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A historian questions whether he led a slave revolt, but his heroism still stands.
It's one thing to have Somali groups protesting Black Hawk Down for what they say is an inaccurate and racist portrayal of Somalis.
It's the largest profession in healthcare. It's the largest female profession in America. But despite its tremendous importance and impact, most people know very little about contemporary nursing. Public ignorance of the present-day profession, however, pales in comparison with ignorance of nursing's history. How many of us know that the development of nursing as the first secular profession for respectable women was a major feminist achievement? Or that Florence Nightingale was not, in fact, the "founder" of modern nursing? Or that nurses played a key role in developing the American hospital system, as nursing historian Sioban Nelson has documented in her recent book Say Little, Do Much? How many of us know about the role of nursing in the development of public health and care of the chronically ill and poor? Most important, how many of us recognize that society's persistent devaluation of nursing--reflected today in the prejudices of many newly liberated female physicians, health policy experts and journalists--is a legacy of longstanding, socially enforced subordination to medicine?
Katrin Schultheiss, an assistant professor of history and women's studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is one of a handful of non-nurses who understand what the profession has to teach us about the complex process of female emancipation, as well as about the development of modern healthcare systems. She recounts the tortuous history of how the "professionalization" of nursing in France coincided with anticlericalism and the secularization of the field. Although her story focuses on the forty-year period from 1880 to 1922 and takes place in one country, the gender dilemmas Schultheiss explores have hampered nurses' ability to care for patients in healthcare systems around the globe, including in the United States.
Her tale begins with the advent of France's Third Republic and follows political reformers who attacked clerical authority as they tried to modernize the healthcare system. Until that time, nursing outside the home was typically provided by convent-trained nuns. Modern hospital reformers recognized that nursing required more nurses with more systematic education, but therein lay the problem. Since knowledge is power, the acquisition of knowledge was inevitably a challenge to authority.
Physicians, as men, did not welcome women on their terrain. As members of a developing profession--one that did not then command the prestige it enjoys today--doctors were also adamant about defending their field "from irregular or illegal practitioners."
Even doctors who recognized the need for a more educated nursing work force and who wanted to laicize the care of the sick would not countenance the education of nurses if, in the process, nurses attained the kind of knowledge and stature that would allow them to demand greater authority and autonomy in both the workplace and society. So even lay nursing had to be constructed in altruistic terms that stressed not nurses' knowledge but their virtue. As Schultheiss writes, "As long as nursing was clearly understood to be a custodial, maternal, or charitable occupation, and as long as nurses were regarded as the social, economic, and educational peers of the patients, rather than the doctors, there would be no ambiguity about who held medical authority within the hospital."
In Paris, nursing nuns, while obedient and devoted, presented a problem to medical reformers. "The very existence of an autonomous community of women called into question the hierarchy of power within municipal institutions," Schultheiss notes. Happily, secular authorities found lay nurses, as one reformer commented, to be "infinitely more subordinate than the religious nurses and more scrupulous in the strict execution of doctors' orders."
While anticlerical reformers touted the benefit of lay nurses, the French public was attached to the nuns who had provided what out-of-home nursing care had existed since the seventeenth century, and even before. Of course, Schultheiss points out, even support for religious nurses was cast in gendered terms. Proponents of the nuns insisted that nursing should be left to a special group of religious women because it would corrupt lay women for their real work--which was mothering. "A woman is either a bad mother or a bad nurse," was their motto. To convince the public to support secularization, reformers had to "feminize nursing--to turn nursing into a general feminine virtue that all women could possess."
Schultheiss's story also introduces us to a peculiar hybrid form of religious nurse--the "hospitalières" of the Hospices Civils of Lyons. These women were secular nuns, congregationist sisters "who undertook a lifelong commitment to serve the sick and poor under harsh physical conditions and with virtually no monetary compensation, but who remained under the direct authority of the secular administration." According to Schultheiss, laicizers supported them because they were easily controllable and because their sense of devotion was easily manipulated by civil administrators who didn't want to pay the real cost of nursing care.
In this section of the book, class also enters the story: If civil administrators were to get nursing care for little or nothing, women's educational standards--and thus their salaries--had to be low. Whether they were secularizers or not, reformers recognized that more highly educated women of a better class would eventually demand more pay, and more say.
Finally, Schultheiss takes us to Bordeaux, where we meet Anna Hamilton, a reformer and devotee of Florence Nightingale. With connections to the international nursing reform movement, Hamilton wanted to open a nursing school that would produce a "new nurse," recruited from the so-called better classes. This new nurse, she insisted, would deliver better patient care than nursing nuns. Hamilton's critique of the nuns, Schultheiss explains, was not based on anticlericalism. Rather, Hamilton argued that the nuns had "distanced themselves from direct patient care" while creating obstacles to the creation of "a single medical hierarchy grounded on universal principles of hygiene and scientific health care."
Hamilton was able to gain support for her project from Paul-Louis Lande, a physician who became mayor of Bordeaux, because she firmly linked the "professionalization and feminization of nursing." Doctors in Bordeaux, Schultheiss writes, recognized "the need for improving the training of hospital nurses, but rejected all aspects of reform that expanded the nurses' autonomy or authority beyond the narrowest limits."
Hamilton accepted these limits, asserting that "it is extremely ridiculous for a nurse who possesses neither the knowledge nor the rights nor the sex of the doctor to try to imitate his way of interacting with the patient and to try to use his language." Thus, in France, as in England and the United States, the nurse-doctor game began with the acceptance of the notion that nurses could not--or should not--possess medical knowledge and that they therefore could not--and should not--use medical language.
Schultheiss ends her story after the First World War. The war produced such a huge need for nurses that the debate over the virtues of lay versus religious nurses effectively ended. When more than 100,000 nurses culled from every social class enlisted to serve "la Patrie," this "demonstrated that women's special aptitudes could be attached fruitfully to the state." However, even during this period and afterward, nursing was valued not for its knowledge but for its virtue. It had become, the author concludes, "a twentieth-century version of republican motherhood."
French nursing carries that legacy to this day. Last year, when I was strolling down the Boulevard St. Germaine in Paris, a book displayed in the window of a children's bookstore caught my eye. It was called Je Sais Qui Me Soigne ("I Know Who Takes Care of Me") and is part of a series on citizenship and the professions. Nurses make a brief appearance in the book--as doctors' servants who have, as the text reads, "just enough schooling to follow doctors' orders."
For nurses struggling to put their education to use for patients, rather than for physicians, the ability to escape, at least temporarily, medical domination has always made home care attractive. Which brings us to Karen Buhler-Wilkerson's part of the story. In No Place Like Home, Buhler-Wilkerson, a professor of community health and director of the Center for the Study of the History of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, traces the development of home care from the opening of the first US home-care agency--the Ladies Benevolent Society, founded in 1813 in Charleston, South Carolina--through the present.
In Charleston, as elsewhere, respectable society ladies started home-care agencies because they felt "obligated to improve the conditions of and provide for the comfort of the poor," who were, in turn, "expected to manifest their gratitude to the rich," who established these agencies. But they did not deliver the care. Nurses did.
No Place Like Home does a great service to these ordinary nurses who are often dismissed as know-nothings by some nursing elites today. Buhler-Wilkerson details the complexity of caring for victims of tuberculosis or managing patients during typhoid epidemics. She also documents the persistence of the issues with which home-care agencies still struggle today: how to navigate doctor-nurse relationships; how to choose appropriate patients for home-care services; how to deal with gender, race and class prejudice; and how to secure long-term services for the chronically ill.
From the early days of home care, doctors were concerned about nurses invading their territory. In Boston, for example, doctors "confided to lady managers that 'the constant danger with trained nurses is that they shall usurp the doctors' position and prescribe for patients.'"
At the turn of the twentieth century, with the founding of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Lillian Wald and her colleagues developed public health nursing--"to improve standards of living" of the poor. One of the great innovations of the Henry Street Settlement was the establishment of a "First Aid Room." This was a kind of community clinic where immigrants could gain easy access to nursing care for routine health problems. Doctors, however, soon complained that "nurses were carrying ointments and even giving pills outside the strict control of physicians." Even outspoken nurses like Wald's colleague, socialist Lavinia Dock, feared a confrontation with powerful physicians. By 1911 questionable cases were no longer treated in the First Aid Room. "Later publications," Buhler-Wilkerson writes, assured the public that "the real Henry Street Settlement nurse will make the doctor feel that she is exerting every effort to have his treatment, not hers, intelligently followed."
