Sen. Ted Kennedy has passed away at the age of 77. This 2002 Nation profile by the late Jack Newfield captures the essence of what this legend meant to the progressive movement.
Now that women have the vote, what will they do with it?
From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. In 1965, he wrote about the power of demonstrations and "legislation written in the streets."
Three of the most cheerful events in the past decade of American
publishing have happened within the preceding twelve months alone,
events which prove that despite the everywhere-decried effects of
corporations, chain bookstores and the Internet, literary publishing
remains, to some degree at least, about the books. In the first two
occurrences, at the trade publisher W.W. Norton and then at Henry Holt,
the same young editor--inspired by novelists Jonathan Franzen and
Stewart O'Nan--acquired and published several early novels of the
seminal American writer Paula Fox, followed closely by a collection of
short stories by Richard Yates, a writer with an enormous following
among contemporary American authors but who had fallen nearly entirely
out of print. Credit for the third happy event, this August, goes to
Norton again, for launching a republishing program of one of the
strangest and most fascinating writers of the twentieth century,
There's no downside to these three critically important, visionary
American writers being brought to new prominence. All had long, fruitful
careers, yet all failed, in the common wisdom, to find the audiences
they deserved. In the case of Yates and Highsmith, they never really got
into what Richard Ford calls "the permanent, big-money main arena of
American literary fashion" until after their deaths: Yates appeared in
The New Yorker for the first time only this year, and Highsmith
was brought into the limelight only by the Hollywood filming of The
Talented Mr. Ripley. Fox--who, in the first of two defining
differences from her peers in rediscovery, is alive and well and
publishing a memoir this autumn--also was published in The New
Yorker for the first time some thirty years after writing her first
novel, as well as being profiled in the New York Times Magazine,
among the other publicity attention that has recently found her.
Most interesting about the three closely linked rediscoveries, however,
is that each of these writers, in his or her way, concentrates nearly
exclusively on the darker side of human experience, particularly the
middle class, white experience, producing novel after novel of
relentless desperation and nearly unremitting sadness in characters who
lack few of the social or material means to be happy. Of the three--and
this is the second defining difference--Fox is the greatest artist,
exploring her difficult world with a perfected language, mordant humor
and transcendent literary insight that renders as art her portion of the
spectrum of human experience.
No such transcendence is to be found in either Yates or
Highsmith--although I may simply have missed it in Yates, having given
up after six or seven brilliant and brutalizing books, fearing that I
might find myself reaching for the Prozac or, like his characters, for
the bottle. In novel after novel, using unadorned language and an optic
uncolored by sentimentality, each sketches, establishes and explores
some of the most crushing emotions that humans can experience:
desolation, abandonment, hopelessness, addiction and pure brute loss.
They are, in this respect, Gothic novelists: novelists who have worked
with a very limited palette of human emotions, one that most notably
excludes joy or love, connection or harmony, completion or satisfaction,
differentiated from the classically defined Gothic by the fact that the
horrors they describe are not supernatural and exist largely in an
interior landscape, from which they haunt their characters' always
subjective and often liquored-up experience of reality. The characters'
condition, furthermore, most often surpasses any real tragedy that may
once have triggered it and has become, for these characters, a fact of
the human condition, one that will not be cured.
Yates is a literary writer, of course, and Highsmith, at least as
reflected by her many American publishers--ten or so in America, as
opposed to England, France and Germany, where one publisher in each
country supported her through her entire career--wrote "genre," although
that is a judgment that very few of her critics take seriously. The
classification rests largely on the fact that, early and often, people
tend to kill each other in Highsmith. But once one teases out the
ubiquitous murders and suicides, one sees that these are, in essence,
stories and novels with a great similarity to those of Yates, and fall
squarely within what could be called the literature of endogenous
depression. "Ralph took a quick, deep breath. He could have collapsed
with defeat, with unhappiness, and yet at the same time an insane energy
boiled within him." "Life was nothing but trying for something, followed
by disappointment, and people kept on moving, doing what they had to do,
serving--what? And whom?" This Gothic sensibility, this unremitting
sadness that Highsmith shares with Yates, is the more useful grounds for
classification of her notoriously unclassifiable writing, which is
shelved unpredictably in literature and mystery sections of bookstores.
More than anything else, Highsmith's lifework chronicles and explores
the fundamental mechanics of unhappiness, both emotional and ethical, in
which live her dissatisfied and unfulfilled characters.
Highsmith herself, born in Texas, lived in self-imposed exile. Her
largest audience by far was in Europe, and when she died six years ago
in Switzerland at 74, one of her bequests was of $3 million to the Yaddo
writers colony--European money, one presumes, given her own recounting
of being dropped by editors all over New York based on sales figures.
Her strange career was launched with one of the most accomplished books
she would write, Strangers on a Train, with which Hitchcock
brought her to immediate fame through his classic film of the same name.
She was no sooner launched, however, than she declared her independence
from commercial considerations: Her second book was a pseudonymous entry
into the period genre of the lesbian novel, with the difference that her
housewife, liberated from a stultifying and conformist marriage, defies
the moralizing rules of the genre and ends up happy.
There followed some two dozen novels and collections: stories of
miserable, dangerous and bizarre events in the most normal of settings.
Characters lose their lives to their fantasies, are blackmailed, commit
murders, become fundamentalists. Middle-class men find themselves
peering through women's windows, dogs are kidnapped, an architect is
jailed when a building he designed, through no fault of his own, falls
down on a group of children. Central among the novels is the celebrated
Ripley series, a subtle exploration of the life of a young American of
uncertain sexuality who escapes the bigotry of New York in the foxed
fifties for the comparative freedom of postwar Europe. Once there, he
proceeds to conduct a career of outward bourgeois normalcy supported by
a secret life of fraud, forgery and the constant willingness to kill.
