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.”
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.