An equally fascinating subject tackled by Buhler-Wilkerson is the impact of racial prejudice on nurse-patient and nurse-doctor relationships. In both the North and the South, lady managers as well as nurses fretted about whether it was appropriate for white nurses to care for black patients or black nurses for white patients. When insurers, notably Metropolitan Life, entered the field at the turn of the last century, managers considered the same imponderables. Race invariably trumped the needs of care and even of doctor domination of the nurse-physician relationship. For example, Buhler-Wilkerson tells us that the respectable ladies of Richmond, Virginia, who ran home care in that city, decided it was "'eminently' satisfactory for white nurses to care for black patients on the 'same footing' as white patients--but drew the line at white nurses 'taking orders from colored physicians.'"
The advent of health insurance also had a critical impact on the home-care agencies. Wald convinced Metropolitan Life to cover home-care services in 1909. Met Life wanted to reduce the high mortality rate of black life insurance subscribers--thus delaying payments on their life insurance policies. Home-care nursing's preventive approach initially seemed to make good business sense. By the 1950s, public health nursing and medical advances had paid off: Fewer people were dying of infectious diseases, and more acute illnesses were treated in the hospital. This meant that the bulk of home-care patients were chronically ill. To reward public health nursing for its success, Met Life curtailed its home-care program. "Providing care for those who failed to recover quickly was, from an insurance perspective, a poor investment," Buhler-Wilkerson states bluntly.
Since the fate of nursing is tied to the fate of the patients nurses serve, the situation has not improved much, as first Medicare and Medicaid and now managed care have "rediscovered" home care. Indeed, today the promise of the home as a place where nurses and their patients can escape the negative consequences of medical paternalism and give or receive higher-quality care has remained largely unfulfilled.
In Devices & Desires, Margarete Sandelowski uses a different lens--the world of medical technology--to explore the issue of gender and nursing. This brilliant book shows just how much the "charitable, devotional and altruistic" image of the nurse conceals. From the discovery of the thermometer to the development of intensive heart and fetal monitoring, Sandelowski documents doctors' dependence on nurses for their reputation for scientific and technical mastery. As Sandelowski shows, nurses have been critical in administering medical technology, monitoring the information it provides and interpreting that information to physicians, not to mention "educating patients about new devices, getting patients to accept and comply with their use, and alleviating patients' fears about them."
An eye-opening segment describes the use of the first thermometer, rather than the hand, as a diagnostic tool in the mid-nineteenth century. In it, we learn that the thermometer we take for granted today was originally an unwieldy, dangerous instrument that had to be carefully manipulated so as not to injure the patient. Because diagnosis and treatment involved taking the patient's temperature numerous times a day, busy physicians assigned the task to nurses. This involved, however, far more than simply recording data. The nurse, Sandelowski writes, "had to know what caused various temperatures to occur and the nursing measures that would lower or raise temperature to normal levels."
While physicians were the ones to insert the first unwieldy and equally dangerous intravenous devices, nurses were the ones to make sure the patient's arm remained immobile and that the patient could tolerate the discomfort of IV therapy. Nurses are the ones who developed the intensive-care unit--to provide intensive nursing care--and who track and interpret data from fetal monitors. As the primary users of much medical machinery, nurses are often more knowledgeable about equipment than doctors. Indeed, "the benefits of machine monitoring could not be fully harnessed without nurses who understood and could act immediately on the information monitors generated." While the public does not recognize this fact, the author tells us that medical equipment manufacturers certainly do. This is why nurses continually work with physicians and manufacturers to create design improvements and to insure that "expensive machinery [is] fully utilized."
What is amazing about this story is how little nurses have benefited from their technological mastery. Sandelowski shrewdly diagnoses a classic Catch-22. While it is true that nurses' status is somewhat enhanced by their technical proficiency, the recognition they receive does not match their actual accomplishments. That's because physicians quickly label the technical activities nurses engage in as "simple enough" for a nurse to perform.
No matter how much nurses participate in the diagnostic process, of course, physicians have maintained a legal and linguistic stranglehold on "medical" diagnosis. Even as "physicians were increasingly expecting them to perform de facto acts of diagnosis," Sandelowski writes, "nurses were in the bizarre position of having to be mindful of symptoms without speaking their mind about them."
Nurses were supposed to be able to distinguish between normal and abnormal conditions and to look for reasons for any abnormal findings. But nurses were never to use the words "normal" or "abnormal" in reporting or recording patient conditions, and they were to refrain from offering their opinions on etiology or diagnosis.... Nurses were to say (report and record) only what they saw, unlike physicians, who maintained the right to say what they knew.
This has produced the peculiar phenomenon--even today--of the nurse who recognizes that a cancer patient has diarrhea or a mentally ill patient is hallucinating, but who is not allowed to use the actual medical word because that would suggest that she, or he, is making a "medical diagnosis."
As she describes these phenomena, Sandelowski never paints nurses as innocent victims of nasty, overbearing physicians. In their perennial attempt to find "a socially valued place and distinctive identity," Sandelowski argues, many members of the profession have, albeit unwittingly, adopted common gender stereotypes that perpetuate the oppression of nurses.
One segment of the profession, Sandelowski contends, has bought into the notion that the complex practical, technical work that ordinary nurses perform is indeed simple and know-nothing.
Typically conceived of as nothing more than the physician's hand, and persistently caught in the Western cultural dichotomy between merely manual and highly prized mental, or intellectual, work, nurses have struggled to show that nursing is largely brain work. In the process, however, they have inadvertently complied with the prevailing cultural practice of denigrating the very "body-knowledge" that is the forte of the nurse.
This is particularly evident in the nurse-practitioner movement, which so many elite nurses now promote. "The key factor differentiating nurse practitioners from other nurses," she writes, "is both the use of medical instruments and the use of instruments in ways previously denied nurses." But, she points out, in our bottom-line-driven healthcare system "the role emerges as largely economically and 'medically-driven'.... The traditional image is maintained of nurses as the extra hands and eyes of physicians willingly and cheaply filling voids and bridging gaps in health care."
Other segments of the profession, Sandelowski argues, have opposed nurses' emotional and social work to their technological activities, arguing that technology is somehow an inauthentic nursing activity, while "caring" is both authentic and an essential "antidote to technology." Sandelowski shrewdly insists that in opposing "nursing/touch and technology," the profession has been "identified both with and against technology and thus, in an ironic way, with and against itself."
While it is not the purpose of these books to offer advice about dealing with the many problems nursing confronts, they implicitly point to one incontrovertible solution: We can appreciate what nurses do in the present only if we understand how their work has been constructed in the past and what they have contributed--and can contribute--to our healthcare system.
Understanding and analyzing nursing's decades-long struggle for "a socially valued place and distinctive identity" is not an academic exercise. It is central to reversing the chronic underfunding of the nursing services most of us will eventually depend on in hospitals and other healthcare institutions, and also the undereducation of the nursing work force at almost all levels of practice. And it is critical to any solution to the severe nursing shortage, which, if not quickly and effectively addressed, will have disastrous consequences as the population grows older and sicker.
On East Capitol Street a few years ago, I was in a taxi when a car pulled suddenly and dangerously across our bow. My driver was white, with a hunter's cap and earmuffs and an indefinable rosy hue about his neck. The offending motorist was black. Both vehicles had to stop sharply. My driver did not, to my relief, say what I thought he might have been about to say.
Frederick Wiseman has spent a lifetime piecing together sounds and images captured from the daily flow.
"When I write, I bid farewell to myself," Jimmy Santiago Baca said in 1992. "I leave most of what I know behind and wander through the landscape of language." This is a memorable quote from a poet whose voice, brutal yet tender, is unique in America. The landscape of language is what redeemed Baca in 1973 when, at 21, illiterate and jailed in a maximum-security prison on charges of selling drugs, he discovered the power of words. And then he let himself loose, reading anything and everything that touched his hands, writing frantically, even magically, a set of autobiographical poems that spoke of injustice and alienation. His characters were young males handcuffed by poverty, with "nothing to do, nowhere to go." Denise Levertov once talked of them as fully formed people with engaged imaginations, of the type that witness brutality and degradation yet retain "an innocent eye--a wild creature's eye--and deep and loving respect for the earth."
Baca made his name in the late 1970s when Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems was published. After that, he steadily developed an oeuvre, endorsed by small presses, about the tortured experience of Chicanos. The reader sensed a poet ready to denounce, and to do so angrily, but careful not to turn poetry into an organ of propaganda: "I Am with Those/Whose blood has spilled on the streets too often,/Surprising bypassers in hushed fear," he wrote in one poem. "I am dangerous. I am a fool to you all./Yes, but I stand as I am,/I am food for the future."
