Normal is How America Got This Way: A Review of The View from Flyover Country

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photo by Omar Prestwich via Unsplash

“The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society,” Sarah Kendzior says.  “Complaining is beautiful.  Complaining should be encouraged.  Complaining means you have a chance.” (225)

Sometimes it takes a critic to get things to change, and Kendzior is such a critic.  Her book, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, is misnamed, but her targets are well-chosen.  Looking back on the essays about the decline of America, which she wrote during the Obama years and which form the bulk of this book, she says, “in the era of the audacity of hope, I made a case for the audacity of despair.” (xii)

The book is misnamed because, even though Kendzior is located in St. Louis, her concerns are much larger than the forgotten Midwest where she begins her flights from flyover country.  She begins where I began this blog—with the recognition that the national media and the narrative of the Great Divide have turned the heartlands of America into a crude stereotype—a vast landscape of racist rubes who can’t discern what serves their own self-interest.  

“There are endless variations of ‘America’ in St. Louis alone,” Kendzior declares.  “This insistence that we have an inherent divide has in some respects become a self-fulfilling prophecy…America is purple—purple like a bruise.” (xvi)

Having begun here, however, Kendzior’s essays, which she originally wrote during her time as a reporter for Al Jazeera, quickly move from the local to the structural.  She wants to know why America isn’t working and she documents it with a sustained focus on a narrow range of issues.  

In Kendzior’s America, higher education is broken.  Adjunct professors are getting food stamps and living in their offices.  Students are leaving college with mountains of student loan debt and declining job prospects. Unpaid internships, available mostly to the wealthy elite, are replacing entry-level positions in careers like public service and the media.

Structural racism continues to limit the potential of black communities and black youth.  Though Ferguson, which happened in her back yard, is a mere footnote here, Kendzior sees its symbolic importance.  “St. Louis is a city where black communities are watched—by police, by spectators—more than they are seen, more than they are heard.” (108)

Journalism, which even into the 1970s had space for reporters without academic degrees, is now dominated by people with the means to get graduate degrees.  Even so, most journalists who can get a job are seeing their income potential shriveling.  

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Sarah Kendzior

This is important “complaining.”  It focuses attention on why, even when the economic indicators are rising and the unemployment rate declines, we continue to feel that all is not well.  For Kendzior, the 2016 election was not a radical departure from the norm, but the inevitable result of the “normal” we had already been experiencing.  “‘Normal’ is how we got here.” (231)

“Income inequality remains at a level unrivaled in modern U.S. history, as does household debt. Wages remain stagnant of in decline.  Higher education remains an exorbitant barrier to middle-class jobs, which middle-class jobs continue to disappear.  Geographical inequality…remains rampant, with prestigious jobs clustered in cities few can afford.” (231-2).

No wonder Kendzior feels “we live in the tunnel at the end of the light.” (29)

There’s much that I appreciate about the passion and analysis of this book, as well as Kendzior’s knack for the well-turned phrase. What I miss here is a reckoning of the capacity of the “flyover country” to persevere and renew itself.  By turning her attention so fully to the systems that are broken on a national level, the place Kendzior lives and the people with whom she lives disappear—just as they do in all the media reporting she decries.

In her great new book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser quotes Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Belgian Jesuit priest who explored the Great Plains in the mid-19th century.  De Smet was mystified by the “strange people” who settled the region, defying all the “lethal obstacles placed in their paths by climate, weather, or disease.”  

“Nothing frightens them,” he said.  “They will undertake anything.  Sometimes they halt—stumble once in a while—but they get up again and march onward.” (106)

Those Midwesterners still exist.  I’m all for acknowledging the tunnel.  But it doesn’t have to mean the absence of the light.

Full disclosure: Flatiron Books provided me with a copy of this book for review.

Han Solo and the Myth of the Heroic Leader

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There’s no doubt that a charismatic leader can have a big impact on the size of a congregation.  It’s what most churches ask for when I go around doing consultations about the missional needs of the congregation as they prepare for a new pastoral appointment.  “If we had somebody who would knock on doors and preach dynamic sermons and inspire us with their boundless energy, things would change around here.”  Oh, and young with 30 years of experience, too.

But there’s a limit, and solo artists hit it sooner or later.

In this occasional series, I’ve been returning to a book by Jacob Armstrong, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, to see what lessons rural churches might learn about adaptation.  Armstrong points to the lies that emerge when congregations get fearful about the future, and one of the pressures they place on pastors is the untruth that “you have to do it on your own.”  Even Moses didn’t have to do that, Armstrong says.  God gave him elders within the people of Israel to help carry the load.  

“The example of Moses is that we need each other to effectively lead and live into God’s vision for our community,” Armstrong says.  “But, unfortunately, the example of Moses wore off a long time ago.” (65)

I’ve seen the effects of the myth of the solo, heroic leader. It takes its toll in an overinflated sense of capacity when things are going right and an even more destructive denigration of our capabilities when they aren’t.

So what’s a pastor to do?

Armstrong talks about the power of teams that are focused on the vision.  Teams that own a vision larger than the pastor’s skill set help congregations become living, breathing agents, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  They also energize the members of the team to discover and use their own gifts.  Effective teams, Armstrong says, “love, learn, and lead together.” (69)

For most small churches, the team cannot be built on a staff structure.  The team IS the congregation.  A wise pastor will not see the Church Council as a body of workers to whom assignments can be delegated nor as a demanding supervisor adding more tasks to an already overwhelming to-do list.  The Church Council is a gift—a group with the potential for loving, learning, and leading WITH the pastor.

