I watched some of the American election returns on Tuesday night, and since then I’ve been struggling to put words on the page. I’ve been upset and depressed and paralyzed. Writing is usually my stress reducer. What can I do?
Like many writers, I turned to Google. And I found a 1961 article by Philip Roth in Commentary Magazine. Philip Roth is not my favorite writer and 1961 seems like a long time ago, but political turmoil has always been with us, and his words resonated with me today.
“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,” he writes. “It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.”
Some of his examples of a sickening and stupefying American reality seem quaint today. [following italics are mine]
“Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren?” Roth asks rhetorically. [Van Doren participated in the television quiz show scandals in the 1950s and testified before Congress.] “…Sherman Adams [President Dwight Eisenhower’s White House chief of staff, who lost his job in a scandal when he accepted an expensive vicuña coat] and Bernard Goldfine [guy who gave Sherman Adams the vicuña coat]? Dwight David Eisenhower [boss of the guy who took the vicuña coat]?”
Those crimes seem awfully minor these days, don’t they? Or maybe they seem like small potatoes only if what our current president has done in the White House upsets and sickens you. Roth wrote:
“The daily newspapers then fill one with wonder and awe: is it possible? is it happening? And of course with sickness and despair. The fixes, the scandals, the insanities, the treacheries, the idiocies, the lies, the pieties, the noise. . . .”
I wanted Biden to win this election for a lot of reasons, but the forces that brought Donald Trump to the White House will not disappear when he leaves, and the problems he created will not vanish overnight. Roth wrote, “[I]t is clear that though one may refer to a ‘problem’ as being controversial, one does not usually speak of a state of civilization as controversial, or a state of the soul.” And that reminded me of a clip I saw on Twitter yesterday morning of Eddie S. Glaude, who was a guest analyst on MSNBC during the election return coverage. Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton, where he is also the Chair of the Center for African American Studies and the Chair of the Department of African American Studies. Glaude’s response to the unfolding events was powerful and sobering: “[Donald Trump] is a manifestation of the ugliness that is in us,” Glaude said, talking about American politics and history, describing what he calls the “myth of white innocence.”
Roth’s essay essentially describes how the popular and critical writers of his day—J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, William Styron, Saul Bellow, Herbert Gold, and others—grapple with the zeitgeist of the period, and how, in his opinion, they fail at this task. He might be right—I haven’t read all those authors extensively—but mostly I just think that’s Philip Roth being Philip Roth. What I take from this is that evoking the zeitgeist is hard.
As I write this, Biden will win the election if he carries Nevada, but if that happens, Trump’s lawyers will descend on all the swing states, demanding recounts and doing what they can to suppress the vote. Even if Biden ultimately prevails, the worst of the lies and chicanery and heavy-handedness of the White House will go away, but the ugliness of the soul that Eddie Glaude describes will not. That is something that will still be with us. Something we—as individuals and a nation—have to work on.
That and my book, the thing that keeps me centered, no matter how hard it is to capture the zeitgeist. Because this is what I have and what I can show for what I thought and how I lived during this period. As we say here at the Eight Ladies, nothing but good times ahead.
Forward, my friends!