These poems came in the aftermath of the Chicano movement, as the country moved away from such activism. Change had been fought for by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and by the Crusade for Justice, but its fruits remained intangible. Baca's anger spoke to the unredeemed and nonaffiliated on the fringes and also to a mainstream audience aware of the social limitations that remained after the civil rights era. He refused to give up denunciation, exposing the tension between whites and Mexicans in the Southwest. But then came an age in which complacency was accentuated and activism was institutionalized. Poetry left the trenches to enter the classroom: It wasn't what you had done, but the expository strategies you had used, that mattered. The Chicano middle class saw this as an occasion to reject outspokenness and endorse consent. Even the term "Chicano" came under fire and was replaced by "Mexican-American."
Around this time, Baca's pathos was acquired by Hollywood. He began to write screenplays, one of which, about gang wars in California's prisons, became Bound by Honor (1993), an epic directed by Taylor Hackford, with Benjamin Bratt, Damián Chapa and Jesse Borrego. On occasion he would surface with a pugnacious reflection, and eventually he assembled these reflections into a volume with a symbolic title: Working in the Dark (1992). But silence impregnated his poetic journey, silence and detachment. That, at least, was the view of his readership. Was Baca the poet still active, or was he going mute?
Black Mesa Poems, published a decade after Immigrants in Our Own Land, showed a shift in Baca's concerns--from the roughness of crime and conflict to depictions of barrio and rustic life. There are some existential poems in that collection, but a significant number of them deal with community--in particular, with his second home in a New Mexico rancho. These poems are about the redemptive power of love, about birth and death, about motherhood--and about rivers and pinyon trees.
The move from the individual to the family, from confrontation to introspection, is apparently what has occupied Baca in all the years since Black Mesa Poems, and his resurfacing comes with a vengeance in the form of two interrelated books: a hefty series of lyrical poems, Healing Earthquakes, billed by the publisher as a love story; and a poignant memoir, A Place to Stand, that is at once brave and heartbreaking. One feels a gravitas in the poet's voice that was absent before. Impetuosity has apparently given way to fortitude. Baca seems more patient, attentive to the passing of seasons, in tune with the smiles of children and the wisdom of elders.
The style of Healing Earthquakes is at times flat, even repetitive, and the book's plot insinuates itself with the accumulation of insights. But overall the work is stunning, the product of a poet in control of his craft, one worth paying attention to. Divided into five solid, asymmetrical sections that range from adulthood to rebirth and back, the series is shaped as a quest--again, semiautobiographical--for balance in an eminently unbalanced universe. But this is no redraft of Pilgrim's Progress, from earth to hell and up to heaven. Instead, it is a downpour of passion, which leads the narrator astray as he lusts for women, tangible and chimerical, and explores myths and archetypes that come from Mesoamerican civilization. He reflects on his imperfections, runs into trouble with others and wonders: where to find dignity? Not in religion, it seems, but in morality. It is through others and through their vision that one might find a sense of self. (This reminds me of the late Pablo Neruda, ready to turn himself into a Boswell of the heart's disasters: burning with life, agitated by the confusion around, yet eager to make poetry into his metronome.)
The poems include an explanation of silence that readers should welcome. The series uses the emphatic "I" that is a sine qua non of minority letters and that is ubiquitous in Baca's poetry, a device employed as an affirmation of the self in spite of all odds. "Here I am," it announces. "You better pay attention to me, because I will not go away." But this older Baca has become philosophical with age, and his "I" is now more contemplative:
I used to party a lot, but now I study landscapes
and wonder a lot,
listen to people and wonder a lot,
take a sip of good wine and wonder more,
until my wondering has filled five or six years
and literary critics and fans
and fellow writers ask
why haven't you written anything in six years?
and I wonder about that--
I don't reveal to them
that I have boxes of unpublished poems
and that I rise at six-thirty each morning
and read books, jot down notes,
compose a poem,
throwing what I've written or wondered on notepads in a stack in a box
in a closet.
To my mind Baca's most concentrated, lucid effort is "Martín," a forty-five-page exploration about a young Chicano abandoned by his parents, whose travels from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and across states force him to confront his own limitations. After "Martín" appeared in 1987, Baca ran into trouble with Chicano critics for his portrait of Mexican adolescence--a portrait that didn't shy away from such negative attributes as alcoholism, violence and narcotic escapes. They accused him of pushing his people down by stressing the ugly and not the beautiful. His reaction, in an essay titled "Q-Vo," collected in Working in the Dark, was a welcome respite in an atmosphere of cheap ethnic pride. (The title is a phonetic redraw of ¿Qué hubo?, "Wassup?")
[In the critics' view] Chicanos never have betrayed each other, we never have fought each other, never sold out; nor have we ever experienced poverty or suffering, wept, made mistakes. I never responded to these absurdities. Such narrowness and stupidity is its own curse.... Because I am a Chicano, it doesn't mean that I am immune from the flaws and the suffering that make us all human.
The incident recalls a comment I once heard from an aspiring Chicano critic, whose teachers reiterated to him that to write a bad review of a fellow Chicano author is to be an Uncle Tom: un traidor. "Why add to the stereotypes?" he was told. Baca responded to such nearsightedness with courage. And it is that type of unremitting courage that colors A Place to Stand, his memoir, subtitled The Making of a Poet. It is, once again, a thunderous artifact. (Readers of "Martín" especially will find it a box of resonances.) It follows a straightforward, chronological pattern with an occasional detour into the realm of the fantastic, in which the author offers dreams and imaginary visions of the past. This fantastic element isn't atypical. For instance, in a chapbook of 1981 that included the poem "Walking Down to Town and Back," about rural New Mexico, a widow lights her adobe house on fire after she believes it has been taken over by snakes, and from the flames emerges the image of the Virgin Mary. The tale is delivered in a voice that once belonged to a child, and makes use of what Freud called "the uncanny": real incidents twisted by memory into supernatural anecdotes. "Miracle, miracle," the townspeople announce. Is it all in the widow's mind?
Figuratively speaking, Baca's memoir only partially takes place in his mind, as he ponders the loss of his father, mother and brother. A few passages push the narration to a more surreal level, but these are far between. Most of the memoir is not about miracles but about the summons of a life on the verge.
I was born [in 1952], and it was about this time that Father's drinking and his absences first became an issue.... The whites looked down on Mexicans. Mother's frustration began to show. La Casita, with its two tar-papered cardboard rooms, one bed where we all slept, woodstove, and cold water spigot, wasn't the white picket-fenced house in the tree-lined city suburb she'd dreamed of.
A Place to Stand begins here, with Baca's Indian father leaving the family and his Chicano mother having a romance with a man who persuades her to leave her children behind, mask her Mexican ancestry and begin a WASP family in California. Baca went to his grandparents first, then to an orphanage. He soon found himself destitute on the street, afraid of the deceitful manners of adults. By then he was already a school dropout. His race, obviously, reinforced his status as pariah--Mexican was synonymous with slime. Perennially harassed by the police, he was adrift, disoriented, a stranger in his own land; eventually, he was incarcerated on murder charges for a crime he did not commit.
Upon his release, Baca sought to find his center, to turn himself into an honorable man. But he stumbled, and in flight he sold drugs, rambling without direction through San Diego and Arizona. The narcos' and the FBI's tête-à-tête in a bullet-infested crash the scene is vividly described in the memoir. Arraigned again, he ended up in solitary confinement, and after defying the system that purportedly sought to reform him ("prison did not rehabilitate me. Love for people did"), he learned to read. From that moment on he read, and read, and read, and then turned ink to paper, at which point he surprised himself a poet--and he surprised others too: His gifts were pristine, unadulterated from the start.