In person, she was no less unexpected than her books. She was a kind,
soft-spoken woman who adored animals and expressed consistent commitment
to a broad range of liberal principles--one of her books is dedicated to
the fighters in the first Palestinian intifada, of the late 1980s--and
admired Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Margaret Atwood and Iris
Murdoch. And yet, in an hourlong conversation I had with her in 1992, on
tape, she made pejorative comparisons between the inferior Swiss
children and, in America, Mexicans and "Negroes"; informed me that four
times as many "Slavs" were killed in the Holocaust as Jews and that it
is wrong therefore, to say that Auschwitz "was Jewish only" just because
"somebody whose grandmother" was killed there says so; and delivered
herself of the opinion that we should pay more attention to the fact
that "Afro-Americans" had pushed other "Afro-Americans" onto the slave
ships, although, she advised, I'd best not say so because I'd get
Unlike her conversation, however, in her work she never indulged in
bigotry or even small-mindedness and never laid blame. To the contrary,
the narrative sensibility with which she explored her vast fictional
universe was one of sensitivity and empathy not for the righteous--it is
the righteous, in Highsmith's universe, who suffer--but for the guilty,
who very, very often get away. And each time they do so, each time they
return to the world of the normal, which is unable, or unwilling, to
punish them, the line between them and us becomes a little bit more
The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith makes it possible to
experience virtually the entire range of which Highsmith was capable, an
experience of real emotional horror. And yet, to a degree of which
Yates, ultimately, was incapable, it is a horror that means something, a
horror that accuses the human condition of gross inhumanity and condemns
its victims for the cowardice--emotional, ethical and political--of
collaborating in their own misery.
Highsmith, the English journalist Lucretia Stewart has pointed out,
reserved some of her deepest compassion for animals, and it is in the
group of stories that opens this large collection that Highsmith's
strangeness, and daring, first becomes apparent. Selected stories from
The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder all take up the improbable
challenge of presenting animal owners from their pets' point of view. As
one reads one sees that "beastly" is not, as is first assumed, used in
the most common adjectival sense to modify the noun "murder," but is
also murder literally carried out by beasts. Those are, in fact,
anything but beastly. They are calm, logical and richly deserved.
Chorus Girl, for example, is a long-lived circus elephant who has
outlasted her original, much-loved trainer. The new one, Cliff, is not
exactly abusive but acts with the quotidian cruelty of humans to
animals, beating the beast to train her. "I gave Cliff a kick, hardly
more than a prod, with my left foot. I caught him in the side, and I
heard a cracking sound like the breaking of tree branches. After that
Cliff did not move again." Djemal is a mistreated camel in an Arab
country, who, when his master turns his back, finds himself with the
opportunity to attack. "Djemal bore down and seized Mahmet's djellaba
and part of his spine in his teeth. Mahmet fell, and Djemal stomped him,
stomped him again on the head." The Baron, a small dog
left--apparently--to his master's partner, Bubsy, after his master's
death, is able to chew Bubsy's nebulizer tube out while Bubsy is
suffering an asthma attack.
Each of the stories succeeds in large part because of the purity of the
voice and the perfection of motivation that Highsmith invents for the
animals. The animals are the perfect murderers, killing with neither
malice nor, really, violence, in that their use of their physicality is
instinctual and they are, after all, only protecting themselves. They
are by nature cold: They don't love, nor do they really hate, and our
sense that they do is anthropomorphic. Nor can they be punished for
their murders, for which they have no legal liability--they can be put
down, as is Chorus Girl after killing her trainer, or attacked, like the
murderous overpopulation of Hamsters in "Hamsters vs. Websters." But
they are not really guilty in any conventional sense, because guilt is a
And it is this inability to experience guilt that, equally, so
fascinated Highsmith in her characters. Throughout this
volume--throughout her work--characters again and again find themselves
existing with the most appalling guilt, and yet are unable to experience
it, as when Roland's ferret Harry kills an old man and Roland finds
himself hiding the man's body. "Roland...realized that he didn't dare
think too much about what Harry had done.... Or--if Roland ever thought
of Harry as a murderer, he put it in the same realm of fantasy as the
murders in the books he read, real yet not real. It was not true that he
was guilty, or Harry either."
But Roland, despite his denial--"it was not true"--is guilty: He
literally used his wild ferret as a weapon to carry out his murder, he
hid the body and he did it all on purpose. And yet, like the animals, he
escapes both emotional guilt and legal responsibility. Again and again,
throughout these stories, characters kill with impunity. A businessman,
retired to a farm in Maine to recover from stress, finds himself feuding
with his neighbor; he shoots one of the neighbor's dogs, then takes to
spending "a lot of time up in his bedroom, binoculars and loaded rifle
at hand, in case anything else belonging to Frosby showed itself on his
land." He makes no judgment, never even remarks on the singularity of
how he has come to be spending his time: It simply is what he's doing.
With equal ease, he puts the neighbor, then himself, to death. The
father of a child with Down's syndrome expresses his frustration by
brutally murdering a passer-by. Thereafter the murder inhabits his
memory as an empowering incident, proving that he is not as helpless
before fate as his son makes him feel. A highlight of the collection is
"Something the Cat Dragged In," a story about an English country party
where the household cat brings in a pair of human fingers. "The two
fingers were dead white and puffy, there was not a sign of blood even at
the base of the fingers, which included a couple of inches of what had
been the hand. What made the object undeniably the third and fourth
fingers of a human hand were the two nails, yellowish and short and
looking small because of the swollen flesh." When the victim is
identified and his murderer found, the friends agree to bury their
secret. No judgment is required. In this artist's work, there are crimes
but little punishment.
If there are murders throughout these stories there are also suicides,
that particular form of murder where the victim and perpetrator are one.
A young actor faced with the death of his mentor attempts suicide.
"Simon rubbed his palms together, breathed deeply, and felt himself
smiling. He was happy, in a quiet and important way." A businessman
faced with exposure of murder calmly puts a gun barrel to his mouth. A
widow returns from helping a neighbor: "Somehow she knew she was going
to die that night. It was a calm and destined sensation. She might have
died, she thought, if she had merely gone to bed and fallen asleep. But
she wished to make sure of it, so she took a single-edged razor blade
from her shelf of paints in the kitchen closet--the blade was rusty and
dull, but no matter--and cut her two wrists at the bathroom basin." A
French woman, disappointed in her quest to befriend her favorite English
novelist, steps into traffic. "Odile had wanted to injure herself,
perhaps kill herself, though she had realized this only a few seconds
before she leapt into the taxi's path."
