Get local news delivered straight to your phone
It might turn out to be the biggest faux pas in American letters since Saul Bellow pooh-poohed multiculturalism by asking, “Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Of course, the idea probably seemed harmless enough: Shortly after Sept. 11, the Bush administration hired 15 leading American writers—among them novelists Richard Ford, Charles Johnson, Bharati Mukherjee, and Michael Chabon, as well as former and current U.S. Poet Laureates Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins—to muse about…being American writers.
Their pieces are collected in an anthology called Writers on America: 15 Reflections, which is now being distributed free at U.S. embassies around the world. The effort is meant to complement the State Department’s glitzy new public diplomacy campaign to “sell” the United States to Muslims and others abroad, run by Madison Avenue legend and former Uncle Ben’s account manager Charlotte Beers. In addition to reading tours by the authors, State plans a total print run of 100,000, including translations into Arabic and other languages. It’s a modest number, perhaps—especially when compared with, say, the number of McDonald’s franchises and Michael Jackson albums the United States has already exported. But it’s enough to make the State Department an instantly substantial literary patron.
One problem: Because Writers on America is official U.S. government information aimed at foreign audiences, the anthology is banned from domestic distribution under the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, passed with fresh memories of how Axis countries had blanketed their own peoples with disinformation during World War II. Even though Smith-Mundt doesn’t cover the Internet, which makes Writers available to U.S. readers (at http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/writers), the law’s invocation has tainted the whole enterprise as propaganda. Critics have labeled the contributors as dupes—or as supporters of the administration’s war effort.
At least three of the authors—Pinsky, poet Robert Creeley, and novelist Julia Alvarez—have recently distanced themselves from the effort, claiming they didn’t understand how the project was conflated with U.S. foreign-policy goals. Meanwhile, newspaper headlines have been mocking: “Essays on Being American Banned in the U.S.,” read one in London’s Observer. The result is yet another shiner for the $15 million information campaign, which has struggled to find an effective message for distribution in the Middle East. Georgetown University professor Mamoun Fandy, an early consultant to Beers’ office, has gone so far as to say that the overall campaign “has contributed tremendously to anti-Americanism” among suspicious young audiences worldwide.
But if the anthology qualifies as propaganda, it’s a halfhearted variety: too flaccid to change anybody’s mind, too dull to call anyone to the barricades. The publication’s real trouble—and why everyone should read it—is how out of touch it shows a broad swath of the country’s leading literary lights to be. These authors are seemingly stuck on how superior America is, insistent on how some of its core ideas are still self-evidently appealing to the rest of the world. At a time when the United States prepares to throw its weight around regardless of international opinion, the contributors to Writers evince a serene arrogance—one that calls into question how prepared American literati are to respond to and illuminate a crisis.
The U.S. government has a long history of putting American authors to work for war efforts. John Dewey and Walter Lippman wrote for Woodrow Wilson’s infamous Committee on Public Information, which put out pamphlets with such harrowing titles as The German Whisper and Conquest and Kultur. During World War II, poet Archibald MacLeish headed America’s Committee on War Information and its Office of Censorship, where he oversaw the production of stirring war-bond posters as well as the wholesale re-editing of many Hollywood films to promote a more harmonious national image. In the ’50s, the United States paid authors such as Arthur Koestler and Bertrand Russell for pro-democracy writings that directly took on Stalinism.
Part of the reason notoriously independent artists such as Ford and Creeley say they signed up for Writers was the opportunity to write for and read to an overseas audience at a time of rising anti-Americanism. “There is the perception abroad that Americans feel culturally superior and are intellectually indifferent,” Ford told the New York Times’ Michael V. Wise. “Those stereotypes need to be burst.”
Perhaps Ford and his colleagues should have started with their own texts. The anthology only reinforces the international prejudice that Americans are dreamy and disengaged, sanguine about domestic politics and oblivious to international ones. As stated on the Writers on America Web site, the project’s goal is to “illuminate in an interesting way certain American values—freedom, diversity, democracy—that may not be well understood in all parts of the world.” But the pamphlet’s editors must have known that their seemingly innocuous topic question—”In what sense do you see yourself as an American writer?”—would steer authors away from critical politics and toward navel-gazing. In a twisted sense, the State Department got what it paid for: an inward-looking, provincial set of pieces that conveys the odd notion that if people just better grasped what we stand for, they would automatically embrace us.
Support City Paper!
The contributors to Writers break into two basic categories: the hybrid children of immigrants writing on how they learned to fit in and the e pluribus unum crowd. The hybrids (Alvarez, Elmaz Abinader, Sven Birkerts, Linda Hogan, and Naomi Shihab Nye) mostly turn in variations on the same narrative: First, the tug-of-war childhood divided between a richly sensuous traditional home and the conformist, WASP-ish world of schoolmates. Then, the turn to books, for escapism and identification. Finally, the rebellion against the dominant culture—an assertion of heritage but also an updating of it.
Birkerts describes this as one identity “laid on top of the other,” and these are solid, familiar stories of second-generation Americans whose search for self culminates in reading and writing. As Alvarez puts it: “I would never have become a writer unless my family had emigrated to the United States when I was ten years old.”
But a personal collision of cultures isn’t a prerequisite for artistry, of course, and when Alvarez tries to universalize her experience by arguing that “we are becoming a planet of racial and cultural hybrids,” the relative truth of her statement is overshadowed by how the anthology’s intended audience will respond to it—not just reactionary Muslims but the French, Germans, Brits, and others who fear that “hybrid” is just a synonym for “Americanized.”