I was often overwhelmed by the sorrow and commiseration conveyed in Baca's memoir. It is a luminous book, honest to a fault. Every so often the author indulges in epiphanies that sound like clichés: for instance, "I didn't know what I'd done to deserve my life, but I'd done the best I could with what I had." But those platitudes are what people less interested in literature and more in the rough-and-tumbleness of life are likely to respond to fully. A Place to Stand is about place in the largest, most flexible sense of the term: as home, but also as the soil of one's roots and as the literary pantheon in which one fits. In that sense the book belongs to the subgenre of prison tales for which the twentieth century was fertile ground. From The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Vaclav Havel's diaries, the central paradigm doesn't change: involuntary confinement as a ticket to enlightenment--and even messianic revelation. In the Americas, this subgenre is obviously substantial, filled with names like Graciliano Ramos and Reinaldo Arenas; north of the Rio Grande, figures like Piri Thomas, Miguel Piñero and Luis J. Rodríguez have also heard the sound of their voice behind bars. Baca too enters jail as a lost soul and leaves it empowered; in the early fragments of the book he is a vato loco, a crazy dude. But after the imprisonment he is an unapologetic, ideologically defined Chicano. "Most people might assume that cons spend their time thinking about what they're going to do when their time is up, fantasizing about the women they're going to fuck and scams they're going to run, or planning how they're going to go straight and everything will be different," Baca writes. "I did think about the future sometimes, but more and more it was the past my mind began to turn to, especially during those first days and nights in solitary." Those nights led Baca to a debacle with his own phantoms, and to the conviction that life has a purpose only when one devises one for it. The epilogue of A Place to Stand is especially moving: In it Baca's mother returns to her Mexican identity, but her second husband stops her short with five bullets in her face from a .45--a mesmerizing image of defeat, which Baca successfully turns around in his telling.
Maturity... For years I've been looking for an accurate definition of the word. What does it really mean? "Fullness or perfection of growth or development," announces, tentatively, the Oxford English Dictionary, but this is an unsatisfactory explication. The purpose of any artist who takes himself seriously is to make the best of his talents fit the condition in which he finds himself. Is maturity the capacity to change and still remain loyal to one's own vision? Earlier in this review I referred to Baca's work as an oeuvre, which isn't the same as work. Oeuvre implies mutation, the desire to change from one mode to another, the willingness to comprehend nature and society from contrasted stands. Baca's poetry is monochromatic, but the same might be said of any poet of stature: A set of motifs and anecdotes reappears under different facades. But every time, the reader reaches a depth unlike the previous one.
Baca's latest books are about anger, but he seems to be less angry than before. Time has allowed him to zoom in on his mission: to travel outward and inward as a Chicano in America, with all the complications that the identity entails; and to use language to bid farewell to his many selves. In Healing Earthquakes he describes his search as
leading me back across the wasteland of my life
to marvel at my own experience and those around me
whose own humbled lives graced me with assurance
that if I stayed on the path of love, of seeking the good in people,
of trying to be an honorable man,
that I too would one day have the love of family and friends
and be part of life as it spun like a star in the dark
radiating light on its journey--.
This search, it is clear now, is a towering legacy.
"I remind myself that much of television is now comic strip," Ralph Ellison told TV Guide in 1988. It is not surprising that the author of Invisible Man would be uncomfortable with the cool medium. After all, Ellison's only completed novel repeatedly attacks the vulgarity of literal representation to the point where even the novel's hero is famously nameless. Ellison directs us away from appearances and keeps his hero running, from white cops, black nationalists, hypocritical Communists and corrupt academics, only to find himself nestled in the Dostoyevskian underground of the written word. Regardless of much of its politics, the literary Modernism of Mann, Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner and others provided Ellison with an unlikely harbor from racism; representing that literary process on television is a little like disobeying Kafka's instructions and drawing the insect of The Metamorphosis.
Yet in that same TV Guide interview, Ellison acknowledged that television "while very fleeting, has its permanent side, too, which allows you to go back." Poised somewhere between comic strip, permanence and VH1's Behind the Music, writer-producer-director Avon Kirkland has served up Ellison for middlebrow America in Ralph Ellison: An American Journey. At its worst, Kirkland's documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison's triumphant novel, reducing its hallucinatory nuance to earnest television. At its best, the documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison's disappointing life, and it is this haunting story that makes for a compelling made-for-TV biopic.
Since there is still no published biography of Ellison (there are two in the works, by Lawrence Jackson and Arnold Rampersad), Kirkland has the advantage of telling a story that has never been told in public before, at least not in any sustained, ostensibly objective way. Ellison may have told the story of hopping a freight train to enroll in Tuskegee as a scholarship student in an essay; but until you've seen his bandaged student ID and heard the narration of the story with a montage of trains, hobos and predators to the strains of Howlin' Wolf, it's not quite real in the way that TV makes events seem real. And unless you've dug through his archives at the Library of Congress, happened to be watching when, say, he was being interrogated by Bryant Gumbel on the Today show or had the opportunity to actually speak with him in person, Ellison's TV persona--with his halting, Oklahoman elegance and stammering, reticent speech--may seem at first a great contrast to the defiant iconoclast you would find in his writing. Instead, whether you see him recount how he modestly resisted Richard Wright's suggestion that he try his hand at fiction writing, humbly insist why he thought T.S. Eliot and Louis Armstrong were similar in their approaches, or listen to his own readings of his unfinished second novel--looking simultaneously bewildered and amused by the cadences of his own voice and the eccentricity of his own prose--he is the image of a man haunted. One photograph shows him hunched over the typewriter, with whiskey decanter ominously prominent, as the narrator gives us Ellison's account of his lack of productivity in the 1960s. Referring to the mounting attacks on his integrationist vision from the kind of black nationalist voices he had already dreamed up in the figure of Invisible Man's Ras the Destroyer, Ellison said simply, "It's hard to write with a clenched fist."
Audiences have thrilled to rise-and-fall stories from Oedipus to VH1's Behind the Music. But unlike the self-destruction of kitschy pop stars, Ellison's supernova is a genuine tragedy; the stakes presented are nothing less than high art and racial understanding, and it is these stakes that are so at odds with a medium that favors sensationalism over sensation, and sentimentality over sentiment. "Why do I write, torturing myself to put it down?" asks the narrator of Invisible Man. Ellison answers with another question: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
Ellison was particular about the way he did speak for us, and he made it clear that his own prose would be the only truly acceptable medium for this representation. The Modernist who retreated from the superficial expectations imposed by racism into the perfection of his own art would probably have been troubled to see key episodes in his novel--the grandfather's deathbed speech, the Battle Royal episode, the revelation at the Liberty Paints factory--transformed from literary phantasmagoria into searing teleplay, in which Ellison's ironies are turned into pieties and his jokes are transformed into obvious slogans. This is what television usually does, of course, but the very reason Ellison the documentary subject becomes a hero is that his achievement is in the less-than-telegenic activity of spending long hours in front of the typewriter.
But even if Kirkland's documentary reduces Ellison's novel to comic strip, the medium serves him well to provide the cultural context so crucial to Ellison's reading of America. The sights and sounds of Ellison's early life--complete with baby pictures, Tuskegee footage and Jimmy Rushing clips--are expertly captured, and anyone who wants to understand Ellison's world would have to confront this context. Kirkland also succeeds by producing useful soundbites from commentators, including Robert O'Meally, Morris Dickstein, Farah Griffin, R.W.B. Lewis and especially Cornel West--who delivers his riffs like a Baptist preacher with borscht-belt timing and a Marxist liturgy. A word that many of these commentators use repeatedly is "complexity," a favorite of Ellison's. Yet sometimes complexity can be sacrificed for storytelling, especially on television.
This disparity is certainly evident when Henry Wingate tells a famous story of Ellison's confrontation with a black nationalist at Grinnell College in 1967. According to Wingate's version, when Ellison was called an Uncle Tom, he "became unglued and began to cry, repeating, 'I'm not an Uncle Tom, I'm not an Uncle Tom.'" Wingate, a federal judge, should be taken at his word, but the late Willie Morris, in his memoir New York Days, allowed Ellison to retort, "What do you know about my life? It's easy for you. You're just a straw in the wind. Get on your motorcycle and go back to Chicago and throw some Molotov cocktails. That's all you'll ever know about." Kirkland's version, corroborated by Morris's son, paints Ellison as the kind of helpless victim his own work avoided depicting. Morris's version allows Ellison to fight back--perhaps a little less congenial to a PBS tearjerker.
Of course, even a tragic TV documentary needs an optimistic denouement, and Kirkland provides it with the 1999 publication of Juneteenth. Ellison's inability to produce a follow-up to Invisible Man was the bane of his existence, and perhaps the most frustrating literary waiting game in recent memory. We see Ellison lose more than 350 pages of the manuscript in a fire, retreat from public appearances at the horror of having to answer yet another question about the book, and become an alcoholic hermit, obsessively poring over manuscripts. What the documentary doesn't mention is the quite legitimate argument leveled by many scholars, including Louis Menand in the New York Times Book Review, that Juneteenth isn't really an Ellison novel at all but a dubiously edited and spuriously marketed attempt by Random House to collect on its advance. Instead, we are shown a mellifluous reading by Toni Morrison of a passage from the book, with Robert O'Meally asserting that the passage seemed, "for that day, the greatest thing that had ever been written." We also see GQ writer-at-large Terrence Rafferty acknowledging that while Juneteenth may not have achieved its vast ambitions, it is, "like America, forever a work in progress."
