Charles Brockden Brown: “Arthur Mervyn” (1799)

He knew how to value the thoughts of other people, but he could not part with the privilege of observing and thinking for himself. He wanted business which would suffer at least nine tenths of his attention to go free. If it afforded agreeable employment that that part of his attention which it applied to its own use, so much the better; but if it did not, he should not repine. He should be content with a life whose pleasures were to its pains as nine are to one. He had tried the trade of a copyist, and in circumstances more favourable than it was likely he should ever again have opportunity of trying it, and he had found that it did not fulfil the requisite conditions. Whereas the trade of plowman was friendly to health, liberty, and pleasure. (238)


I have just noticed, looking at the dates of Charles Brockden Brown’s major works, that he published his three most well-known works—the three collected in the Library of America anthology—within two years. One of these, Arthur Mervyn, is a complex and elaborate tale that alone would have made Brown part of the American canon of literature. It comes quite close to make Brown the American William Godwin. Like Wieland, Arthur Mervyn takes on the “contrast” (to borrow from Royall Tyler’s play exposing the division between European/urban society and America/rural, republican, virtuous. In Wieland the ominous urban civilization is imported from Europe through characters. In Arthur Mervyn the city is looked at as a dark corner of American civilization. It is almost as if the cancer hinted at in the earlier work had taken root in America.

What struck me most of all when reading the first half of Arthur Mervyn was how psychological traumatic the protagonist’s wanderings between these two worlds was. He was really thrust into a world where there was no solid foundation to his life. His searching for work brought him into a position where he was completely alienated from what he was doing—forging documents as it turns out. Much of the anxiety and dark suggestion of the story is rooted in the bizarre relationship between the boss and the employee, starting from the arbitrary way he was hired to the ambiguous nature of the wealth he is producing. To be specific, one common theme in the story is rooted in the profession of forgery and counterfeiting money, which both appears to have real wealth, but certainly does not. So, what we have in this novel is a curious exploration of the nature of urban capitalism to disturb our comfortable categories. In the background of all of this is an ominous yellow fever epidemic that hits everyone regardless of class and status, yet another ambiguity of urban civilization. Long before Philip K. Dick mastered this theme, Brown laid it out with amazing clarity.

The novel tracks the adventures of Arthur Mervyn as he arrives destitute in the city. He begs for some money only to be hired by a strange man with an unclear profession. At first, Mervyn is not even clear on what he is to do. He knows only that he has a job. (How common is this feeling in late industrial society?) He discovers that the man—Welbeck—is a quite odious character all around. He makes his living by counterfeiting and forging documents. Welbeck apparently dies in a boating accident and Mervyn eventually gets sick with yellow fever when trying to transport Wallace, a man who robbed him earlier in the novel, to a farm for recuperation. Wallace tries to apologize for his earlier wrongs against Mervyn. The protagonist returns to Welbeck’s mansion. He begins to consider what to do with the money he got from Welbeck, who he thinks is dead. He decides whether to put it to public use or give it to Clemenza—a woman Welbeck claimed was his daughter, but whom Welbeck seduced and impregnated. Welbeck appears, apparently having faked his own death. When confronted on the money, Welbeck claims they are forged, so Mervyn burns them. This horrifies Welbeck, who confesses that they were real. He only claimed they were forged to get Mervyn to hand them over. All of this story is told in flashback to a Dr. Stevens, who had saved his life after Welbeck in anger turned out on the streets to die on the streets.

There is a hint in the first part of the novel of solutions to these disruptions. One that Arthur Meryvn is constantly struggling for is a return to the more stable life of the countryside. A braver response comes to him in the context of the yellow fever epidemic.

