Archive  2021

November 27, 2020

from The Circus Train

by Judith Kitchen

 

“Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to.”—THE

 

I remember during a presentation at a writers conference in Portland decades ago that my friend Judith Kitchen asked whether I was bothered by the fact that Annie Dillard made up the famous story of her cat leaving bloodied footprints on her chest. I mumbled something about facts being a great teacher, but that Annie Dillard was a superb writer, and it didn’t matter that much to me. This was at the very beginning of the debate about truth in nonfiction, and the audience grumbled at my remarks. I was not sure where Judith stood on the issue at that time, but in the end I think she and I mulled over the problem and came to similar views on the subject. I offer this Paragraph of the Week and Commentary as evidence.

 

Judith died in November 2014, and each year around this time The Humble Essayist features a paragraph from her work. This time I chose one from The Circus Train which I consider her masterpiece and the finest book-length essay ever written.

 

This is our last feature for 2020. The Humble Essayist takes the month of December off, but we’ll be back on Friday, January 8. In the meantime we will leave the feature on truth and memory by Judith in place as a way to crown the year.

—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Don't. Don't keep arguing with me, refuting what I've just said, resisting my interpretations. You always try to give others their due. You posit excuses for them. Or reasons. I don't care about the reasons. I only care that…that they are what I say they are. The product of my perceptions. So don't go on defending them against my stories. My stories are real. They carry themselves along the months, then years. They move slowly, horse and buggy time, and their colors do not fade. So, simply, don't. Open yourself to my version of my life—because it will eventually explain everything. Will lead to the cookie jar that holds my ashes. Open yourself to what it feels like to be burdened with memory, and insight. Or, if not insight, then critique. Commentary. So, quite simply, don't.

—Judith Kitchen

Commentary

 

Judith Kitchen was not only an elegant writer of lyric prose, she was also an astute literary critic. In The Circus Train she is often of these two minds, and when she slips into second person here it is the writer talking back to the critic. Her book begins with her earliest memory of playing in a strawberry patch and seeing a circus train in a valley, but the more her critical mind examines the memory the more contradictions she sees in it. When she pictures her house and the strawberry patch “there is no room in that scene for the little valley with its tiny chugging circus.” Perhaps the train was in a book, she wonders, but the critic in her suspects she has conflated two separate scenes to create a memory that didn't happen. “When you doubt your own version,” the critic asks sharply, “how can you not doubt the whole?” Exasperated, the writer responds. “Don’t. Don’t keep arguing with me.” It is not a debate about the facts that the writer needs, but stories that are, she contends, “the products of my perceptions.” They last a lifetime and “do not fade.” They are real and she can take them to “the cookie jar” that will one day hold her ashes. Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to. And yet, she needs the critic too and asks, calm now by the end of the paragraph, that the two of them do this task together and share “what it feels like to be burdened with memory.” In addition to personal perception the writer knows she requires “insight,” “critique,” or “commentary”—whatever word best describes what the critic in her has to offer—though in the end memory, no matter how flawed, is the final arbiter.

—THE

 
 

January 8, 2021

 

from “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology”

by Ira Sukrungruang

in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“...young Ira and his friends thought the scene was funny until they heard the boy’s manic cackle that scattered crows.—THE

 

An anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of Brevity magazine came out at the end of last year, so we thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from the new book. The founder of Brevity, Dinty Moore, admits in the introduction that the magazine dedicated to personal prose of 750 words or less began more as “an experiment than a commitment,” and he did not expect it to last long, but it set in motion a wave of interest in short nonfictional forms and has become one of the great online magazines in our time. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

We begin with the essay “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology” by Ira Sukrungruang. He is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night.

The Paragraph of the Week

We said cruel things, too. In our secret circle. In the temple library, where dust coated books about suffering, where furniture went to rot in the damp back room. Someone said, He smells like barf. Someone said, Thai white trash. I said, No wonder his parents dumped him. How could we know you hid behind a shelf of Buddhist books, patting a stray cat that made a nest in the hollow of a cabinet? How could we know what was to follow? If we did, would we have stopped our tongues?

—Ira Sukrungruang

Commentary

In many ways the boy ridiculed by the “secret circle” of Ira Sukrungruang’s friends was just another mischievous boy like them, but his pranks were fueled by a “rocket energy” that made everyone uncomfortable. So when he threw a rock through the Temple window and the monks chased him into the vegetable garden young Ira and his friends thought the scene was funny until they heard the boy’s manic “cackle that scattered crows.” They huddled and shared insults about him, not really understanding the boy and barely aware of the pain they were inflicting. They did not know that he kept a stray cat in the library because he thought it missed its mother, and they did not know that one day years later he would kill himself. When Sukrungruang learned the news he and his friends said they weren’t surprised, pushing aside their guilt, but thinking back on the time that the boy stole holy water and, smiling broadly, poured it over his head, the author knew better and accepted responsibility. “I remember,” he writes feeling ashamed, “wishing forgiveness in the form of rain.”

—THE

January 15, 2021

from “Shower Songs”

by Brian Trapp

in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“It is the irreverence of the brothers that allows ‘Shower Songs’ to cut to the heart.”

—THE

 

An anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of Brevity magazine came out at the end of last year, so we thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from the new book. Writers can take on any subject as long as it is written in 750 words or less. The theme of the current issue is disability which is also the subject of our Paragraph of the Week. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

Last week we featured an essay by Ira Sukrungruang about bullying and its impact on boys which you can find in the archives here, but this week we look at the flipside, in a passage from “Shower Songs,” by Brian Trapp, a piece about brothers taunting each other in ways that may seem cruel to those outside the relationship, but, when matched with responsibility, tenderness, and empathy are the language of brotherly affection. Trapp’s essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Ninth Letter among other magazines. He is at work now on a novel and memoir both based on growing up with his twin brother, Danny.  You can read the complete version of "Shower Songs" here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Now it was time for our special song. For this, I used the loofah. His penis was matted with black pubic hair from being crushed inside his diaper. Bits of crystallized urine were caked to the hair. As I scrubbed, I started the bass line, a sort of march. I sang, “It’s not gay…It’s not gay…cause I’m wa-shing my bro-ther’s penis.”