It is true that textual scholarship does not usually make for good television, but there might have been another way to end the show on a triumphant note without making inflated claims for a highly disputed book. What the documentary could have shown was the rise of overtly Ellisonian institutions like the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, where founder and chair Henry Louis Gates has done considerable work in restoring Ellison's reputation while using Ellisonian criteria as a curricular model, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Ellison's vision of jazz has been a guiding principle for his confidant Albert Murray and his disciples Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis.
Fifty years ago, Ellison's notions that Louis Armstrong was an icon of artistic independence; that white and black culture were interdependent; and that there was more than a unicausal explanation for the rise of black American culture were the product of an original, idiosyncratic and routinely attacked individual. In the past few years alone, Ellison's afterlife has been more prolific than the last forty years of his life: Philip Roth's The Human Stain successfully used the theme of passing that Ellison struggled with throughout the writing of his unfinished novel. Spike Lee's Bamboozled, filled with overt references to Invisible Man, was also a perverse riff on Ellison's integrationism, portraying whites and blacks as equally complicit in a common cultural phenomenon. And Ken Burns's Jazz demonstrated how Ellison's reading of Louis Armstrong as a transcendent genius who could "bend a military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound" could provide a significant basis for another PBS program. The frequencies of that station may not have been able to pick up on the full range of Ralph Ellison, but a rereading of his prophetic writings will continually remind us that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for us more than ever.
The fortunes of American unions have taken a turn for the worse. Thanks to terrorism and recession, union members are reeling from a series of economic and political setbacks. Nearly half a million of them now face unemployment in the hotel and airline industries, and at Boeing, Ford, major steel-makers and other manufacturing firms. Many public employees will be clobbered next, as state and local budget crises deepen around the country. Already, teachers in New Jersey and state workers in Minnesota have been forced into controversial strikes over rising healthcare costs--a trend that affects millions of Americans. The accompanying loss of job-based medical coverage by many people who still have jobs should be fueling a revived movement for national health insurance, but few unions bother to raise that banner anymore.
Promising new AFL-CIO initiatives on immigration--like its call for legalization of undocumented workers--have been undermined by post-September 11 paranoia about Middle Easterners and federal scrutiny of thousands of them. Union organizing is stalled on many fronts, and rank-and-file participation in protests against corporate globalization--on the rise in Seattle and Quebec City--has faltered amid the myriad political distractions of the "war on terrorism." While labor's nascent grassroots internationalism remains overshadowed by flag-waving displays of "national unity," trade unionists have yet to be rewarded for their patriotism, even with a modest boost in unemployment benefits. Instead, President Bush is seeking cuts in federal job-training grants for laid-off workers. He's already won House approval for fast-track negotiating authority on future trade deals that threaten even more US jobs--and expects a Senate victory on that issue soon. To insure that collective bargaining doesn't interfere with the functioning of various executive branch offices now engaged in "homeland security," the White House just stripped hundreds of federal employees of their right to union representation. As University of Illinois labor relations professor Michael LeRoy observed in the New York Times, "a time of national emergency makes it more difficult for unions to engineer public support."
Into this bleak landscape arrives State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein's intellectual history of labor's past 100 years. Readers might take comfort from the fact--well documented by the author--that labor has been down before and, as in the 1930s, bounced back. Nevertheless, Lichtenstein's book raises disturbing questions about when, where and how that's going to happen again in a period when "solidarity and unionism no longer resonate with so large a slice of the American citizenry."
The author's views on this subject are informed by both scholarship and activism. A professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Lichtenstein wrote The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, a definitive biography of one-time United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. In 1996 Lichtenstein helped launch Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), a campus-based labor support network. Through SAWSJ, Lichtenstein has aided teach-ins and protests about workers' rights and worked with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to re-establish links between unions and intellectuals that might help labor become a more "vital force in a democratic polity."
Consistent with this mission, Lichtenstein hopes to revive interest in what liberal reformers in politics and academia once called "the labor question." State of the Union is thus a history of the ideas about labor that animated much of the action--all the great union-building attempts during the past century. "Trade unionism requires a compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, to give labor's cause power and legitimacy," Lichtenstein argues. "It is a political project whose success enables the unions to transcend the ethnic and economic divisions always present in the working population."
He begins his survey in the Progressive Era, a period in which "democratization of the workplace, the solidarity of labor, and the social betterment of American workers once stood far closer to the center of the nation's political and moral consciousness." Politicians, jurists, academics and social activists--ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Louis Brandeis to Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League--all joined the debate about the threat to our "self-governing republic" posed by large-scale industrial capitalism. How could democracy survive when America's growing mass of factory workers were stripped of their civic rights, and often denied a living wage as well, whenever they entered the plant gates?
The Progressives' response was "industrial democracy"--extending constitutional rights of free speech and association to the workplace, enacting protective labor laws and securing other forms of the "social wage." Unfortunately, national-level progress toward these goals foundered after World War I on the rocks of lost strikes, political repression and Republican Party dominance in Washington. "Neither the labor movement nor the state, not to mention industrial management itself, generated the kind of relationships, in law, ideology, or practice, necessary to institutionalize mass unionism and sustain working-class living standards" during the 1920s, observes Lichtenstein.
The years of the Roosevelt Administration were a different story. State of the Union recounts how Depression-era unrest--plus the efforts of an unusual and uneasy alliance between industrial workers, labor radicals, dissident leaders of AFL affiliates, pro-union legislators and New Deal policy-makers--led to passage of the Wagner Act. It created a new legal framework for mediating labor-management disputes and boosted consumer purchasing power via the wage gains of collective bargaining.
As industrial unions experienced explosive growth before and during World War II, the previously unchecked political and economic power of the great corporations was finally tempered through the emergence of a more social democratic workers' movement, led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO spoke up for the poor, the unskilled and the unemployed, as well as more affluent members of the working class. Even the conservative craft unions of the AFL ultimately grew as a result of the CIO's existence because many employers, if they had to deal with any union at all, preferred one with less ideological baggage.
Then as now, the nation's manufacturing work force was multiethnic, which meant that hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants used CIO unionism as a vehicle for collective empowerment on the job and in working-class communities. Successful organizers "cloaked themselves in the expansive, culturally pluralist patriotism that the New Deal sought to propagate," says Lichtenstein. "Unionism is the spirit of Americanism," proclaimed a labor newspaper directed at "immigrant workers long excluded from a full sense of citizenship." The exercise of citizenship rights in both electoral politics and National Labor Relations Board voting became, for many, a passport to "an 'American' standard of living."
State of the Union credits some on the left for noting, then and later, that New Deal labor legislation also had its limits and trade-offs. Wagner Act critics like lawyer-historian Staughton Lynd complain that it merely directed worker militancy into narrow, institutional channels--soon dominated by full-time union reps, attorneys for labor and management, not-so-neutral arbitrators and various government agencies. During World War II, attempts by labor officialdom to enforce a nationwide "no strike" pledge led to major rifts within several CIO unions and helped undermine the position of Communist Party members who tried to discourage wildcat walkouts.
The "union idea" that was so transcendent among liberals and radicals during the New Deal underwent considerable erosion in the 1950s. Many leading writers, professors and clergymen had signed petitions, walked picket lines, spoken at rallies, testified before Congressional committees and defended the cause of industrial organization in the 1930s. These ties began to fray after World War II and the onset of the cold war, when the CIO conducted a ruthless purge of its own left wing. This made it much harder for "outsiders" with suspect views to gain access to the increasingly parochial world of the (soon to be reunited) AFL and CIO. As Lichtenstein shows in his survey of their writings, the subsequent alienation of intellectuals like C. Wright Mills, Dwight Macdonald, Harvey Swados and others was rooted in the perception--largely accurate--that union bureaucracy and self-interest, corruption and complacency had replaced labor's earlier "visionary quest for solidarity and social transformation."
Lichtenstein questions whether unions were ever quite as fat, happy and structurally secure as some economists and historians claimed (after the fact) in books and articles on the postwar "labor-management accord." If such a deal had really existed during those years, State of the Union argues, it was "less a mutually satisfactory concordat" than "a limited and unstable truce, largely confined to a well-defined set of regions and industries...a product of defeat, not victory."
Measured by dues-payers alone, "Big Labor" was certainly bigger in the 1950s--at least compared with the small percentage of the work force represented by unions now (33 percent at midcentury versus 14 percent today). But union economic gains derived more from members-only collective bargaining than from social programs--like national health insurance--that would have benefited the entire working class.
