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Monday, February 22, 2016

Ramcat Reads #9

Ramcat Reads #9              February 22, 20167



Lee, Steven S.  The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution.  New York: Columbia University Press,  2015.

Groundbreaking in its exposing of the abject poverty of the white/black binary,  Lee's study of aesthetics and politics outlines new directions for inquiry about which cultures are giving palpable shape to which kinds of revolution.  The new territory to be examined , as Lee keenly recognizes, may demand that we redefine "avant-garde" in African and Asian terms and relegate the pompous West to a subaltern position in our tentative conclusions about what world revolution entails.


Michaeli, Ethan. The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

 The phrase "how X changed America" is cliché-code for "this book will serve well as a smokescreen for bloody flaws in the constitution and evolving character of the United States of America ."  This is not to imply that books having the phrase in their subtitles are themselves flawed.  On the contrary, many of them are damned good.  But we must not be taken in by the rhetorical gestures of mainstream publishers to assure readers that the process of change merits great praise.

 In the case of Michaeli's The Defender, it is apt to say the book is meticulous, necessary, and rewarding for people who have the discipline to read more than a tweet.  After reading 534 well-written pages, it is rewarding to read Michaeli's crowning assertion: "Working at The Defender allowed me to see the truth about America, that 'race' is a pernicious lie that permeates our laws and customs, revived in each generation by entrenched interests that threaten to undermine the entire national enterprise, just as it is challenged in each generation by a courageous few who believe that this nation can truly become a bastion of justice and equality" (535).

The Defender did not change America. It was one of many uses of African American literacy in our endless war with forms of dehumanization in our nation.  Let us give due credit to Michaeli for constructing a history which can retard  the velocity of disremembering.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hawthorne and Trump

Hawthorne and Trump


                Few people read Nathaniel Hawthorne's first novel, the short romance Fanshawe (1828) in 2016.  However  melodramatic  and thin the book is, it is a key to problems treated in Hawthorne's later  fiction and to Donald Trump's  whiteness.  Early American literature blackens the eyes and allows contemporary readers to see better.

                Henry James noted that Hawthorne was not pleased with this early work, assigned it to his boyish period, and eventually destroyed most copies of the first and only edition.  Hawthorne's technical skills matured and reached perfection in his later works, but the themes introduced in Fanshawe recurred throughout his career and still resonate.  Such critics as Carl Bode and Millicent Bell made modest claims about the romance.

                In a 1950 issue of New England Quarterly, Bode asserted the book "makes the earliest announcement of one of his greatest themes: that man must not cut himself off from man," and twelve years later Bell suggested the theme was connected with Hawthorne's problem of justifying the artist's way of life, because "art…is an isolating occupation, which destroys the capacity for normal happiness."  Scholars worked slowly in the old days and were  more forthcoming about the weaknesses of art , and truly great artists did not rush to transform garbage into pabulum.

                Read attentively, Fanshawe reveals much about Donald Trump. The protagonist Fanshawe is a prototype for such later  Hawthorne characters as Dimmesdale, Aylmer, Holgrave, and Kenyon;  Butler, the villain, seems to foreshadow Westervelt and the sinister Capuchin monk.  The hidden gems in the romance are two archetypal patterns:  1) a basic triadic relationship and 2) woman as a tempering force capable of reinstating the isolated male in the magnetic chain of humanity.  These patterns fit Trump to a "T."  The more he speaks from the three sides of his mouth, the more he reveals his being in need of a woman's touch. The patterns mark the Trump discourse.

                The triadic relationship in Fanshawe involves Fanshawe as the isolated scholar, Ellen Langton, and Edward Walcott.  Fanshawe has strong affections for Ellen, but his dedication to the pursuit of knowledge is stronger than his ability to love.  He cannot give of himself as freely as does his fellow student Edward.  He rejects Ellen's love:

No, Ellen, we must part now and forever.  Your life will be long and happy.  Mine will be short….Think that you scattered bright dreams around my pathway, --  an ideal happiness, that you would have sacrificed your own to realize.