It is vain to hope to escape the malady by which my mother and my brothers have died. We are a race, whose existence some inherent property has limited to the short space of twenty years. We are exposed, in common with the rest of mankind, to innumerable casualties; but if these be shunned, we are unalterably fated to perish by consumption. Why then should I scruple to lay fown my life in the cause of virtue and humanity? It is better to die, in consciousness of having offered an heroic sacrifice; to die by a speedy stroke, than by the perverseness of nature, in ignominious inactivity, and lingering agonics. (351)

It seems to me that this is a suggestion that we should work in the terrible world we live in, and not incessantly seek escape to some idyllic paradise that may in actuality be a figment of our imagination. The disease of yellow fever, like the urban capitalist civilization, will spread regardless of our will. As it was for Caleb Williams (William Godwin), escape is not an option. Goodwill and solidarity, however, do offer a form of solidity in a liquid world.

Next time I will look at the rest of the novel.

Zora Neale Hurston: “Tell My Horse” (1938)

Our history has been unfortunate. First we were brought here to Haiti and enslaved. We suffered great cruelties under the French and even when they had been driven out, they left here certain traits of government that have been unfortunate for us. Thus having a nation continually disturbed by revolution and other features not helpful to advancement we have not been able to develop economically and culturally as many of us wished. These things being true, we have not been able to control certain bad elements because of a lack of a sufficient police force. [. . .] It is like your American gangsters. (482–483)


Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell My Horse in 1938 after she completed field work in Haiti and Jamaica in 1936 and 1937. In some ways the book is a follow up to Mules and Men looking at the survival of African traditions in the New World. She explores voodoo (switching to this spelling, so I will too) in both works. As expected, the tradition is much more fully developed in this book surveying life in the Caribbean. Hurston is also interested in the overall question of black self-rule. While the stories in Mules and Men clearly emerged from a biracial society and reflect the emotional and creative needs of a people oppressed from within, Tell My Horse shows a people capable of self-rule but suffering the exploitation of an entire world system, policed by the United States (Haiti was occupied in much of the 1920s by the United States).

The book is broken up into three parts. The first too provide a general history, examination of social conditions, and political background of Jamaica and Haiti. The theme for both of these is the legacy of slavery and resistance to slavery. In Jamaica it is explored through a surviving maroon community. In Haiti is more overly politicized through the historical memory of Haitian revolution. (And by the way, I have noticed while working on this blog how often Haiti comes up in US writing.) The third part of the book is the longest and constitutes the bulk of the material is an anthropological accounting of voodoo in Haiti. The book ends with some Creole language songs, many of which are discussed in the texts in their full context.

As I hinted above the major tension in the first parts of this book is between self-rule and an empire posed from above. I opened this review with a quote by a Haitian physician, recorded by Hurston. He is basically showing how the burden of empire has caused a social breakdown in Haitian society. The options are authoritarian policing or a total violent breakdown of social order. In fact, these are the same things. Police emerge as a reflection of the annihilation of society. It also seems to speak to the problem of empire. The disorder on the ground in Haiti and other Caribbean nations was the constant justification for US imperialism. Yet, to look on the bright side, the signs of the capacity of self-rule and democratic order from below are there.

Hurston’s visit to the maroon community of Accompong is important in her general interpretation of the Caribbean. It is an example of black self-rule going back to the seventeenth century, an experiment centuries longer lasting than the United States.

Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world, no doubt. Men who had thrown off the bands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. The courage and daring of the Maroons strike like a purple beam across the history of Jamaica. And yet as I stood there looking into the sea beyond Black river from the mountains of St. Catherine, and looking at the thatched huts close at hand, I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed on the bleak shores of Massachusetts. Now, Massachusetts had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Accompong had remained itself. (294)


As a self-contained, society with a tradition of self-rule they are a constant reminder of the alternatives that existed to empire and capitalism. In contrast, Haiti is for Hurston an example of the crushing burden of empire on societies.

When Hurston arrived in Haiti for her field work, the memory of the recent US intervention was strong among the people she talked to. What may have been—from the US perspective—a passive phase in foreign policy, was for Haitians a reminder of the betrayal of the revolution. Hurston and her sources are unequivocal in their blame on both external manipulation and the failure of the Haitian elite to do something with their “democracy.” She compares the opportunistic elite in Haiti, prone to ideological and rhetorical flourish, to the black “race leaders” in the United States, who Hurston sees as being displaced by the “doers,” a more silent class but more influential in improving conditions.