Labor's failure to win more universal welfare-state coverage on the European or Canadian model led to its reliance--in both craft and industrial unions--on "firm-centered" fringe-benefit negotiations. The problem with the incremental advance of this "privatized welfare system" for the working-class elite was that it left a lot of other people (including some union members) out of the picture. Millions of Americans in mostly nonunion, lower-tier employment ended up with job-based pensions, group medical insurance, paid vacations, etc., that were limited or nonexistent.
The fundamental weakness of this edifice--even for workers in longtime bastions of union strength--was not fully exposed until the concession bargaining crisis of the late 1970s and '80s. As Lichtenstein describes in painful detail, employers launched a major offensive--first on the building trades, then on municipal labor and then on union members in basic industry. Pattern bargaining unraveled in a series of lost strikes and desperate giveback deals. This allowed management to introduce additional wage-and-benefit inequalities into the work force, including two-tier pay structures within the same firm, healthcare cost shifting, more individualized retirement coverage and greatly reduced job security due to widespread outsourcing and other forms of de-unionization.
By then, of course, African-Americans in the South, who suffered longest and most from economic inequality, had already risen up and made a "civil rights revolution." Their struggle was one that unions in the 1960s--at least the more liberal ones--nominally supported and in which veteran black labor activists played a seminal role. Yet the civil rights movement as a whole clearly passed labor by and further diminished its already reduced stature as the champion of the underdog and leading national voice for social justice. In a key chapter titled "Rights Consciousness in the Workplace," Lichtenstein explores how unions, their contracts and their negotiated grievance procedures have been further marginalized by the enduring legal and political legacy of the civil rights era. According to the author, this has created "the great contradiction that stands at the heart of American democracy today":
In the last forty years, a transformation in law, custom, and ideology has made a once radical demand for racial and gender equality into an elemental code of employer conduct.... But during that same era, the rights of workers, as workers, and especially as workers acting in an autonomous, collective fashion, have moved well into the shadows.... Little in American culture, politics, or business encourages the institutionalization of a collective employee voice.
Now, every US employer has to be an "equal opportunity" one or face an avalanche of negative publicity, public censure and costly litigation. Discrimination against workers--on grounds deemed unlawful by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation--has become downright un-American, with the newest frontiers being the fight against unfair treatment of workers based on their physical disabilities or sexual preference. At the same time, as State of the Union and other studies have documented, collective workplace rights are neither celebrated nor well enforced [see Early, "How Stands the Union?" Jan. 22, 2001]. What Lichtenstein calls "rights consciousness" is the product of heroic social struggle and community sacrifice but, ironically, often reinforces a different American tradition: "rugged individualism," which finds modern expression in the oft-repeated threat to "call my lawyer" whenever disputes arise, on or off the job.
To make his point, Lichtenstein exaggerates the degree to which individual complaint-filers at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (and equally backlogged state agencies) end up on a faster or more lucrative track than workers seeking redress at the National Labor Relations Board. There is no doubt, though, that high-profile discrimination litigation has paid off in ways that unfair-labor-practice cases rarely do. Among other examples, the book contrasts the unpunished mass firing of Hispanic phone workers trying to unionize at Sprint in San Francisco--a typical modern failure of the Wagner Act--with big class-action victories like the settlement securing $132 million for thousands of minority workers victimized by racist managers at Shoney's. The restaurant case involved much public "shaming and redemption" via management shakeups at the corporate level; Sprint merely shrugged off allegations of unionbusting until a federal court ruled in its favor.
Lichtenstein's solution is for labor today to find ways to "capitalize on the nation's well-established rights culture of the last 40 years," just as the CIO "made the quest for industrial democracy a powerful theme that legitimized its strikes and organizing campaigns in the 1930s." He looks to veterans of 1960s social movements--who entered the withering vineyard of American labor back when cold warriors like George Meany and Lane Kirkland still held sway--to build coalitions with nonlabor groups that can "make union organizational rights as unassailable as are basic civil rights."
In so doing, Lichtenstein recommends finding a middle way between a renewed emphasis on class that downplays identity politics--"itself a pejorative term for rights consciousness"--and an exclusive emphasis on the latter that may indeed thwart efforts to unite workers around common concerns. In the past, Lichtenstein notes, "the labor movement has surged forward not when it denied its heterogeneity" but instead found ways to affirm it, using ethnic and racial pluralism within unions to build power in more diverse workplaces and communities.
Given the enormous external obstacles to union growth, the author's other proposals--summarized in a final chapter titled "What Is to Be Done?"--seem a bit perfunctory. His "three strategic propositions for the union movement" do point in a better direction than the one in which the AFL-CIO and some of its leading affiliates are currently headed. State of the Union calls for more worker militancy, greater internal democracy and less dependence on the Democratic Party. These are all unassailable ideas--until one gets beyond the official lip service paid to them and down to the nitty-gritty of their implementation.
Too often in labor today--particularly in several high-profile, "progressive" unions led by onetime student activists--participatory democracy is missing. Membership mobilization has a top-down, carefully orchestrated character that subverts real rank-and-file initiative, decision-making and dynamism. The emerging culture of these organizations resembles Third World "guided democracies," in which party-appointed apparatchiks or technocrats provide surrogate leadership for the people who are actually supposed to be in charge. In politics, it's equally disheartening to see that labor's "independence" is not being demonstrated through the creation of more union-based alternatives to business-oriented groups within the Democratic Party or by challenging corporate domination of the two-party system. Instead, it's taking the form of very traditional and narrow special-interest endorsement deals with Republicans like New York Governor George Pataki.
This is not what Lichtenstein has in mind when he urges adoption of "a well-projected, clearly defined political posture in order to advance labor's legislative agenda and defend the very idea of workplace rights and collective action." His book applauds the authentic militants who battled contract concessions and the labor establishment prior to the 1995 palace coup that put John Sweeney and his associates in control of the AFL-CIO. While the author backs "the new agenda of the Sweeneyite leadership," with its primary focus on the right to organize, he argues that the fight for union democracy is equally "vital to restoring the social mission of labor and returning unions to their social-movement heritage."
How labor is viewed, aided, undermined or ignored by men and women of ideas (including the author) is, by itself, never going to determine its fate in any era. Workers themselves--acting through organizations they create or remake--are still the primary shapers of their own future, whether it's better or worse. Nevertheless, creative interaction between workers and intellectuals has helped spawn new forms of workplace and political organization in every nation--Poland, South Africa, Korea and Brazil--where social movement unionism has been most visible at some point in recent decades. In the United States, unions--and their new campus and community allies--face the daunting task of developing ideas and strategies that will "again insert working America into the heart of our national consciousness." If they succeed in restoring its relevance, the labor movement may yet have a broader impact on our society, and Lichtenstein's State of the Union will deserve credit for being a catalyst in that process.
Despite an initial drop in attendance in the uncertain aftermath of September 11, and the changing of the guard at three major institutions, the London theater scene has rebounded with determination. Across the Thames at the Royal National Theatre, there's a bracing revival of Harold Pinter's chilling No Man's Land. Considered his most enigmatic work (playwright Patrick Marber calls the play "unknowable"), it's the one that is least revived among his many celebrated plays (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming). In fact, Peter Hall's original production of No Man's Land in 1975 at the National, starring Ralph Richardson as Hirst and John Gielgud as Spooner, was so widely praised that only Pinter himself ventured to take on the role of Hirst thereafter.
Today, after twenty-six years, this darkly powerful play returns to the RNT under the author's direction, and the moonscape of Pinterland has never seemed starker. Critics have hailed its masterful cast, with Corin Redgrave and John Wood giving tour de force performances as Hirst, the debauched writer, and Spooner, the destitute poet he's met in a pub on Hampstead Heath and taken home to his elegant digs in a desperate search for companionship. There, Spooner is imprisoned in Hirst's sepulchral study by a pair of sinister servants, where Hirst invites him into an elaborate fantasy that they were once Oxford schoolmates. The scene of outrageous self-delusion--with Redgrave delivering one of Pinter's most mesmerizing monologues--is hilarious. But ultimately, No Man's Land is a harrowing portrait of failure, loss of memory and the past--a Lear and his Fool on yet another heath, suffering the terrors of loneliness and old age. It's also about the inability to write, a fear that plagued Pinter himself in the early 1970s. This is a landmark production of an elusive masterpiece, a haunting, menacing piece of theater that Marber (director of the 2000 revival of The Caretaker, starring Michael Gambon) describes as "clear and lucid as a dream, and like a dream it resists our need to know its meaning.... I'm not entirely sure I know what's going on in No Man's Land. But I'm not sure I want to know."
