In 1970, Joan Didion wrote of the “ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood.” Renata Adler, born in 1938, just four years after Didion, shared in part this conception of generational identity. In the introduction to her 1969 collection Toward a Radical Middle, Adler identified the cause that Didion left more oblique: the experience of World War II and memories of its revelations. She wrote, “Ours was the first age group to experience the end of the Just War as a romantic possibility.” As a result, her generation, she believed, was wary of ideological rhetoric, of the “particular totalitarian lie at the heart of political cliché.” We, she said, “still distinguish among literalisms, metaphors, questions of degree.” And “the simplicities of ‘imperialism,’ ‘genocide,’ ‘materialism,’ ‘police brutality,’ ‘military-industrial complex,’ ‘racism,’ tossed about as though they were interchangeable, and as though they applied equally to anything with which one is out of temper, are not for us. Neither are the simplicities of anti-Communism, free world, ‘violence,’ and ‘radicalism’ itself.”
Didion thought that her cadre had been “robbed” early on “of a certain capacity for surprise,” and suggested they were cheated of more. “If I could believe,” she wrote, “that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.” The result of the same dark era, the same acquired mistrust, was for Adler slightly different: “From now,” she wrote, “it is all patient effort, unsimple victories.”
We find in her new collection, After the Tall Timber, a selection of nonfiction work from 1965 to 2003, that Adler did indeed go to the barricades, though as a decided nonparticipant in party politics—like Didion, and unlike so many writers of their era. But where Didion says that she and her peers resigned themselves to the world of the “personal,” to “a separate peace,” in the face of their existential dead end—where she would find an unavoidable, unfortunate truth—Adler finds instead a dilemma. Her way forward, though not her way out, seems to be this: At least we might, and at first we must, tell the truth.
Michael Wolff, in his preface to After the Tall Timber, writes that Adler’s “politics, to the extent that she has any prescribed position, has to do with language.” I would say it slightly differently. While rejecting political ideology, Adler holds to an ethics of language. She opposes misinformation in its many forms: exaggeration—the “apocalyptic sensibility,” the “gesture and rhetoric of revolution”; oversimplification; nonsense in the dress of substance; the co-option, or, in today’s parlance, “appropriation,” of terms more meaningful in other realms; all manner of imprecision, euphemism, and cliché. Her career-long fight, her barricade, is for faithful representation and fidelity to the real meanings of words, and thus against obfuscation and the “debasement of language.” This was her “patient effort”—or, more accurately, her persistent effort, of variable patience—sustained as she followed civil-rights marchers to Selma and Mississippi; reported from wars in Biafra and Israel; and worked to “decode” the Nixon scandal, the Starr Report, and “the most lawless decision in the history of the Court,” Bush v. Gore.
In these instances and others, Adler works to hew to the facts of what was said and done, and holds others to their words—indeed to the letter, and sometimes to the letter of the law. Exposing the misuse of language in dissembling service to ideologies—whether of movements, personalities, or institutions—becomes her cause; and relatively innocent opacity or “muddle,” employed incidentally, doesn’t escape her scrutiny. She hears echoes of authoritarian systems past in unexpected places. On the “Northern liberal” response to the “overtones” of “Black Power,” she writes: “A mob chanting anything, and particularly a spondee followed by an unaccented syllable, seemed distressingly reminiscent of prewar German rhetoric.” She is steadily wary, not of “right” and “wrong,” but of totality.