FDR Jones

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Not Resigned

One of the more controversial aspects of the controversy-saturated Common Core is the effort to infuse more non-fiction into the literature curriculum.   Count me among the already converted.  Thanks to my taste and to the independence literature teachers enjoy at my school, I’ve had the pleasure in recent years of teaching such books as Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Henry Louis Gates’ Colored People, and Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse.   These books aren’t always to my students’ liking, but they are such rich texts, and non-fiction such an influential presence in the contemporary literary scene, that it seems imperative to take my students through books such as these.

The Wills book, a trenchant exploration of the intellectual and historical origins of the Gettysburg Address and the rhetorical qualities that characterize it, is one of my favorites.  I particularly like Wills’ section on evolving attitudes toward death in the mid 19th century.  The leaders of the so-called Rural Cemetery Movement, under the influence of Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists, endeavored to make cemeteries like parks, to locate them in lovely, pasture-like settings (as opposed to the usual gloomy churchyards) so as to make cemeteries not places of death but “schools for life.”  People who came to mourn the dead would see nature’s beauties – trees, flowers, etc. –, reflect on the ongoing circularity of life, and find their grieving mollified.   As Wills puts it, “The associations of a picturesque rural site would instill healing truths of natural death and rebirth, in the cycle of seasons.”  Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta is a product of this thinking, as is Oconee Hill Cemetery in my hometown.  One can also hear such ideas in the Gettysburg Address (the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which he was dedicating, was itself inspired by the Rural Cemetery Movement).   One of the motifs of that speech is life from death:  “those who gave their lives that this nation might live,” “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause,” etc.     Indeed scores of poems from that era urge the dying and mourners to accept and even celebrate death as part of nature and a source of new life. 

For Christians it is important not to get carried away with the message of a rural cemetery, to refrain from viewing springtime flowers as anything more than an emblem of the yearned for ultimate new life.   In a brief essay on the Resurrection, Frederick Buechner writes, “We try to reduce [the Resurrection] to poetry: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points.”  I think Lincoln would concur.

I loved teaching Lincoln at Gettysburg, but it has also been a great pleasure to guide young people through their reading of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot’s celebrated account of how a poor black woman’s endlessly replicating cancer cells have led both to revolutions in medical science and an ethical reckoning in the medical community.  In addition to absorbing the material from these texts, I hope my students also learn something of what it is to let curiosity pull one deep into a subject, to master the subject, and to tell its story well.   This may be something that non-fiction teaches – implicitly – better than any other form. 

One of the key moments in Skloot’s book is when she gets her hands on a bootleg VHS tape of a BBC documentary about Henrietta Lacks and the story of her cells.   It is now available on youtube, of course.   The documentary and Skloot’s book both tell of a time in the sixties when researchers believed (erroneously, of course) that they were on the verge of discovering a "cancer virus" and that it would take just one big push to end cancer forever.  Part of the push was that staple of American mass effort, the star-studded telethon.   The documentary features clips from Crusade ‘67, hosted by Bing Crosby and featuring Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Benny, and other luminaries.  One of the most bizarre clips is of Joan Crawford, in all her Mommie Dearest extravagance, reciting part of a poem called “Dirge Without Music,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.    

Once I got over my astonishment at Crawford's delivery I looked up the poem.  It stood out to me immediately as a defiant rejoinder to the acquiescence counseled by the Rural Cemetery Movement - appropriate for a crusade against cancer.   The speaker will not turn her thoughts from earth to heaven, and perhaps that is what I love about this poem, how directly it expresses the anger of authentic grief, refusing to accept the existence of flowers as consolation for great loss.  

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains — but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.