Quantcast

Nation Topics - Books and Ideas | The Nation

Topic Page

Articles

News and Features

No one has contributed more to the United States than James Madison. He
was the principal architect of the Constitution, the brilliant theorist
who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for
designing the American system of government. Moreover, along with
Washington and Franklin, Madison was one of the men who made the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia work. Whenever passionate disagreements
threatened the enterprise, it was Madison's calm logic to which the
others listened. As one delegate put it, it was Madison who had "the
most correct knowledge" about government affairs.

And no one did more than Madison to get the Constitution ratified in the
face of strong anti-Federalist opposition. The most hyperbolic
superlatives cannot do justice to the twenty-nine newspaper essays
Madison wrote that, together with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John
Jay (all written under the pseudonym Publius), comprise the
Federalist Papers. Suffice it to say that 200 years later a
distinguished political scientist wrote, "The Federalist is the
most important work in political science that has ever been written, or
is likely to be written, in the United States," and that Madison's
contributions shine the brightest.

And that is not all. At the convention in Richmond when anti-Federalists
George Mason and Patrick Henry used every argument and stratagem to
persuade Virginia to refuse to ratify the new Constitution--which, had
they been successful, would have caused the Union to be stillborn--it
was Madison's cool, clear reasoning that once again saved the day.

Madison's place in the pantheon of great Americans, therefore, is secure
regardless of how we evaluate his performance as the nation's fourth
President (1809-17). His reputation can withstand the central inquiry of
Garry Wills's short and provocative new book, namely: Why was James
Madison so great a constitutionalist but so dreadful a President?

Perhaps I overstate by calling Madison's presidency "dreadful." Wills
does not go that far. He presents an evaluation of Madison's successes
and failures, finding both. Nor do historians generally consider Madison
a dreadful President. When C-SPAN asked historians to rank the forty-two
American Presidents, Madison came in at number 18, putting him slightly
above average and, by way of modern comparisons, ahead of George H.W.
Bush (20) and Bill Clinton (21).

Wills's strongest pejorative is his description of Madison as a "hapless
commander in chief." Nevertheless, Wills's examination makes me wonder
whether, out of deference to Madison's other accomplishments, historians
are being unduly charitable to his presidency.

The defining issue of Madison's tenure was the War of 1812. Some
historians argue that he cannot be blamed for a war thrust upon him by a
"War Hawk Congress." Others, however, including most prominently Ralph
Ketcham of Syracuse University, argue that Madison wanted the war and
maneuvered Congress into declaring it. Wills sides with Ketcham and
builds a persuasive case that Madison deliberately propelled America
into a war for which it was ill prepared.

War was raging between England and France when Madison came to office.
Napoleon's armies were conducting their bloody marches across the
Continent while England was using her sea power to try to keep him
confined there. During his term, Jefferson had been confronted with the
problem of what to do about the combatants seizing ships that were
carrying American exports to their adversaries or, in England's case
especially, boarding American ships to seize sailors, many of whom were
deserters from the British Navy. At Madison's urging (Madison was
Jefferson's Secretary of State), Jefferson imposed an embargo on
American ships crossing the Atlantic. While some supported an embargo to
keep American ships out of harm's way, Madison believed an embargo would
exert enough commercial pressure on England to force it to agree to
leave American shipping alone.

But in fact the embargo meant little to England or France. It meant much
more to America, particularly New England, whose economy depended
heavily on trade with England. In the first year of the embargo
America's exports fell by almost 80 percent. New England preferred
having some of its ships and cargo seized by combatants to suspending
all trade. Under great pressure, Congress ended the embargo and replaced
it with the Nonintercourse Act, which permitted American ships to cross
the Atlantic as long as they did not trade with England or France. The
virtue of this approach was that it was unenforceable; once American
ships disappeared over the horizon, there was no telling where they
went.

The embargo ended on the last day of Jefferson's presidency, and the
indignity of combatants seizing American ships and sailors resumed in
full force as Madison took office. Then Madison heard good news: A
British diplomat reported that his government was ready to grant America
neutral trading rights. Thrilled, Madison immediately issued a
proclamation repealing America's prohibition against trade with
whichever nation, England or France, first granted neutral trading
rights to the United States. Believing troubles with England at sea to
be at an end, 600 ships sailed from American ports confident that all
would be well when they arrived at their trading destinations across the
Atlantic.

But England quickly announced there had been a mistake. Its
representative had failed to communicate that England would grant
neutral status only upon several conditions, one of which was that
England would continue to stop and board American ships and seize former
British sailors. Madison was fit to tied. By reneging on its word, said
Madison, England had committed an "outrage on all decency" more horrible
than the capture of black slaves from the shores of Africa.

Madison should have realized something was wrong with the original
repre-sentation, Wills argues. The US government's own survey revealed
that roughly 9,000 American crewmen were British deserters, and England
could not possibly afford so many of her sailors safe haven on American
ships.

Madison tried to wipe the egg off his face by announcing a new
policy--America would unilaterally resume trade with England and France
and continue to trade with both until either nation recognized America's
neutral trading rights, at which time America would automatically
reimpose an embargo upon the other. In view of the failure of the first
embargo, there was no reason to believe a potential new embargo would
force England or France to change its policy. But, says Wills, Madison
remained stubbornly committed to the failed policy of embargo.
Unfortunately, Wills believes, Napoleon shrewdly exploited it as a means
to maneuver America into war against England.

Napoleon announced he would repeal his ban on neutral trade on November
1, 1812, provided that the United States reimposed its embargo against
England by then. Acting once again without bothering to get
clarification, Madison reimposed the embargo upon England. But just as
he had previously acted without learning England's details and
conditions, this time Madison acted on Napoleon's offer only to discover
that Napoleon refused to rescind an order confiscating American ships at
port in recently captured Holland and other harbors of the empire.

Getting bamboozled by Napoleon appears, paradoxically, to have made
Madison even more furious at England. For its part, England found
Madison's willingness to side with France deplorable. "England felt that
it was defending the free world against the international tyranny of
Bonapartism," Wills writes. "Anyone who was not with them in that
struggle was against them." And so, increasingly, America and England
perceived each other as enemies.

Madison's anger with England was one factor that moved him toward war,
but there was another as well: He wanted to seize Canada. Jefferson
urged Madison to pluck this ripe plum while England was militarily
engaged with Napoleon. "The acquisition of Canada this year will be a
mere matter of marching," advised Jefferson.

It may be worth pausing to observe that many of Madison's worst
disasters involve following Jefferson. With the exception of the War of
1812, the most lamentable mistake of Madison's career was his plotting
with Jefferson to have states nullify federal laws, specifically the
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The acts violated fundamental
principles of free speech and press, and Jefferson and Madison cannot be
blamed for opposing them. But the medicine they prescribed--the claim
that the states could enact legislation nullifying federal law--was
potentially far worse than the disease.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison had argued that
Congress should be given the authority to nullify state law, and was
discouraged when he lost this battle. He later betrayed his own
convictions by arguing that the state legislatures could nullify laws
enacted by Congress, though for tactical reasons he called this
"interposition" rather than "nullification." Moreover, Madison allowed
himself to be Jefferson's cat's-paw in this matter. Jefferson, then Vice
President, wanted to keep his own involvement secret, and Madison
fronted for both of them. Madison was haunted by this throughout his
career: Southern states invoked Madison's support of nullification
during disputes over slavery, and Madison's political opponents
delighted in forcing him to try to explain the difference between
"interposition" and "nullification."

Why did Madison so readily follow Jefferson over cliffs? Madison was
nervous, bookish, provisional and physically unimposing (5'4" and 100
pounds). He was so insecure with the opposite sex that he did not
attempt courtship until he was 31. The object of his desire was 15, and
Madison was so crushed by her rejection that he did not venture into
romance again until he was 43, when he successfully won Dolley's hand.
It would be only natural for Madison to fall under the thrall of the
tall, dashing, passionate, cosmopolitan and supremely self-confident
Thomas Jefferson.

Any sensible strategy to seize Canada from one of the world's
superpowers would necessarily hinge upon a quick and powerful attack to
overwhelm British forces before they could be reinforced or before the
British Navy could be brought to bear in the conflict. Madison and his
military commanders planned a rapid, two-pronged strike: One American
force, commanded by William Hull, was to invade Canada from the west,
crossing over the border from Detroit. Meanwhile, Henry Dearborn was to
lead American forces from the east, crossing the Saint Lawrence River
from various points in New York.

Rather than take the time to raise and train a professional army,
Madison decided to invade Canada with militia forces. But this strategy
was the military equivalent of throwing pebbles at a hornet's nest--and
Madison should have known it.

Before the Revolutionary War, there had been much soapbox rhetoric about
the glories of the militia: Citizen soldiers were supposed to be more
virtuous and therefore more capable than professional soldiers. The
Revolutionary War proved this to be bunk. After the skirmishes at
Lexington and Concord, the militia performed terribly. So often did the
militia bolt in the face of even much smaller opposing forces that it
became Continental Army doctrine to position militia units in front of
and between regular army units, who were ordered to shoot the first
militiamen to run. Washington won the war only after raising and
training a professional army.

Notwithstanding the militia's dismal performance, some
politicians--particularly Southern slaveholders like Madison who relied
on the militia for slave control--continued to cling to the notion that
the virtuous citizen militia was superior to a professional army. One
Southerner who would have found these views laughable if they were not
so dangerous was George Washington. "America has almost been amused out
of her Liberties" by pro-militia rhetoric, he said: "I solemnly declare
I never was witness to a single instance, that can countenance an
opinion of Militia or raw Troops being fit for the real business of
fighting."

Madison, however, had not been listening. In the Federalist
Papers
, he and Hamilton expressed differing views about the militia.
Hamilton argued that an effective fighting force required professional
training and discipline, and he urged Congress to support only a select
militia. Madison, however, continued to envision a universal militia
consisting of all able-bodied white men.

This debate resonates even today in the gun-control debate. Because the
Second Amendment connects the right to bear arms to the militia,
gun-rights advocates suggest that the Founders considered the universal
militia to be sacrosanct. The militia was then composed of the whole
body of the people, and thus the Constitution permanently grants the
whole body of the people the right to keep and bear arms--or so the
argument runs. This makes little sense as a matter of constitutional
law, however, because, as both Hamilton and Madison recognized, the
Constitution expressly empowered Congress to organize the militia as it
saw fit.

Despite the Revolutionary War experience, Madison launched his attack on
Canada almost entirely with militia forces. The results were
predictable. In the east, most militiamen refused to cross the Saint
Lawrence, claiming that it was unlawful to take the militia outside the
United States. Dearborn did manage to coax a small contingent across the
river. But when shooting accidentally broke out among his own forces,
they all fled in confusion back across the Saint Lawrence.

Meanwhile, in the west, Hull's forces were paralyzed by militia refusing
to take orders from regular Army officers. There was an invasion, but
American forces were not the invaders. By the end of 1812, when America
was to be in possession of most of Canada, a few American units that had
failed to retreat successfully back into New York were being held
prisoner in eastern Canada, and English forces had taken Detroit and the
Michigan Territories.