Much of this “doing” that Hurston likes so much is reflected in the religious traditions in the Caribbean. It developed very much into a counter-culture, complete with its own social hierarchy and traditions. For every opportunistic political leader, there were dozens of “clans” that run function quite well, empowered by the tradition of voodoo. Hurston points out that structurally, these communities have much in common with the male-dominated African clan. She even entered into a harsh verbal confrontation with a man who debated her about the merits of gender equality. Yet, within voodoo there was a place for women to be active. She talks about a Madame Etienne who had a strong foundation of power and influence in Archahaie.

Zombies come across almost as an extension of the greater political narrative of Haiti as Hurston sees it. By turning free people into thralls, the houngan (those voodoo spiritual leaders) betray the victory of the revolution, turning self-rule into dependency. It is a revival of the master-slave relationship. The fact that such practices are signs of evil and resisted by most (there are elaborate burial rights used to prevent being turned into zombies), is a parallel to the hostility that most Haitians felt toward the opportunities government.

Although it is not a pretty picture at all time at the grassroots of Jamaican and Haitian society, Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse is detailing the unending tension between empire and self-rule. The signs seem to point to the endurance of self-rule, cultivated through counter-cultures, secret societies, deviant religious practices, and various other transgressions. I was reminded often of Bryan Palmer’s book Cultures of Darkness which looks at these secret societies as a necessary component of capitalism.

Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part Two, Hoodoo

Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has its thousands of secret adherents. It adapts itself like Christianity to its locale, reclaiming some of its borrowed characteristics to itself. Such as fire-worship as signified in the Christian church by the altar and the candles. And the belief in the power of water to sanctify as in baptism. Belief in magic is older than writing. So nobody knows how it started. (176)

There is a story retold by Zora Neale Hurston at the end of Part One of Mules and Men. It is about a man named High Walker who could raise the bones in the graveyard to life, but only for a moment. He needed only to command the bones to “shake yo’self.” Another man asks the devil to take his soul so he could die. He is sick of the world as it is. He dried up and left only bones behind. High Walker came across these bones and asks them to shake. The bones do not shake but it does talk to High Walker telling him to beware and that he will join them soon. High Walker finds a white man and tells him about the talking skull. When the skull does not reply to High Walker in the presence of a white man, the white man kills High Walker by slicing off his head. Later the skull tells High Walker that he told him that to watch out. The white man runs off when he seen the bones shake on their own. They proclaim victory having seized High Walker’s bones.

This story is sits in the book just before Hurston makes the transition to discussing hoodoo. It suggests a few things about this African-American religion. The struggle over the boundary between life and death, the power of the devil, the unknowability of the nuances of the religion to white people, and its playfulness. Hurston tells us that hoodoo is a part of the suppressed and underground tradition of black people in America, as much a part of their tradition as the folk stories. By including this in Mules and Men she is posing a challenge. You cannot just accept the stories—even incorporate them into mainstream American culture through public education—without taking the entire package. Although I guess she knows few will. Brer Rabbit will always have a place in American folklore. I am less sure about voodoo (at least not as something most people will praise and speak of casually with their children). Perhaps what make is more frightening is that it is not capable of being assimilated. It is part of a culture of resistance in active revolt and as such not possibly co-opted.

