Monday, October 1, 2018

The Blood of Emmett Till

The Blood of Emmett Till
Timothy B. Tyson (Simon and Schuster, 2017)
   In a story with as many actors and events as the civil rights movement, there are many possible ways to divide the world into 'before' and 'after', but it's fair to consider the death of Emmett Till a major one. The tale begins in 1955, in a Mississippi where black people simply did not vote or serve on juries, and where they could be harassed or killed with near-perfect impunity. "In the decades before the civil rights era, racial killings in remote corners of the Deep South frequently went unreported by the national or even the local press."

   Rumbling threats from Washington about school integration had spurred the rise of White Citizen's Councils, the professionally educated, daylight-facing counterpart of the Ku Klux Klan. If the KKK didn't burn you out or shoot at you, the Citizen's Council could cost you your livelihood - there was nothing for it, either way, but the next train north to Chicago.

   Chicago, of course, had serious limitations as an escape valve, being heavily segregated and economically unfair in its own right. Blacks could vote, and compete for industrial jobs with immigrants from Europe, but they lived in segregated enclaves, often amid a network of kinfolk from back home in the South. Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Bradley, was doing nothing unusual sending her son with her uncle on a train to Mississippi, there to enjoy his cousins' company, and help with Moses Wright's twenty-five acre cotton crop.

   The teenagers had enough free time to go fishing, or down to the store in Money, three miles away, for cold drinks. On the fateful Wednesday in late August, Emmett was alone with Carolyn Bryant, the young woman who was tending the store, for only a minute or two. Later, in court, she would testify that he grabbed her by the waist while uttering obscenities, but her lawyer's earliest notes describe his behavior as 'insulting' her, with no mention of physical contact.

   Even though he grew up in the North, fourteen-year-old Emmett surely knew the rules about dealing with white people, but he was an outgoing boy who liked making people laugh. There were no other witnesses, and the details had long since slipped Carolyn Bryant's mind when she spoke with Timothy Tyson fifty years later, but she told him something obvious: "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."

   That Saturday night, Bryant's husband, Roy, and his older brother, J. W. Milan, were up late playing cards and drinking. At two in the morning, they showed up at Moses Wright's house, where he and his wife and the six teen-age boys were asleep. The white men took Till away, beat the living daylights out of him, shot him in the head, tied a weight around his neck with barbed wire, and dropped him in the Tallahatchee River.

   But his feet and legs floated, and he was found by a young man who was out fishing. Though the kidnapping occurred in Leflore County, Tallahatchee County's Sheriff H. C. Strider claimed jurisdiction; he would soon tell reporters that he suspected the NAACP of planting a body and making up a story. (A ring Till was wearing, which had belonged to his father, made the identification certain.) Milan and Bryant were indicted on September 7, and went to trial on September 20th. "This left little time for a proper investigation," says Tyson, " which was the point."

   Meanwhile, however, Emmett's body had been shipped to Chicago, by a funeral home outside of Sheriff Strider's jurisdiction; and though a deal had supposedly been made to keep the coffin sealed, Emmett's mother Mamie had it opened, and allowed photographs to be published in Jet, a national magazine for Negro readers. Together with the enormous crowds that came to view the mutilated body, this meant tremendous outside interest in the trial, which drew national television cameras, and international reporters, as well as the ever-essential black press. "The very sight of white and black reporters greeting one another and exchanging notes in a friendly manner shocked the Sumner crowd. Therein was some of the trial's actual drama, for if almost everyone involved could predict the trial's verdict, few could predict its consequences."

   Under all this scrutiny, the conduct of the trial itself appeared to be fair, but no Mississippi jury was going to convict a white man for killing a black boy who had insulted his wife. In less than a week, Milan and Bryant were acquitted.

    "In 1956 the U.S. Information Agency surveyed European disdain for American race relations and found the Till case the 'prevalent' concern, though it would soon be weighed alongside mob violence at the University of Alabama and in Little Rock." White Mississippians would blame the NAACP and 'communists', which to them might as well have been the same thing, for making them look bad.

    The real question, I always think, is not 'Were there communists supporting black civil rights?' but 'Where were the Americans? Where were the Christians?' Of course, that's thinking from 'After.' The light that shone on this murder, after all the others that happened in darkness, would shine on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Improvement Association; it would shine on lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides; and it shines on the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, among so many others.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
Robert Pirsig (1974)
         I recently inquired of my social media friends what impression they had of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a strange sort of novel published by Robert Pirsig in 1974. Was it A) a life-changing classic; B) a period piece; C) a hipster cliche; or D), an impenetrable mess? "All of the above" was a popular answer, and some people said that their views might have changed over time.