 

—Brian Trapp

Commentary

 

It is the irreverence of the brothers that allows “Shower Songs” to cut to the heart. When Brian gave his disabled 23-year-old twin brother, Danny, a bath, Danny called him “momma” as a taunt and said “Ahhhhh” through chattering teeth in a “complicated heckle for You're such and idiot that doubled for It’s freaking cold.” Brian got back by saying Danny was “ugly,” and added “you smell and stink to boot” causing Danny to smile and say “Brian,” though it came out “I-an.” And Brian sang the loofah song with the refrain “It’s not gay…cause I’m wa-shing my bro-ther’s penis.” During this banter, Brian carried his brother into the shower, washed his “taut abdomen,” “hairy chicken legs,” “warped feet,” and “splayed hands,” and cleaned the crystalized urine away from his pubic area with care for the last time. Soon Brian would move three hours away and Danny would be taken to a group home where he would die five years later after a medical procedure. It is the give-and-take between the twins that tells most of the story of their brotherly affection removing sentimentality on the way to true sentiment, though the hug in the shower at the end of the piece, brothers “chest to chest,” gets me too.

—THE

 
 

January 22, 2021

 

from “How to Leave a Room”

by Marcia Aldrich

in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“She recalls, after her mother died, finding the familiar tube of lipstick while going through her mother’s things, and feeling ‘overcome with a desire’ to smear her lips.”

—THE

 

We thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from The Best of Brevity, an anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of the magazine. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

This week we feature the essay “How to Leave a Room” by Marcia Aldrich. She is the author of Girl Rearing and Companion to an Untold Story and her essays have appeared in many magazines including Gettysburg Review, North American Review, Witness, Arts and Letters, Northwest Review, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Butter/Toast, The Normal School, The Kenyon Review, Hotel Amerika, and The Seneca Review. You can read her full essay here.

 

The essay begins with Aldrich noting her mother’s belief that when you leave a room you should “leave no trace behind.”

The Paragraph of the Week

 

And yet, to my confusion, she wore lipstick, applied in a thick style that changed little from year to year, a signature of sorts. In the bathroom she had her own sink, mirror, and cabinet. Out of the top drawer of the vanity she’d pull her single tube of lipstick—Revlon’s Mercy, a buoyant shade of red, a bit shrill. Leaning in close to the mirror, she puckered her lips and applied her Mercy, careful to stay inside the lines. At the end of the application, she’d brusquely rip a tissue from a nearby box and blot. And there would be the telltale red imprint of a kiss.

—Marcia Aldrich

Commentary

 

Marcia Aldrich’s mother taught her daughter to “leave no trace behind” when you “leave a room” and yet when she wore lipstick she would blot her lips with a tissue “leaving the telltale red imprint of a kiss.” As an adult, Marcia also wears lipstick favoring “Black Honey” exasperating her daughter’s circle of friends who prefer piercings. “Pierce, Don’t Paint” they say “with a lisp on studded tongues,” causing Marcia to wonder why then she does paint her lips. It brings pleasure—her favorite “noir” color “throws people off”—but she knows that is not the full story. She recalls, after her mother died, finding the familiar tube of lipstick while going through her mother’s things, and feeling “overcome with a desire” to smear her lips. The lipstick she realized was the mark of a “twisted allegiance” to her mom. Discovering it in the room that her mother had left forever she imagines “finding a tissue” as well, “on which she had blotted her lips” and knows, if she happened upon such a kiss, “she would hold onto that tissue for eternity.”

—THE

 

January 29, 2021

from “The Heart as a Torn Muscle”

by Randon Billings Noble

in  The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“There’s The One and The Other and a torn heart muscle between.”—THE

 

We thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from The Best of Brevity, an anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of the magazine. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

Our last feature in the series is a paragraph from “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” by Randon Billings Noble. She is the author of the essay collection Be with Me Always and the lyric essay chapbook Devotional. “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” was a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2016, and other work by her has appeared in the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of After the Art. You can read her essay in full here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Not The One (The One you already have—and deeply love) but of all the people in that large room far from home, he was the one for you. And your heart stretched more than it should have, tore a little, and let him in.

–Randon Billings Noble

Commentary

 

There’s The One and The Other and a torn heart muscle between. Some of what Randon Billings Noble does to relieve the pain would work for any muscle: herbal tea, cool showers, and the application of ice, but soon these remedies give way to cures specific to her divided heart. She advises that a “protective layer” is necessary, a “piece of clothing,” “a wall,” or “ideally a state.” She also protects the muscle by “refusing to jump into anything.” For her, compression means “hold yourself together” and elevation means to “rise above.” Her young bohemian friend wonders if the One and The Other would be up for a threesome, but her oldest friend says “What do you mean ‘met someone?’” In the end she puts her hand on her chest to “feel what beats.” That muscle, which longs to be whole, will show her the way.

—THE

February 5, 2021

from “Inexhaustible Precision”

in In the Land of the Cyclops

by Karl Ove Knausgaard

translated by Martin Aitken

 

“Are these photographs too simple to be art?”—THE

 

Can art be simple and accessible? Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard tackles the question in his essay "Inexhaustible Precision" from his recent collection, In the Land of the Cyclops, focusing  much of his attention on the photographs by Sally Mann. His answer is yes, if the art is marked by “inexhaustible precision,” a phrase we ponder in this week's feature.

 

This English version of the essay was first published in The Point Magazine which you can access here.

 
Mann Battlefield Manassas.jpg

Sally Mann, “Battlefields, Manassas (Airplane),” 2000. Silver gelatin print. © Sally Mann.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Nothing of what I have written here, apart from the concrete description of the dark landscape, is found in these pictures. They evade meaning, the way the world evades meaning, being simply what it is. The photographer’s interpretations of it emerge in the picture, but in the form only of the picture itself, intuitively understood by the beholder in the emotions, feelings, moods the picture awakens. The fact that they do not speak, wordless and yet expressive, is what makes them so powerfully alluring. When I look at a tree in one of these photos, it is as if it holds a secret, as if it contains something unfamiliar to me, standing there draped in its dense cloak of foliage, shimmering almost, weightless and yet heavy, and in this light almost submarine, as if it were the sea and not the wind that washed among its branches. The tree is a living organism, alive through perhaps four hundred years or more. It is a simpler organism than us, and we know everything about what it comprises, what happens inside it and why, and still it bears a secret, is a part of something of whose nature we are ignorant, for the only thing we can see is surface; even when we examine its constituent parts, they become but surface. Oh, what do we need with knowledge? Cells and mitochondria, atoms and electrons, galaxies at the farthest perimeters of space, what does knowledge give us when the secret, which only art can express, the voice of the trees and the song of the soil, the very mystery itself, is indivisible?