Hurston tries to find the origin of hoodoo in general use of magic in all cultures, suggesting its roots even as far back as the mythical figures of the Old Testament. She clearly wants to tell us that the line between Christianity and voodoo is not very far. Moses in her view was a glorified conjure doctor. Yet, she quickly gets to her main point which is the application of hoodoo in the contemporary United States, especially New Orleans, where she experimented in various hoodoo ceremonies and rituals as well as telling stories about practitioners and consumers of hoodoo. People sought out voodoo for dramatic life-changing needs such as finding a mate and for more mundane things like medical treatment. I find it interesting that this religion fills in where Jim Crow segregation likely made access to physicians more difficult. One “member of a disappearing school of folk magic” used hoodoo to provide legal services, including criminal defense.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Looking at this we are almost forced to go back to this question I looked at in some early posts (“McTeague”) about the role of professionalization in a free society. The question is, by whose standards is this conjure doctor lawyer unsuitable? The law’s standard, of course. But whose interest is served by seeing the formal written law as the only possible standard for resolving conflicts in society. I do not want to aggrandize this practicioner too much. Many of the spells he cast seemed to have the purpose of obstructing justice (silencing witnesses and such), but at a more basic level we understand that the reason lawyers have power to interpret the law and most of the rest of us do not, is that they have a piece of paper backed by the legal authority of the state. I am still not sure how we can find alternatives to professions (even Bakunin seems to accept some professionalization in his theory of authority), but I suppose they should be more free and more reflective of people’s diverse traditions and values.

The end of Mules and Men consists of some fairly extensive appendices, with a glossary, some songs lyrics with musical scores, and methods for casting various hoodoo spells (many of them cures for illnesses, but some are more interesting things like love potions).

In short, Mules and Men is a great book. Hurston did a great service in recording African American folklore traditions at a particular moment in time, but she also gives us good reasons to see this tradition as part of the broader narrative of black working class resistance. Her inclusion of hoodoo is a powerful reminder that we cannot bracket these traditions when we study them.


“The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831)

The Confessions of Nat Turner cannot be easily separated from the legal proceedings that created it. Unlike the other slave narratives in the collection, Nat Turner’s was not produced by choice. Nat Turner’s anti-slavery work was done in action, not in the written word, but the popularity of The Confession may have had as much of an impact as the rebellion he organized and led.


Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of only a handful of full-blown slave rebellions in 19th century North American history, alongside the 1811 New Orleans uprising and two failed conspiracies (Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey). As any first year student of American history knows, Nat Turner’s revolt is significant because it convinced the South that slavery was an institution that could no longer be debated and in the last thirty-five years of slavery in the United States, the planting class defended its cruel system with all its legal, political, and intellectual power—leading eventually to a growing sectional divide and the Civil War, which led to the greatest American slave revolt with almost 200,000 armed escaped slaves invading and occupying the lands they once worked.

The document itself is simply Nat Turner’s confessions made in jail over the course of a few days of conversation with Thomas Gray. Soon after this talk he was executed. As the trial transcripts put it: “The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the house of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” (264–265) The confession is bracketed by these official documents, Grays comments, and information on the whites killed in the uprising and the fate of the captured blacks. Some of these were free before the rebellion and for all intents and purposes were free for the duration of their insurrection.

The conspiracy

The conspiracy

There is not that much in The Confessions of Nat Turner in way of autobiography, but what he focuses on is significant for what is tells us about the nature of power in antebellum Southern slavery. Nat Turner wanted the world to know how he taught himself to read and how he was given a mission by God. In this way, he established his intellectual and moral independence from his masters. Several years before the rebellion, he escaped and apparently could have stayed away, but he returned after a month in order to fulfill this mission. Thus, he also wanted to make clear to his accusers that he from that moment on a slave by choice.



Most of the confession is his description of the various murders he and his group were engaged in. The description of the rebels taking axes to the skulls of children are hard to read, but Nat Turner is brutally honest about the necessity for justice and the divine nature of his mission. To blunt, Nat Turner’s actions was no less shocking than what was done to slaves throughout the nation, everyday, for decades. It was less of a tactical mission than a martyrdom. He makes comparisons to Christ. “Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heaves that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work—and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men.” (253) Success was not promised him and apparently it was not expected. His mission was to awaken and shock the conscience of the nation. The response by whites suggests he was successful.

