American Fictionalists

It is both fun and informative to consider lists.  To debate the list is a sign that you have engaged with someone who knows what she is talking about.  This morning, I asked Google to find web pages that opined as to whom might be included on a list of the greatest American fictionalists (novelists, short story writers, poets, and playwrights).  Google and I found a page at NoSweatShakespeare.com, which contained a list, 20 Best American Writers. I’ll not quibble with the score of authors enumerated, but I might have substituted others (Jack London, Robert A. Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Robert Penn Warren, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Frost, for instances).

At any rate, these scriveners became famous because they could voice the sentiment of a people at their best. My goal is to present each of the 20, along with a quote that typifies this:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne 1804 – 1864
    Nathaniel Hawthorne was a novelist and short story writer. Hawthorne’s works have been labelled ‘dark romanticism,’ dominated as they are by cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humankind. His novels and stories, set in a past New England, are versions of historical fiction used as a vehicle to express themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution…

    No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

  • Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849
    Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. He is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and suspense. He is generally considered the inventor of detective ficiton. Poe’s work as an editor, a poet, and a critic had a profound impact on American and international literature. In addition to his detective stories he is one of the originators of horror and science fiction. He is often credited as the architect of the modern short story…

    All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

  • Herman Melville 1819 – 1891
    Herman Melville was an American writer of novels, short stories and poems. He is best known for the novel Moby-Dick and a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, Typee. His whaling novel, Moby-Dick is often spoken of as ‘the great American novel’ ’vying with Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for that title…

    It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

  • Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892
    Walt Whitman was a poet, essayist, and journalist who transformed poetry around the world with his disregard for traditional rhyme and meter and his celebration of democracy and sensual pleasure. His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems, is widely studied by poets, students and academics, set to music, translated into numerous languages, and is widely quoted. His influence can be found everywhere – in contemporary best seller lists to feature films and musical works, both “serious” and popular…

 … re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul …

  • Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886
    Unknown as a poet during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded by many as one of the most powerful voices of American culture. Her poetry has inspired many other writers, including the Brontes. In 1994 the critic, Harold Bloom, listed her among the twenty-six central writers of Western civilisation. After she died her sister found the almost two thousand poems the poet had written…

We turn not older with years but newer every day.

  • Mark Twain 1835 – 1910
    Samuel Langhorne Clemens , far better known as Mark Twain, was an American writer, businessman, publisher and lecturer. He progressed from his day job as pilot of a Mississippi riverboat to legend of American literature. His work shows a deep seriousness and at the same time, it is hilariously satirical, as seen in his many quotes on all aspects of life. His masterpiece is the novel, Huckleberry Finn, which is regularly referred to as ‘the great American novel.’…

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

  • Henry James 1843 – 1916
    Henry James is regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He is noted for writing from a character’s point of view’ which allowed him to explore consciousness and perception. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators brought a new depth to narrative fiction, all of which were influential on the writing of the novelists who followed him. He was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature three times….

Cats and monkeys — monkeys and cats — all human life is there!

  • T.S. Eliot 1888 – 1965
    Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American-born, British, poet, essayist, playwright, critic, now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s major poets. He received more rewards than almost any other writer of the past two centuries, including the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit…

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896 – 1940
    Francis Scott Fitzgerald was an American novelist, widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novel, The Great Gatsby, which vies for the title ‘Great American Novel’ with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Fitzgerald’s place on this list is justified by the fact that his great novel is actually about America…

Either you think — or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize, and sterilize you.

  • William Faulkner 1897 – 1962
    William Cuthbert Faulkner was a Nobel Prize laureate, awarded the literature prize in 1949. He wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and screenplays. He is known mainly for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha Country, Mississippi. Faulkner is one of the most celebrated American writers, regarded, generally as the great writer of the American South…

Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.

  • Tennessee Williams 1911 – 1983
    Thomas Lanier Williams III, known as Tennessee Williams is one of America’s most popular playwrights and now regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. He wrote more than thirty plays, some of which have become classics of Western drama. He also wrote novels and short stories but is known almost exclusively for his plays. His genius was in the honesty with which he represented society and the art of presenting that in the form of absorbing drama…

I think that hate is a thing, a feeling, that can only exist where there is no understanding.

  • Arthur Miller 1915 – 2005
    Arthur Miller was a playwright and ‘great man’ of American theatre, which he championed throughout his long life. His many dramas were among the most popular by American authors and several are considered to be among the best American plays, among them the classics, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View from the Bridge and, above all, the iconic American drama, Death of a Salesman. He also wrote film scripts, notably the classic, The Misfits…

 … life is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it.