Things continued downhill. Two years later, a British force of 1,200
marched nearly unchallenged into the District of Columbia while 8,000
American troops, mostly militia, "ran away too fast for our hard-fagged
people to make prisoners," as one British commander put it. The British,
of course, burned the White House and Capitol to the ground.

Wills gives Madison high marks for grace and courage during the British
invasion of Washington, and, all in all, the war did not turn out too
badly. The British had not wanted it and settled for the status quo ante
bellum. And rather than feeling disgraced, America took patriotic pride
in a series of Navy successes, remembered through battle slogans and
anthems ("Don't give up the ship," James Lawrence; "We have met the
enemy and they are ours," Oliver Hazard Perry; "the rockets' red glare,"
Francis Scott Key). America came out of war feeling good about itself.
For this, historians give Madison much credit.

Some credit is undoubtedly deserved. More than once, Madison acted with
courage and grace in the midst of panic. America was properly proud of
its naval feats, though it is not clear that a President who took a
nation with seven warships into battle against an adversary with 436
deserves laurels.

Is it unfair to call Madison a dreadful President? If Wills is correct
about Madison stumbling his way toward war through a series of
diplomatic blunders and then deciding to take on a world power with
militia forces, perhaps not.

And what is it that allowed Madison to be so great a constitutionalist
and so poor a President? Wills argues that it was provincialism and
naïveté: What Madison had learned from the great minds by
reading books allowed him to understand political theory better,
perhaps, than anyone else. But without greater worldly experience, even
Madison could not operate the levers of power that he himself designed.
Yet as Wills aptly concludes, "Madison did more than most, and did some
things better than any. That is quite enough."

Dread ripples through me as I listen to a phone message from our manager
saying that we (The Doors) have another offer of huge amounts of money
if we would just allow one of our songs to be used as the background for
a commercial. They don't give up! I guess it's hard to imagine that
everybody doesn't have a price. Maybe 'cause, as the cement heads try to
pave the entire world, they're paving their inner world as well. No
imagination left upstairs.

Apple Computer called on a Tuesday--they already had the audacity to
spend money to cut "When the Music's Over" into an ad for their new cube
computer software. They want to air it the next weekend, and will give
us a million and a half dollars! A MILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS! Apple is
a pretty hip company...we use computers.... Dammit! Why did Jim (Morrison) have to have such integrity?

I'm pretty clear that we shouldn't do it. We don't need the money. But I
get such pressure from one particular bandmate (the one who wears
glasses and plays keyboards).

"Commercials will give us more exposure," he says. I ask him, "so you're
not for it because of the money?" He says "no," but his first
question is always "how much?" when we get one of these offers, and he
always says he's for it. He never suggests we play Robin Hood, either.
If I learned anything from Jim, it's respect for what we created. I have
to pass. Thank God, back in 1965 Jim said we should split everything,
and everyone has veto power. Of course, every time I pass, they double
the offer!

It all started in 1967, when Buick proffered $75,000 to use "Light My
Fire" to hawk its new hot little offering--the Opel. As the story
goes--which everyone knows who's read my autobiography or seen Oliver
Stone's movie--Ray, Robby and John (that's me) OK'd it, while Jim was
out of town. He came back and went nuts. And it wasn't even his song
(Robby primarily having penned "LMF")! In retrospect, his calling up
Buick and saying that if they aired the ad, he'd smash an Opel on
television with a sledgehammer was fantastic! I guess that's one of the
reasons I miss the guy.

It actually all really started back in '65, when we were a garage
band and Jim suggested sharing all the songwriting credits and money.
Since he didn't play an instrument--literally couldn't play one chord on
piano or guitar, but had lyrics and melodies coming out of his ears--the
communal pot idea felt like a love-in. Just so no one got too
weird, he tagged that veto thought on. Democracy in action...only
sometimes avenues between "Doors" seem clogged with bureaucratic BS. In
the past ten years it's definitely intensified...maybe we need a third
party. What was that original intent? Liberty and justice for all
songs...and the pursuit of happiness.... What is happiness? More money?
More fame? The Vietnamese believe that you're born with happiness; you
don't have to pursue it. We tried to bomb that out of them back in my
youth. From the looks of things, we might have succeeded.

This is sounding pretty depressing, John; where are you going here? The
whole world is hopefully heading toward democracy. That's a good thing,
John.... Oh, yeah: the greed gene. Vaclav Havel had it right when he
took over as president of Czechoslovakia, after the fall of Communism.
He said, "We're not going to rush into this too quickly, because I don't
know if there's that much difference between KGB and IBM."

Whoa! Here comes another one: "Dear John Densmore, this letter is an
offer of up to one million dollars for your celebrity endorsement of our
product. We have the best weight loss, diet and exercise program, far
better than anything on the market. The problem is the celebrity must be
overweight. Then the celebrity must use our product for four weeks,
which will take off up to 20 pounds of their excess body fat. If your
endorsement works in the focus group tests, you will immediately get
$10,000.00 up front and more money will start rolling in every month
after that--up to a million dollars or more." Wow! Let's see...I've
weighed 130 pounds for thirty-five years--since my 20s...I'll have to
gain quite a bit...sort of like a De Niro thing...he gained fifty pounds for Raging Bull--and won an Oscar! I'm an artist, too, like him...

We used to build our cities and towns around churches. Now banks are at
the centers of our densely populated areas. I know, it's the 1990s....
No, John, it's the new millennium, you dinosaur. Rock dinosaur, that is.
My hair isn't as long as it used to be. I don't smoke much weed anymore,
and I even have a small bald spot. The dollar is almighty, and
ads are kool, as cool as the coolest rock videos.

Why did Jim have to say we were "erotic politicians"? If I had been the
drummer for the Grassroots, it probably wouldn't have cut me to the core
when I heard John Lennon's "Revolution" selling tennis shoes...and
Nikes, to boot! That song was the soundtrack to part of my youth, when
the streets were filled with passionate citizens expressing their First
Amendment right to free speech. Hey...the streets are filled again! Or
were, before 9/11. And they're protesting what I'm trying to wax on and
on about here. Corporate greed! Maybe I should stick to music. I guess
that's why I hit the streets with Bonnie Raitt during the 1996
Democratic National Convention. We serenaded the troops. Bob Hope did it
during World War II, only our troops are those dressed in baggy Bermuda
shorts, sporting dreadlocks. Some have the shaved Army look, but they're
always ready to fight against the Orwellian nightmare. A woman activist
friend of mine said that with the networking of the Net, what's bubbling
under this brave new world will make the '60s unrest look like peanuts.
I don't want "Anarchy, Now," a worn-out hippie phrase, but I would like
to see a middle class again in this country.

Europe seems saner right now. They are more green than us. They're
paranoid about our genetically altered food and they're trying to make
NATO a little more independent in case we get too zealous in our
policing of the globe. When The Doors made their first jaunt from the
colonies to perform in the mother country back in '67, the record
companies seemed a little saner, too. The retailers in England could
order only what they thought they could sell; no returns to the
manufacturers. That eliminated the tremendous hype that this country
still produces, creating a buzz of "double platinum" sales, and then
having half of the CDs returned. Today, there is a time limit of three
to six months for the rackjobbers to get those duds back to the company.

Our band used to be on a small folk label. Judy Collins, Love and the
Butterfield Blues Band were our Elektra labelmates. We could call up the
president, Jac Holzman, and have a chat...and this was before we
made it. Well, Jac sold out for $10 million back in '70, and we were now
owned by a corporation. Actually, today just five corps own almost the
entire record business, where numbers are the bottom line. At
least we aren't on the one owned by Seagram's! Wait a minute...maybe
we'd get free booze...probably not. Advances are always
recoupable, booze probably is too.

Those impeccable English artists are falling prey as well. Pete
Townshend keeps fooling us again, selling Who songs to yuppies hungry
for SUVs. I hope Sting has given those Shaman chiefs he hangs out with
from the rainforest a ride in the back of that Jag he's advertising,
'cause as beautiful as the burlwood interiors are, the car--named after
an animal possibly facing extinction--is a gas guzzler. If you knew me
back in the '60s, you might say that this rant--I mean, piece--now has a
self-righteous ring to it, me having had the name Jaguar John back then.
I had the first XJ-6 when they came out, long before the car became
popular with accountants. That's when I sold it for a Rolls
Royce-looking Jag, the Mark IV, a super gas guzzler. That was back when
the first whiffs of rock stardom furled up my nose. Hopefully, I've
learned something since those heady times, like: "What good is a used-up
world?" Plus, it's not a given that one should do commercials for the
products one uses. The Brits might bust me here, having heard "Riders on
the Storm" during the '70s (in Britain only) pushing tires for their
roadsters, but our singer's ghost brought me to my senses and I gave my
portion to charity. I still don't think the Polish member of our
band has learned the lesson of the Opel, but I am now adamant that three
commercials and we're out of our singer's respect. "Jim's dead!" our
piano player responds to this line of thought. That is precisely
why we should resist, in my opinion. The late, transcendental George
Harrison had something to say about this issue. The Beatles "could have
made millions of extra dollars [doing commercials], but we thought it
would belittle our image or our songs," he said. "It would be real handy
if we could talk to John [Lennon]...because that quarter of us is
gone...and yet it isn't, because Yoko's there, Beatling more than ever."
Was he talking about the Nike ad, or John and Yoko's nude album cover
shot now selling vodka?

Actually, it was John and Yoko who inspired me to start a 10 percent
tithe, way back in the early '80s. In the Playboy interview, John
mentioned that they were doing the old tradition, and it stuck in my
mind. If everybody gave 10 percent, this world might recapture a
bit of balance. According to my calculations, as one gets up into the
multi category, you up the ante. Last year I nervously committed to 15
percent, and that old feeling rose again: the greed gene. When you get
to multi-multi, you should give away half every year. Excuse me, Mr.
Gates, but the concept of billionaire is obscene. I know you give a lot
away, and it's easy for me to mouth off, but I do know something about
it. During the Oliver Stone film on our band, the record royalties
tripled, and as I wrote those 10 percent checks, my hand was shaking.
Why? It only meant that I was making much more for myself. It was the
hand of greed. I am reminded of the sound of greed, trying to talk me
into not vetoing a Doors song for a cigarette ad in Japan.

"It's the only way to get a hit over there, John. They love commercials.
It's the new thing!"

"What about encouraging kids to smoke, Ray?"

"You always have to be PC, don't you, John?" I stuck to my guns and
vetoed the offer, thinking about the karma if we did it. Manzarek has
recently been battling stomach ulcers. So muster up courage, you
capitalists; hoarding hurts the system--inner as well as outer.

So it's been a lonely road resisting the chants of the rising
solicitations: "Everybody has a price, don't they?" Every time we (or I)
resist, they up the ante. An Internet company recently offered three
mil
for "Break on Through." Jim's "pal" (as he portrays himself in
his bio) said yes, and Robby joined me in a resounding no! "We'll give
them another half mil, and throw in a computer!" the prez of Apple
pleaded late one night.

