Sunday, January 22, 2017

Read Like a President

One of the pleasures of teaching where I do is that many of our high school English courses are conceived by faculty members based on personal intellectual interests.   In my time at Paideia I’ve developed and taught courses called “Seriously Funny”  (literary humor), “Literature of the American West”, “Literature in Translation”, “Their Own Drummers" (the central figure in everything we read has to be a pain in the ass – Hamlet, R.P. McMurphy, Walter Lee Younger, and the like), “It’s All True” (American memoir and historical fiction), and “Coming to America” (American literature about immigration – a brand new course this year). 

Most of these courses I’ve taught multiple times, but the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a course I taught only once, during the 2009-10 school year.  This was Barack Obama’s first year in office, he was widely admired among our students, and published lists of his favorite books hit all the notes we Paideia lit teachers feel like we need to hit when we’re making up a new course:  classic and modern, diverse authorship, a variety of genres, rich and intellectually stimulating, etc.  So from Obama’s favorite books and authors I distilled a list of texts I thought would engage and challenge talented 11th and 12th graders.  I called the course “Read Like a President.”

I remember most of the titles and authors off the top of my head.   Some of the selections were easy.  Obama liked Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.  That novel - the inventively-narrated story of a feckless young African-American’s enlivening discovery of his family’s hidden heritage - would be at home in any high-level high school English course.   The one novel both Obama and McCain called an influence – Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls – would have to be included.  I knew Obama liked Shakespeare, but I don’t recall that he mentioned any specific titles, so I chose Hamlet, because, as Harold Bloom says, “all of Shakespeare is in it:  history, comedy, satire, tragedy, romance.”   Obama expressed a fondness for Doris Lessing’s feminist classic The Golden Notebook, but it weighs in at 600-plus pages and a time suck like that won’t do in a high school course.  So I chose two of Lessing’s short stories about the psychological struggles of women in mid 20th century England:  “To Room Nineteen” and “Our Friend Judith.”    Obama had praised Philip Roth.  Was I going to teach Portnoy’s Complaint to high school students?  Not on your life.   I chose instead Roth’s popular counter-historical novel The Plot Against America.   Obama called Lincoln a favorite writer.   I knew that Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills’ much-admired book-length explication of the Gettysburg Address, had been one of those books they had all the freshmen read at a couple of prominent universities.    Obama was a fan of James Baldwin.  His “Notes of a Native Son” is widely anthologized in readers used in AP English Comp courses, and, though composed in 1955, many of its passages speak so profoundly to our current situation that they feel as though they could have been written last week.  I remember having my students buy Graham Greene’s Vietnam novel The Quiet American, but we never got around to that one.  There were a few other short pieces (essays and poems) by the likes of Reinhold Niebhur, W.E.B. DuBois, John Donne, Mark Twain, Judith Ortiz Cofer (God rest her soul), William Cullen Bryant, Robert Lowell, Thomas Hardy, and Wilfred Owen.  

I’m proud of that curriculum.   Just on substance (not necessarily my teaching), it might be the best course I’ve ever taught.   Thanks, Obama.

As part of the course description that appeared on my students’ fall term evaluations, I wrote,  “In all my pronouncements about the nature of this course, I expressed a hope that it would be about the literature, not about the President. Though some Obama talk has inevitably entered our discussion, I think we have done a pretty good job keeping the texts front and center. Still, I must say that the first term left me with the impression that whatever else may be said of the President, he has fine taste in literature.”

I’ll stand by that concluding statement today.  Moreover, I want to revisit some of those texts as I contemplate the next few years and the dreadfully bewildering turn our national politics have taken. 

The Plot Against America, though published in 2003, reentered the public mind this year.  In that book Roth vividly imagines a nightmarish “what if” scenario:  in 1940 isolationist Republicans persuade Charles Lindbergh to run for President.  Lindy beats Roosevelt, lets Hitler have his way in Europe, and initiates anti-Semitic policies in the U.S., policies that fall heavily on the young Philip Roth and the family of his childhood.   Some commentators found parallels between the scenario of that novel and Trump’s candidacy.   The day after the election, my mind turned to a particular passage from The Plot Against America, a passage that Roth himself helpfully quoted in a 2004 essay he wrote about the genesis of the novel:
Our lives as Americans are as precarious as anyone else's: all assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history. May I conclude with a quotation from my book? ''And as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer for me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.''
As chilling (and true, I think) as those words are, there’s something else in that book to remember, something to be inspired by.   Many veteran Roth readers remarked on how in that book, his parents, whom he had mocked and vilified in fiction in the past, become heroic.  Faced with injustice and under horrible pressure, they bear up and resist, even going so far as to put themselves at risk to rescue a neighborhood kid who is far away and in peril.  The fictional Roth says of his fictional father that he was “helplessly bonded to his better instincts and their excessive demands.”  Lord, help me be that sort of person the next four years.

In Lincoln at Gettysburg, Wills analyzes the speech as an example of classical funeral oratory, as an expression of intellectual trends of the Romantic era, as a distillation of ideological principles that Lincoln developed over his entire career, and as an example of brilliantly crafted rhetoric.   In the chapter entitled “Revolution in Thought” Wills thoroughly explores the famous line, “Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  We know that the document Lincoln quotes was written by a slaveholder and many (myself included) will say we’re not really committed to that proposition even today, but most Americans probably read that line as being uncontroversial.  I know that’s how I have read it.  Even though we’re not yet committed to equality in fact, equality as a principle is routinely accepted as something we know we’re supposed to aspire to as a nation.   A widely accepted proposition.  Not so in Lincoln's time. According to Wills, to fully appreciate what the Gettysburg Address achieved, we have to imagine our way into the 1860s, before the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, when “all men are created equal” was a good line in a letter to King George but nowhere affirmed in the Constitution.   By declaring that principle “our supreme commitment”, Lincoln made what for many was a heretical assertion about the nation’s purpose and the war’s meaning.  As Wills puts it, “By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed.  Because of it, we live in a different America.”  

Why think about that this week?  Lincoln was so unpopular when he came into office that the nation literally split in half.   Trump is deeply unpopular and the nation is certainly divided.  Does that mean I think Trump will pull off something as gloriously transformative as the Gettysburg Address?  Not bloody likely.  The Checkers Speech would be a step up for him.   But it helps to think that in the midst of all the terrible things that may happen in the coming years, there will be visionaries among us who point the way toward living out our ideals.  I want to notice who they are and pay heed to them. 

    And, to conclude, here is Hemingway’s mortally wounded Robert Jordan, lying in wait to strike one last blow against the Spanish fascists before the bell tolls for him:  “The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for." 

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