We can also read The Confessions of Nat Turner as yet another example of the state suppression of libertarian movements. Examples of this abound, of course, but this one is particularly clear and well-documented, particularly in the courts refusal to consider the context, their rapid application of lethal justice, and the indiscriminate killing of many of the participants in the rebellion.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories” (1988)

After a long and mostly pleasurable journey I have finished with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected stories. I started reading them over a year ago when I first started this blog. The Death of Methuselah was the last of his short story collections, published just three years before his death. It was his tenth collection. As impressive as his stories are, he also published numerous novels and wrote plays and screenplays. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his achievements in 1978. I could not find his Stockholm Speech (the English one anyway), but here is a short address given at the University at Albany, where I got my terminal degree.

He was quite famous outside of the Yiddish reading community—which was diminishing if we believe some of his comments on this in his stories—at the end of his life thanks to the Nobel Prize and a 1986 documentary film Isaac in America. When he died he was 88 years old and still an active writer.

The stories in The Death of Methuselah look and feel like many of his others, although I did notice an even more intense consideration of the question of misplaced and problematic love. He also became more fond of a narration style, where the narrator is only the observer. Most the stories in this collection put the narrator as part of the audience. This gives the feel of oral histories. Of course this makes the stories themselves less trustworthy from the reader’s point of view, but it does get a bit tedious. I came to see the narrator as a single person (Singer himself, I suppose) going through life listening and recording what he heard without embellishment or elaboration. This also gives the collection a feeling of liquidity that I have gotten used to from him. Of course, Singer was devastated by the destruction of the Jewish communities of his homeland and the Holocaust is always in the backdrop. We are constantly reminded that we are talking to the lucky survivors and that most of the people discussed in memory are likely dead.

Take the following dialog from “A Peephole in the Gate,” my favorite in this collection:

“I know Eve is no longer alive. She must have perished in the Nazi slaughter. Even if she were alive she would be a tottering old woman by now. But in my mind, she is still a young girl and Bolek, the janitor’s son, is still a young boy and the gate is still a gate. I lie awake at night, not able to sleep a wink, and I burn up with rage at Eve. Sometimes I regret that I did not hit her harder. I know that I would have married her if I hadn’t looked through the peephole that night. Her father wanted to arrange the wedding in a hall. A carriage would have been sent for her, and Bolek would have been standing there winking and laughing.”

“It may be,” I said, “that if you didn’t look through the peephole that evening you would never have gone to America. You and Eve and your children would all have been burned in Auschwitz or tortured to death in some other concentration camp.”

“Yes, I thought about that too. One look through a peephole and your whole life is changed. . . . What does all this mean? That everything is nothing but a miserable accident.” (651–652)

So, we are back to the question of disaster, mobility, liquidity and fate. How is a solid approach to life possible when the world shifts under our feet? How can we plan or even dream of a future in such a situation? I am finding this to be the central concern of Singer’s work and it was becoming stronger near the end of his life.

Methuselah, a Biblical figure notable for his long life of over 900 years, is presented as a stable figure in a rapidly changing world. Even his illicit love for Naamah is strangely enduring. Like the speaker in “A Peephole in the Gate,” Methuselah’s inaccessible love lives in the realm of ideas. Methuselah is out of time, so aloof from what is going on around him that he cannot tell the difference between his slaves and his grandchildren (he had sired both groups). Yet, he is in a liquid world that seems to have several parallels with modern America.

Methuselah knew that the earth was immense and rich, yet now he could it from on high—mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, fields, forests, orchards, and plants of all kinds. While he, Methuselah, ate, slept and dreamed, the sons of Adam had built towns, villages, roads, bridges, houses, towers, sailboats. Naamah flew with him into Cain’s city, which teemed with horsemen and pedestrians, as well as stores and workshops of all sorts. Methuselah saw many people of various races and colors: white, black, and brown. They had built temples to serve their gods. Bells were ringing. Priests sacrificed animals on altars, sprinkled blood on their corners, burned fat and incense. Soldiers with swords hanging from their hips and spears on their backs bound captives in chains, tortured them, and killed them. (728–729)

In all of these changes, Methuselah was a passive observer. This must have been how Singer and those of his generation felt. Singer’s efforts to document and understand the village life of his youth is symbolized in the everlasting figure of Methuselah. He can look on the rapid changes but he cannot be part of them. As Singer summarized, Methuselah knew the past and had a glimpse of the future.