To make Ellen a victim in a marriage the way he is a victim in his studies (Fanshawe mentions his studies have consumed the strength of his heart) would be a greater sin than rejection.  Had Fanshawe had the strength to accept Ellen, she would have been his guide to salvation:

Will it not be happiness to form the tie that shall connect you to the world? to be your guide…to the quiet paths from which your proud and lonely thoughts have estranged you?

Fanshawe is never united with normal humanity, nor is it probable that Trump shall be so linked.  Fanshawe dies unfit for this world.  Four years later, Edward, disavowing his passions and pursuits, marries Ellen.

                Hawthorne sprinkled similar themes and structures in The Blithedale Romance, The Scarlet Letter, The Marble Faun, The House of Seven Gables, and several of his short tales.  Two triadic clusters operate in The Blithedale Romance:  1) Zenobia, Coverdale and Hollingsworth and 2) Priscilla, Coverdale, and Hollingsworth (if the last sentence of the novel is reliable).   The poet Coverdale is incapable of personal  involvement with the problems of other characters until Zenobia's suicide brings a shock of recognition.  Only then can he confess his love for Priscilla.  Likewise, Hollingsworth is blind to his error until in death Zenobia shows him what he must reform.   Like Fanshawe and Walcott, he and Hollingsworth are rivals, but Hawthorne was no longer the boyish author, and he recognized the efficacy in a division of labor.  Woman must be split into light (Priscilla) and dark (Zenobia) in order to normalize the men.  How white of Hawthorne to arrive at such wisdom; how white of Trump to realize that one wife is not sufficient.

                Just as Hawthorne used general qualities of Fanshawe the scholar-artist-idealist in creating several  his male characters, Trump uses the qualities of the quintessential  politician-pragmatist to create himself.  A description of Fanshawe in his chamber resembles a description of a future Trump in his penthouse:

He called up in review the years, that, even at his early age, he had spent in solitary study, in conversation  with the dead, while he had scorned to mingle with the living world, or to be actuated by any of its motives.  He asked himself to what purpose was all this destructive labor, and where was the happiness of superior knowledge.  He had climbed but a few steps of a ladder that reached to infinity: he had thrown away his life in discovering, that, after a thousand such lives, he should still know comparatively nothing.

It is only by virtue of triple-talk and postmodern ironies that the analogy between Fanshawe and Trump remains intact. As far as we know from public evidence, Trump has soaked in the living world and fully enjoys the taste of money, and only a mesmeric eye permits us to see any kinship with Fanshawe.  But Hawthorne has long been a mesmeric eye in American literature, and through his eye we see the odd value of an adjusted  question from Millicent Bell:  Is not the obsessive quest…possibly dehumanizing, even sinful, since apparently it leads to an atrophy of the functions of affection and social responsibility?


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

February 18, 2016

Saturday, February 13, 2016

First Race. Then Erase.

 First Race. Then Erase.


It is instructive  to read Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.'s  Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown, 2016) and to follow-up by asking what most distinguishes  it from Ta'Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Both books focus on hot topics. There is a casual echo of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) in Glaude's title, and Coates's title absorbs the title of Richard Wright's powerful, accomplished poem "Between the World and Me."  Both Coates and Glaude use autobiographical strategies to diagnose American ailments and pathologies, and both write as fathers who are deeply concerned about the futures their sons are condemned to live.  They are aware the peculiar history of the United States of America assigns stereotyped roles to its citizens, roles that we accept, reject, or go into exile to escape.  They know also that our nation is a republic not a democracy, that a racial contract occupies the space where a transparent social contact should exist, and that asking Americans to make full disclosure about anything is  folly. What most distinguishes the two books is how the writers use language to inform readers about  our nation's political theatre.

If environmental theories of language development were credible, it would be easy to surmise that Coates's language is rooted in the hard, urban dirt of Baltimore, Maryland whereas Glaude's language germinated in the organic soil of Moss Point, Mississippi.  Environment, however, gives us no more than shallow information about how we speak and write.  Consider that Coates's language (stylistically consistent with his prose in The Beautiful Struggle,  2008) is to Glaude's what a watercolor is to an oil painting.