Especially with so many churches experimenting with what a smaller council structure could look like, why not try some new experiments in how that structure could operate?  Couldn’t each gathering include a time of learning together? Worshipping together? Reconnecting with one another and the vision?

Instead of disconcerting obstacles, these ‘team gatherings’ could be the beginning of new life.  In fact, as in the early church, Armstrong notes, the future of our churches lies in “small groups of people who then start other small groups.” (71)

Recently, I saw the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.  It featured a familiar American type—Han Solo likes to think of himself as a talented loner who gets by on his charisma and skills.  The movie celebrated his charms, but you can’t help but notice – Solo is rarely solo.  He’s at his best as part of a team.

Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism: The Ed Ayers Interview concludes

Is there reason, as a historian, to be an optimist?  Edward Ayers, among other things the co-host of the BackStory podcast and radio program, narrates a troubled chapter of American history in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.  In the first two segments of this interview we have talked about vicious political climates and racialized narratives.  But here, my former professor talks about the pendulum of history and Confederate monuments, something he’s been doing a lot of thinking about in his multiple roles:

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photo by Dean Hinnant via Unplash

So the grand theory of history here behind what you’re doing—-you’re saying there are these big counter-forces at work during this period. If the South hadn’t seceded, emancipation wouldn’t have happened. If the South hadn’t resisted civil rights for blacks, there wouldn’t have been voting rights and office holding for blacks. If Northern Democrats hadn’t provided cover for Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans wouldn’t have pushed so hard. Is that how history works in America? Not through compromise but through the opposition of grand forces?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? That’s one reason I think that we’re watching the foundations being laid right now for a new Progressive Era. I think that the opposition to Trump is going to be a major force over the next 15 or 20 years. That may be wishful thinking.

I would say that, partly because of the two party system, American history does seem to move like a pendulum rather than like an arrow. One set of accomplishments cannot be taken as a [common] accomplishment; they are taken as the embodiment of a partisan initiative. You certainly see this today in the [US retreat from the Iran deal], for no particular reason other than the predecessor did it and the current president’s undoing it.

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Ed Ayers

I’ve not gotten any criticisms from anything [in my argument] yet, really. I’ve just gotten some grudging comments from people who aren’t really in sympathy with this whole kind of social history/inclusive approach. If you’re gonna criticize it, then the implicit argument here is that this diminishes the intentionality of the Republicans and of Abraham Lincoln. I don’t mean for it to do that, but that would be the criticism. The argument is that the Republicans knew all along they wanted to end slavery. That’s why they created the party. They did whatever it took along the way to do it, and then they did it. And they instituted as much Reconstruction as they could. The flip side of that is that the white South resisted every step along the way and won a large part of what they wanted, which is local control. 

So I’m trying to put the two things in interplay and showing that neither of those stories —either the triumphalist one or the defeatist one—is true, but rather that each side is making the other. 

These are what we might think of as dark matter. We now know the dark matter accounts for most of what’s in the universe. You can’t see it but it has gravitational effects. The Northern Democrats and the African-American people in the South and white Southerners are the dark matter that moves this great national story in ways that we can’t understand otherwise. I don’t know that it’s a grand theory as much as it is trying to explain all the orbital irregularities that we see in the story.

And if we don’t understand what the Republicans were up against, then we can’t understand really the depth of what they accomplished. I think it’s what’s surprising to people about this: I’m not following any traditional rhetoric about this of celebration or of condemnation. I’m just saying we put everybody in the screen…we put everybody in the same frame and then we see they’re making each other’s history. 

I said in my Lincoln Prize address that to only look at one party or one side is like trying to understand a battle by only looking at the maneuvers of one army. That’s the basic idea of this book: we can’t understand any part without at least trying to see how all the parts fit together.

I always think of you as an optimist about the course of history. Do you feel like an optimist?

Yeah, I do actually. I think what this story shows us is that things that are far worse than we can imagine can happen and that things that are far better than we can imagine can happen too. The capacity for both swings of the pendulum are with us all the time. History has these capacities that can be tapped by people of vision and good will and ability and those reservoirs are all around us all the time.

Having watched the Civil Rights movement in my own life as a child, and to see everything suddenly change reveals to me that people of good will can make remarkable things happen. It seemed impossible at the time. I think that can happen again.

But we can also see that reservoirs of hatred and mistrust are always there, as well. I think it’s useful to know that we have to be careful that we don’t talk ourselves into the Civil War the way Americans did. On the other hand. that we need to be determined to make the most of the reservoirs and possibilities that we do have, too.

One of the things that seems to resonate between those times and these for me is this idea of how shame plays a role in the dialogue. In the Reconstruction Era, you say that the South was willing to admit defeat and the end of slavery and the Confederacy, but that the Republicans wanted more. They wanted repentance and confession of some kind of moral error. How did that dynamic play out, and are we seeing some of the same sort of language in our political life today?

Yeah, I’ll be curious to see if my fellow historians believe this. This is another kind of dangerous argument because it suggests that the Republicans were perhaps self-righteous and made problems that they didn’t need to make, which is the way that Reconstruction has been understood. These guys were fanatics, right? [is how the argument goes]. 

I guess it’s understandable to me why people who had tried to destroy the United States would be held accountable for what they had done. I think I’m the first one to actually locate that word ‘rebellism.’ That’s a great word. [The Republicans] recognize that the reality is that if they don’t kill that attitude, then whatever political events happen, that’s going to come back. All that to say that it’s an entirely legitimate thing that the Republicans want. It’s also probably unrealistic.