Certainly, Isaac Bashevis Singer was a conservative writer who looked unfavorably on rapid change and radical thought. This conservatism grew over his lifetime and was certainly shaped by the traumas of the twentieth century. The few pictures we get of anarchists and other leftist activists are not very attractive and focus on either the hypocrisy of their ideas or the rapid evaporation of their significance. He certainly seemed to develop a contempt for irreligious Jews (even if his own beliefs were far from orthodox). But, if we think tradition had any place in the future we hope to build, Singer has something to teach us. More importantly, he believed that no matter how mixed up the world has become the relationships between people—even broken or dysfunctional relationships—are what make us human. Better a series of ruined marriages than isolation. Better a libertine than a hermit. Better a living tradition (full of mystery and wonder) than dead traditions—the living traditions seem to weigh less on our backs.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Image and other Stories” (1985): Part One

I am continuing my slow slog through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected short stories. In order to read through them as leisurely as they seem to demand and prevent it from slowing down my blog too much, I am going to start reading the slave narrative collection. To be blunt, I will be mixing in works that are easier to interpret and quicker to process rather than slow this entire blog down yet again with Singer’s stories. I cannot fully explain why this seems to always happen. I actually enjoy these stories. Perhaps it is their richness that causes my difficulties. They are certainly not straight forward and not conducive to my reckless (let my typos and numerous interpretative errors be forever forgiven) and accelerated approach.

The Image and Other Stories collects twenty-two stories. In a shift from his previous two collections, the stories are less personal. He seems to have exhausted his autobiographical insights. The aging Yiddish scholar, teacher, and writer living out his days in post-Holocaust New York fades to the background. Instead, he returns to the site of his earliest stories: pre-war Poland. It is from this setting that he is able to explore fate and free will. Even stories that are technically set in the post-war world are much more tied to that past. Is this a thematic shift for Singer? His earliest writings was interested in Poland as a means to preserve some folklore and tradition among a Diaspora community. His middle work moved to the personal and results in a series of works of profound alienation, loneliness, failure, and loss. Now I only half way through The Image, but it seems that alienation is gone as we once again find characters deeply tied to communities, traditions, and cultures. The question of fate v. free will is necessarily rooted in this social milieu.  Although I am often hostile to traditions, I find that communities can often be the foundation from which individualism emerges. In this I found some common ground with the conservative Singer. But for now I will focus on fate.


In his brief introduction to these stories Singer wrote: “Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand. Literature is the story of love and fate, a description of the made hurricane of human passions and the struggle with them.” (291) We can read fate religiously or mystically but this is not necessary. We are fated in the sense that the vast majority of the things that affect us on a daily basis are outside of our control. The arena were free will exists is incredibly small, but not insignificant. This situation has been worsened in late capitalism with its atomizing institutions, oppressive workplace cultures, and macroeconomic trends that limit our capacity for free choice. Singer seems to agree with this in broad terms. When people do express their individual freedom, the results are often catastrophic. But if fate is a common theme in Singer’s later stories, so is resistance to fate. Fate is often connected to “the Angel of Death” in these stories.

This dilemma is explored in the opening story “Advice” about a cuckold husband who falls deeper in love with his wife after she abandons him only to accept her and her new lover under his roof. He becomes a believer that he is fated saying: “When a man stands before the gallows with a noose around his neck and they bring him the good tidings that the execution has been postponed, he does not ask any questions.” (295) The narrator later meets the man and finds that his wife died, her love left for the Soviet Union and he “became king.” While all of this may have also been prescripted, especially his rival’s doom in the Soviet Union, the man starts to take the view that he is wrestling with “the Angel of Death,” not its passive victim.