 Given that Glaude and I both spent our early years in Moss Point, ideas about the paradoxes of segregated environments are hard to divorce from what I will myself to hear in his writing.  I read Democracy in Black with a prejudice of Southern associations which I can't employ in reading Between the World and Me.  Certain assumptions that are taken for granted in urban communication escape my notice.   Moss Point was semi-rural and down South, and things there were spelled out more clearly than they were in the near-North of Baltimore.  The criteria for white hatred and black resentment were pretty damned plain.  Despite his having become an esteemed American scholar, Glaude has not forgot that common sense  does have virtues we ought not abandon. He puts what Jerome Bruner designated folk psychology to good use.

 There is a grain of accuracy, no doubt,  in Toni Morrison's proclaiming that Coates's language is "visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive," but there is greater utility in finding  Glaude's language to be forensic, existentially affirmative, and reassuringly pragmatic.  For many readers, Coates may have the moral charm of a 21st century James Baldwin, and that is a good thing for readers who live  in the underground of the colorblind or in the gated community of whiteness.  Nostalgia for Baldwin is doing well in the marketplace.  Glaude, on the other hand, has mastered the complex simplicity that Richard Wright cultivated,  and he uses it appropriately to give eyesight to the blind and to those who suspect that democracy is too often a cruel and endless dream. The market undervalues such unsweetened  honesty.  Coates's language is smart, hip, and engaging, but it  conceals an absence of  the gritty discipline Glaude has in reading political mindscapes and exposing  how the concept of race has enslaved all Americans from  1776 to the present.  

 Glaude does not turn his back on  redemption, but he is aware that having a Kenyan-American President is neither promise nor  proof of salvation. While readers who have no memories of what the 1950s were in America  (for which Mississippi was and still is an apt metaphor) might be mesmerized by Coates's cool prose in The Beautiful Struggle (2008) or in his acclaimed June 2014  Atlantic  article on "Reparations,"  older readers in Moss Point and other Mississippi-flavored sites  might be more receptive to judging Glaude's  current ideas about democracy and enslavement against his earlier book In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). an eloquent meditation on "the tragic dimensions of the world of action" (49).  Indeed, it might be possible, in Moss Point,  to initiate a worthwhile conversation about how modern technology, globalization, and race give birth to blissful ignorance; it might be possible to smash a few debilitating stereotypes and binary (black/white) idolatries by reading Democracy in Black with healthy skepticism. I'd like to have my belief confirmed  that people in my hometown are republican and catholic enough to do so.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

February 13, 2016

Monday, February 8, 2016


Agnotology 101: A Lenten Exercise

Chances are few that  the ideas to which "autarky" and "agnotology" refer will be discussed any time soon in social networks, in schools and colleges, in ordinary conversations about quarterbacks and Super Bowl 50.  The reasons are not far to seek.  Consulting references beyond online dictionaries is not a widespread habit in the United States, unless control of words is an explicit item in one's job description.  Even in that situation, an American will look for shortcuts. The primary  reason for ignoring autarky, agnotology, and other so-called "big" words, however, is the threat of discontent.  Knowledge about culturally induced ignorance and deceptive isolationist politics would promote massive discontent.  We can tolerate unhappiness and dissent among a relatively small number of Americans.  Democratic access to informed unhappiness about the severe limits of liberty in daily life ist verboten!

Consider how such access would nurture panic among users of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  American students might be infected by the joy of learning and begin to make annoying demands of those who teach in and  for America.  People who take it as an article of faith that anti-intellectualism is a reliable sign of one's patriotism might gradually become heretics. And capitalism might parade stark nude on Wall Street.

We hear occasionally that sticks and stones can break bones but words shall never harm. The proverb lacks credibility.  Guns and drones annihilate bone-houses (a good Anglo-Saxon term for the body); words can harm with great effect.  It is a shock to hear that American government cooperates with international cartels to ensure that cognitive dissonance keeps the machinery of democracy running smoothly.  Mass media, national security policies, militant doves and hawks,  and the entertainments that pretend to be news assiduously keep the majority of Americans in peaceful states of unknowing. Our nation is the epitome of the brave new world.

