This morning, the Paris Review sent a delightful poem by Campbell McGrath called Plums. It seemed bold to me for somebody other than William Carlos Williams to do this. It’s a prose poem, too and has a voice all its own. It definitely has its own take on plums:
“Was it the first time I’d been West, first time driving across the country? Was it the promise of open space, the joy of setting out, the unmistakable goodness of the land and the people, the first hint of connection with the deep wagon-ruts of the area, the living tissue through which the valley of the Platte has channeled the Mormons and the 49ers, the Pawnee and the Union Pacific, this ribbon of highway beneath a sky alive with the smoke of our transit, the body of the past consumed by the engine of our perpetual restlessness? How am I to choose among these things? Who am I to speak for that younger version of myself, atop a hill in Nebraska, bathed in morning light? I was there. I bore witness to that moment. I heart it pass, touched it, tasted its mysterious essence. I bear it with me still, an amulet smooth as a fleshless fruit stone.”
I grew up with and have long practiced a kind of first amendment absolutism that seems now to be out of step with our times. It’s not that people don’t believe in the first amendment — polls show that most do and pretty much everyone I know would say they do — it’s more that people will no longer rank it as the highest value as issues of safety and social equality have taken new precedence in our discourse.
I first encountered this impulse directly in the 1990s, as part of an Albuquerque-based theatre company producing Ntzozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf with a multiracial cast, a decision that ran afoul the sensibilities of a local bookstore and led to protests. It didn’t even matter to those offended that Shange had explicitly blessed the production and casting.
We tend to view new attitudes about speech and whats constitutes offensive speech as a highly contemporary development, but this has been with us since the social awakenings of the 60s and was huge in the 90s. Along the way, the right of anybody to say whatever they want has eroded and the simple dismissal “you’re just complaining about the social consequences of speech,” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. Not if those social consequences are shutting people out of global conversations.
In an online literary forum where the topic of American Dirt was raised, I wrote: “We all have an absolute right to tell any story we want.”
The first response: “Hard disagree.”
This isn’t exactly an attack on the Constitution is how the argument tends to proceed. The Constitution only guarantees that the government will not stop something like American Dirt from being written and published. It makes no promises about people buying the book, agreeing to sell the book or not protesting the book’s existence. That’s all true. The right to write a book is equal to the right for somebody to protest the book’s existence. That’s the deal.
But I sill believe that the conviction that certain people shouldn’t even attempt to tell certain stories represents the beginning of an erosion of free speech. “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt,” is just not an argument I can get behind even as “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt badly,” is one I’m fine with.
We should argue about the quality of speech, not the existence of speech. The Freedom Forum Institute, which conducts an annual poll about first amendment attitudes shows that absolute support for free speech is slipping. In 2018, 23% of the poll respondents said that first amendment protections “go too far.” That number climbed to 29% in 2019. Can nearly a third of Americans really believe such nonsense?
35% of respondents believe that student journalists in public schools should need school administrator approval to write about controversial topics in student run publications. 27% believe that teachers should be allowed to punish students for the contents of their social media posts.
We allow and accept, by the way, that employers can fire people for what they post on social media or for having political bumper stickers on their cars. We also allow and accept that the massive corporate gatekeepers of the internet and the wider culture, like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter can promote or ban whatever speech they want and we say that this is proper because they are private even though corporate censorship may be a bigger threat than government censorship in contemporary America.
I just read The Spoon River Anthology for the first time. Somehow, it had escaped me. Though the preface assures me that Edgar Lee Masters is among the pioneers of psychological naturalism and a sort of bridge from Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot and the great American modernists, I’d never been taught that.
I was struck, reading Spoon River by its tonal similarity to Lincoln on the Bardo by George Saunders. Both are tales told from the grave and both rely on, as Masters put it, the idea that we’ll never know truth until the dead can speak for themselves. The main difference in style is that Bardo is a fully realized novel while Spoon River is a collection of related poems, tied by numerous narrative threads but less unified, even than Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson also owes Masters a debt).
To me the most significant difference between Spoon River and Bardo is the treatment of Abraham Lincoln. Saunders simultaneously humanizes and lionizes Lincoln, in a manner very much in step with modern political thought. Masters, living and writing closer to the Civil War and a seeming pacifist (he criticizes U.S. military adventurism in the Philippines in the book and seems very much to believe that most wars are engineered by moneyed interests at the expense of everyone else) is highly critical of Lincoln. Already, in the early part of the 20th century and more than five decades removed from the end of the Civil War, Masters reveals himself as, at best, a political crank with his criticisms of Lincoln.
In many ways, Bardo is an answer to Spoon River and a corrective.
Even in the age of the Internet, literature remains our longest running an most vital conversation.