Robby stepped up to the plate again the other day, and I was very
pleased that he's been a longtime friend. I was trying to get through to
our ivory tinkler, with the rap that playing Robin Hood is fun, but the
"bottom line" is that our songs have a higher purpose, like keeping the
integrity of their original meaning for our fans. "Many kids have said
to me that 'Light My Fire,' for example, was playing when they first
made love, or were fighting in Nam, or got high--pivotal moments in
their lives." Robby jumped in. "If we're only one of two or three groups
who don't do commercials, that will help the value of our songs in the
long run. The publishing will suffer a little, but we should be proud of
our stance." Then Robby hit a home run. "When I heard from one fan that
our songs saved him from committing suicide, I realized, that's it--we
can't sell off these songs."

So, in the spirit of the Bob Dylan line, "Money doesn't talk, it
swears," we have been manipulated, begged, extorted and bribed to make a
pact with the devil. While I was writing this article, Toyota Holland
went over the line and did it for us. They took the opening
melodic lines of "Light My Fire" to sell their cars. We've called up
attorneys in the Netherlands to chase them down, but in the meantime,
folks in Amsterdam think we sold out. Jim loved Amsterdam.

I received the news of paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen
Jay Gould's death, at age 60, in the week I was reading Jonathan Marks's
new book on genetics, human evolution and the politics of science. My
friends and I discussed our shock--Gould had famously "beat" cancer some
years back--and shared charming and ridiculous Gould information, like his
funny-voice contributions to The Simpsons. Postings on leftist
listservs noted that Gould's fulsome New York Times obituary,
which rattled on about his "controversial" theory of punctuated
equilibrium, his SoHo loft and love of baseball, neglected to mention
his extensive antiracist writing and many other radical activities,
including working with the Science for the People group. Rhoda and Mark
Berenson wrote in to commend his strong support for the release of their
daughter Lori, the young American leftist sympathizer long imprisoned as
a "terrorist" in Peru.

With Gould gone, the landscape of progressive English-language popular
science writing is much impoverished. In particular, in an era in which
silly, and most frequently racist and sexist "it's all in our genes"
narratives have become--alas!--purely commonsensical in the mass media,
if not in the academy, we have lost a stalwart and articulate
evolutionary biologist who wrote prolifically against sociobiology's
reductionist framings of human experience. But molecular anthropologist
Jonathan Marks, with his broad history-of-science background, his
take-no-prisoners stance on scientific stupidity and overreaching, and
his hilarious Groucho Marx delivery, can help to fill that void.

What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee addresses precisely that
question--the issue of human/higher primate connections--and all its
existential and political entailments. Marks reframes the old C.P. Snow
"two cultures" debate, on the gulf between the sciences and the
humanities, in a new and interesting way. Rather than blaming the
general public for its scientific ignorance--which I must confess is my
own knee-jerk tendency--Marks turns the lens around. He indicts
scientists, and particularly his own confrères in genetics, for
their long history of toadying to elite interests: "Where human lives,
welfare, and rights are concerned, genetics has historically provided
excuses for those who wish to make other people's lives miserable, to
justify their subjugation, or to curry favor with the wealthy and
powerful by scapegoating the poor and voiceless." Marks's conclusion is
that genetics "is therefore now obliged to endure considerably higher
levels of scrutiny than other, more benign and less corruptible, kinds
of scientific pronouncements might."

And scrutinize he does. First, Marks provides us with an accessible
history of the linked Western efforts, since the seventeenth century, to
comprehend the natures of nonhuman higher primates, and to develop
biological taxonomy, both before and since the rise of evolutionary
theory. With word-pictures and actual illustrations of explorers' and
others' accounts of "Pongoes," "Baboones, Monkies, and Apes," he makes
vivid for us the ways in which "the apes, by virtue of straddling a
symbolic boundary, are highly subject to the projections of the
scientist from the very outset of modern science." Not the least of
Marks's virtues are his deft along-the-way explanations, as for instance
the key physiological differences between monkeys and apes (the latter
are "large-bodied, tailless, flexible-shouldered, slow-maturing"). Only
last week, I found myself hectoring a hapless video-store worker about
the absurd conjunction, in the store's display case, of an orangutan
(ape) stuffed animal with a Monkey Business movie poster. Now I
can just hand out 98% Chimpanzee.

The "projection" problem, according to Marks, is far more inherent to
biological taxonomy than heretofore realized. He offers amusing
lightning sketches of scientists past and present, from the
eighteenth-century catfight between Buffon and Linnaeus over whether
intrahuman variation could be categorized biologically--the latter
eventually acknowledging Buffon "by naming a foul-smelling plant after
him"--to paleobiologist George Gaylord Simpson's two-martini lunches in
his 1980s Arizona retirement as he declaimed against contemporary
genetic reductionists. These humanized history-of-science narratives
allow Marks to make clear the uncertainties and arbitrariness of "hard"
science categorizations. While "every biology student knows that humans
are mammals," because human females nurse their young, Marks notes that
"it is not obviously the case that breast-feeding is the key feature any
more than having a single bone in the lower jaw (which all
Mammalia, and only Mammalia, have)." He uses historian
Londa Schiebinger's work to show us how Linnaeus, who had been operating
with Aristotle's four-legged "Quadrupedia" label, switched to
Mammalia because he was active in the contemporary movement
against upper-class women sending their infants out to wet nurses: "He
was saying that women are designed to nurse their own children, that it
is right, and that it is what your family should do."

Political apprehensions, as we know, were woven just as deeply into
scientists' evolving modes of categorizing
intrahuman--"racial"--variation. Here Marks tells some familiar stories
in new ways. Many know, for example, about racist University of
Pennsylvania anthropologist Carleton Coon's last-ditch claims, in the
early 1960s, that "the length of time a subspecies has been in the
sapiens state" determines "the levels of civilization attained by some
of its populations." But Marks offers us as well a fascinating sense of
the times. We see, for example, Sherwood Washburn, the Harvard Yankee of
later Man the Hunter fame, and Ashley Montagu, the debonair English
anthropologist redbaited out of the academy and onto What's My
Line
appearances, ending up "on the same side, working to purge
anthropology once and for all of the classificatory fallacy that had
blinded it since the time of Linnaeus.... Coon died...an embittered and
largely forgotten figure, done in, he supposed, by the forces of
political correctness, and more darkly (he allowed in personal
correspondence) by a conspiracy of communists and Jews as well."

The importance of cultural constructions, and their irreducibility to
biological functions, have been hoary apothegms in anthropology
classrooms for a half-century. Awareness of the susceptibility of
scientific practice to the politics of reputation has been with us since
the Kuhnian 1960s. Ethnographic, historical and journalistic work on
bench science from the 1980s forward has focused on the political
framing of, and politicized language use in, hard science research and
on the power of corporate and state funding to determine research
directions and even findings. But Marks takes the "cultural construction
of science" line much further than even most progressive critics of the
contemporary idiocies of sociobiologists--although he does get off some
lovely lines, like "sociobiology, which studies the biological roots of
human behavior, whether or not they exist." He takes the critique home
to his specialty, evolutionary molecular genetics, and demonstrates the
multifarious ways that recent claims about human nature and evolution,
based on DNA evidence, have been misframed, are irrelevant or often
simply stupid.

That we "are" 98 percent chimpanzee, says Marks, is a profound
misframing. First, our biological closeness to the great apes "was known
to Linnaeus without the aid of molecular genetics." "So what's new? Just
the number." Then he points out that the meaning of phylogenetic
closeness depends upon the standpoint from which it is viewed: "From the
standpoint of a daffodil, humans and chimpanzees aren't even 99.4%
identical, they're 100% identical. The only difference between them is
that the chimpanzee would probably be the one eating the daffodil."
Then, the diagnostic genetic dissimilarities between chimpanzees and
humans do not cause the observed differences between them, and are
therefore irrelevant to discussions of the "meaning" of our genetic
ties:

When we compare their DNA, we are not comparing their genes for
bipedalism, or hairlessness, or braininess, or rapid body growth during
adolescence.... We're comparing other genes, other DNA regions, which
have either cryptic biochemical functions, or, often, no known function
at all. It's the old "bait and switch." The genes we study are not
really the genes we are interested in.

Thus all of the wild claims about our "chimp" nature, which have ranged
over the past forty years from male-dominant hunter (early 1960s) to
hippie artist and lover (late 1960s through 1970s) to consummate
competitor (Gordon Gekko 1980s) are entirely politically constructed.
And, Marks adds, in considering the "demonic male" interpretation of
chimp competition as like that of Athens and Sparta, they are simply
argument by analogy: "Maybe a chimpanzee is sort of like a Greek
city-state. Maybe an aphid is like Microsoft. Maybe a kangaroo is like
Gone With the Wind. Maybe a gopher is like a microwave oven."
Just plain dumb.

Using this set of insights, Marks eviscerates a wide array of
contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom about heredity" claims, from the
"successes" of both the Human Genome and Human Genome Diversity Projects
to the "Caucasian" Kennewick Man, the "genetic" athletic superiority of
black Americans, the genetics of Jewish priesthood and the existence of
a "gay gene." He is particularly trenchant against the Great Ape
Project's use of human/ape genetic similarities to argue for "human
rights" for apes, frequently to the detriment of the impoverished
African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands: "Apes should be
conserved and treated with compassion, but to blur the line between them
and us is an unscientific rhetorical device.... our concern for them
can't come at the expense of our concern for human misery and make us
numb to it."

There is much more in 98% Chimpanzee, a real treasure trove of
thoughtful, progressive scientific thought. But I do have a quibble.
While Marks takes an uncompromising equal rights stance when it comes to
female versus male biology, he doesn't delve anywhere near as deeply
into the insanities of contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom" about
sex--like the "rape is genetic" claims of a few years back--as he does
about race. And they are legion, and just as politically consequential.
Nevertheless, this is an important and refreshing book, the first
claimant to replace the magisterial and out-of-print Not in Our
Genes
, and a fitting monument to Stephen Jay Gould's passing. Now
tell me the one again about the duck with lips.

We are all fascinated by the lives of the powerful and famous, and in
the last part of the twentieth century Andrei Sakharov became one of
Russia's most famous. He burst onto the world stage in the summer of
1968, and seemingly overnight he went from the high-clearance obscurity
of thermonuclear

weapons to world fame. His essay advocating "convergence" of capitalism
and socialism, which was smuggled to the West, was extraordinary. It did
not matter that its contents were naïve and sophomoric (he
envisioned a world government by the year 2000). Its author was the
"father" of the Soviet H-bomb, someone who understood that life and
civilization could be incinerated in an hour's time and as such
commanded instant respect. Moreover, he was a member of the elite, whose
views were "profoundly socialist" and who abhorred the "egotistical
ideas of private ownership and the glorification of capital." But there
were deeply heretical undertones in his thinking. He insisted that the
Soviet Union needed economic and political reforms, and if necessary a
multiparty system, even though he did not regard the latter as an
essential step "or even less, a panacea for all ills."

