For much of my life, I was against forgiveness, particularly for men. I held to my anger, proudly. There were no clearance sales on my affection, and I made everyone pay full price for their wrongs. Which is why, when I realized I had forgiven all the men in my life anyway, it was disconcerting.
I’d had my reasons. I grew up in the Catholic Church, where “forgiveness” was constantly advocated, despite the fact that God did not do much of it Himself. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” we recited at each Mass, “but only say the word and I shall be healed.” God absolved our sins in confession, but only if we listed everything bad about ourselves first. God’s forgiveness was a passive-aggressive note from the author of Creation, a reminder of exactly how much we’d done wrong.
But if God did not forgive, women had to. Women in the Church were pressured to forgive men constantly, and rarely for good reason. Sexual violence was something women and girls in my church were sometimes asked to forgive. So was domestic violence, and child abuse, and so was a husband who cheated on you, or talked down to you, or made you call in to his work to say he had the flu whenever he was hung over, which he was every Monday, until he got fired and you lost your house. “Even if they don’t repent, we still have to forgive,” Focus on the Family tells us, in its marriage-counseling section. Women were expected to do the work of forgiveness so that men did not have to do the work of change.
The results are all around us—in the church and out. Christian relationship expert Ruthie Dean writes that the female abuse survivors she interviews typically “believe they have a forgiveness deficit rather than a toxic man in their life.” The author Ijeoma Oluo writes that the letters she gets from abuse survivors contain questions like “Why can’t I forgive?” and “What is wrong with me?” Salma Hayek did not report her abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein because she believed she was demonstrating her “capacity for forgiveness” by letting him off the hook.
I believed that the whole sorry spectrum of male cruelty and disrespect—everything from talking over female colleagues at meetings to sexual assault—was cushioned by the presumption of female forgiveness. I tried to remove the cushion. Like the Lord God before me, I could remember each time I had been sinned against, but unlike the Lord God, I was here on earth, and thus able to bring it up over dinner. Men’s comfort was based on women agreeing to go easy on them; I decided I would not be easy.
It was, I admit, grandiose to designate myself the angry Old Testament God of gender relations, especially given that what I refused to forgive was largely run-of-the-mill bad boyfriend stuff. One man had asked me out by showing me his diary, in which he’d written that “[Sady] isn’t the prettiest girl, or the smartest, but she’s the one I love.” One reviewed all my outfits in such scathing detail that I began to have panic attacks while shopping. My first love, a hippie with dreamy, stoned, crystal-blue eyes, told me he wanted to live with me in a van in the desert. He then said identical things to my best friend, and then to her roommate. He even had the routine down to the Depeche Mode song he used to set the mood. Then, when called on his behavior, he said, “Would you ask Jesus not to love everybody?”
I would. If the only way for Jesus to redeem the sins of humanity was to fuck my best friend’s roommate, humanity would indeed be doomed. And I have told that story many times, because when a man ascribes Messianic powers to his penis, you are obliged, like any apostle, to spread his Word. However, in the past year, as signifiers of respectable adulthood have accumulated around me—the marriage, the baby, the young people telling me I don’t get it—something in the punchline has started to make me queasy. There is a very obvious consideration, one I didn’t previously take into account: the boy in that story was nineteen years old.
How many stupid, cruel things did you do when you were nineteen years old? Or twenty? Or twenty-four, twenty-five? That’s how old the men in my boyfriend stories were. Legal adults, sure, but not grown-ups. Maybe some of us are prepared to run magazines or represent a congressional district at that age, but most of us are disasters. I spent my twenties drunk, underemployed, and treating the world like an obstacle course in some sort of sexual Double Dare, wherein the goal was to have as many humiliating encounters as possible before the buzzer rang. I fail to see why the male characters in my story should be any kinder or wiser than I was. I can no longer summon enough righteousness to laugh.
This is not to say I never had anything serious to forgive. I probably soured on forgiveness for the same reason I was attracted to theatrically dysfunctional men: my father. When I was three years old, my father told our priest that he was going to kill the whole family. He may have meant it—he’d been physically violent toward my mother, who left him, but was ordered to give him visitation rights—but he also liked threatening to kill people. I spent one night, in my teens, hiding at a friend’s house because he’d been sending me death threats.
He would also sometimes claim to be dying, at which point some sucker would reconcile with him, and then it would be back to getting enraged calls; his health tended to make a miraculous recovery when he got any attention. He would make dark statements about suicide, disappear for just long enough that you thought he was dead, and show up to ask for a favor. My brother (the last of us to cut him off) wound up keeping all my father’s furniture in his bedroom. A full apartment’s worth of furniture, and it was just in there, for months, while my father couch-surfed and did not pay for storage. I can’t blame my brother. You tend to say yes to a parent who’s back from the dead.