16301481_BG1A lot of Confederate monuments were testimony to the fact that they were not going to give up their ‘rebellism.’ They were never going to admit they’d been morally wrong. They were willing to admit that they’d made a mistake strategically in giving away slavery for political independence, but they were never willing to admit that it was illegal or that it was wrong in the eyes of God.

You see those quotes in the [Southern] papers even as the Confederacy is dying that say, “We feel that we had vindication from God to do this.” Volume One [Ayer’s book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies] is all built around the 23rd Psalm. That’s one of the most striking changes in the first part of the war is the way that the Confederacy recruits the Deity. They celebrate Lee and Jackson as particularly Christian soldiers. 

If they didn’t have that…if they didn’t believe they were fighting for exactly the same ideals that the United States had been built upon…they could not possibly have waged this rebellion if they did not share the faith in this ideology with the North. They would not have been able to have changed people’s minds in a matter of weeks that something that you had opposed for years—secession—was now an essential act and that if you do it you are morally superior. If you don’t really have the larger religious framing of that it doesn’t happen.

So that’s another reason that the white South doesn’t change its mind—the idea of “We’ll be tried by adversity.” They have a script for that. They understand, “This doesn’t mean we’re wrong; it could mean that this is a trial to see how we bear it.” That helps give them a resolution that they would not have had otherwise.

In your description of the people of Staunton moving the bodies from the battlefield to the cemetery, the Lost Cause narrative is already there, which is something that I think of as developing later, once the Confederate memoirs start coming out.

Here’s another place where I’m kind of doing something dangerous. That makes the Lost Cause look more plausible. It makes you understand that it’s not just a new word for white supremacy. These were your sons that you’re burying and then reburying.

The whole idea for everything I ever do is: we’re not gonna understand if we don’t try to see it through the eyes of the people who were enacting it. We’re not going to understand the Lost Cause if we don’t understand the real grief that motivated it. The trick there is to see that grief can be wrapped in other kinds of purposes as well. That’s the tricky thing.

We have a meeting here tonight in Richmond about the Monument Avenue Commission. We’re coming to a conclusion of that and I think people are slowly coming to see that the knee-jerk formulations—“It’s just history and you can’t change it” or “[The people who erected the Confederate monuments] didn’t mean anything politically by it” are not true. On the other hand, for people who are standing on the other side [it’s important to understand that] the people who are building these things are still grieving for sons and fathers they lost. It’s also important to understand this if we’re gonna move forward—what all the people who put the monuments up originally meant by them.

Thanks for the book. I hope it gets a broad readership. It should.

Yeah, you know, getting a Lincoln Prize…all my friends here who are not in the history biz were most impressed that I beat Ron Chernow [author of Alexander Hamilton] and winning the Avery Prize from the Organization of American Historians. But I think that our impact comes from classrooms for the next twenty years. I hope, that’s where the impact comes from—people actually have a chance to think about it a little bit rather than just reading the book then moving on.

So there’s not an Alexander H.H. Stuart musical coming out?

They did actually do a stage dramatization of it at the Black History Museum in Richmond based on words of four characters: two white, two black, two men, two women. It was very powerful. Just the words and a few of mine along the way. So it would make a great movie or a great miniseries. So if you could make that happen I would appreciate it 

We’ll get Lin-Manuel Miranda on it and see what he can do with it.

That’d be great.

Doughfaces, Denzel & Racing against Racism: The Ed Ayers Interview, Part 2 of 3

Think the racial narratives of American political discourse are bad today?  As Edward Ayers reveals in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, it’s nothing new and it’s been worse.  In the second part of my interview with my former professor, we talk about racial narratives of the mid-War North and the post-War South.  

The first part of my interview can be found by clicking this link.

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So, then, how new was the racial narrative that the Northern Democrats developed during the Civil War? How did it work for them and was it really new or was that of a piece with what went before?

Before the War, they were ‘Doughfaces,’ which is: Northern men with Southern sympathies. They were called Doughfaces because their faces could be shaped to whatever expression the South wanted. Before the War, the Democrats had basically been Southern sympathizers for reasons of racism but also for party advantage. 

Once they’re fighting to the death against white Southerners, they don’t have that option anymore and it becomes just anti-black. So, in some ways the racism is of a purer form in the War. You see this in the invention of miscegenation as a scare tactic of the Democrats. 

During the war itself, the Republicans are always pointing out, “You guys are just on the verge of treason—wishing ill for the Federal armies, kind of pulling for the Confederacy a little bit because you don’t want to see slavery end, because you don’t really want the formerly enslaved people to come into the North.” 

The Democrats don’t really have a good answer for that because that’s kind of true. Then after the War, they return to their sympathy for the white South and in some ways the War is an interruption of the longer conversation about race. The difference is that there are white Northerners after the War, who didn’t exist before, who had their entire political identity wrapped around some kind of justice and freedom for the formerly enslaved people 

That’s one thing I really emphasize—here’s a case where politics does something great. You have all the mobilization on the ground of people who want to be elected and re-elected, and to do so they embrace emancipation. And because they embrace emancipation, they embrace the character and capacities of African-Americans. If you don’t have that, you don’t really have the mobilization of white support in the North for Reconstruction. We’re so used to thinking of politics as a corrosive craft, but here’s a case where politics played a role that no other institution could have played because it blended self-interests and idealism in a really powerful mixture.

How much did the Northern Democratic narrative impact the Southern narrative that developed after the war? It obviously built on something that was there in South already, but how quickly did the alliance between Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats emerge?

Everybody was happy that Andrew Johnson was president after Lincoln’s assassination. The Democrats say, “OK, we got one of ours. Even though he just ran on the Union ticket, he’s always been a Democrat.”