This was, of course, the time of the Prague Spring, when the peoples of
the Communist part of Europe followed with sympathy and apprehension
Prague's reformist Communist leaders taking Czechoslovakia down the path
of democratization. A nascent democratic movement had emerged in Russia
in the mid-1960s as well, spreading through large sections of the
intelligentsia. "What so many of us...had dreamed of seemed to be
finally coming to pass in Czechoslovakia," Sakharov said later. "Even
from afar, we were caught up in all the excitement and hopes and
enthusiasm of the catchwords: 'Prague spring' and 'socialism with a
human face.'"

All hopes were squelched on August 21, 1968, when Russian tanks entered
Czechoslovakia and arrested the reformers. It was also a fateful moment
for Sakharov: His essay had transformed him into the leading personality
of a small dissident movement. The regime ended his career at the secret
weapons lab in Turkmenistan but allowed him to work at the Institute of
Physics in Moscow. After a decade of defending dissidents, he was
arrested in 1980 and exiled to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhni
Novgorod), where he was force-fed when he attempted a hunger strike. The
dramatic struggle between a lone individual and a mighty totalitarian
state ended with an astounding concession by the state: On December 16,
1986, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, personally invited
Sakharov to return to Moscow and "go back to your patriotic work." It
was an act of contrition that also enhanced Gorbachev's reputation in
the West.

In this first English-language biography of Sakharov, Richard Lourie
offers a beautifully written and engaging account of the physicist's
life. Lourie is a distinguished author and a leading translator of
Russian literature. He also translated Sakharov's own Memoirs,
which they had discussed at length. Lourie has had extended help from
Elena Bonner, Sakharov's second wife, and the portrait of their marriage
is one of the most insightful aspects of the book. But writing a
biography of so complex a figure as Sakharov is more difficult than it
may seem, in part because his life was the stuff of which myths are
made. It had two distinct phases.

In the first he eagerly served the state and performed his great
bomb-making accomplishments. It was a period of Stalinist terror and
appalling privations in which Sakharov accepted everything with
"cheerful fatalism." Like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, he clung to his
belief that everything Stalin did was for the best, that creating the
most destructive weapons mankind had known was his patriotic duty, that
"the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future." Even the
repugnant KGB system of informing seemed to him a normal fact of life,
an "ordinary link in the network of surveillance that enveloped the
whole country." When the dictator died in 1953, Sakharov was deeply
moved. "I am under the influence of a great man's death," he wrote to
his wife. "I am thinking of his humanity."

The second period--one of political activism, open dissent and real
sacrifices by Sahkarov--has been meticulously documented in the press.
Needless to say, he was lionized in the Western press and awarded a
Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his impact on the events that led to the collapse
of the Soviet Union remains unclear. As a leading actor in the dissident
movement, he seemed from the beginning a tragic figure who most fully
reflected its strengths and weaknesses. Sakharov not only lacked
charisma, as Andrei Amalrik said, but he also rejected the leadership
role bestowed upon him by the dissidents. Sakharov, Amalrik says in
Notes of a Revolutionary, wanted to be "a solitary monk under a
leaky umbrella whose voice in the defense of the oppressed would be
heard because of his moral prestige."

It is difficult to explain the almost complete break between these two
periods. It coincides roughly with the publication of his controversial
essay, "Reflections on Progress, Co-Existence, and Intellectual
Freedom," and the death of his first wife. What made him do his U-turn,
or, in Professor Philip Morrison's apt image, what made him go "from a
Teller to an Oppenheimer"?

We can only speculate what went on in Sakharov's head. His explanation
seems incomplete. He said he confronted a "moral dilemma" at the time of
the 1955 H-bomb test because his calculations of death by fallout over
the generations made it clear that the total numbers were staggering. He
was also appalled by the ecological consequences and began advocating a
ban on nuclear testing.

An incident at a banquet to honor a successful test may have had a
greater impact on Sakharov. His toast at the banquet--"May all our
devices explode as successfully as today's, but always over test sites
and never over cities"--was immediately countered by Air Marshal
Mitrofan Nedelin, who wanted to put the scientist in his place by
telling a crude story:

"An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon: 'Guide me,
harden me. Guide me, harden me.' His wife who was lying on the stove
said: 'Just pray to be hard, old man, I'll take care of the guiding.'"
"And so," said the air marshal, "let's drink to getting hard."

Sakharov felt "lashed by a whip." An exceedingly proud man, he was
humiliated before his colleagues. He drained his glass and never said
another word for the rest of the evening. He was, he said later, shocked
into a realization that he and his colleagues had created a terrible
weapon whose uses "lie entirely outside our control."

After the first successful test, in 1953, Sakharov's self-confidence was
at a peak. Still "outwardly modest," inwardly he was "actually quite the
opposite." The director of the atomic weapons program, physicist Igor
Kurchatov, had called him "the savior of Russia!" He had replaced Igor
Tamm, his mentor, as scientific head of the hydrogen bomb project. He
alone had written a report on his conception of the next generation of
nuclear weapons and delivery systems; he attended a Politburo meeting
that approved it. To outsiders he seemed able to walk on water. He
enjoyed every privilege the state could bestow. He had the attribute of
highest importance: a high-frequency phone, a direct line to all
leaders. He was made a Hero of Socialist Labor, the nation's highest
honor (for the first of three times). He was elected to full membership
in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, bypassing the usual period of
candidacy (Tamm's had lasted twenty years in an election before he
became a full member).

Yet, as Yuli Khariton, the director of the secret weapons lab, put it,
Sakharov's immense self-confidence was both his strength and his
failing. Sakharov "felt his own strength and could not imagine anyone
understanding better than he." When others found the solution to a
problem he was unable to solve, Sakharov would set about with
"exceptional energy" to search for the flaws in it. Not finding them, he
was forced to admit that the solution was correct.

If the 1955 test was the turning point in his thinking, it was reflected
only in his interest in and advocacy of a ban on nuclear testing.
Clearly he had little understanding of the politics of nuclear weapons
or the domestic political pressures that Nikita Khrushchev was facing.

Ignoring his pleas, Khrushchev insisted that the largest Soviet bomb
ever be tested so it would coincide with the Communist Party Congress
(and the expulsion of Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum in Red
Square). Having been overruled and slavishly following orders, Sakharov
proposed that not one bomb but two be tested at the same time. This
would provide sufficient information to eliminate the need for further
testing for a long time. Even more bizarre was his grandiose proposal
for a giant, atomic-powered torpedo with a 100-megaton charge that could
inflict enormous casualties on enemy ports. A Russian admiral Sakharov
tried to consult would not give him the time of day. As a military man,
the admiral believed in "open battle" and was disgusted and outraged by
the idea of merciless mass slaughter.

By 1957 the Russians had sent Sputnik into orbit and the competition for
the control of outer space became a top priority. In the 1960s the space
program was allocated the largest chunk of the research budget. Sakharov
and other bomb-makers were shunted aside. This may be one of the reasons
for Sakharov's foray into political theory, though Lourie does not
explore it. But Sakharov is a hard man to assess. For example, his role
in enabling Russia to detonate its first hydrogen bomb just nine months
after the Americans is indisputable, but his accomplishments as a
physicist must await final judgment. So far, none of his peers have
placed him in the pantheon of top Russian physicists. None doubted his
talent, but the common judgment may have been summed up by Lev Landau,
the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who called him "outstanding" and
said: "While I would not consider him a genuine theoretical physicist,
he is rather a 'constructive genius.'" Tamm, another Nobel Prize winner,
was more generous. Sakharov's tragedy, Tamm said, was "that he had to
sacrifice his great passion--elementary-particle physics--first to
create an atomic and hydrogen bomb," then sacrifice it a second time in
the struggle for social justice.

It's even harder to assess him as a man. I first met him in the hospital
of the Academy of Sciences in 1967, where he was a patient. I was
visiting another patient, the writer Nikolai Erdman, who took me "to say
hello" to Sakharov, who was recovering from a hernia operation. First
impressions often gel into lasting images. I have subsequently written
dozens of stories about him, and I never had any doubt that he was a
rare good man who was prepared to oppose evil. As an absent-minded and
eccentric professor, he was unassuming and humble. Yet his benevolent
smile somehow demanded respect. He was born into a family that belonged
to that section of nineteenth-century intelligentsia that believed it
their duty to fight Russia's backwardness and authoritarianism. There
was a sense of entitlement about him, something that must have come
about from special considerations and privileges that had been extended
to him over the years. Following the publication of his controversial
essay, he was banned from military projects but accepted the position
offered him at the Physics Institute, working under Tamm. He accepted.
Neither side had entirely given up on the other. What if Sakharov came
up with a new discovery? At the time, neither science nor politics had
much meaning for Sakharov, who was grieving for his late wife and
looking after his 12-year-old son, Dima.

Sakharov was still a unique figure, both admired and envied. His
unanimous election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences was without
precedent for two reasons: Not only had he not completed his doctorate
(he was a candidate of science), but his work was so classified that
more than 99 percent of those who voted for him had no idea why he was
honored. Academic Vasily Yemelyanov, who headed the Soviet atomic energy
commission in the 1950s, told me in an interview how Khrushchev had
asked him to insure Sakharov's election without revealing his role in
the H-bomb project. Yemelyanov replied that that was impossible. People
are going to ask questions. After all, Sakharov, 32 at the time, was a
molokosos (baby). "You tell them that he had done a great service
to the state but you are not at liberty to reveal what it is,"
Yemelyanov quoted Khrushchev as saying.

Sakharov was still viewed as salvageable when two prominent dissidents
were incarcerated in psychiatric institutions: Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko and
biologist Zhores Medvedev, twin brother of Marxist historian Roy
Medvedev, a friend of Sakharov's who distributed his original 1968 essay
in samizdat form. Roy Medvedev's book about Stalin, Let
History Judge
, which Sakharov read in samizdat, played a
major role in his developing politics. As Soviet policy hardened under
Leonid Brezhnev, open dissent turned into a concerted opposition to a
return to Stalinism. Sakharov created an international incident in 1970
when he appeared at an international symposium held in Moscow and
announced that he was collecting signatures in defense of Medvedev, who
was under psychiatric detention. A week later he protested directly to
Brezhnev. Medvedev was freed in mid-June, but Grigorenko remained
incarcerated for four years.

A void of ostracism, however, began to form around Sakharov. He had
crossed over to the other side. This became irrevocable when he met his
second wife, Elena Bonner, a die-hard political dissident.

Ironically, Sakharov was finally happy, being married to a woman he
loved and who shared his ideas. Like God's fool from the Russian
tradition, he was regularly challenging the lies on which the system was
constructed yet not ending up in jail, because God's fool was the only
person who could speak the truth to czars. The authorities, unwilling to
lash out at Sakharov himself, instead targeted Bonner's children. Bonner
herself was reviled in the press. Sakharov fought back--hunger strikes
were his ultimate weapon. The state had considerable success in
radicalizing his image and making it appear that the human rights
movement was used by Sakharov to obtain exit visas for his family and
friends.