Like the guiltless and unpunished murders, suicide is an action that
exists wholly apart from everything else in the character's life, a
psychic event with its own volition entirely, available to the happy and
miserable alike. Highsmith's characters don't mourn death, they erase
it; they don't repress bad memories, they expunge them completely; and
when they do express the profound miseries that motivate them, they do
so in ways that mean nothing to them--through murders they don't
understand, acts of cruelty that seem unmotivated (precisely, in fact,
like the animals of the beastly murders).
In this placid coexistence of guilt, self-destruction and the
everydayness of consciousness hides the key to Highsmith's deep
strangeness: Her characters are, nearly to a one, psychotic rather than,
as is more familiar to readers, neurotic. Their guilt exists within
their psyches with complete self-containment, allowing for none of the
familiar "acting out" we're used to. There can be none: In
psychosis--for example, in multiple personality disorder--the mind is
perfectly divided, with the more normal portion of awareness having no
access whatever to the pathological, none of the little hints and signs,
interpretable dreams, recurrent guilts or other mental mechanics of
neurosis. "It was as if she had an unsolvable mystery within her.... She
didn't ever dream about the murder...in fact, she often thought it might
be better if she did dream about it."
Highsmith was a relentless opponent of aestheticized "style" in her
writing, and although she was capable of great lyricism, she employed it
very rarely. The result is a prose style that absorbs none of the shock
of what it describes, a diction that refuses to relegate horror to a
genre--noir, horror, mystery--where it would be, at least to some
degree, detoxified. Her universe only occasionally ventures out of the
determinedly middle class; her characters--engineers, bankers, writers,
academics, accountants--only occasionally are found outside a rigorously
defined normalcy, rendered all the more strange by her European exile,
which left them all, in speech and attitudes, stuck in the past.
That makes it tempting to think that Highsmith's underlying artistic
agenda is to uncover the horror of the normal. She does do that, but
what she's really after--and she goes after it in virtually every single
one of her books--is the normality of horror. What Highsmith wants to
tell us is that it's not the horrible violence we share with animals but
our ambivalent guilt, which is unique to us, that is truly strange. And
what she wants to tell us is that our denial--not mere repression but
outright denial--of the horror implicit in being human is universal.
Why, then, has Highsmith always been such a marginal figure in American
literature? The problem--and it's a huge one--Highsmith poses to her
critics and publishers is the unflinching harshness of her Gothic
palette, her restriction to such a limited and depressing range of human
experience. Because, as the Colombian novelist Santiago Gamboa puts it,
a novel is not part of our bibliography but rather our biography: A good
novel becomes nothing less than part of our experience of life's
possibilities. We may not individually have been fugitive female
anti-Vietnam War activists. Marge Piercy, however, supplies that portion
of life's possibility for us. We may not have been Palestinians angrily
confronting Israeli border guards, nor indeed Israeli soldiers
ambivalently policing Palestinians. Amy Wilentz insures that careful
readers know quite exactly what it is to be both. It is this act of
identification with an impossible other and their experience that makes
writing and reading, in the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II's
view, fundamentally subversive acts--no one who has been Anne Frank, he
points out, can be a Nazi.
When, therefore, a writer creates a universe too restricted in the
possibilities of human experience, a universe that concentrates too
deeply on the sad, there seems some bad faith about it, as if the writer
is misleading us in our growing conception of the world. To read
Highsmith without a sense of the ethical, even political, analysis of
guilt that winds through her whole life's work is, I think, to relegate
her to marginality, and this is in general what, in America, we have
done with her. We have, in a way, denied her insight--her painful and
complicated insight into guilt and denial--much as her characters deny
their guilt. That leaves her, so to speak, denied in the unconscious of
our literature much like guilt is denied in her characters: always
present, never cured, never acknowledged and never understood. Perhaps
that's not such a bad legacy. Perhaps that's what makes her work, as the
literary bull and commercial bear markets come and go, classic,
returning again and again in new movies, new reprints, new articles: a
body of writing that is joyless, plain, troubling and beautiful.
The immediate causes of the civil unrest in Cincinnati this past spring
are clear enough: White cops had been abusing and killing black
civilians. But why such police racism; was it too few officers of color,
a weak civilian review process, racist media?
Or was it genetic? Is racist terror embedded in the political DNA of
American policing? After all, the basic patterns of harassment that
triggered the mayhem in Cincinnati are some of the oldest and most
consistent in US history. Typically the story of policing starts with
the village-watch systems of the colonial Northeast, then moves to the
formation of the first municipal constabularies in New York, Boston and
But the real origins of today's "Five-O," "Rollers" or "Po-Po" lie with
the slave patrols of the Old South. By the time of the Civil War, every
county of the South deployed patrollers--or "pattie rollers" as
African-Americans sometimes called them. These protocops, ubiquitous
posses of armed white men, were the frontline defense against slave
rebellions. They worked only at night, riding from plantation to
plantation, stopping black people, searching their homes for contraband
and whipping any slave caught traveling without a written pass.
As the immediate agents of a white supremacist state, slave patrols
imbricated violence and racism into everyday life. They were crucial to
the reproduction of slave society and slave labor power, and served as
ideological invigilators in the construction of a paranoid and
hate-fueled caste system that persists to this day. The patrols were
central to southern society, but only now do we get the first
book-length examination of this antebellum gendarmerie. Prior to Sally
Hadden's Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the
Carolinas there were only a few short monographs from the turn of
the century (which Hadden addresses) and a few chapters in a lost and
barely read book, Police and the Black Community, by Robert
Wintersmith (which, surprisingly, Hadden does not address).
Along with the obviously racist dynamics of modern policing, patrollers
left us some specific concepts, like the police "beat." Pattie rollers
had "beats"--defined areas of operation--and worked in small mounted
groups called "beat companies." While the patrollers' main task was
controlling African-Americans, this also required the control of whites.
In many Southern counties all white men were forced to serve in the
patrols, and in some counties all white men were required by law to stop
and check the passes of any black people they met on the road at any
time. This was nothing short of state enforced racism.