—Karl Ove Knausgaard

 

Commentary

 

Karl Ove Knausgaard admits that the photographs by Sally Mann such as “Battlefields, Manassas (Airplane)” are “simple, naturalistic and immensely alluring” and disconnected from our time so he wonders if such a “nostalgic dream of a world” is too easily felt and “essentially a lie.” We live in a time of “constant flux” but these pictures seem “immune to change.” The fact that Mann used outdated equipment and techniques giving them a “nineteenth century patina” only adds to their nostalgic magic, courting sentimentality if not kitsch. Are these photographs too simple to be art? Then he posits the idea that opens them up: “I don’t think those pictures are meant to represent the places in them, but the way we relate to them.” The photograph, like the tree, is “wordless but expressive.” It is “shimmering almost, weightless and yet heavy, and in this light almost submarine, as if it were the sea and not the wind that washed among its branches.” He could go on and on—and for many pages he does which is in part his point, ending with this thought: the photograph is fathomless in a way that renders all of our knowledge irrelevant. “Cells and mitochondria, atoms and electrons, galaxies at the farthest perimeters of space, what does knowledge give us when the secret, which only art can express, the voice of the trees and the song of the soil, the very mystery itself, is indivisible?” This mystery behind the ordinary is the goal of all art. He calls it “inexhaustible precision” which is “always simple, always without resistance and easily grasped, but always has more to it than what first meets the eye.”

—THE

February 12, 2021

 

from Braiding Sweetgrass:

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

by Robin Kimmerer

 

“The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue.”

—Robin Wall Kimmerer

 

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, plant ecologist, writer, and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She serves as the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants was released in 2013 and was awarded the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. She has served as writer in residence at the Andrews Experimental Forest, Blue Mountain Center, the Sitka Center, and the Mesa Refuge.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

A sheaf of sweetgrass, bound at the end and divided into thirds, is ready to braid. In braiding sweetgrass—so that it is smooth, glossy, and worthy of the gift—a certain amount of tension is needed. As any little girl with tight braids will tell you, you have to pull a bit. Of course you can do it yourself—by tying one end to a chair, or by holding it in your teeth and braiding backward away from yourself—but the sweetest way is to have someone else hold the end so that you pull gently against each other, all the while leaning in, head to head, chatting and laughing, watching each other’s hands, one holding steady while the other shifts the slim bundles over one another, each in its turn. Linked by sweetgrass, there is reciprocity between you, linked by sweetgrass, the holder as vital as the braider. The braid becomes finer and thinner as you near the end, until you’re braiding individual blades of grass, and then you tie it off.

—Robin Wall Kimmerer

Commentary

 

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer slowly makes the case for reciprocity as the basis for creation by the power of its examples and the beauty of its language. It contrasts the myth of Eve, who was banished from a garden, with the Native American myth of Skywoman “who created a garden for the well-being of all,” and laments the violence, the lack of reciprocity, when these two cultures met. “What would it be like,” she asks, “to be raised on gratitude” rather than greed and calls for a “declaration of interdependence” and “justice for all of creation.” She points to the Native American way of planting crops together called Three Sisters in which corn provides the poles for beans to climb and squash at the base provides nutrients for all. Instead of capitalism that is based on the unequal distribution of wealth, creating scarcity, she suggests the teaching of “One Bowl and One Spoon” which holds that “the gifts of the earth are all in one bowl, all to be shared from a single spoon.” Earth, she explains, creates by a continuous mutual exchange of abundance: “plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Water knows this, clouds know this. Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth.” So the best way to braid sweetgrass is for one person to lean toward the other, “head to head, chatting and laughing, watching each other’s hands,” with this gift from the earth plaited between them. “The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken,” she writes. “It’s our turn now, long overdue.”

—THE

 

February 19, 2021

 

 

from “How Lady Antebellum Wrecked Country Music”

in Anything Will Be Easy after This: A Western Identity Crisis

by Bethany Maile

 

“Bethany Maile…traces her love of country music to weekends riding in her father’s pickup in the Idaho foothills with her feet out the window listening to ‘Rodeo’ on repeat.”—THE

 

Bethany Maile is a professor of writing at Boise State University. Her work has been published in Shenandoah, the Rumpus, River Teeth, Prairie Schooner, High Desert Journal, and the Normal School. Her essay “How Lady Antebellum Wrecked Country Music” begins as a critique of the band Lady A, but ends up being about herself and much more. Her collection of essays about the myth of the wild west is called Anything Will Be Easy after This: A Western Identity Crisis.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

I have said that the group [Lady A] poses too hard in the shadow of a thing it just isn't, and here I see the lamest reflections of myself. I wear cowboy boots to shopping malls and movie theaters. I drive my pickup to coffee shops. I have laid out my costume, if you will, as evidence of my earnest Idaho-ness, and while I genuinely like these things, nothing about them is authentic. I don't haul trailers or hay with my pickup; it could just as easily be a convertible. I could wear sandals or flip-flops more purposefully than my boots. I have taken the functionality of the old world and reduced it to a stylistic flourish, like a whiskey shot lyric or fiddle tiff. Maybe Lady A has been just as thoughtless, yet earnest, with its flashes of country. Maybe this should elicit empathy or grace.