“One Day of Happiness” is a devastating story about a ugly young woman – Penna Fela – who writes a love letter to a celebrity (a general) that she loved. The general invites her for a tryst, taking her virginity and pushing her out of the door as soon as he was done, citing his need to meet a superior officer. Despite bleeding profusely (almost unnaturally) she makes it home. She slits her wrists. While her parents are trying to stop the bleeding the general’s aide comes with flowers. At the end she welcomes death having had her one day of happiness. Now while her doom seems inevitable, she was an active architect. She wrote the letter, sent it, prepared herself carefully for the tryst, and willingly went to bed with him. She is more in control than we perhaps want to admit at the first reading, where we want to condemn the general, obviously taking advantage of the women’s silly infatuation. Penna Fela is in rebellion against her family and its expectations and in many ways the active role in the story. I actually imagine the general as more bound, probably unable to refuse a meeting with any woman who writes him love letters.

“The Interview” is philosophically profound and explores the aftermath of the First World War in Poland. The narrator is a young journalist who meets a conservative writer for an interview but ends up meeting a woman who was visiting the writer at the same time. She is the minor poet Machla Krumbein. Her poems offend the older writer because they are aggressively sexual and libertine. “I had never before read such obscenities. I didn’t know what was stronger in me, my passion or my nausea.” (332) We learn that her perspective emerged during the Austrian occupation of the war, where she was traumatized by rape and violence. The narrator reports some of this to his girlfriend who is horrified and kicks him out. Years later, after the war, he discovers one copy of Machla Krumbein’s poetry that survived and sees her as a more malevolent figure, understanding her less as a fascinating libertine and more like a woman who “wanted all males for herself and no one else.” (328)

“Why Heisherik was Born” is about a delusion writer who suffers greatly first in the Polish-Bolshevik war and then in travels through the Holy Land. He is poor and barely holding his family together. But he spends much of his time writing, most of it barely literate. He leaves his family to go to the Holy Land and returns with more writings. He asks the narrator to edit his work, which focuses on how he struggled to maintain Jewish rituals despite his situation. We learn later that he died in the Second World War performing an important job as an illegal underground courier. The narrator realizes that he was being prepared for this task by his earlier adventures, giving new meaning to the neglected manuscript.

He could never have become a holy messenger without having going through all the ordeals he had described in his pathetic book and had recited to me at such length. I believe that there must be, somewhere in the universe, an archive in which all human sufferings and acts of self-sacrifice are stored. There could be no divine justice if Heinsherik’s story did not grace God’s infinite library for time eternal. (365)

Perhaps his life was simply preparation for his minor role in the war. If so, he was fated to suffer through life. That may be easier to get our head around than one’s freedom to suffer.

In these four stories we have people who have chosen to destroy relationships, accept humiliation, or willingly suffered greatly for strange reasons, youthful infatuation, religious devotion, an idea implanted in their mind by a strange vengeful woman. By looking at these figures as wrestling with fate rather than being passive servants, even the fatalist can find room for free will even if it is only in resistance to predestination.

A. J. Liebling, “Normandy Revisited” (1958): War and Nostalgia

The film The Best Years of Our Lives famously explored the trauma of returning from war to a working class community that no longer understood you. The war gave a sense of meaning, a community, and a purpose that could not be recreated in one’s banal hometown. Marriages broke up and veterans took to drink. Others came back less than whole and found additional challenges. If A. J. Liebling’s Normandy Revisited is a guide, this was in some ways the experience of war correspondences. Perhaps this is why so many journalists move from war to war and never settle for working for a local newspaper, reporting on the fair.


Normandy Revisited has more in common with Liebling’s book on food Between Meals than some of the other war writings I have been looking at. He often looks back with nostalgia at the war and his exciting experiences covering the war (with a knowledge that such events will never come again), but much of this nostalgic musing is done at French cafes in Normandy. It is hard not to wonder whether this book was an excuse for Liebling to enjoy consumption and conversation in his second home of France. It is a work of leisurely tourism and thus cannot be fully separated from the privilege someone like Liebling enjoyed at the birth of American hegemony. While I do not find much useful in nostalgia (I prefer a Prometheanism) and when that nostalgia is for a war that one did not need to fight except in print it should trouble us, there is perhaps something to the human preference for action to banality. I suspect many leftists look at revolution (or the high point of the I.W.W. or a particularly inspirations strike) with a similar nostalgia.

