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.
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.
"Simone de Beauvoir said 'Books saved my life.' I think that's true for me," announced Gloria Whelan in accepting her National Book Award recently for Homeless Bird (which won for Young People's Literature). It was a refreshing zenith in the remarks that evening, and I suspect that what she said holds true for many of us--or that books save us from a certain type of life, anyway, one more arid and circumscribed than we'd prefer. They help us create who we are, in a kind of secular but still miraculous transubstantiation. And who we are--how we determine the nature of that--is a question you will find running like a highway stripe through the essays assembled here.
Are we dispassionate scientists or self-interested exploiters of the less fortunate, whether on the individual or state level? Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado reaches one conclusion, reviewer Greg Grandin another, slightly askew from Tierney. Does divorce cause long-term damage to children? Andrew Cherlin, some of whose own research has been used by others to support the idea that it does, has a less ominous view in discussing Judith Wallerstein's conclusions. And what is the inescapable bias in reporting on each other, in any respect? Longtime Saul Bellow friend Richard Stern contemplates the question as spurred by James Atlas's new bio of the Nobelist. Peter Schrag offers a variation on the theme while assessing Richard Ben Cramer's life of American icon Joe DiMaggio. When told the hero worship "was always about us," Schrag retorts, "Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about?"
Michelle Jensen begins her overview of Third Wave feminism and the Manifesta of Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards by putting a different twist on the question, noting that, so far, works representing the Third Wave have been personal accounts too much about "us," which leaves one thirsting for a theoretical grounding. And academic theory is invoked again, this time from the classics, Georgette Fleischer reports, in Judith Butler's revisitation of the story of Antigone; she uses the tale to refract out--or perhaps in--a perspective for sexual "outsiders." And through what sort of prism are we to filter a historian's self-history? Paul Buhle considers Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s beginnings, innocent or otherwise.
Elsewhere in the issue, faith in the transformative prospects of the word may be most evident in Rimbaud's conviction that his poetry would change the world, or in Orwell's more blatantly political reporting, or in W.E.B. Du Bois's double-header life as both political and literary powerhouse. Margaret Atwood and Eduardo Galeano, of course, have spent a lifetime tracing our silhouettes through language--as has Jules Feiffer with his pen and wry sense of paradox.
Last but not least, we come to the issue of who we are in a literal sense, here at The Nation. We take this opportunity to welcome Hillary Frey, who has joined our staff as assistant literary editor. She was formerly managing editor of Lingua Franca. We hope you enjoy the issue.
"There are more than a million writers in the United States and they write more than 500,000 books each year, 90% of which never see publication.