  • Joseph Heller 1923 – 1999
    Joseph Heller was an American writer of satirical novels, short stories and plays. Although he wrote several acclaimed novels, his reputation rests firmly on his masterpiece, the great American anti-war satire, Catch 22. Because of the quality of the novel and the impact it has made on American culture it has catapulted Heller into the ranks of the great American writers…

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

  • Ernest Hemingway 1899 – 1961
    Ernest Hemingway was a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. More works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published posthumously…

Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.

  • Raymond Chandler 1888 – 1959
    Raymond Chandler was a British-American novelist who wrote several screenplays and short stories. He published seven novels during his lifetime. The first, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. An eighth, Poodle Springs, unfinished at his death, was completed by another great crime writer, Robert B Parker. Six of Chandler’s novels have been made into films, some more than once…

I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.

  • Toni Morrison 1931 – 2019
    Toni Morrison’s novels are known for their vivid dialogue, their detailed characters and epic themes. Her most famous novel is the 1987 novel, Beloved. She was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993…

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

  • Vladimir Nabokov 1899 – 1977
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist, and also a famous entomologist, specialising in butterflies, a topic on which he wrote several academic books. He wrote nine novels in Russian, but it was when he began writing in English that he achieved international recognition…

I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.

  • Flannery O’Connor 1925 – 1964
    Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, and also several reviews and commentaries. Her reputation is based mainly on her short stories. She was a Southern writer and relied heavily on regional settings and typically southern characters. She was strongly Roman Catholic, which informed her exploration of ethics and morality…

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

  • John Steinbeck 1902 – 1968
    John Ernst Steinbeck was the author of 16 novels and various other works, including five short story collections. He is widely known for the novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and particularly, the Puliter Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece, which is one of the great American novels: it has sold more than 15 million copies so far…

All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.

  • John Updike 1923 – 2009
    John Updike was a novelist, short story writer and poet. He was also a literary and art critic. He published more than twenty novels, numerous short-story collections, eight volumes of poetry and many children’s books. He is most famous for his ‘Rabbit‘ series – novels that chronicle the life of his protagonist, Harry Angstrom – in which Updike presented his progress over the course of several decades…

They can be wonderful bastards because they have nothing to lose. The only people who can be themselves are babies and old bastards.

  • Kurt Vonnegut 1922 – 2007
    Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer who published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969) which has become an American classic. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden…

So it goes.

 

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Get Off the Pendulum: The Trap of Reactionary Thinking

When I was younger, I used to enjoy riding Pharaoh’s Fury at the Coastal Carolina fair. This big sphinx-headed boat swung back and forth on a mechanical arm, terrifying and thrilling the riders, and (in our imaginations) we thought about what it would be like if it went upside down – dumping us all out.

This ride is much like how most people and cultures do their thinking about values in politics, religion, and cultural norms. We swing in one direction, then another, then back again.

For a while one major viewpoint dominates. That viewpoint oppresses or annoys a strong minority until it eventually creates a strong reaction and a pendulum swing in the other direction. Cultural control comes into the hands of the new majority, which oppresses or annoys the new minority, and the cycle begins again.

You can see the pendulum in action in a society’s relationship with religion: when religion dominates, secularists react (see the antitheist movement), and when secularism dominates, religionists react (see the fundamentalist movement). I’d argue that the intensity of both antitheism and fundamentalism are driven by feelings of disenfranchisement and oppression (and therefore more vulnerable to lazy thinking) rather than *just* differences of opinion.

You can especially see the pendulum in action on norms around gender roles and masculinity/femininity. For a long time, men (they still do in most cases) held and abused power over women. Fortunately for everyone, some women got pissed off and produced feminism. At some point, the swing toward feminine empowerment began to (at least appear to) correspond with a deemphasis of masculinity and a deconstruction of the important social role of males and masculinity. That has produced another swing in the direction of revived masculinity – some fantastic, but some unhealthy and unhealthily angry with feminism. In any case, if this reaction succeeds, it may only trigger another swing back in the other direction.

You can see the pendulum on a macro scale as well as in the micro scale of individual thinking. Everyone seems caught up in one reaction or another to the swinging of the belief pendulum. Perhaps you’ve gone through changes in your own beliefs. How often were you shifting your beliefs because of a sense of annoyance, or boredom, or anger, or contempt?

Of course, thinking on a pendulum is stupid. Thinking based on reaction and based on majority/minority belief status blinds you to complexity and to the actual merits of arguments.

And unfortunately, unlike a pendulum limited by Newton’s laws, the pendulum of reactionary thought in politics and philosophy can continue to swing wider and further out with each cycle – until everyone falls out of the ride (to borrow the earlier metaphor).

There are alternatives.

If you use discernment, you’ll watch to separate out your reasoned beliefs from your reactionary/emotional/tribal ones. When you do that, you’ll be surprised how non-partisan and hard-to-categorize your beliefs become.

Maybe the left has good things to say about unjustly-acquired wealth. Maybe the right has good things to say about individual skill and responsibility in building wealth. Maybe the right answer includes and transcends (to borrow a phrase from Ken Wilber) both.