What I find sad in the juxtaposition of his war memories with his experiences touring Normandy a decade after D-Day is the apparent loss of the leftist potentialities that formed a crucial part of the anti-fascist struggle. (See my earlier posts on Liebling for more on these.) Instead we are given Liebling’s participation in a culture of affluence. The following comes after a two page description of a meal.

This has developed from a merely culinary into a geographical digression, but I can never approach the memory of that meal without wanting to go into it. It has the same attraction for me as Costello’s saloon. I seldom encounter a pheasant nearly so good nowadays, and when I do, an hour d’oeuvre and possible a tripe is all I can manage at one meal besides the bird. (I am writing this on a lunch exclusively of turtle soup, as I am trying to take off weight.) (913)

Perhaps a more useful reading of Normandy Revisited is to set it next to Between Meals and take another look at the Dionysian pursuit of pleasure. In my post on Between Meals, I argued for a more sympathetic view of Liebling’s quest for pleasure as a reaction against a capitalist culture of scarcity and restraint. The reason more of us cannot consume epically is due to the even more grotesque consumption and accumulation by the ruling class. We should not confuse Liebling’s obesity and fondness for food with the obesity of the millionaires and billionaires. Perhaps my brief moral outrage has to do with his enjoyment of these pleasures on a graveyard of soldiers and radical dreams. I had forgotten that in the context of the Nazi occupation of France, merely keeping a harvest or enjoying a surplus was not allowed.


From the perspective of human freedom, perhaps it is also good that the wounds of war were so easily healed. Signs of war, of course, could not so easily forgotten. Some buildings were left in partial repair. Widows had to come to terms with dead husbands. Liebling’s report from the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc shows little evidence of the previous conflict, except the proprietor’s dead husband and the fact that the hotel had to be rebuilt. Instead of trauma we get:

When I came downstairs to await the Le Cornecs in the cafe that evening, the chromium-florescent bait had brought in two couples who sat up at the bar. The women’s tight, round little bottoms perched up on the bar stools like the tops of swizzle sticks. The V-backs of their motoring dresses started just above the caudal cleft, their hair was rose platinum, and their voices suggested they wore microphones in their garter belts. They and the men, who looked like comperes in a marseilais road show, were drinking Scotch, as everybody does in France now who does not wish to be taken for a tourist. (917)

One quickly notices in this book (if not in his earlier projects) that Liebling always saved one eye for the ladies and his books would have been much shorter had an editor removed these descriptions. I wonder how many of these women he discusses knows they have been so immortalized for sitting at a barstool, riding a bicycle or showing off their “French frame” (no time to look up page number for that reference but it is there).

Where does this obligation to feel nostalgia, grief, and trauma for a war come from? I am pondering a fictional visit to Normandy made by the titular character in Saving Private Ryan. For that character the war was a life of guilt and torment. The film-maker, and I suspect the nation as a whole, demands this emotion from its people. Considerable energy is spent in memorials, films, holidays, parades, and speeches. Lincoln passed over the suffering and sacrifice of soldiers in one line to get to the real significance of Gettysburg, the war as social revolution. In contrast, the cult of war memorials wants a nation who thinks opposition to the state is somehow opposition to the war dead. This is a profoundly reactionary sentiment and had no place in a projectural life and a politics of the future. We should let the dead be dead.

Tyranny of historical memory

Tyranny of historical memory

Liebling’s reports form his trip show that the Parisians did not remember the war with guilt. Perhaps it is an American obsession. Liebling does describe a charity event for veterans, but it was apparently not drown in tears, bad patriot music, and political leaders calling on our divine duty to the war dead.

As Liebling suggested in The Road Back to Paris, he could not really cover the war from cafes, but we should be fortunate that is may turn out to be a very good place to cover the aftermath of the war. So let me suggest: Down with nostalgia and guilt when it comes to the great wars of the past and our own lives. It has no place in the world we want to build.