—Bethany Maile

Commentary

 

“How Lady Antebellum Wrecked Country Music” is a smart and blistering critique by Bethany Maile of the pop-country band Lady A for not being country enough, good enough, or interesting enough which, she admits, is an indictment of herself. She traces her love of country music to weekends riding in her father’s pickup in the Idaho foothills with her feet out the window listening to “Rodeo” on repeat. She realizes that this view of herself is a myth—she doesn’t haul hay in her pickup which “could just as easily be a convertible”—but she wants country music to be authentic to that idyllic past. Lady A, which is “vague and therefore universal” does not do justice to the myth of the west, and like her has “reduced it to a stylistic flourish, like a whiskey shot lyric or fiddle tiff.” But can you be authentic to a myth, she asks, in the question at the heart of both her essay and her book Anything Will Be Easy after This: A Western Identity Crisis? She realizes that authentic country songs are “fixated on the past,” each an “elegy to a world that’s disappeared” and an attempt “to pin down the vanished.” Comfortable memories of her mother’s “gingham blanket” or of eating “crackers and cheese” and sharing an “overpriced Coors” with her father seem far-off. In the end, she rejects these much-loved, but frozen clichés as no longer sustaining and calls for “a new story for us to occupy” based on “analysis and deep thinking and interrogation,” one “that prizes the health of a place over our desire to claim it” in an ever changing world that changes us as we are passing through.

—THE

 

February 26, 2021

from “Men Explain Things to Me”

in Men Explain Things to Me

by Rebecca Solnit

 

“I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.”—Rebecca Solnit


Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster. Her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” first published in April 2008 at TomDispatch.com and reprinted in Guernica magazine on August 20, 2012 was a sensational critique of a particular form of male arrogance that later became known as “mansplaining.” It was eventually published in Men Explain Things to Me, a collection of essays on topics such as Virginia Woolf’s embrace of mystery, an examination of marriage equality, and a survey of violence against women, all written in her direct and accessible prose. I thought it would be fun to look at this seminal essay to see why it struck such a nerve. You can read the full essay here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

 

—Rebecca Solnit

Commentary

“Men Explain Things to Me” reveals what is at stake when some men presume that the world needs to be explained to women. “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.” What makes the essay memorable are unmistakable details about the behavior of her two examples, Mr. Very Important I and II. Everyone has seen men act this way but no one before Rebecca Solnit had nailed it so vividly. When she describes Mr. Very Important I who attempted to explain her own book, which he had not read, to her, she skewers his “smug look” of “a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.” Who has not seen that? When she describes Very Important II, who accused her of getting a fact wrong which she had gotten right, thus dismissing all she had to say, she writes that “his scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.” Again, who—male of female—has not seen the “invitation to more insult” used as a shield against criticism from a woman? “I like incidents of that sort,” Solnit admits, “when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.” It is her precise rendering of such incidents that sears them in the mind.

 

—THE

 

March 5, 2021

 

from “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”

in Men Explain Things to Me

by Rebecca Solnit

 

“What Virginia Woolf gives us, Solnit declares, is ‘a compass by which to get lost.’”—THE

 

Last week we featured Rebecca Solnit’s well-known essay “Men Explain Things to Me” about the arrogant tendency of some men to assume an air of unwarranted authority around women and say stupid things. In the end that essay is about the dangers of being around a smug know-it-all who shuts other people up. In this week’s feature on “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” Solnit flips the coin, describing the liberation of not knowing. The essay originally appeared in The New Yorker and you can read it in full here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters. The revolt against this destruction is a revolt of the imagination, in favor of subtleties, of pleasures money can’t buy and corporations can’t command, of being producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the numinous, the uncertain.

—Rebecca Solnit

Commentary

What Rebecca Solnit admires above all in Virginia Woolf is her willingness to embrace the unknown. It is not found in the office, Woolf writes, where we “sit surrounded by objects which enforce the memories of our own experience,” but in the street where “we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers.” Solnit agrees: “At times, thinking is an outdoor activity, and a physical one.” She suggests that Woolf’s imagination is animated by an “uncertainty principle” that serves her well, pushing past the “confinement sometimes called the art world” to mystery, “the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.” By liberating her text she also liberates the rest of us, especially women who are not merely freed to do “some of the institutional things” reserved for men in the past, but “to roam, geographically and imaginatively.” The nebulous goal is to exchange “the tyranny of the quantifiable” for what can be insinuated but not named by language, to protect the planet from “systems of accounting that can’t count what matters,” to be “producers rather than consumers of meaning.” What Virginia Woolf gives us, Solnit declares, is “limitlessness, impossible to grasp, urgent to embrace, as fluid as water, as endless as desire, a compass by which to get lost.”

—THE

 

March 12, 2021

from “Ode on Melancholy”

in Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse

by Anahid Nersessian

 

“Once the jailer I’m now the object of an unflinching rhetoric of criminalization: everything I do is wrong.”—Anahid Nersessian

 

Anahid Nersessian is the author of The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life and Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment, and has published widely in top scholarly journals as well as in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Public Books. She also founded and co-edits the Thinking Literature series at the University of Chicago Press. She describes her most recent book, Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse as “a short book of experimental criticism, aimed at general readers” in which each of Keats’s Great Odes is followed by critical commentary in the form of a personal essay. We have chosen the Paragraph of the Week from her meditation on Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” which brings her personal experience of being blamed for broken relationships to bear on the ending of the poem.

Paragraph of the Week

 

Once the jailer I’m now the object of an unflinching rhetoric of criminalization: everything I do is wrong. It comes easily to me to ask for forgiveness, but even though I really do mean it and really do want it I am also getting tired of this nonsense. If love is anything not laid waste by this world it is free. Mine is. Beneath all uncertainties it is sacred in the way of a riot, like the very idea of song. It has to be dragged kicking and screaming even from the scene of its final insult, for which I too am responsible, not least because I greet with furious exultation the moment it all goes to pieces and I abandon hope and us. From various corners I hear I have been characteristically insensible or clueless as well as hypocritical, beguiling, and cruel. No one seems convinced of what I know to be true about my love, that it was not wanted for what it was but for the pain it could guarantee.

—Anahid Nersessian

Commentary

 

In her literary analysis Anahid Nersessian compares herself to “Veil'd Melancholy,” presented by Keats as a femme fatale who “dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die” and turns “Joy” and “Pleasure” into poison. She may be “the very temple of Delight” but her “Sovran shrine” is hung about with “cloudy trophies” of past lovers. Nersessian is a victim of Melancholy as well and turns gloomy after an ugly argument over the phone with an ex-lover in which they hurl insults at each other. He says she has “ruined his life,” and she says he has always been “a great wet claw of hostility.” The argument ratchets up to the point that he sends her “a picture of his dick.” She may be tired of the “nonsense” of always being blamed for these breakups, and rejects accusations of being “clueless” as well as “hypocritical, beguiling, and cruel,” but admits that the fight is “fresh air…this frankness” and in the end takes Keats’ words to heart that a bitter—and one hopes temporary—truth about her love is that it is not wanted for what it is, but “for the pain it could guarantee.” Some will no doubt object to turning personal experience into literary criticism this way, but it does open new possibilities for the personal essayist, the solitude of a lyric poem and the solitude of lyric prose speaking for one another, and serves as a reminder of Helen Vendler’s description of the lyric as “utterances for us to utter” as our “own words.”