Common sense allows one to intuit as much without being the least conversant with such WAKE UP books as Jeffry A. Frieden's Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), or Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008). Words are dangerous.  They are used to construct knowledge that condemns the majority of the world's population to degrees of wretchedness.  Laugh if you must, but "agnotology" and "autarky" are not words to rebuke and scorn.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            February 8, 2016

Saturday, February 6, 2016

DNA and Deferred Dreams

DNA and Deferred Dreams

Our public discussions about what matters in our lives have  become increasingly confused,  funky and fatal, but we do have options.  We can resist being swept into intellectual oblivion.  We can resist being arrested and marched into partisan thought-control concentration camps.  One of the tools we might use to defend ourselves is

Nelson, Alondra .  The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Nelson's book is well-researched, logical, nuanced, and very serious about the good and the evil that can be achieved as we make use  of genetic science and its array of data.   Her focused discussion of how genetic data influences social and cultural thought as well as political and legal  decisions provides a new frame of reference for measuring the importance of race in modern life, for remembering why we are so enthralled by what  that four-letter word symbolizes.  The issues of scientific racism exposed by Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1981) may be more subtle in the 21st century, but they are still powerful determinants in how we talk about our everyday American lives. 

Nelson is painstakingly exact in explaining the limits of scientific research and reasoning; what non-scientists casually assume is pure evidence may prove under scrutiny to be contaminated.  However persuasive the findings of science may seem, they are theoretical descriptions which contain grounds for refutation.  The portions of The Social Life of DNA which may appeal greatly to some readers are those that deal with the biocultural knowledge we have regarding the African Burial Ground in New York and our ongoing fascination with tracing and documenting our ancestry, the riddles of our genetic heritage.  Much to her credit, Nelson exercises due diligence in exploring her complex subject.

Weary of widely broadcast, hype-infused talks about race, reparations, and reconciliation (which is a tragicomic dream deferred everywhere on our planet), I am impressed with Nelson's integrity and refusal to pander.  Although she is obligated to deal with concepts and vocabulary that some readers will complain are too difficult, she does make a sincere effort to be conversational, to use lively anecdotes to illustrate how her claims function.  Nelson casts light on why STEM has assumed a crucial role in contemporary life and on how what begins as pure science can be corrupted by commercial desires. The Social Life of DNA is a necessary expansion of the reasoning that informs what Michelle Alexander, Ta'Nehisi Coates , Kevin Powell and others have pondered about  the human condition American style. It gives us a modicum of hope that human beings can reclaim and apply common sense as they deal with the inevitable facts of life.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 6, 2016

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

History 2216


"A Tribune Editorial: Let's Get Serious" (The New Orleans Tribune 32.1, January 2016, p. 4) urges us to us 2016 as "a chance to regroup, refocus and demand more of all our leaders  --  and ourselves.  We ought to be tired of making do, giving up, settling for less or selling out to serve selfish desires."  It would a godsend if Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond exercise is imprimatur and declared  that the editorial must be  required reading at all Masses during February 2016.  The editorial might also help us to decide whether a cross named Ted, a woman named Clinton, a card named Trump, or Sanders of the River will be the next President of the United States.  Let's get very  serious.

This is a year of terrible struggle and mercy.  We should avoid, as much as possible, walking forking paths in a digital world.  We do need to notice that families matter.  We should ask why social scientists and mass media write endlessly about the African American family, but seldom explore the enormous complexities of Jewish, Islamic,  Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and Catholic families.  Those families matter and give shape to demographic shifts. And we may understand little about unemployment in our nation unless we understand American  families, unlevel playing fields,  and the serious questions regarding global economies raised by Jeffry A. Frieden in Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (2006).

We need to get serious about the flaws of the criminal justice system and the ascent of  privatized prisons, inadequate attention to mental health issues and police irresponsibility,  and  the love affair with privatized public education (consult "The State of Public Education in New Orleans 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina" by Patrick Sims and Vincent Rossmeier, recently published by the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives).  We need to get serious about why the male-specificity of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) is a clear signal that the new Jane Crow enables American females to be more at risk than they were in 1916.  Can we transcend our capitalist miseducations enough to read Alondra Nelson's The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparation and Reconciliation After the Genome (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016)?  "Genetic ancestry testing," Nelson concludes, "is but one implement in an entire tool kit of tactics that, marshaled together, must be brought to the project of building racial reconciliation and social justice" (166).  When we get serious, we are forced to ask if reconciliation can manifest itself in a republic that thinks it is a democracy and if social justice in anyone's lifetime will ever be more than a beautiful theory.