A fairly straightforward history, Slave Patrols begins with a
look at the policing of slaves on Barbados, where the very first patrols
were established in response to an aborted slave revolt in 1649. After
that many Caribbean planters decamped to the Carolinas, bringing with
them slaves and the political technology of slavery: curfews, passes,
patrols and militias. Fundamentally, the patrols were a premodern system
of surveillance and policing designed to restrict slave mobility--a
crucial source of African-American social power.
Along with maintaining familial and romantic ties, black mobility
produced a vast network of interpersonal connections--the circuitry of
resistance--through which flowed news, plans, supplies, weapons and
people. Mobility was also crucial to the sub rosa economy, of nighttime
reexpropriations from the master's stores, fencing pilfered goods,
trading produce for liquor with poor whites and practicing traditional
medicine. And restricting mobility limited slave contact with Native
Americans and the fugitive slaves who (at least in the colonial era)
lived as social bandits on the edge of the plantation world. Containing
and limiting this informal resistance and its enabling underground
milieu helped prevent formal organized resistance like escapes and armed
By 1680 Virginia had also instituted patrols and required both slaves
and white indentured servants to carry passes when traveling, and over
the next century the whole South became increasingly militarized.
Hadden's account of this buildup shows a cyclical escalation in which
slave revolts or plots led to white panic, ramped-up vigilance and a
reinvigoration of patrols. Heightened security was usually followed by
increased calm, declining vigilance and then more resistance.
The trend toward ever more organized control in the South accelerated
after the Revolutionary War (during which more than 3,000 escaped slaves
fought for the loyalist Lord Dunmore, who offered freedom in exchange
for armed service). In 1777 Vermont had abolished slavery; Pennsylvania
followed three years later. From then on the "peculiar institution" came
under increased attack, as European powers outlawed the slave trade and
more "free soil" and abolitionism emerged in the North. By the early
antebellum period, the patrol system had fully evolved throughout Dixie.
A typical night on patrol involved three to six armed white men on
horseback riding the country roads in search of black people, stopping
at farms and plantations where they were authorized, regardless of the
property holder's wishes, to search slave quarters for visitors,
escapees or contraband like weapons, liquor, books and excessive
provisions that might indicate plans to flee. Violation of local
regulations led to on-the- spot whippings.
In some jurisdictions patrollers were paid from local taxes; in others
they were paid with bounties for catching "truant" or runaway
bondspeople. More often, the patrols were a form of corv?e labor, forced
upon the whole white male population by the society's more affluent
Before Hadden's book, numerous histories of slavery and black resistance
made passing mention of patrols, usually casting them as gangs of poor
whites, motivated as much by their own pathology as by legal structures.
This fits comfortably with America's official mock-up of the proverbial
racist: a blinkered, lowbrow hick. But Hadden takes that myth apart. For
example, in Norfolk County, Virginia, where in 1750 half the white
population owned no slaves, the bulk of patrollers were men of the solid
middle. Plantation plutocrats with twenty or more slaves frequently
bought their way out of service while poor whites tended to do as little
patrolling as possible. So, the bulk of patrollers were small-town
burghers like doctors, lawyers, printers and merchants, or they were
prosperous working farmers owning between one and five slaves. It is no
coincidence that this same class later formed the base of the Ku Klux
Klan during its first incarnation just after the Civil War, and even
more so during its infamous second rise just after World War I and into
Hadden's history is very well researched and her writing is smooth, but
the book's most interesting political ideas remain only half-exhumed.
One wants more discussion of the patrols' cultural impact: They policed
"blackness" and the color line, but they helped construct the meaning of
"whiteness" as violently anti-black. In fact, some patrols were
instructed to attack whites who strayed across the color line: One North
Carolina law instructed patrollers to whip any "loose, disorderly or
suspected person" found in the company of slaves regardless of the
person's color. Unfortunately, Hadden does not thoroughly explore this
nexus of violence, the law, race and identity. What the book does offer
is a very detailed accounting of who patrolled, how, when, where and
under what sort of legal guidance. Embedded within Slave Patrols
is the theme of surveillance. The patrols were technologies of
observation and intimidation, while the attendant system of slave passes
and wanted posters were embryonic forms of identification.
Picking up this history of surveillance and social control, from a
different angle, is Simon Cole's Suspect Identities: A History of
Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Cole's book is a
microlevel history of what Foucault called "capillary" forms of power.
In particular, Cole focuses on the state's evolving methods of
identifying deviants. He begins with the history of criminal
identification and judiciary record keeping in the Napoleonic courts and
jails around 1808, where convicts were simply listed alphabetically, a
system that provided no means to combat false identities. The 1839
invention of photography began to change all that. Starting in the
mid-1850s, once daguerreotypes were widely available, police in Europe
and America began creating "rogues' galleries" and photo albums
featuring known "criminals" and "degenerates." The NYPD, ever
innovative, led the way. By 1858 they had 450 "Ambrotype" photos on
file. Meanwhile, fingerprint identification was just beginning as an
administrative tool in colonial India.
William Herschel, chief administrator of the Hooghly district of Bengal,
first started experimenting with handprints on documents to verify the
identity of contractors and pensioners (he probably gleaned this
technique from similar ancient Hindu practices). His desire for greater
control over the local population was fueled in part by the massive
Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-8 and the resistance, chaos and widespread fraud
that followed in its wake. Herschel's prints helped create "real"
identities and thus shored up the power of colonial ledgers and files.
As in Hadden's story, we see the double helix of resistance and
repression developing together.
Along with Herschel, several other gentlemen were also "discovering"
fingerprints: Francis Galton, the father of eugenics and a cousin of
Darwin's, started studying fingerprints as part of his work on heredity
and race (he never did link print patterns to either), while Henry
Faulds, a physician working in Japan, first suggested using fingerprints
to identify criminals in an 1880 letter to the journal Nature.
Eventually, experts were able to divide all prints according to "loops,"
"whorls" and "arches." This allowed for simple storage and retrieval.
But "dactyloscopy"--as print reading was known--wouldn't become a
standard law enforcement tool for almost a generation more.
The height of criminological sciences in the late nineteenth century was
"Bertillonage," a complicated, and in retrospect rather silly, system of
body measurements developed in France by Alphonse Bertillon, son of one
of anthropology's founders. By the 1880s Bertillonage had proliferated
throughout the industrialized world, though the system's extremely
precise procedures and set of eleven bodily measurements were frequently
modified (or mangled) by local police departments and thus rendered
useless when exchanged between agencies. To simplify things,
fingerprints--infinitely unique and unalterable--got folded into the
Bertillon system as a convenience.