—THE

March 19, 2021

 

 

from “Grandparents in Paradise: Life in the Face of the Fall”

in Yesterday’s Noise: : A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance

by Joe Mackall

 

“Ellie tosses us a casual wave over her shoulder and disappears into the Buick, into the world.”—Joe Mackall

We at The Humble Essayist Press are pleased to announce our latest book publication, Yesterday’s Noise: A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance by Joe Mackall, a book which Andre Dubos III describes “as stories that square off against life’s mysteries, test the limits of love, and enlarge the heart.” Founder and longtime co-editor of River Teeth magazine, Mackall is the author of two works of nonfiction: The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage and Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish.

 

We took our Paragraph of the Week from the essay “Grandparents in Paradise: Life in the Face of the Fall” about the teeth-gnashing experience of Mackall and his wife waving goodbye as their granddaughter heads out in a car with her teenage friends. You can learn more about The Humble Essayist Press and Joe Mackall’s Yesterday’s Noise here.

Paragraph of the Week

As the day nears dusk, I watch as my oldest granddaughter runs out of our house toward a car full of other high school kids. The girl behind the wheel—somewhere between sixteen and the rest of her life—is a little overweight, which for some reason comforts me, until I notice she wears the too thick makeup of a young woman wanting a life she doesn’t yet understand.  A boy jumps out of the rustbelt Buick to let Ellie in the backseat. I don’t like the kid right off; I know he can’t be trusted. His movements are too deliberate. He acts as if perpetually aware of a camera. He has too beautiful hair. He doesn’t even acknowledge my wife or me as we smile miserably from the front porch. I hear the tinkling of an empty can spilling out of the car and hitting our driveway. Assuming it’s a Miller or Bud, I tense; my muscles clench. I then feel the warmth of my wife’s fingers on my arm, which is just enough to keep me still.  Ellie tosses us a casual wave over her shoulder and disappears into the Buick, into the world. The world outside of our family and our home has been whispering to her since she was old enough to realize there was something else out there. It beckons us all, of course. But on this day, it echoes with the wail of pain.

—Joe Mackall

Commentary

 

What world does Ellie enter when she slides into the backseat of a “rustbelt Buick” beside a cocky boy sporting a pompadour while her grandparents “smile miserably from the front porch?” It is a world where “past, present and future cohere and exist simultaneously.” Joe Mackall knows its past from the experience of his own family in which affection was entangled with meanness, mob activity, and murder. He knows the broad outlines of its future where his granddaughters will live “in a country and a world without [his] protection.” And its present stares him in the face as Ellie is whisked beyond the circle of his sheltering love while an empty beer can tumbles out of the car and hits the driveway. In Yesterday’s Noise Mackall brings his full voice—its humor and anxiety, its capacity to reenact the violent, the ugly, and the beautiful, a rich voice full of both night and day—to bear on a “legacy of rage and radiance.” His goal, he tells us, “is learning how to carry my love and devotion for the past, and my fear and hopes for the future, all the while remaining upright, bending toward beauty.” In the end the book takes him beyond judgement, if not beyond torment: “How sweet the past is, no matter how wrong or how/Sad” he writes in the final essay, quoting the poet Charles Wright. “How sweet is yesterday’s noise.”

—THE

 
 

March 26, 2021

 

from To Hell With It:

Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno

by Dinty W. Moore

 

“Dinty W. Moore uses jokes, parodies, even comics to poke fun at the absurdities of Dante and the Catholic Church in To Hell with It.”

—THE

 

Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity magazine and the author of many books of nonfiction including Beyond Panic and Desire, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, and The Accidental Buddhist. His latest book, To Hell With It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno has been praised for its humor and for the sadness behind the jokes.

 

The Paragraph of the Week is about one of Moore’s earliest childhood memories of his father—“a sweet, clever, funny man who drank far too much," standing in a hole.

Paragraph of the Week

 

A mechanic's pit, to be precise. A six-by-twelve-foot rectangle cut seven or so feet deep into the cement floor of the local Chevrolet dealership's repair shop. This was before hydraulic lifts became standard. This was when a car would be brought into the garage and driven directly over the pit, when a mechanic would need to descend into the hole to access the automobile's undercarriage, to change the oil, wrench off the muffler, or adjust the springs.

—Dinty W. Moore

Commentary

 

Dinty W. Moore uses jokes, parodies, even comics to poke fun at the absurdities of Dante and the Catholic Church in To Hell With It including a bit on gluttony that takes place at an eating contest where chicken are cooked in a pan so large they are stirred with a rake and a catechism class where a nun attempts to explain the concept of pagan babies living in limbo to a class of snickering first graders. Behind all this fun, though, is the image of his father stuck in a hole: “his own sizeable abyss, a dark hole in his life.” Moore is convinced that the Catholic Church—and Dante’s revenge-tale version of its world view in The Inferno—is not only ridiculous, but destructive. Created out of thanatophobia (the fear of death), it induces guilt and fear of an afterlife in believers and apostates alike, reinforcing the depression that runs through many families that cannot cope, and driving his good-natured but alcoholic father into an early grave not unlike the hole that he hated standing in all day for half of his life. Moore is not “naïve enough to believe that all would have been well” for him and his family without hell, original sin, and Dante who hammered these concepts “into our culture like some crucifixion nail,” but when he asks himself if any of it helped, his answer is “Nah.”

