Letter from America: The American Election, Cultural Appropriation, Horowitz and Dylan
By David Fedo
These days (late in October) most Americans are thanking their various deities that the election run-up of more than two years is finally stumbling to a close. After the three rancorous debates, the town meetings and the endless back-and-forth insults hurled from one presidential candidate to another, it will finally be over on November 8.
Michael Andor Brodeur, a Boston Globe op-ed writer, put it exactly right (4 October 2016): "So vast, sweeping and complete is the madness of this election cycle, you might wonder if we'd all somehow slipped into an alternate reality one where up is down, [and] back is forth "
Clearly, much of the noise has been the result of the candidacy of one Donald J. Trump, the sordid business tycoon and grubby political outsider who the Republicans have blindly voted for and then nominated to be their candidate. "Now what's the right metaphor?" asks a Globe columnist, Scott Lehigh (also on 4 October). "Is Donald Trump the Titanic, sinking steadily beneath the accumulating waves of voter knowledge? Or the Hindenburg, his lighter-than-air candidacy exploding in a flash of epiphany that reveals, once and for all, its latest weaknesses?"
After the second debate on 9 October, which featured Trump claiming that if he won the presidency he would explore indicting Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton for what has been called her "careless" handling of some classified emails, Americans on both sides hardly know what to think. Dan Rather, the legendary newscaster and former anchor of the nightly CBS news, expressed his concern online (10 October): "This election has long since passed the stage of rationality, and reason, the realm of the written page, and into the territory of the heart and spirit, where emotions swirl that we cannot fully distill into coherent sentences and paragraphs."
The election day of reckoning fast approaches. For many Americans, Trump as President is unthinkable. Clinton isn't perfect, but as Lehigh rightly says, "compared to Trump, she's a paragon of probity." Will the American electorate pull a surprise, and in spite of the ugliness of Trump, vote him into office? Or will Clinton, with her experience and steadfastness, hang on for a win? The truth is that America is now a divided country, so we can only wait and see.
What to make of the controversial speech on fiction and identity politics made in early September by Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival? Shriver, the American author of 12 novels who now lives abroad, will be conducting a masterclass as well as delivering a major address at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival.
But why the controversy in Brisbane, which has stirred fiction practitioners (and readers) around the globe? At least one attendee stomped out during the address, allegedly saying, "I can't legitimise this." Shriver later provided her tart response:
Dominic Green, writing in The Weekly Standard (3 October), reacted with sympathy, pointing out that reviewers of Shriver's latest novel, The Mandibles, "have made her 'anxious about depicting characters of different races.'" In The Mandibles, which Green calls "a futuristic satire set in 2047", a disoriented African-American woman named Luella is put on a leash "because she is senile, not because of her colour, and because the collapse of the dollar has taken America's social services with it." Some reviewers, including one on the prestigious Washington Post, termed The Mandibles "racist".
"Despite such criticism," Green continues, "Shriver argued that fiction and identity politics are fundamentally inimical. Fiction is 'inherently inauthentic' and 'self-confessedly fake.' It describes individuals who do not exist and events that do not happen. Identity politics is about 'authenticity.' It sees individuals as representing collective identities and politics. Novelists appropriate other lives and 'purloin whole worlds.' The 'culture police' call this 'cultural appropriation' and throw away the key.
"Taken to their logical conclusion," declared Green, "ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are 'allowed' to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we'd indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with."
Shriver raises a number of questions for writers, readers and teachers in the classroom that are worthy of contemplation. Can a writer of one ethnicity, or nationality, or religion, or gender, or colour, or sexual orientation, or any other identity write truthfully about a person who is a perceived opposite, real or imagined? I would say yes, assuming that the writer works with an openness of mind and spirit, and is sympathetic and respectful in the narrative. Writing fiction does not require a litmus test, of course, but it does require an unfolding imagination. Sometimes this imagination may offend some readers, and sometimes it may be disconcerting. In fact, the writer's imagination is often a window into both the good and bad, which, as we all know, is like life itself. So be it.
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune of seeing the American dramatist Israel Horovitz' newest play, "Man in Snow", a gripping drama performed by Horovitz' own resident theatre, the Gloucester Stage Company. His unflashy but cosy theatre is located some 25 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts, in a little blue-collar fishing village called Gloucester.
Horowitz is nothing if not ambitious and productive. He launched the Gloucester Stage Company, on a gamble, in 1979, and served as the troupe's artistic director for nearly 30 years. He started writing plays when he was 17 years old; his first work for the stage, "The Comeback", was produced at Boston's nearby Suffolk University.