Lourie presents a compelling account of Sakharov's personal odyssey,
going behind the glossy picture we painted and repainted over the years.
If there is a serious shortcoming here it is that Bonner's role has
been, perhaps inadvertently, minimized. The book leaves the reader with
a sense of disappointment that this genuinely great man did not have a
more lasting effect. But we'd be remiss to forget the electrifying
impact on Russia of his return from internal exile in 1986. Even more
significant was his decades-long struggle to keep alive the best
traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. Like his beloved Pushkin, he
will remain loved because--in the poet's words--"I've struck the chords
of kindness/and sung freedom's praise in this cruel age,/calling for
mercy to be shown the fallen."

It's boring but do it, says the playwright. Otherwise, you allow evil to
settle in.

Hot, rained-on, packed-down straw, strewn then abandoned
between the rows of eggplant, tomato plants, onion, and herbs
catches the evening's last September gnats in pale mats
and renders, for a moment, the fall surrender untenable.

Impossible, too, to make this sign--your birthday month--
the winding vine of grapes at harvest, for who could drink
in this heat, or light the candles and praise the cake?
The half-century it took to make the man you are is far

outstripped by the tipped and tilting present tense in which
you accurately move, correcting the angle of guyed bamboo,
brushing a confusion of wings from the plot, and not,
in the slightest sense, wincing ahead to the unfathomable,

intolerable winter, for straw, you said, muffles
the living so they can't hear the dead.

A hundred days ago Wu'er Kaixi was a fugitive.... Yesterday, before an
audience of 800 Americans and Chinese at Brandeis University, he showed
what brought a 21-year-old Beijing Normal School student to the head of
an earth-shaking movement.
      He sang a song about a wolf.
And he told people who had listened to two days of often-ponderous
analysis of the student movement that Chinese rock music composers Qin
Qi of Taiwan and Cui Jian of mainland China were more important to the
students than the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi...
      The auditorium buzzed with the gasps and whispers of delighted students
and their bewildered elders.
            (Boston Globe, September 18, 1989)

John Sebastian's famous lyric about the impossibility of "trying to tell
a stranger about rock and roll" notwithstanding, it was a special moment
indeed when Wu'er Kaixi--the flamboyant Tiananmen student
leader--attempted to do just that. I know. I was one of the strangers
who heard him sing Qin Qi's "Wolf From the North" and explain what its
celebration of individualism meant to his generation. The students
agreed with senior dissidents that institutions must change, he said,
but what they yearned for most was to live in a freer society. (The
anniversary of the Beijing massacre recently passed, on June 4.)

When I witnessed Wu'er's performance, even though I was no longer a
student and even though I had misgivings about any single activist
claiming to speak for the Tiananmen generation, I was definitely in the
"delighted" camp. One reason was that I was in Shanghai in 1986 when
demonstrations occurred that helped lay the groundwork for those of
1989. I was struck then by the Western media's tendency to overstate the
dissident Fang Lizhi's impact. Students found his speeches inspiring,
but other things also triggered protests: complaints about compulsory
calisthenics, for example, and a scuffle at--of all things--a Jan and
Dean concert.

Another reason Wu'er's performance pleased me was that I was to give a
presentation at Harvard the next evening and planned to talk about a
song, albeit one without a backbeat: "Frère Jacques." Why that
one? Because Chinese youth often put new lyrics to it during pre-1949
protests, Red Guards did likewise in the 1960s and the Tiananmen
protesters had just followed suit. Wu'er used a new song to argue for
his generation's uniqueness. But I used an old one to show how often he
and others had reworked (albeit often unconsciously) a rich inherited
tradition.

I also pointed out that the lyrics to the latest version of
"Frère Jacques" (which began "Down With Li Peng, Down With Li
Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping," and which went on to refer to these
and other Communist Party leaders as "bullies") expressed contempt for
corrupt, autocratic officials.

A desire for reform and personal freedom helped get students onto the
streets--not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. A major
reason that workers joined them there in such large numbers, though, was
moral outrage, widespread disgust with power-holders whose attachment to
the ideals of the Communist revolution of 1949 had seemingly disappeared
completely. The country's leaders now seemed only to care about
protecting their privileged positions. And this meant, I argued, that
there were topical as well as melodic links between 1989 and some
protests of the first half of the century. During the civil war era
(1945-49), for example, demonstrators criticized the ruling Nationalist
Party's leaders for being corrupt and abandoning the ideals of the
revolution that had brought them to power.

In the many books on the events of 1989 published in Chinese and Western
languages in the past dozen years, the uniqueness of the Tiananmen
generation, the root causes of their activism and the songs that
inspired them have all been handled in still different ways from the two
just described. Most notably, when it comes to music, many Tiananmen
books--including the two under review--have singled out for special
attention one of two songs that neither Wu'er Kaixi nor I discussed.
These are a Communist anthem (the "Internationale") and a composition by
Taiwan pop star Hou Dejian ("Heirs of the Dragon"). Students frequently
sang these songs throughout the demonstrations of mid-April through late
May. And each was sung a final time by the last group of students to
leave Tiananmen Square on June 4, during a pre-dawn exodus that took
them through the nearby streets, which had just been turned into killing
fields by the People's Liberation Army.

Zhao Dingxin's The Power of Tiananmen is the latest in a long
line of works to treat the "Internationale" as the movement's most
revealing song. He claims, in a section on "The Imprint of Communist
Mass Mobilization," that students were drawn to it because it is
"rebellious in spirit" and because a steady diet of post-1949
party-sponsored "revolutionary dramas and films" in which the song
figured had made singing it "a standard way of expressing" discontent
with the status quo. In this section, as elsewhere in his study, Zhao
stresses the importance of history in shaping 1989, but he sees only the
preceding forty years as directly relevant. In contrast to my approach,
which linked the pre-Communist and Communist eras, he distinguishes
sharply between (nationalistic) pre-1949 protests and the
("pro-Western") Tiananmen ones.

The Monkey and the Dragon mentions the "Internationale" and many
other compositions (from Cui Jian's rousing "Nothing to My Name" to the
punk-rock song "Garbage Dump"), but the gently lilting "Heirs" gets most
attention. This is to be expected. Linda Jaivin's book is not a
Tiananmen study per se (though 170 pages of it deal with 1989) but a
biography of Hou Dejian. This fascinating singer-songwriter grew up in
Taiwan and, while still in his 20s, saw "Heirs" become a hit (and be
appropriated for political purposes) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Soon afterward, he surprised everyone (even close friends like Jaivin)
by defecting to the mainland--only to quickly become a gadfly to the
authorities there.

Hou ended up playing key roles in 1989 both as a songwriter (he penned a
song for the movement, "Get Off the Stage," which called on aging
leaders like Deng to retire) and eventually as a direct participant. He
stayed aloof from the movement at first, but from late May onward threw
himself into it with abandon. In short order, he flew to Hong Kong to
perform in a fundraiser, returned to Beijing to join other intellectuals
in a hunger strike, then helped negotiate a temporary cease-fire that
allowed that last group of youths to leave the square on June 4. In 1990
the party shipped him back across the strait, making him, as Jaivin puts
it, with typical irreverence and stylistic flair, "the first Taiwan
defector to be returned to sender."

Patriotism is the central theme of "Heirs" (the "Dragon" in its title is
China), and Jaivin argues that this explains the song's appeal to a
generation of Chinese students who (like many of their predecessors) saw
themselves as charged with an epic mission to save their homeland from
misrule. According to Jaivin, this patriotism occasionally blurred into
a narrow jingoism of a sort that appalled Hou--particularly because his
song was used to express it. Her discussion of "Heirs" thus plays up
1989's nationalistic side and links it both backward (to pre-1949
struggles by youths determined to save their country) and forward (to
such events as the anti-NATO demonstration that broke out when the
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by US warplanes in 1999).

These opening comments on music are meant to convey three things. First,
China's 1989 was a complex, multifaceted struggle (not a simple
"democracy" movement). Second, in part because of this, the events of
that year remain open to competing interpretations, even among those of
us who dismiss (as everyone should) Beijing's self-serving "Big Lie"
about the government's supposed need to use force to pacify
"counterrevolutionary" riots. Third--and this is a much more general
point--providing a clear picture of a multifaceted movement is never
easy.

This is because one has to grapple continually not only with big
questions of interpretation but also numerous small ones of
detail--right down to picking which songs to discuss. This is true
whether the protesters in question are American or Chinese and whether
the person doing the grappling is a former participant (like Wu'er), a
cultural historian (like me), a dispassionate sociologist (like Zhao) or
an impassioned, iconoclastic, frequently entertaining, often insightful
and sometimes self-indulgent
journalist-turned-novelist-turned-biographer (like Jaivin). Whatever the
movement, whoever the writer, contrasting approaches to small matters
can create big gaps in overall perspective.

Leaving China aside, consider how minor divergences can create major
differences in presentations of an American student movement--that of
the 1960s--depending on the answers given to the following questions:
When exactly did this movement begin and end? Which student activists
and which nonstudents (leaders of related struggles, radical
philosophers, singers, politicians) had the largest impact? How much
weight should we give to the protesters' stated goals? How much to
actions that contradicted these? Were countercultural elements central
or peripheral to the movement? Give one set of answers and Abbie Hoffman
gets a chapter to himself, but give another and he becomes a footnote.
The same goes for everyone from Mario Savio to Malcolm X, Herbert
Marcuse to Jane Fonda, Jimi Hendrix to Ronald Reagan. It also goes for
such events as the Free Speech Movement (too early?), be-ins
(irrelevant?) and the first gay-pride parades (too late?).

Accounts of student movements can also diverge, depending on the answers
given to more basic questions. If one has complete data and knows a lot
about "political opportunity structures" and "rational choice analysis,"
can one explain all dimensions of a movement? Or will some things remain
mysterious, such as the moment when a nonviolent event turns violent or
the process by which a song or chant assumes talismanic properties? Do
we need to leave room for spontaneous, even irrational individual
choices? To put this another way, do we need to make analytic space for
what might best be termed--for lack of a more precise word--magic? I
mean by this both the black magic that transforms a group of individuals
into a lynch mob and the glorious sort that leads to brave acts of
inspiring heroism.

It may be true that the potential for divergence between accounts is
unusually great in that particular case, due to the struggle's
protracted nature and connections to other upheavals, especially the
civil rights movement. And yet, anyone who reads Zhao's study and then
Jaivin's book may doubt this. Tiananmen was comparatively short-lived
and self-contained, yet accounts of China's 1989 spin off in
dramatically different directions.

This is not to say that Zhao's and Jaivin's treatments of Tiananmen
never converge. You could even claim that for works by such different
authors--Jaivin's previous writings include a rollicking novel called
Eat Me, while Zhao's peer-reviewed scholarly articles are
peppered with charts and tables--their books have much in common. One
author may rely on things she observed and was told in 1989, the other
on interviews conducted later according to social scientific protocols,
but some of their narrative choices are the same. For instance, each
focuses tightly on Beijing as a site of protest (it was actually just
one of many) and of state violence (there was also a massacre in
Chengdu). And each pays relatively little attention to workers.