—THE

April 2, 2021

 

from “White Debt”

by Eula Biss

in The New York Times

 

“Eula Biss begins her essay ‘White Debt’ by pointing out that the word ‘debt’ in German also means ‘guilt.’”—THE

 

Eula Biss is the author of four books of essays, most recently Having and Being Had. Her book On Immunity was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, and Notes from No Man’s Land won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism in 2009. Her essay “White Debt,” the source of our Paragraph of the Week, appeared in  The New York Times on December 6, 2015. She lives in Evanston, Illinois which recently passed Resolution 58-R-19, a “Commitment to End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity,” in part through reparations.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

‘‘The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning’’ is the title of an essay Claudia Rankine wrote for The New York Times Magazine after the Charleston church massacre. Sitting with her essay in front of me, I asked myself what the condition of white life might be. I wrote ‘‘complacence’’ on a blank page. Hearing the term ‘‘white supremacist’’ in the wake of that shooting had given me another occasion to wonder whether white supremacists are any more dangerous than regular white people, who tend to enjoy supremacy without believing in it. After staring at ‘‘complacence’’ for quite a long time, I looked it up and discovered that it didn’t mean exactly what I thought it meant. ‘‘A feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements’’ might be an apt description of the dominant white attitude, but that’s more active than what I had in mind. I thought ‘‘complacence’’ meant sitting there in your house, neither smug nor satisfied, just lost in the illusion of ownership. This is an illusion that depends on forgetting the redlining, block busting, racial covenants, contract buying, loan discrimination, housing projects, mass incarceration, predatory lending and deed thefts that have prevented so many black Americans from building wealth the way so many white Americans have, through homeownership. I erased ‘‘complacence’’ and wrote ‘‘complicity.’’ I erased it. ‘‘Debt,’’ I wrote. Then, ‘‘forgotten debt.’’

—Eula Biss

Commentary

 

Eula Biss begins her essay “White Debt” by pointing out that the word “debt” in German also means “guilt,” and, quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche, urges white Americans to feel its pang: “only something that continues to hurt stays in the memory.” For many Americans, Biss argues, debt is designed to be forgotten. To buy a house we arrange payments so that they are manageable and often talk about houses that banks own as “ours” as we settle into “the illusion of ownership.” When it comes to the matter of race, and the condition of perpetual “mourning” that blacks live under, the forgotten debt creates an illusion of white superiority based on ignoring a long list of real estate ills from “redlining” and “loan discrimination” to  “predatory lending” and “mass incarceration” that have prevented black Americans from accumulating wealth from  home ownership at the same rate as white Americans. Sherman Alexie once cautioned Biss against encouraging white guilt. “White people do crazy [expletive] when they feel guilty,” he told her, and she admits that whites do damage when they swoop in to “to save other people who don’t want or need to be saved.” To Alexi’s concern I would add the inevitability of white backlash, the most dangerous development in American politics in the twenty-first century and the biggest threat to racial justice and democracy in our time. But a great debt needs to be paid, and Biss urges white Americans to own up to their guilt, because “guilt is what makes a good life built on evil no longer good.” What Biss wants is “liberation,” by paying off the debt until she “deserves” what she has.

—THE

 
 

April 9, 2021

 

 

 

from “Consider the Lobster”

in Gourmet

by David Foster Wallace

“Lately I have been thinking about when an essay becomes personal.”—THE

 

David Foster Wallace was an American author of novels, short stories and essays widely known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest. Our Paragraph pf the Week is from his essay “Consider the Lobster” which originally appeared in Gourmet magazine in 2004 and was published in the collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays in 2005.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The intimacy of [boiling a lobster] is maximized at home, which of course is where most lobster gets prepared and eaten (although note already the semiconscious euphemism “prepared,” which in the case of lobsters really means killing them right there in our kitchens). The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in…whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

—David Foster Wallace

Commentary

 

Lately I have been thinking about when an essay becomes personal. Some believe it happens when writers reveal something private or secretive, but for me people are more than what they hide. Others hear the person behind the essay in the voice of the text. So, according to this view, a writer like David Foster Wallace has such a distinctive voice that hearing it tells us who he is. The voice in “Consider the Lobster” is an unforgettable mixture of journalese (“Be apprized, though, that the Main Eating Tent’s suppers come in Styrofoam trays”) and language meant to be down-to-earth enough to parody the journalese (“Nor do they give you near enough napkins, considering how messy lobster is to eat, especially when you’re squeezed onto benches alongside children of various ages and vastly different levels of fine-motor development”). But to my ear the voice in writing is often very different than the voice in person and not a reliable indicator of the personal. For me, an essay becomes personal when we watch a writer’s interior struggle with the issue at hand, and that happens here beginning with the word “uncomfortable” in the phrase “whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen.” Two paragraphs before the description of—let’s face it—the torture of a lobster, he explains what he means by uncomfortable: “The animal- cruelty- and- eating issue is uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling.” Like most others, his way of dealing with the subject is “to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing.” But when the lobster hitches its claws over the edge of a boiling pot “like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof,” the uncomfortable is visited upon the troubled and conflicted author, and the essay gets personal. It is also the place where his struggle becomes ours.

—THE

April 16, 2021

 

from “All Thy Waves”

in Put Off My Sackcloth

by Annie Dawid

 

“On one bend of a trail I’d never seen before, I discovered the hanging tree. Like a car wreck, it drew me back again and again…I was defenseless against its allure.”

—Annie Dawid

 

The Humble Essayist Press is pleased to announce publication of its newest collection of essays, Put Off My Sackcloth by Annie Dawid. The daughter of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and an American mother prone to suicidal depression, Annie Dawid, in these essays, traces the history of her life, pivoting between the hanging trees of her most despairing moments, the dizzying shifts of her youth, her archetypal dig into the horrific mass suicides of Jonestown, and the aching “architectural wonders” of her beloved son, Elijah. The writer Jill Christman describes the book this way: “In these essays, Dawid never flinches and when she can laugh, she laughs. She takes us down deep, but she shows us the sparkle of light glinting at the exit of the cave—and love? Love wins.” Our feature this week is the first paragraph of her book.  You can learn more about Put Off My Sackcloth and The Humble Essayist Press here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

During my last sojourn in That Place, I could listen only to Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson singing mournful, soothing gospel. I could read only literature from the nineteenth century and earlier. In the solipsism of my condition, I discovered that King David’s Psalms described depression with beauty and accuracy, and I found some solace there. I ate only cereal, and that with effort. I could not bear the sun and prayed for rain. Nights were marginally better, when I did not have to confront the light. In the wooded park where I walked my dogs, I found the darkest places and the least-trod paths. On one bend of a trail I’d never seen before, I discovered the hanging tree. Like a car wreck, it drew me back again and again. I didn’t want to study it, to want what it promised, but I was defenseless against its allure. Every afternoon I walked around the old oak, admiring its solid, sturdy arm under which I believed I would achieve my final rest, like a bird, nesting. As school was out, I did not teach and had no daily obligations. I was six months’ pregnant – six months off my meds.