Maybe the feminists have good things to say about structural injustices toward women. Maybe the masculinists have something good to say about the importance of independent manhood.

Maybe the secularists can teach us something about being. Maybe the religionists can teach us something about the ground and sacredness of being.

When your beliefs can become this nuanced and non-tribal, you can be insulated from most of the worst effects of the social pendulum. But always watch out for what irritates you in others’ beliefs and actions. The irritation will always be there, but you can’t let it push you to change much in your values – or at all in the values that matter most.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Michael Drejka is a Political Prisoner

Just over a year ago, Michael Drejka fatally shot Markeis McGlockton in a Clearwater, Florida convenience store parking lot. On August 23, a jury found Drejka guilty of manslaughter.

Drejka should never have been charged with a crime.

Pinellas County sheriff Bob Gualtieri initially, and correctly, concluded that Drejka’s actions were protected under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. The charge was only filed after a calculated public relations campaign to create a “public outcry” based on political issues of gun rights and racial injustice.

Let’s review the facts:

McGlockton physically attacked Drejka, blind-siding him and taking him by surprise, driving him to his knees in a parking lot with no plausible place to flee (even if Drejka had been obligated to attempt to do so), then loomed aggressively over him as a second potential assailant (McGlockton’s girlfriend) moved to Drejka’s right. Drejka drew his weapon and shot McGlockton. All of this transpired in a matter of about five seconds.

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law required a reasonable belief on Drejka’s part that firing his weapon was “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.”

Jury foreman Timothy Kleinman admits that “Markeis Mcglockton unnecessarily provoked Mr. Drejka by pushing him,” but claims that “[a]t the same time, using the gun wasn’t needed.  … He had time to think, ‘Do I really need to kill this man?’”

Forgive me if that statement causes me to doubt that Kleinman or any of the other jurors have ever found themselves in a situation where they were required to make “a kill or possibly be killed” decision over a of span of five seconds or less.

Speaking of doubt, let’s talk about the jury’s obligation. Their job was to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Drejka acted maliciously or negligently rather than in legitimate self-defense. Based on the key piece of evidence — surveillance video from the store — such a conclusion borders on the impossible.

Even Kleinman admits that Drejka was acting in self-defense up to the instant he pulled the trigger: “I think simply drawing the gun would have been enough.” Kleinman had as long to think about that as he cared to take in the comparative safety of the jury room. Drejka had seconds to think about it, on his knees, in a parking lot, during a violent physical assault that took him by surprise.

So why are we here? Because some politicians and political activists found a “lightning rod” case to push their agendas with. That’s a bad reason, an inherently corrupt purpose, for charging a man with a crime.

Yes, Drejka started an argument. But McGlockton started a fight. That bad decision cost Markeis McGlockton his life. It shouldn’t cost Michael Drejka his freedom.

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Questioning the Back-To-School Default

Back-to-school time is upon us. My Instagram feed is starting to fill with first-day photos as a new school year begins this week in some parts of the country. For those of us who homeschool, we often get asked, “So, why did you decide to homeschool?” We respond with various personal and educational reasons, including the top motivator for homeschoolers on national surveys: “concern about the school environment.” What always strikes me, though, is that parents who send their kids to school never get asked this question. When was the last time someone asked a parent, “So, why did you decide to send your child to school?”

Societal Expectations and Defaults

Schooling is the default. It’s the societally expected thing to do. It’s also mandated of parents under a legal threat of force, so they may not think much of it. The trouble is that schooling is beginning to take on a much larger role in a child’s life, disconnecting children from family at much earlier ages and for longer portions of a child’s day and year. Even compulsory schooling laws are expanding in many states, to begin at age five and extend to age 18.

I wrote an op-ed about this trend in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that there are benefits to delaying early schooling for most children and potential harms with sending children to school early, such as increased ADHD diagnosis rates. It can be worthwhile to question the default.

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant writes that a hallmark of originals and change-makers is their tendency to question, and often reject, societal defaults. Grant writes:

Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (p. 7)

Better options than compulsory mass schooling do exist, and many more would be created if more parents challenged the default. We should be outraged that schooling has seized so much of childhood and adolescence, particularly when the results of all this schooling are lackluster at best and concerning at worst. We should be outraged that government schools increasingly look like prisons and that students are being schooled for jobs that no longer exist. We should question whether a system in which only one-quarter of high school seniors are proficient in math, and only a bit over one-third of them are proficient readers, should be given greater influence and authority over young people’s lives. We should really wonder if it makes sense to place our children in this swelling system, whether they are toddlers or teens. Surely, we should “consider alternative ways that the world could work.”

