The Most Vital Transition Is Ours

The Most Vital Transition Is Ours

Reading revives historical memory in the flat Zoom time of pandemic.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.—We’re at a historical pause far deeper than the interregnum between Trump and Biden. Amid planetary warming, the pandemic has forced us to slow down if not to stop in our tracks.

Locked in, I read a lot. So when JoAnn Wypijewski, author of a terrific new book about gender, sex, and silences, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo, asked for a dispatch on the pandemic and Michigan from my experience this year, it was books I had to write about.

First, about pandemics then.

At the end of the 1790s, Charles Brockden Brown wrote Arthur Mervyn; Or, Memoirs of the Year 1793. It tells the tale of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in the context of merchant capitalism. While the “founding fathers” evacuated the diseased capital city, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, formerly enslaved men, nursed the sick and buried the dead. They were “essential workers” of the day, the “heroes.” From their deeds the AME church was formed, the chief good that resulted from that year, unless you accept the installation of the Cult of Reason and the revolutionary calendar in France. Otherwise in the USA that year, the Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime to help a slave escape to freedom, and cotton mill owners found the small hands of compliant children to be profitable resources. Slave labor and child labor went together as a new mode of production, industrial capitalism, spun bonds of global servitude.

On Michigan—so much in the news, so divorced from history—I asked a friend (he’s in his 80s) what I should read. With the libraries closed, he went to his garage and picked a couple of volumes. The first, Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, was compiled by workers of the Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. These writers, the book’s introduction says, were “forgotten men—slightly frayed and sometimes hungry.” They had pencil stubs and wastepaper to record what they learned. “Thinly clothed and with belts pulled in,” they were without cars and “thumbed their way to their rendezvous with their source materials.”

What is a Michigander? The worker/writers hitchhiking and writing with pencil stubs in the mid-1930s couldn’t really tell. Michigan consists of two peninsulas amid the Great Lakes and is without uniform statewide geographic characteristics. If the WPA guide was only lightly touched by history from below, it was bold in another radical sense, its materialist periodization of history. This matters for us today.

The land was taken, stolen, over a cask of rum. “The dignity of the savage,” write these frayed, forgotten men, “was shaken by the white man’s most potent bargaining asset”—booze—and “the rape of the Michigan forests was on.” The joists and rafters, the posts and beams of the big Midwest cities were composed of Michigan lumber, from which timber barons amassed vast fortunes. Meanwhile, wood lodged deep in the cultural consciousness, evoked by the Mackinaw plaid shirt and the smell of a fireplace. The economy based on wood went, and the state’s next economy “for contribution, exploitation, and, perhaps, error was in its minerals.” I like that choice of words, “perhaps, error.”

The material basis of capitalist dynamics, or its human and ecological catastrophes called “investment/development,” was first in the fur trade, then in timber, third in minerals, fourth in automobiles. We can see aspects of these different property regimes stretching from the communal life of indigenous folk in the 17th century to the lumber camps for the expropriation of the forests of the 19th century to the boarding houses of remote mining towns to the massive mechanics of the auto assembly line in Dearborn, River Rouge, Detroit in the 20th century.

The working-class composition in each of these periods was different as far as the work was concerned (trappers, lumberjacks, hard rock miners, auto workers). It was also different as far as its reproduction was concerned: In the 17th century bands of indigenous Ojibway and Potawatomi; in the 18th century colonial settlers from New York and New England; migrants from Scandinavia, Ireland, and southern and Slavic Europe in the 19th century; African Americans in the Great Migration from the South in the 20th. Just as one period was replaced rather than destroyed by another, so it was with the composition of the Michiganders. After these constellations of the labor market pass away, their experience as culture and ideas may persist. What’s left over is Hemingway’s subject.

My friend’s second recommendation was Ernest Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. During the summers of his first 20 years (1899–1920), this son of a Chicago doctor vacationed in Michigan’s north woods. His Nick Adams stories, published in 1938, tell about it. These coming-of-age tales were part of my own adolescent reading back in the 1950s. One of them, “Up in Michigan,” I thought, taught me about sex, though 66 years later the stories are a testament to growing up with the privileges and silences of a white man during successive recompositions of capitalist relations. Prison, the hobo jungle, the woods, the prize ring, are the locations where lost, wandering, traumatized people meet in transition times.

In “The Light of the World,” a couple of guys thrown out of a bar go down to the train station waiting room, “five whores waiting for the train to come in, and six white men and four Indians.” Two of the women argue about who slept with the champion African American boxer Jack Johnson. “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” contrasts views on private property of white man and Ojibway:

“Well, Doc,” [the Ojibway hired hand] said, “that’s a nice lot of timber you’ve stolen.”

“Don’t talk that way, Dick,” the doctor said. “It’s driftwood.”

Nick Adams learns a way of love, and why not to kill a rival, from an Ojibway woman. His neighbors called her “skunk.” Hemingway’s style works by what the characters don’t talk about. The woman’s name is Prudence Mitchell. She breaks his heart. Suddenly, the famous declarative reticence of the prose bursts with seeds of possibility. In the last story, “Fathers and Sons,” he writes:

Could you say she did first what no one has ever done better and mention plump brown legs, flat belly, hard little breasts, well holding arms, quick searching tongue, the flat eyes, the good taste of mouth, then uncomfortably, tightly, sweetly, moistly, lovely, tightly, achingly, fully, finally, unendingly, never-endingly, never-to-endingly, suddenly ended, the great bird flown like an owl in the twilight, only it was daylight in the woods and hemlock needles stuck against your belly. So that when you go in a place where Indians have lived you smell them gone and all the empty pain killer bottles and the flies that buzz do not kill the sweetgrass smell, the smoke smell and that other like a fresh cased marten skin.

The cascade of adverbs falls into a disappearing world. The tragedy of this intersectional intercourse was, to express it in the lazy slang of the present, that it was not sustainable, not transparent, not resilient. But pay attention to what he says.

Skunk, marten, beaver, wolverine: These are creatures from that first period of Michigan history, that early phase. Even now, they’re not quite finished off. Anishinabekwe botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer explains the fragrance of sweetgrass in her scientific and spiritual book, Braiding Sweetgrass:

Its scientific name is Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.

Yes, that would be the commons. The earth to share, with delight, not ravage yet again in the sequence of error: That is what Hemingway’s love-making was trying to get at. Talk about “what we don’t talk about”!

Hemingway had a geological reference for orgasm, “the earth moves.” Actually, he violates the known laws of physics when he writes, “time having stopped and he felt the earth move…” You find that in For Whom the Bell Tolls, his novel of “premature anti-Fascism,” as he’d later say. In adolescent insecurity I learned from the mystery of such phrases and later learned to mock them.

As yet another catastrophe looms, a new era is laboring to birth some world that might avert it. This is the vital interregnum. A couple musty treasures from a friend’s garage spark remembrance in the flat Zoom time of pandemic. What new composition of our “we” can make the earth move? We start by talking it. The soulful descendants of Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Prudence Mitchell, and those forgotten, “with belts pulled in,” have something to say.


Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.

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