Police in India were the first to start fingerprinting, in 1897. By 1901
Scotland Yard had incorporated a form of fingerprinting into its
Bertillon system, and in 1906 the New York Police Department did the
same. From there, the technique soon eclipsed Bertillonage. By the early
1920s photos and prints made up the fundamentals of criminal
identification, and Bertillon had been almost completely discarded. Much
of Cole's book concerns itself with the ensuing techno-bureaucratic
intrigues and battles among a myriad of different print classification
systems and their proponents. These dry and politically pointless
sections would have been better left behind.
Interestingly, fingerprinting was always tied up with racism, but never
quite as racists hoped. For decades, eugenicists searched for racial
patterns within prints; what they found was a total lack of any such
distinctions. But following the lead of Herschel in India, white
administrators and police who "saw" Asians, Africans and Native
Americans as bafflingly homogeneous in appearance fell back on the
infinite uniqueness of fingerprints to control the poor, the deviant and
the subjugated. And throughout the development of modern identification,
people of color have often been the first targeted.
But what does all this mean? Cole, like Hadden, offers massive amounts
of research; but like Hadden, he is less than robust in his political
analysis. Suspect Identities is just a bit too straight. For
example, Cole briefly mentions ruling-class fears of international
anarchism during the 1890s as spurring on increased international
cooperation among big-city police departments and creation of effective
technologies of identification, but doesn't dig deep enough. The fact
is, fighting anarchists, reds and labor organizers played a very
important part in developing modern forms of identification and police
power. Likewise, the control and surveillance of immigrants and people
of color have always been tied up with the exploitation of their labor.
This larger political-economic context plays too small a role in Cole's
overly technical narrative. The result is something of a neutered
history that leaves readers feeling as if they are on a hunting trip,
only to discover that the gun is loaded with blanks.
To his credit, Cole is very clear and compelling about the implicit
racism associated with "biometrics." His last chapter brings the story
of fingerprinting full circle with an examination of DNA
identification's rapid spread. Like prints almost a century ago, DNA is
seen as unlocking biological truth, and in so doing it is reinvigorating
both the popularity of biological explanations for behavior and an
updated form of eugenics. Political complaints aside, both of these
books are empirically robust ventures into important, largely uncharted,
The creation of the atom bomb is the greatest revolution ever accomplished in science--and unquestionably the most frightening.
With negotiations between the Writers Guild and some of Hollywood's major film studios and TV networks at an impasse as the May 1 deadline nears, putting the panic of a strike in the usually gilded air, we're reminded of the often uneasy relationships between writers and the film industry--which Raymond Chandler amply described in writings outside his famous novels. The following are portions excerpted from The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction, 1909-1959, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane and published in April by Atlantic Monthly Press.
Letter to Erle Stanley Gardner, January 29, 1946. Chandler was working steadily on a fifth Marlowe novel. The cheap editions of all four earlier Marlowes were now selling in the hundreds of thousands, and Newsweek had reported in 1945 that "Chandlerism, a select cult a year ago, is about to engulf the nation."
Most of what you write is a complete surprise to me--including the idea that you are a lousy writer.... As I speak I have two solid rows of Gardners in front of me, and am still trying to shop around to complete the collection. I probably know as much about the essential qualities of good writing as anybody now discussing it. I do not discuss these things professionally for the simple reason that I do not consider it worthwhile. I am not interested in pleasing the intellectuals by writing literary criticism, because literary criticism as an art has in these days too narrow a scope and too limited a public, just as has poetry. I do not believe it is a writer's function to talk to a dead generation of leisured people who once had time to relish the niceties of critical thought. The critics of today are tired Bostonians like Van Wyck Brooks or smart-alecks like Fadiman or honest men confused by the futility of their job, like Edmund Wilson. The reading public is intellectually adolescent at best, and it is obvious that what is called "significant literature" will only be sold to this public by exactly the same methods as are used to sell it toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles. It is equally obvious that since this public has been taught to read by brute force it will, in between its bouts with the latest "significant" bestseller, want to read books that are fun and excitement. So like all half-educated publics in all ages it turns with relief to the man who tells a story and nothing else. To say that what this man writes is not literature is just like saying that a book can't be any good if it makes you want to read it. When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball. That is to me what you have more than anything else and more than anyone else. Dumas Père had it. Dickens, allowing for his Victorian muddle, had it; begging your pardon I don't think Edgar Wallace approached it. His stories died all along the line and had to be revived. Yours don't. Every page throws the hook for the next. I call this a kind of genius. I regard myself as a pretty exacting reader; detective stories as such don't mean a thing to me. But it must be obvious that if I have half a dozen unread books beside my chair and one of them is a Perry Mason, and I reach for the Perry Mason and let the others wait, that book must have a quality.
As to me, I am not busy and I am not successful in any important way. I don't get written what I want to write and I get balled up in what I write. I made a lot of money last year, but the government took half of it and expenses took half of the rest. I'm not poor, but neither am I in anything like your condition, or ever will be. My wife has been under the weather with the flu for ten days, but she wants to come down to your place as much as I do. I'm working at home because I refused to report to Paramount and took a suspension. They refused to tear up my contract. A writer has no real chance in pictures unless he is willing to become a producer, and that is too tough for me. The last picture I worked on was just one long row.
Letter to Alfred Knopf, January 12, 1946. Though Knopf was no longer Chandler's publisher, he and Chandler had buried the hatchet and were to remain in touch for the rest of Chandler's life. Knopf had written in response to reading Chandler's article in The Atlantic Monthly about screenwriting.
One of the troubles is that it seems quite impossible in Hollywood to convince anyone that a man would turn his back on a whopping salary--whopping by the standards of normal living--for any reason but a tactical manoeuvre through which he hopes to acquire a still more whopping salary. What I want is something quite different: a freedom from datelines and unnatural pressures, and a right to find and work with those few people in Hollywood whose purpose is to make the best pictures possible within the limitations of a popular art, not merely to repeat the old and vulgar formulae. And only a little of that.