In the context of the anthology’s project, these essays almost request the audience’s assimilation. Indeed, to radicalized youths in the developing world who have no chance at social or geographic mobility and feel inundated by American media, the title of Birkerts’ contribution must say it all: “The Compulsory Power of American Dreams.”
The tendency to melt everyone into the American fondue reaches boiling point with most of the other contributions to Writers on America. In his essay, “How Does Being an American Inform What I Write?,” Ford imagines flying over a man in a porkpie hat who’s mowing his very American lawn. Then he imagines removing the hat—and revealing the man as a Pakistani immigrant or a third-generation Ghanaian- or Chinese-American. “Generality is in this way proved unreliable by specificity—which is the point most great literature seeks to prove,” Ford writes. “We can see most clearly by looking most closely—and we should.”
Of course, all Ford has really proved is that in America, all sorts of people can mow a lawn while wearing a bad hat. Then it gets much worse, with Ford’s assertion that he’s “always trusted America to be a setting within which universally human events and actions and their motives and moral consequences can be portrayed and understood as important from any vantage point on the planet.” Here is the presumption of Writers at its most shameless: Because America contains multitudes, its culture speaks for multitudes everywhere.
Would that Ford were alone here in his arrogance. But the anthology contains an enormous amount of similar foolishness: Creeley, for instance, crows about America’s “lyric poetry of unique diversity and power” and the country as representing “a fresh start far from all fact of contesting history, all the old habits and values of the world thus left.” The Civil War historian David Herbert Donald asserts that his approach to his work—essentially, writing about whatever he wants to in whatever way he wants to—”is a distinctly American attitude.” And novelist Robert Olen Butler sees in a collection of old postcard messages what he calls singularly American qualities of pragmatism and faith in technology and the ability to sacrifice. “But, of course,” he quickly admits, “all these qualities are universal, as well.”
The near absence of Sept. 11 in a project inspired by that day is just as troublesome. Butler glosses on how the day made us confront our own mortality, and Creeley rightly notes how our habit of turning to poetry for consolation in the immediate aftermath of the attacks soon evaporated. Collins, on whom one might have counted for at least one slyly heartbreaking new poem, instead pastes into his essay two old works and delivers a rather impersonal endorsement of American poetry’s immense variety. He, like many others here, seems to regard the project’s inspiration as simply an unfortunate misunderstanding.
Only Pinsky and Mark Jacobs, the novelist and veteran U.S. Foreign Service officer who originally suggested the idea for Writers, go beyond essentially singing a song of themselves to give a sense that an emergency is at hand. Jacobs’ “Both Sides of the Border,” the only essay in the anthology that bears rereading, begins with a lyrical and incisive account of his “useful cultural dislocations” in working throughout the Americas and Europe. These experiences left Jacobs—a Protestant/Catholic rural/urban hybrid himself—with a taste for cultural confrontation wholly unlike the lazy presumptions of Ford et al.
Out of this taste, Jacobs begins to articulate a postcolonial literary aesthetic—one that uses outsider narrators, journalists and expats and loner natives for whom cultural relativism is lingua franca. He wants more stories like Joseph Conrad’s “Karain: A Memory,” in which a white gun-runner oscillates between sympathy for and arrogance toward a Malay tribal leader. “The reader walks away from ‘Karain’ wobbling and wondering,” Jacobs writes, “drawn into the cultural confrontation in a profoundly unsettingly way.”
This is precisely what Writers should have provided: dislocation, humility, and struggle. Like the great British critic Matthew Arnold, Jacobs counsels reading foreign literatures as a way of understanding your own culture. His colleagues provide another remedy: Read American literature to understand American culture. After all, yours isn’t as important.
How could Writers on America have worked better? Probably by first asking the contributors in what sense they see themselves as American writers now. Adding temporality to the question would have forced them to consider the possibility of change—or at least to defend their imperial hauteur.
Or perhaps not. Mukherjee, an Indian-born novelist who now proclaims herself an “un-hyphenated, mainstream” American writer, is defiantly disengaged in her essay. After considering a whole laundry list of global grievances and injustices that writers could respond to, Mukherjee votes to opt out. “In liberal democracies with well-established institutions,” she argues, “fiction writers can afford a modicum of vigilant trust, freeing themselves to celebrate the impacted glories of individual consciousness.” In other words: A healthy civil society protects my self-absorption; leave me alone.
Art should never be forced to respond to circumstances. But it can respond anyway, as Picasso did with Guernica, or as Czeslaw Milosz did with his poem “Song on Porcelain,” which Pinsky glosses in his Writers essay. Milosz, who lived in Warsaw during World War II and witnessed its ghetto as well as its siege and destruction, wrote, “Of all things broken and lost/The porcelain troubles me most.” It’s a strange sentiment, and Pinsky recalls how a reading of the poem once drew hisses, from someone who undoubtedly thought one shouldn’t elevate dinnerware over the dead.
“But that did not need saying,” notes Pinsky, “and that also would lack precisely the historical dimension of the broken porcelain, product of the old Europe that imagined itself civilized, that painted shepherdesses on teacups and that bit and slashed and tore itself apart.”
The question that should have motivated Writers on America is this: What is our broken porcelain, the historic assumptions that Sept. 11 shattered? The answer requires us to redefine our sense of self—which is exactly what American people do best. American literature, however, is apparently another story. CP