Eighty-one years ago, on April 19, 1922, The Nation launched a series of forty-nine articles by a distinguished, skeptical and contentious group of writers–novelists, journalists, educators, social workers, lawyers, unionists and maverick intellectuals–each of whom was asked to contemplate his or her state of the union. Their essays, short but not at all sweet, were collected and published in two volumes, in 1923 and 1924, as These United States, less a symposium than a remarkably evocative crazy quilt of styles and apprehensions, moods and meditations, art and anthropology, reportage and polemic.
We’ve recently invited a similar group of maverick minds to pick up in the new century where Edmund Wilson (New Jersey), Theodore Dreiser (Indiana), H.L. Mencken (Maryland), W.E.B. DuBois (Georgia), Willa Cather (Nebraska) and Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota) left off back in the Jazz Age. Ours may be more of a buzz age, so full of yak cable, white noise, advert videos, disinformation and hypnotherapy that sorting out the signals to arrive at scruple, gravity or grace seems to get harder every day. But that’s what we asked these writers to do, as well as tell us something we didn’t know, because New York editors are often the last to know what the rest of the country is really thinking. Nor did we particularly care about the form their thinking took; we hoped for essays of 2,500 words or so, but were prepared to accept interior monologues, one-act plays, heroic couplets and maybe even haiku.
What follows is the first of a sampling of the essays we have received, some of which will be printed over the next few months in The Nation and all of which will be published in a book later this year. Mike Davis on Southern California starts out. Others who have accepted our invitation range from Molly Ivins (Texas) to Mike Tomasky (West Virginia).
Just to give you a taste: Jim Harrison will wonder where else, outside of Michigan, “can I live where I can see a large timber wolf on the two-track leading to my cabin?” Elizabeth Seay will advise us from Oklahoma: “Always bring your own lawn chair to a powwow.” Frank Conroy observes of Iowans after 9/11: “They are pissed, but they are calm.” Annie Proulx notices that “Wyoming is full of contradictions and anomalies. The state thinks small and likes its elbow room.” Janwillem van de Wetering, who’s only lived Down East for thirty years, is reliably informed by a Zen-like native: “In Maine, if you don’t care, it don’t matter.” Luc Sante paints a pretty picture: “The predominant look of New Jersey these days is pale if not pastel, ostensibly cheerful, ornamented with gratuitous knobs and fanlights, manufactured in such a way that clapboard is indistinguishable from fiberglass–the happy meeting of postmodernism and heritage-themed zoning codes.” Judith Freeman is worried about what she can’t see in Idaho: “The truth is no one really knows who’s out there in the woods of the Northwest–harmless nature lovers? Or more dangerous types–people ex-Green Beret Bo Gritz has called ‘Spikes’–Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events.”
In all, These United States has turned into a sort of rescue project, as if each of these writers sought to save another part of America from greed or banality or stereotyping–and, in the process, take back the flag, the Statue of Liberty and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” from hate radio, Fox News and the blogosphere; from the bullyboys, the pickleheads and the wog-stompers.
Thinking about more than Louisiana, James Lee Burke speaks of a place each of us has in our heart, like “a stained-glass cathedral visited by the people who are emblematic of our lives…. The special place where I live is full of Americans who to me are heroic: Dorothy Day, the Maryknolls who were martyred in El Salvador, Molly Brown, Joe Hill, Thomas Jefferson, Woody Guthrie, the women and children who died in the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, Audie Murphy, and Flannery O’Connor. And, once again, the great irony is that the bravest people I’ve ever known are people who are so humble and nondescript you cannot remember what they look like ten minutes after they leave a room. But in the final say each of them is a descendant of Natty Bumppo.”
We are reminded again and again in these essays not only of our monumental beauty, from the Grand Canyon to the Lincoln Memorial to the Golden Gate Bridge to the Chrysler Building; and of our shrewd investments, from public schools to land-grant universities to lending libraries to Planned Parenthood; and of our brilliant inventions, from baseball to jazz to bluejeans; and of our exemplary citizens, from Eugene Debs to Margaret Sanger to Rosa Parks to Cesar Chavez to Allen Ginsberg; and of our talking heads, from Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield to Augie March to Toni Morrison’s Beloved; but also of our sacred texts: the Bill of Rights, Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Consider these essays our very own reality programming.