would give the Governor the necessary leverage to remove the offending poet from his metered bully pulpit.

Whatever one thinks of that specific allegation in Baraka's poem, it occurs in the context of a very long series of questions that aren't as farfetched--who got fat from plantations? who lynched your pa? who stole Puerto Rico? who own them buildings? who got the money?--and are both overtly political and seldom asked. This, it seems, is one of the functions of literature: to air unpopular ideas; to be, in fact, political. Twain himself, whom the First Lady admires greatly, would no doubt be delighted at the paradox that Huckleberry Finn is held up as one of the pinnacles of American literature and at the same time finds itself consistently among the country's most-banned books. Because it's political, at root. Man and boy adrift in a raft, or adrift in a society that subjugated an entire race?

We're not exactly swimming with Algrens and Didions at the moment, but I mention the political underpinnings of literature because it suffuses all quality work, overtly or not--the writer, after all, is a witness and interpreter. Steven Johnson's lead piece on The Blank Slate, a book by neo-Darwinian Steven Pinker, attempts to plumb the mystery of what makes us who we are and tackles the legacy of biological determinism. Following him is Debbie Nathan, who shows how What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex has been co-opted by the religious right in our schools and by corporate medical science in the adult years.

Education writer Peter Sacks weighs in on another front in the education debates, engaging with Deborah Meier's In Schools We Trust and finding evidence that "the nation is in the throes of dehumanizing its schools." Meredith Tax reports from another school altogether: the lessons learned by the Bangladeshi writer and feminist Taslima Nasrin, who has been living the past several years in exile under a fatwa similar to that imposed on Salman Rushdie for questioning Islamic precepts. Nasrin's memoir of childhood, Meyebela, will "become a classic of controversy, hated, loved, banned...and fought over as long as people read," writes Tax. Speaking of classics, Patrick Smith writes on Irish icon William Trevor, examining his realism and his latest novel, The Story of Lucy Gault, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in England. Fiction of a very different order--the ramshackle life of a single parent, with articulated Christian themes--comes from the popular writer Anne Lamott, reviewed by Charlotte Innes. John Palattella contributes an essay on the rambunctious, cantankerous personage and poetry of Kenneth Rexroth, whose lodestars were politics and nature. Rounding out this special Fall Books Issue, noted Irish commentator Eamonn McCann gives his analysis of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein, based on Ed Moloney's book A Secret History of the IRA, striking in many of its assertions. And the canvas of larger-scale wars and their effect on societies--specifically, the link with nationalism and its myths--is the topic investigated by Chris Hedges in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, reviewed by Joseph Nevins. Enjoy the issue, political as the literature might be.

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