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Alternative Options

What are these alternative ways? Jessica Koehler has a great article this month at Psychology Today where she lists some of these alternatives and also explains her own journey of shifting from schooling to homeschooling for her children. In addition to homeschooling/unschooling, parents can delay preschool and kindergarten, explore various co-ops and learning centers, take advantage of one of the many micro-schools that are sprouting nationwide, and explore alternative programs for teens, like community college enrollment, travel, or apprenticeships. Or they can build their own alternative to school with other like-minded parents. Other options are virtual learning programs, including public ones, and nearby public charter schools or private schools that can sometimes offer flexible learning and attendance options.

Questioning the schooling default, and acting upon that doubt, can be difficult. It is much easier to put a child on a school bus and be just like everyone else. It is easier to go along. But it may not be better—for you, your child, or the world you could help to create. As Adam Grant says, it’s the non-conformists who move the world. These originals are the ones who question the status quo, refuse to tolerate discontent, and imagine new possibilities. Grant writes:

Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward….They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. (p. 28)

We all care deeply about educating children to be literate, competent, inventive, compassionate, and thoughtful. It’s time we question if compulsory mass schooling really has the ability to facilitate these outcomes, for our children and others, or whether alternatives to school might do the job better. It’s time to challenge defaults.

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Locked Up: How the Modern Prison-Industrial Complex Puts So Many Americans in Jail

 

Where you find the laws most numerous, there you will find also the greatest injustice.

There’s no two ways about it: The United States of America and its 50 state governments love putting people in prison.

The U.S. has both the highest number of prisoners and the highest per capita incarceration rate in the modern world at 655 adults per 100,000. (It’s worth noting that China’s incarceration statistics are dubious, and they execute far more people than the United States. Indeed, the so-called People’s Republic executes more people annually than the rest of the world combined.)  Still, that’s more than 2.2 million Americans in state and federal prisons as well as county jails.

On top of those currently serving time, 4.7 million Americans were on parole in 2016, or about one in 56. These numbers do not include people on probation, which raises the number to one in 35. Nor does it include all of the Americans who have been arrested at one time or another, which is over 70 million – more than the population of France.

For firearm owners in particular, the growth in this “prison-industrial complex” is troubling because felons are forbidden from owning firearms and ammunition under the 1968 Gun Control Act. As the number of laws has grown and the cultural shift for police has gone from a focus on keeping the peace to enforcing the law, more and more Americans are being stripped of their 2nd Amendment rights (not to mention other civil rights like voting– as of 2017, 6.1 million Americans cannot vote because of their criminal records). All told, eight percent of all Americans cannot own firearms because of a felony conviction.

For American society as a whole, the prison-industrial complex has created a perverse incentive structure. Bad laws drive out respect for good laws because there are just so many laws (not to mention rules, regulations, and other prohibitions used by federal prosecutors to pin crimes on just about anyone). How did we get here?

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War Crimes Pardons: A Terrible Memorial Day Idea

On May 16, 2008, near the town of Baiji in Iraq, 1st Lieutenant Michael Behenna, US Army, murdered a prisoner.  That was the verdict of the jury in his 2009 court martial, anyway. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but paroled in less than five. On May 6, 2019, US president Donald Trump pardoned Behenna.

As I write this, news reports indicate that Trump intends to celebrate Memorial Day by pardoning several other Americans convicted of (or accused of and not yet tried for) war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s a horrible idea for several reasons.

One reason is that it’s morally repugnant to excuse the commission of crimes, especially violent crimes, for no other reason than that the criminal is a government employee.

A second reason is that it is detrimental to the good order and and discipline of the US armed forces to excuse violations of law by American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

That phrasing is not random: “[D]isorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces” are themselves crimes under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Yes, Trump has absolute power to pardon under the US Constitution, but this would be an abuse of that power that conflicts with his duties as commander in chief.

A third reason is that pardons of this type essentially beg other governments to take matters into their own hands where allegations of war crimes by US military personnel arise.

Among the US government’s excuses for refusing to join the International Criminal Court, and for forcing agreements by other governments to exempt American troops from prosecution under their own laws, is that the United States cleans up after itself and holds its troops to at least as high a standard as would those other governments. These pardons would give lie to that claim and expose US troops to greater risk of future arrest and prosecution abroad.

Don’t just take my word for these claims. Here’s General Charles Krulak, former Commandant of the US Marine Corps:

“If President Trump issues indiscriminate pardons of individuals accused — or convicted by their fellow servicemembers — of war crimes, he relinquishes the United States’ moral high ground and undermines the good order and discipline critical to winning on the battlefield.”

And here’s General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.”

After World War Two, the US and other governments which participated in victorious alliance versus the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan tried and punished — up to and including execution — German and Japanese soldiers accused of war crimes and the political leaders who ordered, encouraged, or excused those crimes.

If the US doesn’t hold itself to at least as high a standard, eventually someone else will.

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