    I belong to the first group. My adolescent life was lit up by the book's approach to certain burning questions of the day: What's the right balance between living in your head and in the world? Why is originality both praised and feared? Do we need anyone to tell us what is Good? Pirsig has some humane answers, albeit delivered by the sort of mad genius uncle that the adults tend to write off as a flake.

   Of those who remember throwing it across the room in frustration, one complaint was that they could not find the plot. Is it even a novel, in the first place? The author's note says it's all true, so you could call it a lightly fictionalized memoir. The surface plot goes like this: A man rides a motorcycle, with his son on the back, from Minnesota to California, talking to himself the whole way.

    But, mercy, such talk! The narrator describes it as a Chautauqua, which is to say, the long-winded nineteenth-century equivalent of today's TED talks. The subject matter is summed up in the subtitle, 'an inquiry into values.' That lends credence to the 'pretentious hipster cliche' theory, especially considering that he is undertaking to talk about not only Zen Buddhism, but Poincaré, Kant, and Plato.

    At the same time, though, he is talking about the reality all around him: the weather, the terrain, how his motorcycle is running. On this reading, I noticed how neatly the metaphysical journey is mapped onto the geographical journey, attaining a majestic altitude over the Continental Divide. No matter how lofty his thoughts, sunshine is still hot and rain is still wet.

    The narrator's personal history is emerging, too, involving mental illness and an episode of electroshock treatment. When he's told “You have a new personality now,” that raises more questions than it answers. The old personality, dubbed 'Phaedrus', is a ghost worthy of the German Romantics, or Henry James. This is ironic, because the man we meet is Classic all the way, a passionate devotee of the Church of Reason. That's why he's so good at the naming of parts, conceptually dissecting his motorcycle into parts and systems. In the Chautauqua, he turns these tools of analysis on logic itself. What he really wants to know is, what is the relationship between the True and the Good?

    It makes sense that the book caught hold as a cult classic among the young people who were also reading Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Pirsig argues through the long-running contention between the Classic and the Romantic, the Hip and the Square, and he shows how they might benefit from learning to appreciate each other. Notwithstanding the quirks of the vehicle, the passion of the argument still resonates.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
John McPhee (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017)

John McPhee's New Yorker pieces are always interesting, even when his subjects might sound unpromising. He's far more interested in geology than I am, as well as the natural world in general. Who else could have got a whole book out of oranges? But in Draft No. 4, he comes to a topic I'm deeply interested in: how does he do it? McPhee has been teaching the writing of narrative non-fiction at Princeton for many years. In these essays, which have themselves appeared in the New Yorker, he both shares his own idiosyncratic processes and lays out some broadly applicable principles.

Some of what is peculiar to McPhee has to do with the tools he's had access to. He started with typewritten slips of paper laid out on a table and grouped by topic. When he switched to using a computer, he found a piece of data-manipulation software that he's now effectively the last user of; he has the inventor's phone number. The essay on structure presents some rather abstruse diagrams that McPhee used to wrangle various stories into shape, including a couple of tours de force where he devised the structure before he even knew what the subject was. This is not recommended for amateurs.

But there's plenty of useful advice, which acknowledges that, while we can't all be John McPhee, neither can he be us. On taking notes: "Use a voice recorder but maybe not as a first choice–more like a relief pitcher. Whatever you do, don't rely on memory." In fact, it may be to your advantage that someone you're interviewing is aware of it: "Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license." When your subject is aware of you as an audience, "You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit....If you don't seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it."

When you've done your research, you're going to need a starting point. It's not a time to be too cute: "A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows." A sound lead points the way through your structure. What kind of structure? "A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there." What to include? "It's an utterly subjective situation. I include what interests me and exclude what doesn't interest me. That may be a crude tool but it's the only one I have."

This is all a lot of work, and unquestionably daunting. "To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn't matter that something you've done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you." The point of doing (at least) four drafts is that the first draft may be a mess, but it can only be improved if it exists. If you're lucky, you're not completely alone. "Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first draft stage than at the end of the publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories–those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure–and they can all use help." Lucky for us, both The New Yorker and Farrar Straus and Giroux still employ editors, and long may they reign.

And here's the peroration, with which I couldn't agree more: "When am I done? I just know. I'm lucky that way. What I know is that I can't do any better; someone else might do better, but that's all I can do; so I call it done."

Email edition, August 3, 2018

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Crash Course

Any Good Books
July 2018

Crash Course: Essays from where writing and life collide
Robin Black (2016, Engine Books)

   Robin Black got a late start as a writer. In her twenties and thirties, she was raising three children, in the complicated circumstances that are commonplace these days. The opening essays in this book talk about what else was going on psychologically, how desperately she wanted to be a writer, and how angry she was that she was standing in her own way. "I no longer want the record sanitized, this story of mine, replete as it is with good fortune, to be recast as only a happy narrative, or as one in which everything fell into place with no damage done. You can't be that frustrated for so long, nor that filled with self-loathing, then emerge without sustaining injury."