Amazingly, Horovitz credits more than 70 produced plays to his signature, many staged in the United States and others translated and performed abroad. His links to all things French, including for years his friendship with the French-speaking artist Samuel Beckett, has been sustained for decades. According to some, Horovitz has had more of his works produced in France than any other American. For his 70th birthday Horovitz is now 77 he received the French award, Commandeur dans l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
"Man in Snow", also directed by Horovitz, is an extraordinary play about a man in his 60s, serving improbably as a guide to a group of honeymooners from Japan who are attempting to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley. But Horovitz's drama is not about the climb, although at the end David Kipling, the guide and main character, is killed by an avalanche at a base camp. It is more about Kipling's internal journey as he tries to sort through the memories of his complicated adult life.
I thought that "Man in Snow" resembled, in remarkable ways, Arthur Miller's riveting tragedy "Death of a Salesman", perhaps the classic American drama of all time. Kipling is a more successful and articulate Willy Loman, haunted by his son Joey's death in a motorcycle accident; Joey, like his sister Emily, and like Miller's Biff and Happy Loman, appears as a kind of ghost in flashback scenes occurring throughout the action. So does Kipling's wife Franny (as does Willy Loman's wife Linda). The painful memories that flash between the characters break apart Kipling's seemingly comfortable life, and it's only through Horovitz's skilful handling of the encounters that we learn of the wrenching sadness of his life. Beyond Miller, I was also reminded of Paul Gauguin's powerful Polynesian painting, which is on permanent display in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The title of this large canvas is "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?", and Gauguin's quest seems very similar to Kipling's and perhaps if we're honest, ours too.
The cast members of Gloucester's "Man in Snow", led by the multitalented Boston actor Will Lyman (playing David Kipling), are uniformly strong. And the play with the same cast will soon be headed for a production in New York. I expect that the reviews there will be favourable ones, as they were here.
Yet this leads to a question I have about Israel Horovitz. After so much good work, accomplished on so many levels in the theatre, why isn't he better known? And why isn't he ranked with the other great lynchpins of the American theatre, including Edward Albee (who just died in September), Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Sam Shepard or even Miller himself? Is it because Gloucester is too far away from Broadway to be taken seriously? Is it because Horovitz is viewed as too much of a traditionalist? Are there too many plays in his portfolio, with his productivity taken for granted? He is clearly a treasure.
Not even the most ardent fans of Bob Dylan including natives like me from Dylan's own hometown of Duluth, Minnesota could have predicted the news in mid-October that the 75-year-old musician had been awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature.
The selection, according to The New York Times (October 14), has "dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature, setting off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels." But many others agreed with the surprising choice of Dylan by the Swedish Academy, which proclaimed that he had "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Salman Rushdie in the Times called the selection a "great choice", adding that Dylan was "the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition."
Harvard Professor Richard Thomas, who according to The Boston Globe (14 October) teaches a freshman seminar on Dylan, declared, "I'm very, very happy." Thomas praised Dylan by ranking him "right up there with Virgil and Horace." Of course, Duluthians like me are thrilled, too. Duluth is where Dylan, whose given name is Robert Zimmerman, was born in St. Mary's Hospital on May 24, 1941. He lived in a modest dwelling in Duluth, a port city built on a hill overlooking Lake Superior, until he was six years old, before moving north with his parents to Hibbing, Minnesota. He then grew up in Hibbing, a mining city, before leaving for Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. It was here he began the career that would vault him into international fame. Thus Minnesota gave birth to two of the most eclectic and popular American singer-songwriters in recent memory, the other being Prince Rogers Nelson, who died suddenly in April.
Dylan said he changed his name from Zimmerman to Dylan because he was an admirer of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. So far he has won 11 Grammys, an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Pulitzer. In 2012, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. He is the last American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature since the novelist Toni Morrison won in 1993, and the first to win as a musician.
Dylan's early songs to me, still his best spoke to an era of protest and change in American life. Among these were "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'". They enriched the range of American folk music, and were also performed by such artists as Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. Dylan's raspy singing voice spoke with an authenticity that made him a name to be reckoned with, especially among the mostly young protesters of the devastating Vietnam War and the many supporters of the Civil Rights movement.
The Boston Globe (14 October) has called Dylan's lyrics "playful and profound", but in that same newspaper Ty Burr said his poetry "needs Dylan's voice to fully and wholly work." Always an artist of diverse song styles and movements, Dylan's most recent album, Fallen Angels (2016), shows his extraordinary versatility; it's his take on a collection of American pop standards, including crooner Frank Sinatra's ballad favourites, which, as Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, reveals "a sweetness to his high voice."
Of course, Duluth has embraced Dylan, its most famous son, and so has Hibbing, which for many years showcased a Bob Dylan Festival. There is now a remembrance plaque honouring Dylan on the Zimmermans' old Duluth house. But like Bruce Springsteen, a favourite son of Long Branch, New Jersey, Dylan enjoys an appeal that has long been worldwide, including in Singapore. And he's not done yet.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016