—Annie Dawid

Commentary

 

Annie Dawid was too gloomy during her pregnancy in the summer of 1999 to understand why she suffered depression. She thought it was the result of despair caused by the Columbine shootings and the anxiety of bringing a child up in such a world. Also a friend had told her that she could not be a good mother given her tendency to depression. She found herself drawn to the “hanging tree” of suicide. The real problem though was that she was off her medications. What helped was a doctor who told her that “in scans of severely depressed people, whole sections of their brains remained unilluminated,” and she understood why she was not thinking clearly. Slowly the doctor’s words sank in, and she delayed suicide, aware that she would be killing her unborn child, and eventually took a low dose of medication that diminished her anxiety. Friends she trusted promised that “it’s not going to be like this always,” and Dawid started to repair herself. She read T.S. Eliot’s poetry and found belief in “something bigger and stronger than humankind," and, overcoming the “allure” of the hanging tree, gave birth to her son who made the world look “entirely different.” Caring for another human being, loving and mothering her son, and taking her meds revealed to her “the myriad delights of living.” This transformation is the theme of Put Off My Sackcloth, stated succinctly by a friend: “Hell sometimes disguises paradise.”

—THE

 
 

April 23, 2021

 

from The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present

edited by Phillip Lopate

 

“Much as I revere Howells, Gass, and Ozick, I respectfully disagree.”

—Phillip Lopate

 

We have two reasons to celebrate here at The Humble Essayist. Phillip Lopate, whose The Art of the Personal Essay published in 1994 became the definitive anthology of the genre, has edited two more sumptuous collection of essays: The Glorious American Essay featuring essayists from Colonial times to the present and The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945-1970. The first is not only a remarkable collection of artfully crafted prose but an informal history of America as well, and the second collects writers such as James Agee, E. B. White, A. J. Liebling, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy and many more whose work has withstood the test of time. We have chosen to feature two paragraphs from the introduction of the first volume both written by Lopate which explain why he chose to follow an all-inclusive view of the genre rather than a narrow one. We think both sides of the debate are interesting.

 

The good news is that there is more since Lopate plans a third volume devoted to the contemporary essay in the twenty-first century. These anthologies contains many surprises as well as old friends, and I’m sure that The Humble Essayist will draw from this rich trove for future features.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

Many have tried to limit the field [of the essay]. William Dean Howells drew a strict border between the essay and the article. William H. Gass forbade the scholarly paper from consideration as an essay. Cynthia Ozick wrote: “A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play….A genuine essay is not a doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ and Emile Zola’s ‘J’Accuse’ are heroic landmark writings, but to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand. The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind.”

—Phillip Lopate

Commentary

 

Much as I revere Howells, Gass, and Ozick, I respectfully disagree. We are just as privy to Thomas Paine’s mind working through reasons to rebel as we are to his contemporary Hazlitt on the pleasures of hating, and why should a piece of writing be excluded from the essay kingdom simply because it follows a coherent line of reasoning? Even the lightest of familiar essays usually has an implicit armature of argumentation, just as essays that may not be overtly political invariably reflect an underlying politics. There are those who would seek to exclude criticism as a form of essay; but in my own experience, having taught and written a good deal of the stuff, I came to see that the best critics were all cobbling together a highly specific voice or persona through which their evaluations and insights could resound.

—Phillip Lopate

 

April 30, 2021

 

from Good Neighbors, Bad Times Revisited:

New Echoes of My Father’s German Village

by Mimi Schwartz

“Unfortunately, it is 1933 all over again around the world as bigotry becomes normalized and tolerated, including here in America, and, like the people in Rexingen Germany when the Nazi’s ruled, we are all being tested.”

—THE

 

Mimi Schwartz has “revisted” her 2008 book Good Neighbors, Bad Times about her Jewish father’s hometown of Rexingen, Germany under the Nazis because she realized that the story was not done with her. After publishing the book she discovered a private memoir by Max Sayer who grew up Catholic in the same town and his story confirmed her theme of how decency survived amid horrors in her father’s small town before, during, and after the war. We thought we would use this new edition as an excuse to reprise our December 2016 feature on her book which is as relevant now in a time of continuing white supremacy, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism as it was then.​

 

Schwartz in a video explains why she revisted her book here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Dear Hans,

...I still like to think of that Friday evening when I was supposed to deliver the starched collars to your house. As soon as I reached the door, I realized that the Sabbath had probably begun because I heard your fine clear tenor voice sound out on the road. I very timidly knocked on the door and your mother received me in a very friendly way and asked me into the living room. And I stood there as though I had been nailed down. There was this wondrously laid out table with such a festive atmosphere.... In spite of my presence, you, Hans, continued to sing your Ado, Ado, Adonai from deep in your throat. Your father with the typical thing for his head had the book in his hand and this picture I always have before my eyes.... The memory doesn’t let me go. . . . Is it this very special moment that is soothing to think of? Or is it reassuring to remember how one and the other respected each other?

   In this sense I stay connected to you, dear Rexingeners and send you my greetings of my family from all my heart. 