The ethics of this industry may be judged by the fact that late last night a very important independent producer called me up and asked me to do a screenplay of one of the most advertised projects of the year, do it on the quiet, secretly, with full knowledge that it would be a violation of my contract. That meant nothing to him; it never occurred to him that he was insulting me. Perhaps, in spite of my faults, I still have a sense of honor. I may quarrel, but at least I put the point at issue down on the table in front of me. I am perfectly willing to let them examine my sleeves for hidden cards. But I don't think they really want to. They would be horrified to find them empty. They do not like to deal with honest men.
From the beginning, from the first pulp story, it was always with me a question (first of course of how to write a story at all) of putting into the stuff something they would not shy off from, perhaps even not know was there as a conscious realization, but which would somehow distill through their minds and leave an afterglow. A man with a realistic habit of thought can no longer write for intellectuals. There are too few of them and they are too specious. Neither can he deliberately write for people he despises, or for the slick magazines (Hollywood is less degrading than that), or for money alone. There must be idealism but there must also be contempt. This kind of talk may seem a little ridiculous coming from me. It is possibly that like Max Beerbohm I was born half a century too late, and that I too belong to an age of grace. I could so easily have become everything our world has no use for. So I wrote for the Black Mask. What a wry joke.
No doubt I have learned a lot from Hollywood. Please do not think I completely despise it, because I don't. The best proof of that may be that every producer I have worked for I would work for again, and every one of them, in spite of my tantrums, would be glad to have me. But the overall picture, as the boys say, is of a degraded community whose idealism even is largely fake. The pretentiousness, the bogus enthusiasm, the constant drinking and drabbing, the incessant squabbling over money, the all-pervasive agent, the strutting of the big shots (and their usually utter incompetence to achieve anything they start out to do), the constant fear of losing all this fairy gold and being the nothing they have really never ceased to be, the snide tricks, the whole damn mess is out of this world. It is a great subject for a novel--probably the greatest still untouched. But how to do it with a level mind, that's the thing that baffles me. It is like one of these South American palace revolutions conducted by officers in comic opera uniforms--only when the thing is over the ragged dead men lie in rows against the wall, and you suddenly know that this is not funny, this is the Roman circus, and damn near the end of civilization.
Chandler having decided to stop studio work and move permanently to La Jolla, The Atlantic Monthly persuaded him to report on the 1946 Oscar ceremony for them.
If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting "The Laughing Cavalier" in Macy's basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colours for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn't they be? Apart from its own intrinsic handicaps of excessive cost, hypercritical bluenosed censorship, and the lack of any single-minded controlling force in the making, the motion picture is bad because 90 per cent of its source material is tripe, and the other 10 per cent is a little too virile and plain-spoken for the petty-minded clerics, the elderly ingénues of the women's clubs, and the tender guardians of that godawful mixture of boredom and bad manners known more eloquently as the Impressionable Age.
The point is not whether there are bad motion pictures or even whether the average motion picture is bad, but whether the motion picture is an artistic medium of sufficient dignity and accomplishment to be treated with respect by the people who control its destinies. Those who deride the motion picture usually are satisfied that they have thrown the book at it by declaring it to be a form of mass entertainment. As if that meant anything. Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was the Elizabethan drama. The great cathedrals of Europe, although not exactly built to while away an afternoon, certainly had an aesthetic and spiritual effect on the ordinary man. Today, if not always, the fugues and chorales of Bach, the symphonies of Mozart, Borodin, and Brahms, the violin concertos of Vivaldi, the piano sonatas of Scarlatti, and a great deal of what was once rather recondite music are mass entertainment by virtue of radio. Not all fools love it, but not all fools love anything more literate than a comic strip. It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.
The motion picture admittedly is faced with too large a mass; it must please too many people and offend too few, the second of these restrictions being infinitely more damaging to it artistically than the first. The people who sneer at the motion picture as an art form are furthermore seldom willing to consider it at its best. They insist upon judging it by the picture they saw last week or yesterday; which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity or production) than to judge literature by last week's ten bestsellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits. In a novel you can still say what you like, and the stage is free almost to the point of obscenity, but the motion picture made in Hollywood, if it is to create art at all, must do so within such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom. If it were merely a transplanted literary or dramatic art, it certainly would not. The hucksters and the bluenoses would between them see to that.
But the motion picture is not a transplanted literary or dramatic art, any more than it is a plastic art. It has elements of all these, but in its essential structure it is much closer to music, the sense that its finest effects can be independent of precise meaning, that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can. Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.
In painting, music and architecture we are not even second-rate by comparison with the best work of the past. In sculpture we are just funny. In prose literature we not only lack style but we lack the educational and historical background to know what style is. Our fiction and drama are adept, empty, often intriguing, and so mechanical that in another fifty years at most they will be produced by machines with rows of push buttons. We have no popular poetry in the grand style, merely delicate or witty or bitter or obscure verses. Our novels are transient propaganda when they are what is called "significant," and bedtime reading when they are not.
But in the motion picture we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us. It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been achieved in Hollywood, I think that is all the more reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and the big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact. Of course it won't. I'm just daydreaming.
Show business has always been a little overnoisy, overdressed, overbrash. Actors are threatened people. Before films came along to make them rich they often had need of a desperate gaiety. Some of these qualities prolonged beyond a strict necessity have passed into the Hollywood mores and produced that very exhausting thing, the Hollywood manner, which is a chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, and for once in a lifetime, I have to admit that Academy Awards night is a good show and quite funny in spots, although I'll admire you if you can laugh at all of it.
If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, "In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived"; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn't good enough to use on their radio shows; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch); if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats but not from that awful moaning sound they give out, like destiny whistling through a hollow shell; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong.
Letter to Charles Morton, November 22, 1950.