Still, it is the divergences between the discussions of 1989 that remain
most striking. There are people Jaivin discusses in detail (Cui Jian)
who are not even listed in Zhao's index. And there are aspects of the
struggle analyzed insightfully by Zhao that are ignored by Jaivin--what
Zhao calls "campus ecology" (the physical structures and social patterns
of student life) for instance. His treatment of the way this shaped 1989
is excellent, yet the topic falls outside the scope of Jaivin's
interests.

The two authors also treat previous studies very differently. Take
sociologist Craig Calhoun's justly acclaimed 1994 study Neither Gods
Nor Emperors
. Zhao cites it several times (sometimes approvingly,
sometimes to criticize Calhoun for making too much of 1989's links to
pre-1949 events and patterns); Jaivin never mentions it. On the other
hand, she draws heavily on works by Geremie Barmé, a leading
Australian China specialist whom Zhao never cites. Jaivin's reliance on
Barmé is no surprise: The two co-edited a superb
Tiananmen-related document collection, New Ghosts, Old Dreams,
were married for a time (Monkey includes a diverting account of
their courtship) and remain close friends. What is surprising is that
none of Barmé's writings are listed in Zhao's bibliography. This
wouldn't matter except that some specialists (myself included) think him
among the most consistently insightful and on-target analysts of Chinese
culture and politics.

Switching from references to events, we again find divergences. For
example, only Jaivin refers to the 1988 campus riots in which young
African men were attacked. In these incidents, some male Chinese
students--of the same Tiananmen generation that would soon do such
admirable things--lashed out against African males whose freer
lifestyles they envied. The rioters also expressed outrage at efforts by
the black exchange students to establish sexual liaisons with Chinese
women. That only Jaivin mentions these racist incidents is illustrative
of a general pattern. Zhao criticizes the Tiananmen generation for
strategic mistakes, factionalism and political immaturity but otherwise
veers toward hagiography. Jaivin takes a warts-and-all approach to her
heroes. Hou gets chided for egotism and sexism, and the students for
their tendency to be elitist (toward workers) and antiforeign (on
occasion even toward Westerners).

Surprisingly, given Jaivin's greater fascination with pop culture, among
the many events that she ignores but that Zhao mentions is the Jan and
Dean concert fracas. I was glad to see Zhao allude to this November 1986
event (few analysts of 1989 have), but found his comments problematic.
He states that demonstrations began in Shanghai "as a protest against
the arrest and beating of students after many students danced on the
stage" with the surf-rock band. Soon, the movement's focus shifted to
"democracy and other issues," Zhao continues, when news arrived of
campus unrest in Hefei (where Fang Lizhi taught). The protests there
were triggered by complaints about cafeteria food and manipulated local
elections. This is accurate but leaves out a significant twist: The buzz
around Shanghai campuses had a class-related dimension. Students
complained that concert security guards had treated their classmates
like mere "workers," not intellectuals-in-the-making, the flower of
China's youth. And while this sort of elitism was tempered a bit during
the 1989 mass movement, it never disappeared.

In the end, though, where Jaivin and Zhao really part company has to do
with something more basic than choices about whom to cite or even how
critical to be of activists. It comes from the fact that only one
(Jaivin) leaves space for magic. Zhao is influenced by a recent (and
welcome) development in social movement theory: a commitment to paying
more attention to emotion. And yet, in his hands, this emotional turn
amounts to only a minor shift in emphasis. It is as though, to him, a
sense of disgust or feelings of pride can be factored into existing
equations quite easily, without disrupting a basic approach that relies
heavily on assessing structural variables, the sway of formal ideologies
and rational calculations of risk.

In Jaivin's book, magic--of varying sorts--figures centrally. Even the
book's title is a nod toward the magical, since the "Monkey" in it
refers to the most famous trickster character in Chinese culture, the
mischief-loving hero of the novel Journey From the West, with
whom Hou apparently identifies. A major characteristic of Monkey (in the
novel) and Hou (in Jaivin's biography) is an ability to transform
himself and contribute to the transformation of others--something often
associated with spells of enchantment.

When it comes to the magical aspects of Tiananmen, Jaivin stresses the
"magnetic pull" (Barmé's term) that the square exerted. And she
emphasizes that the 1989 movement was full of unexpected developments
that perplexed even those who knew Chinese politics intimately. In
addition, she gives a good sense of how often people did peculiar,
seemingly contradictory things. For example, she writes that Hou was
convinced by late May that the students should leave the square before
the regime cleared it by force. Only by living on could they build on
what they had accomplished and continue to work to change China, he
felt, as did many others. And yet, Hou flew to Hong Kong, even though he
knew the funds raised by the concert there would help the students
extend their occupation of the square. He could never explain why he did
this, and I doubt any "model" can do justice to his choice. Moreover,
Hou was not the only one to find himself doing inexplicable things as
magic moments followed one another at a dizzying speed that spring.

Those who know little about Tiananmen can learn more from Zhao than from
Jaivin (even if they find her more fun to read). And specialists will
come away from his book with more new data. In the end, though, I think
Jaivin gets closer to the heart of 1989. I say this in part because I
agree with her on several points (the role of nationalism, for example).
But my main reason for preferring her book is my conviction that with
Tiananmen--and perhaps many mass movements--you have to take seriously
not just structures and calculations of interest but also passion and
magic.

In the United States a deeply rooted bias toward the practical renders
all knowledge, even the most sublime forms of wisdom, merely an
instrumental good. This pragmatic streak tends to push our literature of
epiphany toward pop psychology and self-helping boosterism unless the
work connects with something larger than the self. In some cultures that
larger-than-the-self thing would be God, and the result becomes
Spiritual Wisdom literature--a form that does not, in any serious way,
flourish among us. The chief Other we celebrate is our Great Outdoors,
and when moral epiphany connects with it the result is a distinctively
American product: Environmental Wisdom literature.

At 67, with nearly forty volumes of work to his credit, Wendell Berry is
undeniably a master of the genre. As poet, essayist and novelist, he has
been concerned throughout his long writing life with how humans live and
work in place, and with the moral and spiritual elements of their
relationship to land. His nonfiction should properly be seen as a
contribution to political theology, but in America we shelve it as
Nature Writing.

Berry is one of the few contemporary authors worthy of mention in the
same breath with that triumvirate of immortals, Thoreau, Muir and
Leopold. If Thoreau stands for romantic naturalism; Muir for the
preservationism of his creation, the Sierra Club; and if Leopold traced
in his life and work the intellectual distance between conservationism
(which treats nature as economically instrumental) and something like
modern ecology (which doesn't), Berry too is the chief articulator of an
environmentally relevant "ism": He is our foremost apostle of the
agrarian ideal.

Ah--the agrarian ideal. But farmland isn't "nature," and Jefferson died
centuries ago, right? Hasn't the Jeffersonian vision of a republic of
free and equal yeoman farmers been completely occluded by the success of
Hamilton's plan for a national manufactory? With only a minuscule
portion of our population engaged in farming, talk of an agrarian ideal
seems outdated at best.

Mainstream environmentalism seems to agree: It generally accepts that
not in agriculture but "in wildness is the salvation of the world," as
Thoreau famously put it. Thoreau meant also, of course, that in wildness was the salvation of the self. But Thoreau was a bit of a romantic poseur; during his idyll in the woods at Walden he was never out of earshot of the Fitchburg
railroad, and when he did enter actual wilderness (in Maine, on the
flanks of Mount Katahdin) he found it "savage and dreary," "even more
grim and wild" than he had anticipated. If Thoreau's virtue was that he
studied nature in detail while all around him men turned their backs on
it (when they weren't actively cutting it down, draining it and
otherwise "improving" it), still, he rarely saw the big picture except
through the distorting lens of his romanticism. Like many another
romantic, he did not see the ways in which his dissent from the
antiromantic realities of his day failed to transcend the evils he
railed against.

In 1850 it was not quite so clear that industrial culture, with its
dark, satanic mills and the increasingly complicated, spiritually barren
life that Thoreau bemoaned, could, without being deflected far from its
course, easily accommodate and even assign value to "nature" as the
romantics understood it. Even Robert Moses, the auto enthusiast whose
highway planning led us into the promised land of modern urban life,
understood the value of parks and green space; they were a necessary
anodyne, a complement to the city he helped to create. "Nature" has
exchange value. Within a market system, anything with exchange
value--anything that people will pay cash money for--will be preserved.
The market undervalues some things, yes, but market effects can be
controlled and augmented by legislation. (Sadly, neither the market nor
Congress has managed to preserve enough untrammeled nature for natural
processes to operate there. Oxymoronically, we have to manage wilderness
in order to keep it wild.)

The logic of industrial culture can preserve a bit of wilderness, but it
won't preserve the life of the planet on which all of us ultimately
depend. It won't even preserve the soil fertility that lets us fend off
our own immediate death by starvation. Berry takes articulate exception
to this failure, and he speaks with the authority of long practice as a
farmer. His love of his hillside farm in Kentucky, which he works with
horses, is evident on every page he writes.

Berry doesn't say that we all must become farmers in order to save the
world. As Norman Wirzba, the editor of this volume, points out in his
introduction, Berry isn't asking us to hitch up horses and become
tillers of soil. He merely wants us to adopt the values,
responsibilities and concerns of an agrarian life. Wirzba writes: "Just
as we have adopted...the assumptions of an industrial mind-set without
ourselves becoming industrialists--we are still teachers, health-care
providers, builders, students, and so forth--so too can we integrate
agrarian principles without ourselves becoming farmers."

One of the clearest contrasts between industrial and agrarian values
concerns the matter of garbage. Urbanites dispose of it at the curb,
where it is taken care of by jumpsuited specialists. Where these men
take it the urbanites know not, nor are they able to see their
responsibility for the damage it does when it gets there. The agrarian,
with the wisdom and clarity of the farmer, knows that there is no such
thing as a "sanitary" landfill. (No farmer would be so foolish as to
welcome a dump anywhere near land being cultivated.) Agrarians are led
to ask subversive questions about the origins of the waste they find so
problematic. Is this purchase necessary? Can the old article be made to
last longer? If the thing shouldn't be released into the environment
when I'm done with it, then it shouldn't be created in the first place.
Do I need it? What do I really need?

The contrast is between ideal types seen romantically, through the
shimmering heat of passionate belief. Even so, the difference seen is
real. There are those who understand culture's root in nature, and those
who don't. For all but hunters and gatherers, farming is the definitive,
determinative point of contact between culture and its environment. As
farming goes, so goes the nation and the planet. Both have been going
badly precisely because we have let the market assign valuations that
should have been made morally, practically, agriculturally,
ecologically. "A man who would value a piece of land strictly according
to its economic worth is as crazy, or as evil, as the man who would make
a whore of his wife," Berry declares in The Unforeseen
Wilderness
. For him that comparison is not an illustrative simile
but an equation: How we treat the land is not separate from how we treat
each other. Our agricultural practice should be ruled not by the market,
whose cues and commandments are culturally and temporally parochial, but
by a clear apprehension of what is needed to insure the long-range
health of the soil, the communities it supports and the individual
organisms (both human and nonhuman) within those communities. Berry's
vision is trinitarian: These three kinds of life are one. He is enough
of a romantic to believe that health is indivisible--that human health
and the health of the planet are complementary, not antagonistic ideals.