—Inge Wolfmann

—in Good Neighbors, Bad Times by Mimi Schwartz

Commentary

 

“So was Rexingen special or not?” Mimi Schwartz’s son asks after she returns from her last trip to Germany before completing Good Neighbors, Bad Times. Her goal in the book was to determine if the stories she heard as a child from her father and others about the kindness toward Jews in this small town in Nazi Germany were true.  In the end, she does find many “small acts of defiance” by the people of Rexingen against the cruelty of Hitler’s Germany, from the barber who cut the hair of Jews under the sign that read “No Jews allowed here” to carpenters who fixed Jewish windows after Kristallnacht and were sent to the war front never to return.  But the “treasured proof” of “ethereal” acts of heartfelt affection “made concrete” was this letter from the young, blonde German, Inge Wolfmann, who refused to join the girls’ Nazi Youth group, did not “yield to Nazi pressure” when the mayor appeared at their door with a whip in hand, and who wrote this letter to “a Jewish man she barely knew,” Schwartz writes, “not out of friendship—that would be easy to explain—but because one moment of memory binds the girl of ten and the boy of thirteen in a shared community now lost in guilt and grief.”  Sadly, even in Rexingen many Jews were eventually rounded up and taken to concentration camps.  “To this day it haunts me,” Inge says.  “We should have done more.”  But by 1939, it was too late.  “The time to stop the Nazis was in 1933,” when they first made a grab for power, Mimi Schwartz argues, reminding us of the importance of stopping tyranny while there is still time.  Unfortunately, it is 1933 all over again around the world as bigotry becomes normalized and tolerated, including here in America, and, like the people in Rexingen, Germany when the Nazi’s ruled, we are all being tested.

—THE

 

May 7, 2021

 

 

from “Coatesville”

by John Jay Chapman

in The Glorious American Essay

 

“I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal—a cold thing, an awful thing.”

—John Jay Chapman

 

One of benefits of an anthology is that it introduces us to writers we have missed, and John Jay Chapman, a powerful but at times peculiar and largely forgotten essayist, was one of those to me. An added benefit in Phillip Lopate’s anthology, The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present are the many cross-references he embeds in the book. So, in addition to meeting Chapman, I also get to read Edmund Wilson’s essay on Chapman describing him as a writer who was, among other obsessions, infuriated by the mistreatment of African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

 

The Paragraph of the Week comes from an essay by Chapman entitled “Coatesville.” In 1911 a black man accused of murdering a security guard was tortured and killed by “a few desperate, fiend-minded men” in Coatesville, Pennsylvania while a large gathering of “well-dressed American citizens” watched. Stirred by the horror, Chapman wrote an essay about racist hatred at the heart of American life and presented it as a speech. Two people showed up to hear it. The essay is haunting and now when I hear politicians regularly say in the face of racist violence in America that “this is not who we are” I think of Chapman’s piece.

Paragraph of the Week

 

I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what happened to me. When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being, and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness, and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government! As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal—a cold thing, an awful thing.

—John Jay Chapman

Commentary

 

On August 13, 1911, a Negro who had shot and killed a special officer of the Worth Brothers Steel Company in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, was burned alive by a mob under circumstances of special horror. Chapman, who was full of the Civil War, brooded upon this incident till he “felt as if the whole country would be different if any one man did something in penance, and so I went to Coatesville and declared my intention of holding a prayer meeting to the various business men I could buttonhole.” He had difficulty in getting a hall, but finally, four days after the anniversary of the lynching, succeeded in finding a place to speak. The address he delivered was strange and moving. He said that, when he had read in the papers how “hundreds of well-dressed American citizens” had stood by and watched the torture of the Negro, he had seemed to see into “the unconscious soul” of America. And what he had seen there was death—“the paralysis of the nerves about the heart in a people habitually and unconsciously given over to selfish aims.” They had “stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them.” It was the old wickedness, not yet purged, of the slave trade, and all America was to blame for it. They could but open their hearts to God and pray that new life might flow into them.—The only persons who attended the meeting were an educated Negro woman from Boston and a stool pigeon sent by the police.

—Edmund Wilson

M1y 14, 2021: Alice Meynell, reprinted from archive Spring 2016

May 21, Anne McGrath, reprinted from archive Summer/Fall 2019

 

 

May 28, 2021

from “Against Interpretation”

in Against Interpretation and Other Essays

by Susan Sontag

 

“The inherent meaning of a painting, a piano sonata, or a paragraph is not what matters. What matters is how it works.”—THE

 

Susan Sontag was an American intellectual and writer best known for her essays on modern culture. One of her most influential books is Against Interpretation and Other Essays which is the source of our Paragraph of the Week.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

—Susan Sontag

Commentary

 

Susan Sontag argues for a pragmatic view of literary criticism. The inherent meaning of a painting, a piano sonata, or a paragraph is not what matters. What matters is how it works, and, in a paragraph, how it does what it does to the reader. That has always been our goal here at The Humble Essayist where we don’t presume to explain meanings, but to open the paragraph up to discover its inner workings. A paragraph “is what it is” and to “show how it is” or "even that it is" worth all the fuss is the aim, though we don’t always live up to the task.

—THE

 
 

June 4, 2021

 

from “On Being a Cripple”

in Plain Text

by Nancy Mairs

 

“It has opened and enriched my life enormously, this sense that my frailty and need must be mirrored in others.”—Nancy Mairs

 

Nancy Mairs who died in 2016 wrote on a variety of topics, refusing to be defined by multiple sclerosis that made her life so hard, but “On Being a Cripple” is one of her best essays, one woman’s candid, sometimes blunt, often funny, and thoroughly unsentimental reckoning with a devastating illness.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

This gentleness is part of the reason that I’m not sorry to be a cripple. I didn’t have it before. Perhaps I’d have developed it anyway—how could I know such a thing?—and I wish I had more of it, but I’m glad of what I have. It has opened and enriched my life enormously, this sense that my frailty and need must be mirrored in others, that in searching for and shaping a stable core in a life wrenched by change and loss, change and loss, I must recognize the same process, under individual conditions, in the lives around me. I do not deprecate such knowledge, however I’ve come by it.

 

—Nancy Mairs

Comment

 

The “gentleness” Nancy Mairs discusses here is the empathy for others’ pain that living with MS has taught her. She quickly goes on to admit in the next paragraph that if she could be cured she would—“in a minute.” She writes: “I’m only occasionally looney and never a saint.” But much as she hates her disease, she refuses to “deprecate” the insight into human suffering that it gave her.  Her description of the process is precise: she sees that in a world of “change and loss,” her struggle to find and shape “a stable core” is everyone’s struggle, and her phrase—“under individual conditions”—tucked unobtrusively in the sentence is heartbreakingly generous since her individual condition was so uncommonly hard compared to that of most of us. Furthermore, she refuses to ask “why me?” knowing that the only answer is “why not,” and wondering “who would I put in my place?” Unwilling to inflict her suffering on another, she jokes: “I might as well do the job myself. Now that I’m getting the hang of it.”

—THE