The Republicans say, “Here’s the bravest guy in the South who was uniquely willing to stand up for the Union against his own people.”

Johnson was trying to make a national Republican Party that could hold its own with a national Democratic Party that was reassembling itself after the War. The white Southerners and the Northern Democrats came back together quickly despite the fact they had just been killing each other months before. 

So, I give Johnson a little more credit than most people. I’d say, “What was he doing?” It’s true, he threw black people under the bus. It’s true that he granted pardons to so many former Confederates. But why?

It’s usually explained, “Well, he was a racist.” Well, yeah, but so was everybody. The difference was, he was doing what he thought Lincoln wanted to do, which is to put together a national party, North and South, of white people who would further the cause of union. To do that he was willing to sacrifice much that had been won recently and at such great cost. 

Even though there was a war and I know those were extraordinary circumstances, it’s surprising that the Republican Party was able to retain control of Congress as long as it did. I don’t think of Congress as really having that much time to do much and, in our day, doing much of anything at all. How unusual was that?

That’s a really good point. If we pull the camera back a little bit, though, we see that they were racing. They accomplished as much as they did because they knew it wasn’t going to last. So, you have the nine months that Johnson was president that Congress is not in session. Then he basically sacrifices a lot of what the Republicans believed in and what a lot of Northerners believed in.

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Ed Ayers

But because of the disgust of what white Southerners did in that time, they were able to win a mandate in 1866 that they were able then to carry over into 1867 and ’68. But they started losing as soon as they started winning. The Democrats started a resurgence almost as soon as the Republicans were in power creating the Military Reconstruction Act. 

My experience is that people don’t even think they understand Reconstruction because it doesn’t have any kind of a narrative arc. It starts ending as soon as it begins and it ends in different states at different times in different ways.

I asked my freshmen students last year to tell me about Reconstruction. I said, “Go online and see what people think about Reconstruction.” They came back and the only commonality was that it was a failure. That’s what we teach our children—Reconstruction was a failure. I think that’s misleading and also defeatist. It also undercuts the idea that the government might be able to do something important. Of course, it’s going to end. You can’t change people. So the point is that the Republicans were racing precisely because they knew that if they didn’t do it then they might never do it.

Another great thing about the book is the way that you captured voices from people who were in the US Colored Troops during the War. I have always known how important those soldiers were symbolically, but what came through in the book was, practically, the North really relied on what the Colored Troops were able to do in the field.

Yeah. The New York Times wrote an article about the Valley of the Shadow project back in 1999 or 2000 when the idea of an online project was considered a novel idea. An older professor wrote me and said, “You would never find them, but the largest single collection of letters of African-American soldiers is of a family from Franklin County [PA]. But they’re filed in the county next door… I can’t read the letters.” 

colored_troopsI wrote back and said, “That’s ok. I know some twenty-two-year-old eyes that can.” And [the grad students] transcribed all those letters. So, I was able to flesh out that story because of that remarkable stroke of good luck.

The fact that these guys were just writing to each other…they’re not grandstanding. This is not a speech. This is not an editorial in a newspaper. They’re just saying, “I do believe it’s God’s will that this War will go on till the black people have their rights.”

I still get chills thinking about that and for us to know that that’s what they were fighting for. I think is crucial. It changes the story we have. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman [in the movie Glory]—it’s all great, but it gives the impression that it ended after Fort Wagner [in 1863]. As you see, it didn’t and the kind of fighting they were doing on up to the gates of Richmond is an important thing for us to know. 

Click on this link for Segment 3, “Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism.”

The Vicious State of Politics…Then: Ed Ayers on Heartlands-part 1 of 3

Edward Ayers is not only one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of American History, he is a consummate storyteller and educator.  Ayers is the Tucker Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.  His latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize and the Avery O. Craven Award.  He was also my professor and advisor at the University of Virginia back in the day.

Recently I interviewed Ayers about his book and the course of history in general.  In three segments on Heartlands, you’ll get a lot of what we talked about.  In this segment, we discuss the political culture of the Civil War period and how it may have echoes in our current era:

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By Dswanson1001 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51846534

So I started my review of your book by asking, “Who starts a book about the Civil War in the middle?” Of course, you did. Why did you choose to start Thin Light of Freedom with 1863?

This does start in the middle on purpose because it kind of throws us off balance a little bit. We’re used to thinking that Gettysburg is the pivot of the war, the turning point, but they certainly didn’t know it. We need to remember: as many people died after Gettysburg as died before and you certainly see in this book that the White South doesn’t say, “Well, we give up.” They kept fighting and I think the critical thing is to recognize that the election of 1864 is really the pivot of the war. They know it’s going to be from the beginning and a lot of the things that happen on the battlefield are actually oriented toward that. We usually think that a war is a series of battles and instead the war was a struggle for the future of the United States that would be determined by whether the US could hold it together long enough to defeat the Confederacy. That was determined more by the election than by the battle of Gettysburg or Vicksburg.

The contrast between the political culture in the South and in the North was fascinating. You use a lot of newspaper accounts to try to get at how public opinion was changing. You talk about how in Staunton, Virginia, (the Southern community that you chose to focus on) the newspapers were kind of united and probably united more behind the army than the government.

Right, right. Our usual understanding is, “Obviously the Confederacy was wrong,” and so we go back and look for ways that it was also flawed and failing. But the fact is that it considered itself under assault and it set aside the differences, which were just as strong before the Civil War as in the North. The newspapers that seem to be speaking with one voice during the war had been fighting with each other, just like the Democrats and the Republicans in the North, before the war and in some ways even more so because they were fighting over whether Virginia should secede or not. You read those papers in this book and you see that you wouldn’t know that one of the papers had been fervently Unionist a week before the Confederacy is created.