Television is really what we've been looking for all our lives. It took a certain amount of effort to go to the movies. Somebody had to stay with the kids. You had to get the car out of the garage. That was hard work. And you had to drive and park. Sometimes you had to walk as far as half a block to the theater. Then people with big fat heads would sit in front of you and make you nervous... Radio was a lot better, but there wasn't anything to look at. Your gaze wandered around the room and you might start thinking of other things--things you didn't want to think about. You had to use a little imagination to build yourself a picture of what was going on just by the sound. But television's perfect. You turn a few knobs and lean back and drain your mind of all thought. And there you are watching the bubbles in the primeval ooze. You don't have to concentrate. You don't have to react. You don't have to remember. You don't miss your brain because you don't need it. Your heart and liver and lungs continue to function normally. Apart from that, all is peace and quiet. You are in poor man's nirvana. And if some nasty-minded person comes along and says you look more like a fly on a can of garbage, pay him no mind...just who should one be mad at anyway? Did you think the advertising agencies created vulgarity and the moronic mind that accepts it? To me television is just one more facet of that considerable segment of our civilization that never had any standard but the soft buck.
Letter to Gene Levitt, who had been adapting Marlowe for the radio show, November 22, 1950.
I am only a very recent possessor of a television set. It is a very dangerous medium. And as for the commercials--well, I understand that the concoction of these is a business in itself, a business that makes prostitution or the drug traffic seem quite respectable. It was bad enough to have the sub-human hucksters controlling radio, but television does something to you which radio never did. It prevents you from forming any kind of a mental picture and forces you to look at a caricature instead.
Letter to Dale Warren, November 7, 1951.
You ask me how anybody can survive Hollywood? Well, I must say that I personally had a lot of fun there. But how long you can survive depends a great deal on what sort of people you have to work with. You meet a lot of bastards, but they usually have some saving grace. A writer who can get himself teamed up with a director or a producer who will give him a square deal, a really square deal, can get a lot of satisfaction out of his work. Unfortunately that doesn't happen often. If you go to Hollywood just to make money, you have to be pretty cynical about it and not care too much what you do. And if you really believe in the art of the film, it's a long job and you really should forget about any other kind of writing. A preoccupation with words for their own sake is fatal to good film making. It's not what films are for. It's not my cup of tea, but it could have been if I'd started it twenty years earlier. But twenty years earlier of course I could never have got there, and that is true of a great many people. They don't want you until you have made a name, and you have developed some kind of talent which they can't use. The best scenes I ever wrote were practically monosyllabic. And the best short scene I ever wrote, by my own judgement, was one in which a girl said "uh-huh" three times with three different intonations, and that's all there was to it. The hell of good film writing is that the most important part is what is left out. It's left out because the camera and the actors can do it better and quicker, above all quicker. But it had to be there in the beginning.
Letter to Carl Brandt, regarding television, November 15, 1951.
However toplofty and idealistic a man may be, he can always rationalize his right to earn money. After all the public is entitled to what it wants. The Romans knew that and even they lasted four hundred years after they started to putrefy.
"Simone de Beauvoir said 'Books saved my life.' I think that's true for me," announced Gloria Whelan in accepting her National Book Award recently for Homeless Bird (which won for Young People's Literature). It was a refreshing zenith in the remarks that evening, and I suspect that what she said holds true for many of us--or that books save us from a certain type of life, anyway, one more arid and circumscribed than we'd prefer. They help us create who we are, in a kind of secular but still miraculous transubstantiation. And who we are--how we determine the nature of that--is a question you will find running like a highway stripe through the essays assembled here.
Are we dispassionate scientists or self-interested exploiters of the less fortunate, whether on the individual or state level? Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado reaches one conclusion, reviewer Greg Grandin another, slightly askew from Tierney. Does divorce cause long-term damage to children? Andrew Cherlin, some of whose own research has been used by others to support the idea that it does, has a less ominous view in discussing Judith Wallerstein's conclusions. And what is the inescapable bias in reporting on each other, in any respect? Longtime Saul Bellow friend Richard Stern contemplates the question as spurred by James Atlas's new bio of the Nobelist. Peter Schrag offers a variation on the theme while assessing Richard Ben Cramer's life of American icon Joe DiMaggio. When told the hero worship "was always about us," Schrag retorts, "Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about?"
Michelle Jensen begins her overview of Third Wave feminism and the Manifesta of Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards by putting a different twist on the question, noting that, so far, works representing the Third Wave have been personal accounts too much about "us," which leaves one thirsting for a theoretical grounding. And academic theory is invoked again, this time from the classics, Georgette Fleischer reports, in Judith Butler's revisitation of the story of Antigone; she uses the tale to refract out--or perhaps in--a perspective for sexual "outsiders." And through what sort of prism are we to filter a historian's self-history? Paul Buhle considers Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s beginnings, innocent or otherwise.
Elsewhere in the issue, faith in the transformative prospects of the word may be most evident in Rimbaud's conviction that his poetry would change the world, or in Orwell's more blatantly political reporting, or in W.E.B. Du Bois's double-header life as both political and literary powerhouse. Margaret Atwood and Eduardo Galeano, of course, have spent a lifetime tracing our silhouettes through language--as has Jules Feiffer with his pen and wry sense of paradox.
Last but not least, we come to the issue of who we are in a literal sense, here at The Nation. We take this opportunity to welcome Hillary Frey, who has joined our staff as assistant literary editor. She was formerly managing editor of Lingua Franca. We hope you enjoy the issue.
However varied their styles, poets writing in English today still rely on the early-twentieth-century Imagist principles of clarity, directness, presentative imagery and rhythm based on cadences. Although Imagism, revolutionary in its time, gathered force from several classical traditions, Chinese poetry was at the forefront.
Now, Crossing the Yellow River shows anew the vitality of classic Chinese poetry. Sam Hamill's collected translations contains beautiful versions by more than sixty poets, from the Shih Ching, or "Classic of Poetry" (10th century-600 BCE) through the eighth-century masters, Tu Fu, Li Po and Wang Wei, to the sixteenth-century poet Wang Yang-ming.
As W.S. Merwin writes in his elegant introduction, Hamill's translations stand in a long tradition of modern versions of classic Chinese poetry, notably Arthur Waley's 170 Chinese Poems of 1918. Merwin adds: "Sam Hamill's work, like Waley's, represents a lifetime's devotion to the classic originals, which survived in a long, subtle, intricate current."