The writer's fear is a theme of another revival in London's season as well--Faith Healer, by the Irish poet-playwright Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come!; Dancing at Lughnasa), which premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1980 and is now being given a luminous production at the Almeida Theatre. This gentle, elegiac play features four monologues by three characters--Frank, an Irish faith healer, part charlatan, part artist, played with self-deprecating charm by Ken Stott (award-winning star of Yazmina Reza's Art); Grace, his ruined wife, played by Geraldine James (of the BBC's epic Jewel in the Crown); and Teddy, the seedy talent agent who loves them both, in a remarkable performance by Ian McDiarmid, Almeida's joint artistic director. These three characters narrate the story, Rashomon-style, of the faith healer's return to Ireland after years of fruitless one-night stands in Scotland and Wales (he once allegedly healed a group of ten), where he attempts to restore his faltering powers. There he meets his tragic end. Under the delicate direction of Jonathan Kent, a tattered curtain sweeps across an empty stage and works theatrical magic, wiping away one monologue, revealing the next, as these stories interweave into a tapestry of three lives touched by tragedy. Like the faith healer whose powers are fleeting (and, eventually, self-destructive), so too Friel raises questions about the unpredictability of the writer's gift. In the end, only the gift of faith itself (whether miracles happen or not) and steadfast love abide, as the powers that can heal lives and artists.
In the midst of these distinguished revivals, a combustible new work on stage at the RNT's Cottesloe Theatre has exploded like a stick of dynamite. Gagarin Way is the first play of a 32-year-old Scottish writer named Gregory Burke, introducing a raw new world to the English-speaking stage and placing new Scottish theater at the table alongside the Irish and the impressive young voices of Conor McPherson (The Weir) and Martin McDonagh (Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Newly arrived from the Traverse Theatre, where it was the hit of the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, Gagarin Way is a fierce black comedy set in the storeroom of a high-tech computer factory in the industrial Scottish county of Fife. A frustrated factory worker, Eddie, and a hapless security guard, Tom, await the arrival of Eddie's accomplice, Gary, who is executing a scheme to kidnap a visiting multinational executive. Gary arrives with their prey, who is bound and hooded, and as the would-be thugs ponder his fate, they enter into an outrageous philosophical debate on existentialism, globalization, Marxism, anarchy and nihilism to express their disillusionment. The opening discussion on the relationship between Sartre and Genet is especially memorable: "The last thing you need after a hard day's gibbering pish on the Left Bank about how we're all subjects among objects is finding out you're a subject among no as many objects now you've got fucking Jean Genet out ay the jail."
This is a ferociously funny satire of terrorism and its bungling misguidedness (they kidnap the wrong person; Gary refuses to buy bullets as a cost-saving measure)--which takes a sudden, horrific turn and ends in heart-stopping violence. Written in colorful (and profane) Scottish dialect, and directed at dangerous speed by John Tiffany, Gagarin Way is a riotous, unpredictable and ultimately frightening ninety-minute ride of powerful, provocative theater.
An interview in the Daily Telegraph described Burke as a "barely literate dishwasher from the back end of post-industrial Scotland who had never written so much as a postcard, and who had to have 'who Harold Pinter was' explained to him when they ran into each other during rehearsals." This makes the accomplishment of this young, self-educated, first-time playwright all the more striking. Burke comes from a corner of Scotland that was staunchly communist in the 1960s, where streets in the village of Lumphinnans were named after heroes like Yuri Gagarin (hence, the play's title)--a region that took its politics seriously, with its coal-miner strikes in the 1980s and struggles against multinationals in the 1990s. A "prolapsed Catholic," as he describes himself, Burke dropped out of Stirling University after two years and "fulfilled a variety of vital roles in the minimum-wage economy," washing factory floors, working on assembly lines, etc. "I wanted to write a play about economics, it being the dominant (only?) theme in modern politics, and the source of real power in our increasingly globalised times. And I wanted to write about men and our infinite capacity for self-delusion." An inveterate humorist and storyteller, a keen observer of human behavior and an astute political thinker, Burke--who wrote his play well before September 11--offers terrifying and timely insights into the psychosis of terrorism and obsessive political ideology. His is a new and unique voice, for unique times. A tempest has blown down from Scotland onto the London stage, reminding us that the theater can be a place of prescience and prophesy as well as entertainment.
For those who prefer dry martinis at the theater rather than Molotov cocktails, there's a sparkling revival of Private Lives at the Albery Theatre on Charing Cross Road. This delectable drawing-room comedy by Noel Coward, crown prince of the genre, premiered in the West End in 1930, starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and then went on to Broadway in 1931. It was one of his most popular and widely produced plays; Coward attributed its lasting success to "irreverent allusions to copulation...causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office." This comedic gem (written, legend goes, in four feverish days holed up in a Shanghai hotel) is celebrated for its insights into marital manners and mores, as well as its scintillating dialogue ("Don't quibble, Sybil") and unparalleled wit (playwright Christopher Hampton praises its portrayal of "bickering as sex pursued by other means"). Currently, it is enjoying a sleek revival with the sophisticated duet of Allan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, under the smart direction of Howard Davies.
Another revival from that glittering era also graces the West End. Director Peter Hall has resurrected The Royal Family, the George Kaufman/Edna Ferber valentine to New York's roaring theatrical twenties. This delicious old chestnut evokes all the glamour of Broadway's famed 1927-28 season when it premiered, which also included Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi), the Gershwins' Funny Face (featuring Fred and Adele Astaire), Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee, O'Neill's Strange Interlude, Helen Hayes in Coquette, Mae West in Diamond Lil and the Hammerstein/Kern Show Boat. Sir Peter's revival of The Royal Family is its first London production since Noel Coward's in 1930, when Laurence Olivier starred as the flamboyant Tony Cavendish. The Cavendishes are of course meant to be the Barrymores, the First Family of the American Theater, with its gifted siblings Ethel, John and Lionel (Drew, Hollywood's current Barrymore, is John's granddaughter). The colorful Cavendishes are played by members of Britain's own theatrical royalty--including the charismatic young Toby Stephens (son of Dame Maggie Smith) and the commanding Dame Judi Dench (whose performance in the newly released film Iris confirms her regal reputation). The star of this showbiz revival, however, is a golden era in the Broadway theater. There is also a bouquet of musicals, including the elaborate (if controversial) South Pacific at the RNT, directed by Trevor Nunn, in commemoration of the centennial of Richard Rodgers's birth. In the West End, there is the RNT's pleasing My Fair Lady starring Jonathan Pryce, and Peter Nichols's irreverent Privates on Parade (a musical satire on the postwar British military in the Far East) is diverting audiences at the cozy Donmar Warehouse (where the current Cabaret now playing in New York was born).
Challenging, moving or simply entertaining, it's a season of healing and faith in the theater.
As the World Economic Forum met in New York City recently, the American media were much more concerned with what protesters were doing in the streets than with what they were saying there. You'd think that dissenting views were old hat and "isms" were for the classroom, not the newsroom.
But it's far too early for that. Similarly, at first glance, Peter Glassgold's collection of prose and poetry from an American anarchist magazine of 1906-17 appears to be of only historical interest; something that might be recommended as supplemental reading in an American studies curriculum, because it treats the fights for birth control and civil liberties, and against joblessness and conscription in this period. It's full of names now obscure, words that have become archaic. Imagine a time when "a special throwaway" was printed up and "circularized" in New York City by the movement of the unemployed. Or when Zola was referred to repeatedly because his works had resonance. Another, distant era. But just when it seemed that anarchism was for scholars, along came demonstrations in Seattle, Philadelphia, Prague, Quebec City, Genoa. "Anarchist troublemakers" was the antique expression I heard on the TV news not long ago. Congratulations, Peter Glassgold--you couldn't be more timely.
Since the A-word is a dirty one to many, it's likely that the presence and actions of anarchists at recent demonstrations have been exaggerated to discredit the anti-WTO, global-justice movement. But it's also possible that anarchism is visible on the left because it has less competition at present. Now, as in the late 1960s, it may channel discontent after other outlets have been rejected. It can serve as the radicalism of last resort, profiting from crises in other camps. Socialism, sharing political power in much of Western Europe, has made so many deals and compromises with big business that it no longer seems principled to a lot of people. And there's widespread suspicion that ex-Communists are weak on democracy, having made excuses for repressive states for so long.
Anarchists have the advantage of exclusion, the nobility of failure, so to speak.