The important thing for us to understand is that the war is not just a playing out of forces that were already in play but rather it changes everything. It’s a crucible in which ideology and even faith are redefined in some ways. The idea of pointing out how much conflict there is in the North is also good for us because we’re self-congratulatory about the Civil War and imagine that it had to turn out the way that it did and that it was clear that the right side scored a win because it was intrinsically stronger, because it was intrinsically right. But recognizing that nearly half of white Northerners would not support Abraham Lincoln in the greatest crisis of the nation should be a sobering recognition for all of us.

That was to me the most surprising thing, even having lived with the story a long time. The divisions in the North were just…vicious. 

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Ed Ayers

Yeah, when I give talks about this I joke and say, “Now, I want to warn everybody: back then people used very hard language to talk about politics.” 

People laugh but then they go, “Wow, that actually is a harsh thing to say about the greatest president in American history.”

The point of this is not to diminish the Union cause but rather to be grateful for the people who made it happen rather than just give a blanket endorsement of all white Northerners because they don’t deserve it. The people who did fight and make this happen, who were brave and resisted the temptations of racism, deserve more credit and the people who resisted it all don’t deserve any.

Right, and as I’ve been thinking about our current times, I keep going back to the 1850s as a similar time when it felt like things were pulling apart. But the kind of divisions that I associate with that period continued into the 1860s in the North. I mean, it was not over just because the War came. 

Not only do I start the book in the middle of the Civil War but I don’t end till Reconstruction. So it is kind of an unusual slice that cuts across the way you usually compartmentalize it, which is: Before the War, the War, After the War. Those are three completely different literatures that don’t talk to each other very much. All we have to do is remember just how much of a presence Vietnam is still today in America to imagine what the Civil War would have felt like 18 months after it was over. We close the books on the War and start to talk about politics, but it’s basically the same thing and the War simultaneously changes everything but leaves the fundamental conversation in place.

Segment 2 of this interview, “Doughfaces, Denzel, & Racing Against Racism,” can be found by clicking this link.

Chasing the Panther and Finding One’s Self: A Review of The Which Way Tree

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

You might say that Elizabeth Crook has written a classic boy’s adventure.  The Which Way Tree is narrated by 17-year-old Benjamin Shreve, who tells the tale of an epic panther hunt in Civil War-era Texas.  There are renegade soldiers, larger-than-life characters, chases through the Hill Country and a magnificent, terrifying beast.

But this is also the tale of a girl.  Benjamin’s younger half-sister Samantha, (always known as Sam), is, like her mother, stubborn, resilient, and possessed of an animal determination.  When the panther (we would call it a mountain lion today) makes a late night visit to the Shreve home, Sam’s mother, an African-American woman married to the children’s white father, goes into gory battle with the cat after it attacks Sam, hacking two toes off the panther before losing her life.  Sam is left with hideous scars and an obsession to get vengeance.

It would take too much of the joy of this book away to reveal more of the particulars, but suffice it to say that the panther returns after the children are orphaned and a pursuit across South Texas ensues that involves Clarence Hamlin—a stupid, evil man, Hamlin’s wise uncle—Preacher Dob, Mr. Pacheco—a stylish Mexican, and a panther dog named Zechariah.  It’s a rollicking ride and the telling of it gives Benjamin a chance to emerge as a writer, since the story unfolds in a series of “testaments” to a benevolent and encouraging judge.

There are hints of other great works here.  The most obvious is Moby Dick, an allusion made explicit by Benjamin’s continuing references to The Whale, which is one of the few books he has read, it having been tossed up to him by Union prisoners held in the bottom of a canyon in exchange for corn.  But the journey with a primal young girl across 19th century Texas has also been done recently by Paulette Jiles, another Texan writer, in her wonderful 2016 novel, News of the World.  And of course, there are the Western boy’s adventures as a backdrop, too.

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Elizabeth Crook

Even though there are some familiar elements, Crook has fashioned something uniquely hers here, too.  Her young characters have agency and power that the adult characters both nurture and respect.  She challenges racial presumptions and hints at the more fluid race relations in frontier Texas.  And she is wise to the ways of the human heart.

There is also a rough Christian spirituality at work here, voiced most often by the old preacher, but also, in good Screwtape fashion by the evil Hamlin, as well.  In a previous post I talked about the striking image of the Which Way Tree, but when the preacher comes to talk about Sam’s obsession with the panther, he sees how the animal is part of Sam’s struggle with the world.

“Her whole life, she has wanted to kill the panther,” Preacher Dob says.  “The Bible says where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.  If the panther’s hide should remain our little girl’s treasure, her heart will lie under a uprooted tree, beyond the edge of all she has ever known in her life, and far out of reach of them that cares for her…She is called on to walk off from this river and take nothing that she brought to it.  That is a hard thing to do.” (251)

If I were only going to read one Texas book this year…  Ha!  Right!  Listen, I know I’m a sucker for things Texan, but The Which Way Tree transcends my peculiar obsessions.  This is a first-rate read that will stick with you.

**Full disclosure: Little, Brown and Co. gave me a copy of this book to review.

The UMC & The Which Way Tree

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photo by Victor Zambrano via Unsplash

Preacher Dob, the Mexican horse thief, and two young teens were at a standstill.  They had lost the trail of the panther they were hunting, the one who had killed the girl’s mother and on whom she had sworn vengeance.  Zechariah, their panther dog, had gotten the worse of an encounter with a skunk, and was unlikely to pick up the scent again, smelling like he did.  Preacher Dob and the boy were ready to head back.  Mr. Pacheco, a good man despite the horse incident, and the girl wanted to push on down the canyon.