Earlier than Waley's work, Ezra Pound's slim book Cathay (1915) was a landmark in poetry as well as in translation from the Chinese. Pound's contemporaries valued the tactile images and the musical freedom based on the concurrence of sounds rather than on rhyme and fixed stress counts. Still, his versions were marred by inaccuracies (such as referring to the "River Kiang" as though the river had a name, when actually the word kiang means river). "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," an essay written by Ernest Fenollossa and edited by Pound, introduced a new poetic method in which clusters of images and ideas (similar to what is conveyed in Chinese written characters) would take the place of the old logic and sequence of European poetics.
Following Pound's directness and musical freedom, Hamill returns to form, but in a far more natural way than did Pound's Georgian predecessors. For example, in translating the work of Tu Fu (712-770) Hamill observes the couplet that follows syntactical parallelism, as in "The palace walls will divide us/and clouds will bury the hills" ("Taking Leave of Two Officials"). Rightly the tone supersedes regularity of meter and rhyme, but in his
approximation of original forms he uses assonance, consonance and near-rhyme. (Caveat: I can compare English versions but since I do not read Chinese, I must rely on intuition, as well as the work of scholars elsewhere.)
The poems are radiant. "Taking Leave of a Friend," by Li Po (701-762), reads in its entirety:
Green mountains rise to the north;
white water rolls past the eastern city.
Once it has been uprooted,
the tumbleweed travels forever.
Drifting clouds like a wanderer's mind;
sunset, like the heart of your old friend.
We turn, pause, look back and wave.
Even our ponies look back and whine.
Li Po evokes the torment of emotional ambivalence with startling truth. The first two couplets contain natural images in motion, capturing the wanderer's intention: mountains that rise, water that rolls, tumbleweed that travels. The second set of couplets present images of fixity that also imply mortality. He is compelled to roam and he is attached--as are we all.
Here is the title poem of this collection, "Crossing the Yellow River," by Wang Wei (701-761):
A little boat on the great river
whose waves reach the end of the sky--
suddenly a great city, ten thousand
houses dividing sky from wave.
Between the towns there are
hemp and mulberry trees in the wilds.
Look back on the old country:
wide waters; clouds; and rising mist.
The metaphor, crossing the river, implies boundaries between present and past, change and habit, youth and the sense of aging (the latter prevalent in this anthology). By and large, the poets here attempt not the big emotion, which by itself can be intimidating, but the smaller fissures of that emotion. They deal with innuendoes, with truth relayed as it is in common speech, through bits of information, through sudden juxtapositions, through offhand observations of nature. From T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore down to the present, this kind of emotional accounting prevails: I think immediately of poems such as Moore's "The Paper Nautilus," Eliot's "Preludes," Philip Levine's "Milkweed" and Karl Kirchwey's "In Transit," among others.
Li Ch'ing-chao (1084-1151), is one of the book's few poets known to be a woman. Hamill notes that she was one of China's greatest and also "one of the most influential critics of her age." "To the Tune: Boat of Stars" brings back to me Ezra Pound's remarkable adaptation of Li Po's "The River Merchant's Wife." Her poem begins:
Spring after spring, I sat before my mirror.
Now I tire of braiding plum buds in my hair.
I've gone another year without you,
shuddering with each letter--
I'm intrigued, too, by the work of an earlier poet, Tzu Yeh (fourth century). Like the speakers of the early Anglo-Saxon poems, such as "Wulf and Eadwacer" and "The Wife's Lament," the personae often are of women, but the author is unknown. The poems are brief, even slight, but their wit leaves room for growth in the reader's mind. Here, for instance, is "A Smile":
In this house without walls on a hill,
the four winds touch our faces.
If they blow open your robe of gauze,
I'll try to hide my smile.
Hamill's revised translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a third-century ars poetica, reveals practices that are valuable for our time. More than a handbook, it counsels the mind and the spirit, which are all of a piece with style in Confucian Chinese thought. From Lu Chi's poetic treatise come these important maxims:
As infinite as space, good work
joins earth to heaven
Although each form is different,
each opposes evil:
none grants a writer license.
Language must speak from its essence
to articulate reason:
verbosity indicates lack of virtue.
Some of Lu Chi's injunctions are familiar ground rules:
Only through writing and then revising
may one gain the necessary insight.
Others are subtle but immensely meaningful:
Past and present commingle:
in the single blink of an eye!
Emotion and reason are not two:
every shift in feeling must be read.
The wen of Wen Fu means literary arts. In Confucian China, Hamill tells us, writing was inseparable from morality in that truth meant naming things. The fu is the form, whose syntactic parallelism strikes this listener as having affinities with passages in the Hebrew Bible, notably the Song of Songs.
As in the poetry anthology, Hamill's ease conveys profound ideas and intricate images with simplicity, naturalness and directness. The Wen Fu has appeared in other translations. When I was a teenager trying to write poetry, a family friend gave me for my birthday a desk dictionary and the Bollingen edition of E.R. Hughes's Lu Chi's Wen Fu, AD 302, which includes the document's history as well as a translation. I read it, but not happily, for the writing is ponderous. On the other hand, Hamill's prose is a fresh breeze.
Hamill is founding editor of Copper Canyon Press and a prolific author--the latest and best of his own poetry collections is Gratitude (1998). In "Discovering the Artist Within," he tells a disconcerting but lifting story of how he came to poetry. Orphaned at the age of 2, adopted, later beaten and sexually molested, he grew up to commit unlawful acts. Throughout his difficult early adulthood, though, he held to his literary talent as to a life raft. Among the contemporary poets whose work saved him and his writing were the Beat poets, Gary Snyder and especially Kenneth Rexroth, whose One Hundred Poems From the Chinese Hamill thanks in his new volume. It was from Rexroth he learned the discipline that poetry required. Three years in Japan--two in the Marines and one on a fellowship--added to his expertise as an Asian linguist as well as to his Zen practice.
Devotion aside, these books will endure. Their tone is a combination of zest, generosity and humility. "We are fortunate to live during the greatest time for poetry since the T'ang Dynasty," Hamill writes in his introduction to Crossing the Yellow River, aware that the classic Chinese poems capture the essence of today's practice. His humility is apparent from the last sentence of his introduction, an impassioned stance for our casual age: "I sit at the feet of the great old masters of my tradition not only to be in a position to pass on their many wonderful gifts, but to pay homage while in the very act of nourishing, sustaining and enhancing my own life."