Berry's romanticism is a source of hope. It doesn't distort his vision.
He knows we're not going to save the planet or the self by playacting at
being wild. Our world is neither completely a factory nor ideally a
wilderness but in practice is very much under cultivation: We are
inescapably agrarian. With even our wildernesses needing tender care,
the question we face is not, "Shall we be gardeners?" or even "What
proportion of garden to wilderness will we have?" but "What sort of
gardeners should we be?" The essays collected here are Berry's
thoughtful, comprehensive answer.

Berry throws off epigrammatic wisdom like a scythe sprays sparks when
held against the sharpening wheel. Thus: "There can be no such thing as
a 'global village.' No matter how much one may love the world as a
whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small
part of it"; "We live in agriculture as we live in flesh"; "We do not
understand the earth in terms of what it offers us or of what it
requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably
destroy what they do not understand"; "Marriage...has now taken the form
of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things
shall be divided"; "There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy.
Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and
irresponsible dependence." And, with an especially startling clarity:
"The basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral
ignorance and weakness of character." If the essential rightness of
these epigrams isn't immediately obvious to you, you need more Wendell
Berry in your life.

Part of Berry's brief against agribusiness and the rule of the market in
general is that both radically decontextualize human experience,
including the necessary experience of nurturing life to grow food. Fewer
and fewer of us have that primary experience any longer, and those who
do still make a living directly from the soil are continually pressed to
pursue their calling not in accord with its own standards of excellence
but in response to market imperatives, which push farmer and consumer
alike toward thoughtless, selfish, live-for-today exploitation. This
isolation from context--this replacement of a dense web of communal,
historical and natural relations with naked cash nexus--keeps most of us
from supporting, or even seeing, the sort of care, knowledge, honor and
integrity that good farming practice (and good neighboring) requires. In
a society ruled by industrial values, commerce is the only context, and
relations are dramatically simplified.

It's ironic, then, that the selections in this volume have been taken
out of context. The cumulative effect of reading through them is not the
effect created by reading Berry at his best. Berry is a farmer and a
moralist, one who speaks with the humble authority of a man who
regularly treads ground behind a team of horses. His contributions to
the rarefied discourse of political theology are earned by the sweat of
that kind of direct experience, and he knows it. In their original
context the selections here achieve a better balance between theoretical
rumination and chewy first-person detail, between wisdom gained and the
texture of the life that produced it. When Berry speaks his mind,
usually it's to the jangle of harness and hitch. In emphasizing Berry as
an agrarian theorist, this collection tends to underrepresent Berry the
farmer and neighbor and nephew and husband, the man whose experience
makes his agrarian theorizing compelling. Reading the essays assembled
here is rather like sitting down to a plate full of gravy and potatoes:
It might be just what you want, but be aware that what the waiter
brought you is only part of the meal the chef originally had in mind.

Berry is a master craftsman. His essays move from the personal to the
abstract, the reportorial to the indignant, the anecdotal to the
reflective as smoothly as an ecosystem moves through stages of
succession, evolving toward its climax. Throughout Berry's work comes a
strong sense of the narrative persona behind it: A kind and generous
man, one at peace with his lot but deeply at odds with the temper of his
times, a man of insight and empathy who never retreats into the solace
of irony or smug detachment. Berry has a poet's ear, which keeps his
prose from dissolving into the galumphing polysyllables and hissing
sibilants (the "-isms" and "-nesses") that infect abstract subjects in
the hands of lesser writers. He's constantly aware that, just as we are
food incarnate (sunshine and soil, condemned to mortal life), so too are
our ideas incarnated in our acts and organizations, each of which has a
history it cannot fully escape.

It's odd, then, that Wirzba's Berry is a rather disembodied, timeless
intellect. Sometimes the individual chapters in this collection aren't
effectively introduced, and often something as basic as the date of
original publication is missing. Occasionally Berry's text will refer to
"the point of this book," though we are of course no longer in "this"
book--we're in Wirzba's book, and he hasn't given us easy access to what
the original textual reference meant. (For most selections, you've got
to comb through the acknowledgments to discover the origin, and even
then the provenance of many of them remains unclear.) Berry's 1993
plaint against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade still has
relevance--the issue of globalization hasn't gone away, and its portent
for agrarian values is enormous--but "A Bad Big Idea" would benefit from
annotation or an introduction explaining the current status of world
trade in agricultural goods and limning the continuing relevance of
Berry's analysis. Without that context, the reader may well dismiss the
piece as an outdated tilt against a fait accompli.

As with any collection, one can second-guess the selections. I longed to
read Berry's elegiac mea culpa, "Damage," in which he recounts
his misguided attempt to carve a stock pond into one of his farm's
hillsides. The piece, a kind of prose poem, could have served admirably
as part of Wirzba's first section, "A Geobiography," which aims to
"introduce Berry's person and place to the reader." Also missing is
Berry's notorious essay from Harper's in which he gave his
reasons for refusing to buy a computer (he writes with a pencil). Wirzba
has included Berry's response to critics of that piece, though without
the original essay the rebuttal's elaborate analysis of feminism seems
puzzlingly non sequiturish. (In his original essay Berry mentioned that
his wife types and edits his manuscripts, a circumstance that drew harsh
criticism from some readers. A wife, one letter writer said, meets all
of Berry's criteria for an appropriate technology: She's locally
producible, easily repairable, doesn't burn fossil fuel, doesn't
radically transform the community when exploited, etc.) Without a
clearer sense of the whole exchange, one can't fully appreciate why
Berry titled his reply "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," or why he
offers the telling insight that "one cannot construct an adequate public
defense of a private life." (It's clear he's not apologizing, but
admonishing those whose passion for political rectitude would destroy
the boundary between public and private life. But the full exchange
makes clearer why this is an agrarian's concern: It's that boundary, and
not some chimerical escape from meaningful work or moral duty, that is
crucial to the exercise of our liberty.)

Even with these limitations, this volume is worth a read. There is so
much good sense collected here that one is tempted not to review it but
simply to repeat it. Examples: "We must recover that sense of holiness
in the world, and learn to respect and forbear accordingly." "Economic
justice does not consist of giving the most power to the most money."
"Eating is an agricultural act."

As to solutions: Berry's advice for those of us wishing to do what we
can to make things better is simple, direct and difficult: "Eat
responsibly." His essay "The Pleasures of Eating" (taken from What
Are People For?
) describes in detail what that means. Deal directly
with a local farmer whenever possible. Prepare your own food.
Participate in food production to the extent that you can--raise herbs
in a window pot if that's what you can do. Learn the origins of the food
you buy, and buy food produced close to your home. Learn what is
involved in the best farming and gardening. Learn as much as you can, by
direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of
food species. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy
and technology of industrial food production.

The imperative, you see, is to learn. Of course: This is wisdom
literature.

We are accustomed to our wisdom about nature coming from people who
write about wilderness. We don't think of farmland as nature, or of the
farming life as offering us much in the way of opportunity to accrue and
exercise wisdom. As this volume shows, on both counts we are sadly
mistaken.

Late in her life, Lorine Niedecker collected several dozen of her poems
in handmade books that she gave to three friends. One poem common to all
three books is "Who Was Mary Shelley?," a Gothic ballad in which the
author of Frankenstein dwells not in possibility but anonymity.
"What was her name/before she married?" Niedecker wonders. What was she thinking
when she "Created the monster nights/after Byron, Shelley/talked the
candle down."

When Niedecker died in 1970 at the age of 67, her work was shrouded in
mystery as well. During the half-century she spent writing poems,
Niedecker published in the best little magazines and earned the praise
of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky.
Nevertheless, opinion of her poetry remained dominated by hearsay and
caricature. The view of George Oppen, who had met Niedecker just once,
during her stay with Zukofsky in Manhattan in 1933, is typical.
Niedecker was "a tiny little person, very, very near sighted always,"
Oppen told a friend in 1963, adding that she "was too timid to face
almost any job. She took a job scrubbing floors in a hospital near the
run-down farm she inherited, and is still living in that crumbling farm
house and scrubbing floors. Someone in Scotland printed a tiny little
book of her poems, which are little barely audible poems, not without
loveliness." In a similar vein, the Jargon Society published Epitaphs
for Lorine
in 1973, and several contributors memorialized Niedecker
with the diminutive "poetess."

The portrait of Niedecker as the Grandma Moses of American verse can't
be attributed entirely to the provincialism or paternalism of the
avant-garde poetry world. When Oppen wrote to his friend, Niedecker had
just two books in print (the second being a redaction of the first), and
both books contained, well, poems rarely longer than four lines. But
Niedecker didn't write just "little" poems, and access to the rest of
her oeuvre improved in 1985 with the publication of Cid Corman's
The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker and
Robert Bertholf's From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of
Lorine Niedecker
. The problem was that Corman and Bertholf presented
contrasting Niedeckers. Corman's text contains less than half of
Niedecker's poetry, and it emphasizes her lyrics about nature and
domestic life on Black Hawk Island in south-central Wisconsin, her home
for all but a few years of her life. Bertholf's volume includes those
lyrics plus Niedecker's poems about history and politics, but it teems
with textual errors (misattributions, mistranscriptions), and so its
emphasis on the Niedecker who probed the world beyond Black Hawk Island
is useless.

"Isn't it glorious? Let's trim green thought in one place and let it
grow wild in another," says a character in "The Evening's Automobiles,"
one of two short stories that Niedecker wrote in the 1950s. Jenny
Penberthy has let Niedecker's green thought run wild by restoring poems
that either went unpublished in books or periodicals during Niedecker's
lifetime or were trimmed from or mangled in posthumous editions.
Collected Works includes Niedecker's two published collections,
New Goose (1946) and North Central (1968); three complete
unpublished manuscripts, "New Goose" (a collection of twenty-nine poems
in the same style as the forty-one poems in New Goose), "For Paul
and Other Poems" and "Harpsichord & Salt Fish"; the gift-book poems;
uncollected poems, both published and unpublished; and published and
unpublished fiction and radio plays. Though one regrets the exclusion of
essays Niedecker wrote on Zukofsky and Corman, the range of forms and
ideas is still electrifying. Not since the appearance of the facsimile
version of The Waste Land in 1971, which clearly established how
T.S. Eliot's poem had been transformed by Ezra Pound's editing, has a
new edition of an American poet's work shattered the prevailing sense of
that writer's art. Niedecker may have lived in a marshy backwater, but
thanks to Penberthy's meticulously edited volume she can no longer be
treated as an unintellectual pastoral miniaturist. Isn't it glorious?