“We are at cross purposes here,” the preacher said.  “We have consulted the wishes of all, and fallen to disagreement, and found ourselves at an impasse.  There is but one amongst us who has not yet been called on nor heard from, and that is the Lord.  We would do well to call upon him.” (180)

I’ve got a full review of Elizabeth Crook’s great new novel of 1860s Texas, The Which Way Tree, coming soon, but this passage in particular struck me as a United Methodist who often feels that our denomination is stuck in a blind canyon at an impasse uncertain about what to do next.  As we hear about competing plans for unity and corresponding plans for exit, the elusive way forward on questions of human sexuality is contested and unclear.  We, too, have stopped to pray, including a new Phase III of the Praying Our Way Forward beginning June 3 in which the bishops have asked United Methodists to do a Wesley fast from Thursday night to Friday afternoon each week.

umc_prays_logo_final-690x380In his prayer, Preacher Dob, sets the question before the Lord completely, acknowledging the reasons each party believes as they do.  He also expresses his anxieties and fears and his ultimate trust in God.  In effect, it’s the method of our Commission on a Way Forward, which has done enduring work in helping us hear one another completely.  It’s a fine prayer, but Sam, the determined girl, thinks he says too much.  “You did not say it fair,” she says.  “Fair is to say Lord, let us know if we is to go on, or turn back.  Amen.” (181)

Sam, like many of us, just wants to know the bottom line.  So Preacher Dob amends his prayer.  “Lord, do show us the way,” he says.

Something happens in the night.  The lingering prayer, the campfire burning down to embers, the cold wind blowing through—they all have their effect.  Benjamin, Sam’s half-brother, thinks about going back home to a house where he and his sister have been trying to make it without parents:

“I felt the presence of winter coming, and possibly rain on the way, and a certain dread in my bones with the thought of long nights before me stoking the fire of our broken-down house, and watching the door, and listening to every snap of a twig beyond it, and wondering if the panther might be watching and waiting from the far side….it was a place I had already been in my life, and knew well, and I was not sure it was any more safe than where the canyon might take us.” (181-2)

I feel the same about the thought of going back to a UMC in which we are still “dealing with the panther at the door,” by which I mean not only the questions of human sexuality but the concept of a church that has lost its focus and its mission.  I dream, as our District Mission Plan says, of a place “where clergy, congregations, and communities are freed for edge-walking action on behalf of the gospel of Jesus.”  

Some will say we can’t do that unless “our side” prevails on the questions before us.  But I venture the radical notion that this may be a case where the substance matters less than the act of releasing the UMC to God’s future.  A UMC that goes “where the canyon might take us” will be transformed.

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

This does not absolve us of the hard work we should do to prepare for next February’s called General Conference where votes will be taken and decisions made.  I have no doubt there will be losses.  But those of us who have been formed by this expression of Christ’s church will retain the sensibilities and the gifts that the UMC has given us.  And we will have companions in those who have been on the journey with us.  When we wake up the day after General Conference, there will still be a story of God’s grace ahead of us.

How does the story end?  I’ll let you read the book to find that out.  But I will tell you that when the group awoke the next morning they made a startling discovery.  Mr. Pacheco discovered, in a half-eaten porcupine and a fresh pad track, that the panther had been watching them all night from a towering tree.

“The Lord has now spoke,” Preacher Dob said.  “He has told us to complete the journey.  He has reminded me that journeys will not often be of my choosing.  We stand in a crossways place, and he gave us a Which Way tree…He has shown us the way we are to go, and it is onward.” (183)

Lord, I pray for a Which Way tree.

Small Towns as Moral Communities: A Review of The Left Behind

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photo by Jamie Mink via Unsplash

Here’s the plot: a ragtag group of survivors suddenly discovers that people who have been a significant part of their lives have moved on leaving them in a desperate moral quandary as they try to piece together what has happened and work for a better future.  No, it’s not Tim LeHaye’s rapture series, Left Behind.  It’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, the latest book from Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton social scientist and Kansas native.

Wuthnow, like a lot of us in the aftermath of the 2016 election, has been taking a hard look at what’s happened in rural America.  I have lamented on this site about the easy and dangerous caricatures we fall into in trying to understand what’s happening in the Heartlands.  On the one hand, there is a tendency for bluer places to see all of red America as a reactionary landscape of racism, misogyny, and economic resentment.  On the other hand, rural America sometimes adopts a stereotyped vision of itself, hanging on to symbolic grievances (like the “War on Christmas”) and denying its own complexity.

Wuthnow tries to get under the surface of the Great Divide in this book by putting the focus on something larger than individual perspectives. 

“My argument,” he says, “is that understanding rural America requires seeing the place in which its residents live as moral communities…a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right things.” (4)

There’s a lot of familiar territory to be trod here.  Drawing on lots of research over the last 20 years, Wuthnow documents a familiar litany of rural challenges: population decline, a rural brain drain, teen pregnancy, drugs, lack of jobs, and the age-old friction between ‘born heres’ and ‘come heres.’  But he puts these perceived threats within a larger, unsettling framework. 