I completely agree that we must "get serious about the laundry list of problems and nuisances our community faces on the local, state, and national levels" and that we must save ourselves before we can save Flint, Michigan and New Orleans.  Yes, let us get serious as the editorial wisely advises about getting serious.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 2, 2016

Reading Michael Zell with bourbon whisky

Reading Michael Allen Zell with handmade bourbon whisky

Zell, Michael Allen. ERRATA. New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2012.

Having cycled through twenty-two unidentified roads in THE KATRINA PAPERS, I can groove as Maker's Mark and I read ERRATA.  The book belongs to a typical 21st century species of post-something writing, a genre that is not a genre.  It is an event.

Between the opening sentence "As the monk, so the socialite" (15) and the final one "Flux stars fall into the internal laws of syntax" (110), a reader is invited to meander for 22 diary days with the cabbie Raymond Russell (the printed manifestation of Michael Zell's artistic consciousness) through streets --Esplanade, Franklin Avenue, Bienville, Bourbon, Rampart, Burgundy, Kerlerec, Dauphine, Barracks, Tulane, Broad, Canal, Frenchman and Chef Menteur Highway (a street when it wants to be). One effective device some writers from New Orleans use is the catalog of street names to distance themselves from the unworthy gawking of critics.  Bears mark territory with spoors.  New Orleans writers use the shibboleth of Tchoupitoulas.

ERRATA is a remarkable metafiction, a novel that engages literacy with a vengeance.  The book is not designed for readers who don't have more than a post-Katrina charter school education, or, for that matter, more than a run-of-the-football-field American education.  Who is equipped to appreciate Zell's references to Faubourg Marigny, Bruno Schulz, "early Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets" (24), Herman Melville, Josef Vachal, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Henry Mathews, Mallarme, Jorge Luis Borges, Felisberto Hernandez, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Heberto Padilla, Dostoevsky, Karl Marx, Robert Burton?  If you have not read The Anatomy of Melancholy, the humor of associating Robert Burton with "The Anatomy of the Distribution of Temperaments" (100) is as lost on you as the unique humor of associating  Richard Wright's Cross Damon with Raskolnikov.  You are obviously a reader who does not merit an urn burial.

It is clever of the persona/protagonist Raymond Russell to know as Michael Zell knows damned well that there is "no market for pastiche-strewn pages"  but a tantalizing market for hyperliterate meditations glued between covers.

Zell uses ERRATA to testify that "New Orleans is one of a few cities which attracts those with versatile lives, an unexpected stop along the way for at least a little while" (77).  Therein is a warning.  If you know what it means to miss New Orleans, you are most likely a victim of "the Raskolnikov who didn't swing an axe" (101), for you have purchased the hype that "civilians shouldn't be criminals" (100). Maker's Mark and I  deem ERRATA a fine meditation on why Caucasians flock to New Orleans like predatory fowl.  They need sanctuary from the Inferno.  And the book is a mediation of something else that Creole manners forbid one to give a name.  Some dimensions of words and being in the United States are to be experienced in the absolute solitude of reading ERRATA.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 2, 2016

Monday, February 1, 2016

Utah 2009



Wasatch, snow-blessed mountains, remote for remaining on retinas in the South


            You remember nothing until the forgetting has begun.  Remoteness is not about geography.  A retarded peacock would know the West is not the South, especially if the West decided to have snow three days before the end of April, the cruelest month according to Mr. Eliot.  But Mr. Eliot was dead wrong.  Christ is not a tiger nor is John the Baptist a polar bear.


The mountains are gray-white and purple and lovely at 7:12 a.m. when you have your daily aesthetic experience. Fresh.  The air is fresh fresh, very very remote and very very distinct  from the  smell of life in New Orleans.  This is Utah, much younger and much cleaner than Louisiana and its Afro-Cajun crazy swamps and redeemed reptiles pissing in the dawn.  This is Utah, the property of Utes transformed by flinty Mormons.  The Chinese ink-wash of Utah mountains is as unattainable as the normal on Canal Street after or before the Storm.  Thank God, Salt Lake City shall have no flood until the telos of global warming is a fact and not a theory.