They've rarely had much power; in fact, they've rarely gotten on well with the powerful. There are exceptions to that oppositional stance, however, and Glassgold's book gives glimpses of some of them. The famous anarchist theoretician Peter Kropotkin supported France when it fought the German Kaiser in World War I. The prominent propagandists and agitators Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman rallied around the Bolsheviks in 1917, though they became angry and disillusioned when Lenin and his followers soon turned against rivaling revolutionary tendencies.
A "Philosophy of Non-Submission" was one name for anarchism, and the state and its institutions have not been the only target of anarchist wrath. Mother Earth, a New York journal edited by Goldman and Berkman, among others, which accepted work by anarchists and nonanarchists in the United States and abroad, spoke out against capitalism, the private ownership of land, religion, monogamy, female modesty, middle-class feminism--and I could go on. Glassgold's choice of texts captures not just the breadth but the depth of its antagonisms. "I do not want to 'love my enemies,' nor 'let bygones be bygones.' I do not want to be philosophical, nor preach their inclusion in the brotherhood of man. I want to hate them--utterly," wrote the American anarchist writer and activist Voltairine de Cleyre.
Clearly, the movement has attracted not only those who can bear angry isolation but those who find pleasure and strength in it. Berkman loved the menace in the black flag. When people try to inspire fear and loathing, I don't guarantee them satisfaction. I read this anthology with detached interest, to hear what all the Sturm und Drang was about.
Glassgold chose well when he culled from Mother Earth. The exuberance of its prose is what summaries of anarchism often fail to capture. It is all too easy for historians to make the movement sound more consistent and systematic than it was. The magazine itself, which I've examined in facsimile in a library, is full of a highly emotive type of writing and relies not just on metaphor but on a host of oratorical devices to stir an audience. Irony alternates with inspirational appeals for a better future. Essays in the journal often read like speeches (and sometimes were), where hyperbole covers holes in the arguments and exhortation often substitutes for analysis. But Glassgold hasn't prettified them.
Nor has he excised the extremism in anarchist history, which is sometimes moving, sometimes painful to read about. He doesn't skip over its martyrology: the periodic celebration and commemoration of those who suffered or died defending their ideal. With hagiography and eulogies, the movement articulated and reinforced its values: purity, courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice, devotion. These are military qualities, demanded of the soldier under fire, for anarchists were at war with society. But battles were not fought by men alone. In the anarchist milieu, women were allowed to be comrades and leaders, and to display what was at the time an unladylike anger. Revenge was tolerated, sometimes encouraged in the movement of the era. "Even animals possess the spirit of revenge," Berkman wrote in 1906. "As long as the world is ruled by violence, violence will accomplish results," he added in 1911.
Not all anarchists have taken his position. Alternative revolutionary methods, such as the general strike, were advocated at the time. Direct action could mean, simply, that the people must liberate themselves and not delegate that job to parliaments or other representatives. But at the end of the nineteenth century, it was associated with dynamite used by lone individuals or small conspiracies, and Mother Earth shows a lingering sympathy for such tactics. The process of renouncing them was slow, faltering and, in the case of some anarchists, incomplete. To omit this history would be to whitewash the movement. But to restrict anarchism to this tendency would be unfair as well.
The title Mother Earth points to an equally important and oft-neglected aspect of the movement: its appeal to a romanticized nature as the ultimate standard. While Glassgold is right that "the message of the name was not environmental but libertarian," anarchism was and remains a philosophy of nature. One of its major theorists, the Russian exile Kropotkin, was a Darwinist of a particular stripe who believed that evolution favors mutual support and cooperation, not competition. "Without that [sociable] instinct not one single race could survive in the struggle for life against the hostile forces of Nature," he stated in a lecture to a eugenics congress in London that was printed in Mother Earth in 1912. Two years later, he asserted in the same journal that
once it is recognized that the social instinct is a permanent and powerful instinct in every animal species, and still more so in man, we are enabled to establish the foundations of Ethics (the Morality of Society) upon the sound basis of the observation of Nature and need not look for it in supernatural revelation. The idea which Bacon, Grotius, Goethe, and Darwin himself (in his second work, The Descent of Man) were advocating is thus finding a full confirmation, once we direct our attention to the extent to which mutual aid is carried on in Nature.
The Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer also tied anarchism to evolution, writing in Mother Earth about the need to adapt instruction to "natural laws" and "the spontaneous response of the child." And Max Baginski, a German-born editor of Mother Earth, spurned the "artificial, forced, obligatory" aid of one trade union to another in times of trouble, preferring solidarity based on human nature--that is, his concept of it: "The gist of the anarchistic idea is this, that there are qualities present in man which permit the possibilities of social life, organization and co-operative work without the application of force." Optimistic faith in the goodness and beneficence of nature, combined with intense distrust of the "machinery" of government, the law courts and the military, distinguished anarchists from most Marxists before the First World War. And still does today. It is this combination of ideas, I think, that has become diffused among contemporary leftists who would not identify themselves as anarchists. For many radicals, then as now, nature is what Richard M. Weaver (in The Ethics of Rhetoric) calls a "god term" because it trumps all others.
Of course, one may well ask exactly what the anarchists' nature--including human nature--consists of. Shouldn't it be interrogated, not assumed? After all, the nature of nature is not self-evident. Sorry to disappoint: In Mother Earth, as in most other anarchist writing, the concept of nature was not analyzed but invoked and revered. The magazine appealed to enthusiasts. In fact, it raised what Berkman called "active enthusiasm" to a principle. There Kropotkin declared, "In a revolutionary epoch, when destructive work precedes constructive efforts, bursts of enthusiasm possess marvelous power." (When Emma Goldman was convicted in New York in 1916 for spreading birth control information in an allegedly indecent manner to an allegedly promiscuous audience, her friend and supporter Leonard Abbott reported, "Her face was alight with enthusiasm.") As Voltairine de Cleyre put it, "Wholesale enthusiasm is a straw fire which burns out quickly; therefore it must be utilized at once, if at all; therefore, those who seek to burn barriers away with it must direct it to the barriers at once."
Fire, storm, earthquake, volcano--when the topic was the coming revolution, anarchists tended to transform human actors into a force of nature. Berkman, who served a long prison sentence for attempting to kill the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick after workers had been shot in the Homestead steel strike, declared in Mother Earth that the bomb "is manhood's lightning out of an atmosphere of degradation of misery that king, president and plutocrat have heaped upon humanity." Anarchist metaphors made the rebel and criminal part of earth science, integrating and naturalizing them.
And then there are the environmental images for the vitality, joy and beauty of the anarchist goal. I wish I had a nickel for every "dawn" and "blooming spring" I've met in old anarchist publications. Glassgold's anthology has some superior examples. Praising the Paris Commune of 1871, Kropotkin asserted in Mother Earth, "The Government evaporated like a pond of stagnant water in a spring breeze." And the first cover of the magazine was heavy with traditional, even banal, symbols of paradise: human nakedness within lush vegetation. A New Age scene, Glassgold cannily observes.
Indeed, the alternative lifestyle we now call New Age was intertwined with anarchism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Health and dress reformers, homeopaths and herbalists, practitioners of free love and nudism were often sympathetic to anarchism, friends and neighbors of anarchists, if not anarchists themselves. In the German-speaking world, this symbiosis is relatively well-known, since it has been described in such books as Ulrich Linse's Ökopax und Anarchie("Ecopeace and Anarchy," 1986). The historian Paul Avrich has often demonstrated the close connection of anarchism to bohemia, and the tie between the two tendencies cannot be missed in the writings and biographies of Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge and Margaret Anderson.
Yet it remains to be shown that in the American cultural realm, anarchists have had an influence out of proportion to their numbers. If we knew the continuity of anarchism in America--its influence on Gestalt psychology, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, the folk-song counterculture of Joan Baez, the avant-garde art of Yvonne Rainer, etc.--we might not be surprised when it pops up in the news today. Certain ideas are in the air, distributed by word of mouth, more than secondhand. You may well repeat them never knowing they appeared in Freud, Marx or perhaps Bakunin. The process of popularization is notoriously hard to chart, which is probably one reason historians and social scientists tend not to study it. But the fact that something is vague and elusive doesn't necessarily make it trivial and unimportant. Is the marginalism of anarchism only apparent? I vote to leave this question open.
Let me lay my cards on the table: "I am not now nor have I ever been" an anarchist, but I've written essays as well as fiction about this tradition because I think it's widely misunderstood. Ignored, idealized or caricatured, it is still largely the stuff of polemics. Glassgold's achievement is to help it be heard in its intensity and complexity.
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