“Being part of a moral community, even when it sits lightly on people’s shoulders, means that sensing your community is declining and your young people are falling behind is a reflection in small measure on you…you are part of a failing community.” (78)

This almost imperceptible psychological burden can curdle into fear and anger—fear that a way of life is slipping away and anger that, as it does, it is “being discredited and attacked from the outside.” (79)  

 

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Even though Wuthnow talks to a lot of fearful and angry people in this book, his larger point is that the realities of rural life are not dependent on emotions.  There are systemic things eating away at old certainties, as well.  Small communities have depended on an ethos that believes that “when problems arise, we can fix them.”  The flotilla of small boat rescues after Hurricane Harvey last fall represents an ideal of what rural America believes about its potential.

Systemic problems are harder to pull out of the floodwaters, though.  Real change involves being part of regional, state, and federal organizations who bring resources, but also bureaucratic intricacies and arcane policies that don’t make sense.  When economic development happens in small towns, it often means that a new company comes in that needs expertise and skills that also have to come from elsewhere.  

“If rural people are susceptible to appeals that blame others—Washington, minorities, immigrants—for their problems, we must recognize clearly the psychological toll that seemingly insurmountable problems take on rural people themselves.” (91)

RELIGION AND CHURCHES IN RURAL AMERICA

Throughout the book, Wuthow notes the role that religion plays in rural life.  He sees the struggles churches are having.  Herb and Linda Tobias attend a Baptist church in the Midwest, but they “admit to being disgruntled because it’s been hard for their small community to attract good preachers and the one who came last year leaves them shaking their heads sometimes.” (92)  

colin-maynard-280700-unsplashDenominational churches struggle as well, although they play an interesting role in forcing some conversations that might not happen otherwise.  For instance, United Methodists and other mainline churches have asked their local congregations to discuss the issues of gay ordination for clergy and same-sex marriage.  “That meant people who quietly supported one side or the other had to make their positions known.” (134)  The result has been a few church splits while other congregations find ways to stay together despite disagreements.

“There’s a paradox in all this, though,” Wuthnow says.  “On the one hand, the conversations about gay rights and marriage equality wouldn’t have happened in rural communities…if there hadn’t been prompting from outside…On the other hand, it was precisely these outside promptings that rural communities disliked, just as they did Washington telling them to purchase healthcare and quit reading the Ten Commandments in school.” (135-36)

The Left Behind leaves the reader, (or at least this reader), longing for more.  Wuthnow makes the curious decision to turn his three principal research sites (small towns in the Midwest, New England, and the Deep South) into generic communities with names like Gulfdale and Fairfield.  The individual stories, which could have added more vivid interest, remain in the background, but perhaps that is best for a broad sociological look.  

The idea of small towns as moral communities is useful and helps keep the individual perspectives in context, but there is much more to be said about the ways the moral narratives that bind communities together are being manipulated by larger forces, like national media and institutions.  Wuthnow downplays the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild in her Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right because he feels it focused too narrowly on the Lake Charles, Louisiana area, (which, at 200,000 people, he feels is too large to be rural).  But Rochschild, as I noted in reviewing her book and in a subsequent interview, is mining a similar deep story that feels more visceral.

The land is crumbling in The Left Behind.  It’s all burning down in Hochschild’s book.

This is a good addition to the literature on rural America in the Age of the Great Divide.  It describes the landscape I know, which feels so distant from the shiny, globalized cities on the television screen.  Wuthnow sees that, while no one has been raptured, a whole lot of the country feels left behind.

**Princeton University Press provided me a copy of this book for review.

Living in the Pages of The Sarah Book: A Review

IMG_6558If I didn’t know Scott McClanahan, I’d be worried about him.  In fact, I’d go up to him and ask, “What is wrong with you?”  That’s a less profane version of the question his wife, Sarah, asks him near the beginning of The Sarah Book when he burns their wedding Bible after getting a series of Taco Bell receipts that total $6.66.

Burning Bibles isn’t the half of it.  If Scott McClanahan’s life was a head of hair it would be coming out in huge handfuls.  Drinking gin out of a water bottle as he drives his children down the interstate.  Marriage coming apart.  Living in the Walmart parking lot.  Smashing up a computer containing his kids’ photos.

Like I said, I’d be worried.  But who really knows Scott McClanahan?

I discovered McClanahan, the writer, in his 2013 book Crapalachia: a Biography of a Place.  It was 120 proof West Virginia lunacy from the first chapter, which managed, in the course of 5 pages, to squeeze in a mountain family with 13 kids, 5 suicides, cockfighting, and an outhouse in which McClanahan’s grandfather does something unspeakable with a letter from the coal mines denying his pension.

Don’t call his books Appalachian Minstrel Show Lit, though.  As McClanahan says in Crapalachia’s appendix, this is not Mary Lee Settle’s tamed and simple folks made gauzy by the blue haze of their mountains and the purity of their dulcimer-soundtracked lives.  This is drunk-crying when you fall in the hole left from where you pulled up a stump and didn’t fill it in while you’re trying to storm off to get beef jerky because your wife won’t participate in a day of debauchery with you—that kind of honesty.  

“Sarah said, ‘Well, why are you crying?’  I walked back to the house and I told her it was true.  I’d fallen in a hole and lied about it.” (The Sarah Book, 91)

Like the car crash he shoulda had in the first chapter of The Sarah Book, you can’t look away from this kind of writing.  It’s so raw and real that you can’t help but marvel at its authenticity, even as you gasp at the appalling and belly laugh at the absurd aspects of such a show.

Except what’s real here?  What presents itself as memoir turns out to be an imaginatively-constructed life of a character who shares the author’s name.  The Crapalachia appendix undoes many of the assumptions piled up over the 158 pages preceding.  Author McClanahan reports that Uncle Stanley was actually his dad, he never lived with his grandmother Ruby and Uncle Nathan, and he never poured beer into Nathan’s feeding tube, (among other confessions).  The Sarah Book doesn’t include such a post-script, but it’s clear the same sort of alchemy of life and story has happened here.