   Crash Course is a book of essays about those injuries, and what Black learned from them about writing. She has written it at just the right moment, when she's still in sympathy with the difficulties she faced, but not overwhelmingly embarrassed about them. She's clear-eyed and careful about self-pity: " 'No Whining' makes a fine motto, but there's value nonetheless to understanding why this pursuit feels so difficult at times, why the writer's existence can be so isolating, and even so frightening; and there's value to exploring whether it's possible to restructure one's perspective to make it less so." Indeed, as it turns out, uncertainty is probably the key to creativity. The writer writes to find out, which means she starts out not knowing, which is bound to be uncomfortable. "And certainty? It closes doors. Ends discussions. Shuts other people out."

   That uncertainty means that Black starts every story not knowing if it will work. She also doesn't always know when she'll know it's not working: she worked on her first novel for four years. She felt she didn't have time to fail at her first novel, since she was in her forties–but three drafts later, she had to admit defeat, and the time was 'wasted' after all. Being a writer means accepting that the one piece out of ten that gets to publication shares a process with the nine that didn't. "We are all struggling here. We are all making false starts, falling in and out of love with our own words, facing hard truths about something we have labored on for what seems like an eternity. And we are haunted by the belief that it's a whole lot easier for everyone else."

   That could be true, but it's probably not. Everyone else is also feeling competitive, envious, and discouraged, in between bouts of inspiration. Some days we can live in that enviable state where only the work itself matters; other days, the rejection letters represent the verdict of Literature. By the end of the book, Black sounds calmer and wiser than when she began, even though her narrative voice is otherwise occupied lately. I don't think it's because she's achieved Success, exactly, but because she trusts that, when she has something she needs to say, she'll be able to say it.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Living with a Wild God

Any Good Books
June, 2018

Living with a Wild God: A Non-believer's Search for the Truth about Everything
Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve, 2014)

When Barbara Ehrenreich was a girl, she was not religious. Her bent, both personally and by family tradition, was toward radical rationalism; this book, a not-quite-memoir, could have been titled "I Was a Teen-Age Solipsist." In Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich revisits her journals from that time, which she'd kept through four decades and a dozen or so moves, "because," she says, "if I have any core identity, any central theme that has survived all the apparent changes of subject, the secret of it lies with her."

As an adult, Ehrenreich is a writer and an activist, always on the side of the economically down-trodden, and this, she comes by honestly: her family emerged from Butte, Montana, a mining and smelting town in the middle of Big Sky country. Her father got out of the mines by pursuing the study of metallurgy, and then parleyed his good looks and ability to hold his liquor into a series of upwardly mobile management jobs. This entailed repeatedly uprooting his family, through Pittsburgh and various spots in New York and Massachusetts, before their arrival in Southern California.

The family's tradition of hard-headed atheism also sprang from Butte. "I was born to atheism and raised in it, by people who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods or demons." So when the fourteen-year-olds around her were going through religious training, Barbara was on her own with the Big Questions, like 'why are we here?' and 'why do we die?' She was also wrestling with a secret. Starting about a year before the journal begins, she had begun to have moments of direct experience, unmitigated by words or thoughts. 
The nearest name for this seems to be 'dissociation'; Ehrenreich satisfied herself that it was neither a religious experience nor a sign of insanity. In what was probably a very good decision, she almost never discussed her episodes with others: the more accurate her description, the more it would have made her sound insane. The unpredictability of her episodes was worrisome, and made avoiding the psychedelic drugs of the day the obvious choice: "For some of us, at some times, participation on the dullest, lowest-common-denominator version of 'reality' is not compromise or a defeat; it is an accomplishment." 
Having devoted her college years to the study of chemistry and physics, Ehrenreich went on to graduate school in New York. It was there, in 1965, that the larger world, at last, broke in on her ruminations. The war in Southeast Asia changed everything, as reports trickled back of atrocities in the jungle. " that I had begun to love the protective armor of solipsism, there was less to shield me from accounts of bayonets cutting through the bellies of pregnant Vietnamese women or napalm-dispensing helicopters swooping down over children. Once the imagination learns how to construct an image of another person's subjectivity–however sloppy and improvised that image may be–it's hard to get it to stop." 
She never quite gets to the answers her teenage self was looking for; life got in the way. She got married and had children; she continued to find things out and write things down, producing nearly two dozen books to date. So the answer to sixteen-year-old Barbara's question to her future self, "What have you learned since you wrote this?" is missing some things that girl would have liked to know. Neuroscience would have been very interesting to her, and philosophy as well. What she did learn, though, about engagement with the world, matters a lot: we are members of a species, in a network of life. Other people are real, and their suffering matters.