"The old words have reached the age of retirement. Let us pension them
off! We need a twentieth-century dictionary!" This is Eugene Jolas,
writing in the pages of transition in 1932. With contributors
like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Jolas's transition crackled
with Surrealist-tinged linguistic experiment. It was also one of several
little magazines that Niedecker read faithfully in the early 1930s. The
standard story of Niedecker's career is that she became a disciple of
Zukofsky after reading the Objectivist issue of Poetry he edited
in 1931. Collected Works opens with several dozen poems from the
early 1930s--all previously unpublished in book form--and they reveal
Niedecker's preoccupation with a surrealism at odds with Zukofsky's
focus on the affectless object. Typical is the beginning of "Synamism":
"Berceuse, mediphala/and the continent. German and therefore
unidentified./Cricket night, seismograph and stitch. All tongues backed/by a
difference." Absent from Niedecker's early poems are Surrealism's heroic
sadism and insane hallucinations. Instead, she prefers a surrealism of
language, a poetry that takes root in neologisms and portmanteau words
and swirls into an aural collage of illogical but syntactically sound
phrases. "Close the door and come to the crack quickly./To jesticulate
in the rainacular or novembrood//in the sunconscious...as though there
were fs/and no ings, freighter of geese without wings," she writes in
"Progression." By mixing the abstract and discursive, Niedecker sought
to create a poetry capable of evoking different levels of thought and
feeling. She sought the "rainacular," a nonsense not without sense
because it records its own kind of testimony--a fluid vernacular, lived
speech.

In the late 1930s, Niedecker recalibrated her explorations of language's
subliminal texture. She started to use idiomatic phrases, casting them
into the hey-diddle-diddle artifice of Mother Goose: "She had
tumult of the brain/and I had rats in the rain/and she and I and the
furlined man/were out for gain." Though not hermetic, Niedecker's "New Goose" poems still create an aura of deceptive lucidity, due in part to the
unwavering march of their trochaic rhythms. In poem after poem the
ephemeral suddenly turns serious, but one isn't exactly sure why.
"Scuttle up the workshop,/settle down the dew,/I'll tell you what my
name is/when we've made the world new." Niedecker had tapped the cryptic
sounds of Mother Goose, but she wasn't writing bedtime verses. In
the late 1930s, she was employed by the Federal Writer's Project,
working as a research editor on Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger
State
. In New Goose and its many corollary poems, Niedecker
extends the study of local speech and lore she had undertaken for the
guide:

What a woman!--hooks men like rugs,
clips as she hooks, prefers old wool, but all
childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men
her prey. She covets the gold in her husband's teeth.
She'd sell dirt, she'd sell your eyes
fried in deep grief.

Many of the New Goose poems are ballads that distill a specific
local incident to its pungent emotional essence. Together they tell the
history of an old, weird Wisconsin, a place of desire and Depression,
betrayals and bombs, politics and privations. What's remarkable about
New Goose is Niedecker's ability to blend a surreal aesthetic
with a documentary impulse without diluting local character or dulling
her sometimes caustic attitude toward it. Had Niedecker used a camera
instead of a typewriter to make her art, her photographs would have
resembled the early work of Walker Evans. Like Evans, Niedecker conveys
the abstract textures of everyday life without reducing everyday life to
an abstraction. "There's a better shine/on the pendulum/than is on my
hair/and many times//I've seen it there." New Goose is
Niedecker's rainacular.

Several years before New Goose appeared, in 1946, Niedecker began
a job as a proofreader for a local trade journal, Hoard's
Dairyman
. Deteriorating eyesight forced her to quit Hoard's
in 1950. Seven years later, amid financial difficulties, she started a
job as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Hospital. (Niedecker's poor
eyesight and floor scrubbing are the two facts Oppen got right in his
letter to his friend.) Until she retired from the hospital in 1963, when
she married Al Millen, Niedecker had little time for writing poetry, or
at least for further refining the variety of forms and styles of "For
Paul and Other Poems," which she composed in the early 1950s. Addressed
to Zukofsky's son, "For Paul" includes persona poems, ballads, quasi
epigrams and blues songs. They are written in brisk free verse or
stanzas bristling with riddling rhymes and range in length from four to
204 lines. Niedecker developed a new style during her six years at the
hospital: a concentrated five-line stanza in which lines of one to six
syllables are organized more by sonic stresses than syntax. The role of
sound as the poem's organizing force is intensified by ellipsis, with
verbs and transitions being the most frequently omitted words.

The virtues of such compression are apparent in one of Niedecker's most
remarkable poems, "Lake Superior," which she wrote following a road trip
through Wisconsin, Canada and Minnesota that she and Millen made in
1966. "Rock creates the only human landscape," W.H. Auden told a friend
in 1948 while he was writing "In Praise of Limestone." Auden was
speaking figuratively, for in his poem he uses the limestone terrain of
the Italian island of Ischia as an allegory of the human body. Some of
the oldest rock in North America is exposed around Lake Superior. That
azoic rock is the core of Niedecker's poem, and her approach to it isn't
allegorical.

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock

Niedecker sustains this taught, unpunctuated equilibrium through the
next six sections, as she considers the fate of several explorers who
have preceded her. Among them is the fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson,
who in the mid-seventeenth century became the first European to traverse
the lake. "Radisson:/'a laborinth of pleasure'/this world of the Lake,"
Niedecker writes, "Long hair, long gun//Fingernails pulled out/by
Mohawks." Niedecker's estimation of the cost of wonder--for humans and
the landscape--is interrupted in the eighth section of the poem by an
eruption of sensuality.

Ruby of corundum
lapis lazuli
from changing limestone
glow-apricot red-brown
carnelian sard

Greek named
Exodus-antique
kicked up in America's
Northwest
you have been in my mind
between my toes
agate

Instead of possessing the landscape's mineral wealth, Niedecker is
mesmerized and possessed by it. But that wealth is linguistic too, for
Niedecker's description vividly echoes her early Surrealist poems.
"Corundum" is a mineral that crystallizes into ruby and sapphire, but it
might very well be a corruption of "conundrum." "Sard" is a type of
quartz but could also be a fusion of "snarl" and "bard." It's as though
the rainacular had percolated through fissures in Superior's limestone.
"The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and
language," Niedecker remarks in her notes from the 1966 trip, and in her
poem she portrays Superior as a Precambrian compost pile, a place where
words and things are pulverized and transformed, where North American
rocks acquire Greek names, where "Sault Sainte Marie" becomes "the Soo."

In the poem's penultimate section Niedecker synthesizes these issues.

The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
         the leaf beside it
once was stone

Why should we hurry
           Home

These lines, and their uncharacteristic surfeit of verbs, would be
unsettling if they opened the poem, but coming at the end, after
Niedecker's geological meditations, they are soothing. Niedecker has
found a home, in both an eschatological and epistemological sense. The
stone may preordain her end, but it also is the product of a profound
creative pressure, which "Lake Superior" answers in kind. Niedecker
acknowledges the stony transformation that awaits her and her reciprocal
desire to compress and recompose that fact ever so briefly into the
sensuous, fleeting order of her poem.

"Lake Superior," like much of Niedecker's late poetry, expresses a
fundamental Modernist idea: All ages are somehow contemporaneous. "'The
ancient present. In me the years are flowing together,'" as the narrator
of "The Evening's Automobiles" explains. Niedecker, however, never
overlayed her lyrical historicism with an epic mythology. She drew a map
of the world but never pretended that it was anything other than her
own. Consequently, despite the riches of its localism, "Lake Superior"
is unlike, say, Williams's Paterson because it does not seek to
be a perfect, absolutely metaphorical America.

This is most clear in "Darwin," Niedecker's final poem. Her Darwin is
neither the avid reader of Shakespeare nor the eccentric who played the
trombone to his French beans. He has the intellectual bearing of the
Darwin in Auden's 1940 "New Year Letter," who "brought/Man's pride to
heel at last and showed/His kinship with the worm and toad." But unlike
Auden, Niedecker doesn't portray Darwin as a dark angel of intellectual
cataclysm. Instead, her Darwin suffers doubts and frustrations as he
struggles to reconcile his understanding of the animal appetite for
survival with the precarious pleasures of human intelligence. The
struggle consumes him even on his sickbed. Stricken by a fever in the
Andes, he writes to his wife, "'Dear Susan.../I am ravenous/for the
sound/of the pianoforte.'"

In fact, the person whom Darwin most resembles is the Niedecker of "Lake
Superior," the poet mesmerized by the geological remnants of lava,
glacier and sea. The naturalist's and poet's temperaments are blended
through the very form of "Darwin"--a collage of elliptical quotes from
Darwin's writings that gain the tincture of Niedecker's voice as they
are recast into stepped four-line stanzas. Just as when Niedecker
catalogues Superior's minerals in a melodious trance, Darwin's senses
open his mind to matters beyond his mastery.

I remember, he said
         those tropical nights at sea--
                     we sat and talked
   on the booms

Tierra del Fuego's
         shining glaciers translucent
                     blue clear down
   (almost) to the indigo sea

Darwin stands not against the world but within it, conscious of its
awesome mutability as well as of the need to understand that force on a
human scale so as not to be philosophically annihilated by it. (The
possibility of nuclear annihilation was on Niedecker's mind at the time
as well. In "Wintergreen Ridge," from 1968, she writes: "thin to nothing
lichens/grind with their acid//granite to sand/These may survive/the
grand blow-up/the bomb.") Like Niedecker, Darwin realizes the world is
something he knows but can't control or own. Yet he still possesses an
idea, and it encompasses more than the fact of his kinship with the worm
and toad:

the universe
not built by brute force
         but designed by laws
The details left

to the working of chance
   "Let each man hope
        and believe
   what he can"

"Darwin" is a defense of the individual task of imagination and
understanding, and Collected Works allows one to appreciate how
passionately and carefully Niedecker took up that task. Like Darwin,
Niedecker felt at home even when she was away from home, her subtle and
sensuous words disclosing her belief that the actual earth is often
fantastic enough.

Blogs

How the cowardice of Viking Penguin kept the author’s In The Spirit of Crazy Horse out of print for seven years

April 7, 2014

Thomas Piketty’s ambitious, lucid Capital in the Twenty-First Century explains the depth and scope of our inequality problem.

March 14, 2014

The four-term congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District is boldly following in the footsteps of Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale and Wellstone.

March 10, 2014

The quivering throngs of teen-aged girls, The Nation’s reviewer wrote, said much more about the susceptibility of Americans to fashionable trends than it did about the talent or novelty of the group itself.

March 8, 2014

The underlying philosophy of the National Front remains almost exactly the same as it was under Jean-Marie Le Pen.

March 1, 2014

A controversy stirs up over John Judis's ‘Genesis’.

February 27, 2014

Penguin’s withdrawing and pulping The Hindus: An Alternative History is only the latest in a series of surrenders.

February 14, 2014

We published some of his earliest poems as well as his great 1964 essay on Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay.

January 11, 2014

Obama wants another decade of war in Afghanistan—but a new book says he’s already lost faith in the mission. 

January 7, 2014

An article in our pages in 1919 helped rescue the long-deceased scribe from obscurity and secured him a prominent place in the American canon.

January 4, 2014