Which is not to say that either book is untrue.  I believe it when McClanahan says he called his dad Uncle Stanley “because I wanted to bring Stanley back into the family,” [Crapalachia, 162].

I believe in-the-book McClanahan when he complains about his English class because “all the students wanted to do was talk about whether the characters in the stories were good people or bad people or whether the writer was a good person or a bad person.  Like this even existed.” [The Sarah Book, 135]  I believe him when he says:

“That night I dreamed we were all magnets.  I dreamed all living things were magnets and from the moment of our births we were being drawn together by some invisible force.  I was a magnet and Sarah was a magnet and books were magnets too.  We had finally found one another.” [The Sarah Book, 207]

“I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’,” McClanahan says.  “It’s just a painting.” [Crapalachia, 165]  And that’s ultimately why I’m not worried about McClanahan.  Because he’s not trying to shock you with the extreme behavior of in-the-book McClanahan.

Well, OK, he is.  He absolutely is.  (“I wanted to punch the reader in the face. Literally punch them in the face [with the opening chapter]” he told an Electric Lit interviewer about The Sarah Book.]

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Scott McClanahan

But what he’s also doing is trying to create something desperately alive within the pages of a book.  In his writing, his lost and distant family is vivid and unmistakable, his marriage is epic and his divorce is a “sacred wound,” his suffering “is a hug from God,” if he believed in God [Sarah, 206], and West Virginia is not a place to be pitied or distorted into being something its not—it just is in all its humiliating humanity.

I’m here to tell you, he succeeds.  This is some of the best writing of our day illuminating some of the most neglected corners of our world where the cobwebs of our soul collect.  Reading Scott McClanahan, you’ll feel the dense thrill and tragedy of being human in this place and time.  And like the author himself, you won’t want the last page to be the end when the summative judgement is delivered.  As in-the-book Scott says, cribbing David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the villain of my own life…these pages must show.” [Sarah, 37]  What incandescent pages!

* Tyrant Books provided a copy of The Sarah Book for my review.  I bought Crapalachia myself!

Looking In on Lookout Mountain: A Review of I Want to Show You More

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photo by Sharon Christina Rørvik via Unsplash

There’s a lot going on up on Lookout Mountain.  The battle of Chickamauga is not really over.  89-year-old Eva Bock braves traffic to walk up Lula Lake Road to deliver snail mail to President Bush protesting the war.  A mainline church takes Corbett Earnshaw’s abrupt confession of disbelief as a sign and demolishes their building in order to move into a cave on the side of the mountain.  A woman leaves her family one night and runs down into Chattanooga to find a makeshift communion in a homeless shelter.  Oh, and there’s a whole lot of cogitating about infidelity.

Such is the world in Jamie Quatro’s collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More.

I came to Quatro’s collection after reading her most recent novel, Fire Sermon, a book that mystically-inclined readers like me will find impossible to put down.  That book featured a 40-something writer from Tennessee struggling with God and a long-distance lover with whom she has broken off an affair.  Those three—writer, God, and lover—are all present in these stories as well.  Quatro is exploring this theme from every angle.  But you’ll also find meditations on isolation, mortality, parenting, physical & psychological frailty, and healing.

Online reviewers seem to feel that much of Quatro’s writing is autobiographical.  After all, she, like many of the characters, lives on Lookout Mountain, is a runner, has children, spent time in Arizona.  Because of the transgressive edge of these stories, some evangelical readers are worried about her soul.  Quatro herself complains about this perception in a recent Paris Review article and a lecture at the Festival of Faith and Writing in which she talked about an all-men’s book club that shifted uncomfortably when she came to visit until one of them blurted out, “What did your husband think of this book?”

Behind that question is a fear of the writer’s freedom to explore the traces of desire and embodiment.  In her FFW lecture, Quatro quoted Richard Rohr who calls such fear more Plato than Jesus.  Flesh cannot be bad, as it is the ongoing hiding place of God,” Rohr says.  Quatro is determined to mine the wisdom of the God-haunted flesh for all that it can reveal.

In one of the most affecting stories, “Sinkhole,” a teenaged cross-country runner with a debilitating fear that a hole is opening up in his chest has a transformative experience with a girl whose own physical story is marked by cancer and a colostomy.  Quatro handles the inner lives of the two with sensitivity but holds back on a potential happy ending.  Despite their close encounter which will mark both of them, there is still isolation and a ‘not quite’ consummation.

In another story, “The Anointing,” a wife brings in a team of church elders to anoint her depressed husband with oil only to be incapacitated herself by her inability to truly save her family.  In yet another, a woman’s lover becomes a decomposing wax figure that comes to dominate the relationship with her husband.

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Jamie Quatro

There’s more than a little Flannery O’Conner here.  Characters come in at angles and seem motivated by strange spiritual quests.  But Quatro is paying attention to every plane.  Like the state line that runs invisibly between the Tennessee and Georgia sides of Lookout Mountain, (and which characters occasionally note, especially in the story ‘Georgia the Whole Time”), there are boundaries not seen with the naked eye.  If you do have eyes to see, what you find may be disturbing.  Ugly even.  But “the flaw beneath the flaw is the failure to notice.”

That’s how Quatro put it in her FFW lecture.  The book’s title is in earnest.  She wants to show us more.  And the virtue of these tales is that if we could just pause long enough with her to notice the fulness of this human thing with its yearning, god-like fire, we might be overcome by something beyond the bounds.  Something more like…wonder.