So maybe it all comes down to poor role models. Maybe I dislike forgiveness, not because of some religious or political commitment, but because I’ve learned that forgiving too easily is the fastest way to get a bedroom full of someone else’s furniture. By the time I entered kindergarten, my father had already shown me the worst that men are capable of, and he also showed me they could get away with it. He maxed out my forgiveness, like a thief with a stolen credit card, and left me unable to extend the benefit of the doubt to anyone else.
I’ve paid therapists to tell me this. They’re not wrong. I don’t presume to tell you what my mother and brother do with their trauma, but I clearly donated mine to the cause. This would also explain why, as I age and childhood recedes, my anger seems to have ebbed away. But the world’s cruelty to women is real; the fact that I was exposed so early meant that I was more conscious of it than luckier children, but patriarchy itself is not subjective. And, if my father gave me my anger, he also showed me that blind anger leads to ruin. It is not despite my father, but because of him, that I began forgiving.
At some point in the maelstrom of his life, my mother tells me, my father was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. The behavior I’ve described is not how most people with the disorder act. (People with BPD are far more likely to take their anger out on themselves than anyone else—and, like all mentally ill people, they are more likely to be abused than to abuse.) It is how one man with BPD acts… when he is abandoned by his parents, and when he’s raised with the blue-collar masculinity that turned most of his siblings into bikers, and when he avoids therapy, and when he throws his meds down the sink because real men don’t need that shit, and when he self-medicates with Rolling Rock and cocaine, which then turns him violent, which then causes his whole family to leave him, which then triggers his BPD-related abandonment issues to the point where he spends the rest of his life trying either to manipulate or to threaten them into coming back.
I give you all that biography to tell you this: one of the most pernicious symptoms of borderline personality disorder is an inability to take people in context. The afflicted person swings back and forth between extremes of idealization and devaluation, seeing others as either superhumanly good or completely evil. In one moment, with my father, I was the reason his heart kept beating, the best thing in his life. The next moment, I was a disrespectful little bitch and he ought to stop feeding me. The biographical view—seeing people as capable of kindness at some moments and cruelty in others, remembering their good qualities in their bad moments, and vice versa—was not available to him.
This pattern is clearly disabling, when taken as a symptom of an illness. Yet this is, increasingly, the way all of us are taught to think. We live in an era where history is fragmented into discrete, context-less moments, where politics is the art of mass hatred, where the loudest and most hyperbolic opinion wins out. It is not lost on me that—with his constant oscillation between over-the-top enthusiasm and volcanic outrage, his weeks-long torrents of harassment and denunciation whenever someone failed to measure up, his inability to place humans in categories other than Fave or Cancelled—my father was basically a one-man incarnation of everyone’s Twitter feed.
As living with the culture began to feel like living with my father, it seemed urgent to argue for the biographical view: to root out people’s motives, look for misunderstandings, ask how their flaws might be products of their historical moment or their social context or their own personal damage. I do not think it is coincidental that, as a writer, I was obsessively interested in rejects and weirdos, people who suffered from being misunderstood. (My first book was dedicated to making the case for female culture villains. I did not have to write a book about male culture villains because, well, everyone forgives them anyway.) It felt essential to resist the part of me that enjoyed the pile-on, that took a person’s worst moment or stupidest statement as wholly representative. This project was just as political as my earlier refusal to forgive, and was done for the same reasons. Women were once pressured to accept abuse and forgive their abuser. Now they were required to navigate a world of crowd-sourced mass abuse, one that equated anger and punishment with moral clarity. Either way, they got hurt.
In a culture that prizes loud condemnation, this restraint can read as weakness. It’s true that false “understanding” can substitute for genuine empathy—as in those “humanizing” profiles of neo-Nazis, which politely scoot around the question of how many millions of people the subjects would like to see murdered, or as in those who exhort us to “empathize” with sexual predators who’ve been fired, with no mention of how we should feel about their victims. I still abhor the “forgiveness” of my childhood, in which women (or my brother, with his crowded bedroom) demonstrated their own goodness by refusing to impose consequences. To truly understand a serial harasser, like Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK, requires firing them; it requires understanding that they’re dangerous, and your workplace is unsafe as long as they’re present. Emotional maturity is one thing, but predators are predators. If you understand a shark, you don’t put your hand in its mouth.
Yet, once consequences have been imposed—once the dangerous people have been fired, cut off, defunded, driven out of restaurants—the process of living with damage begins. Refusing to forgive the men in my life was a way of valuing myself. Staying angry meant that the harm done to me was real, and mattered; it meant that I would never again say I am not worthy. If this is how you feel, I respect it. Don’t try to change it. Forgiveness happens involuntarily, as a kind of psychological climate change; you wake up one day with the rocky shores of your resentment gone, swallowed by the sea.
This, too, is survival. I have gone over my stories until they no longer hurt me. They’ve smudged, like old newsprint, until I can’t clearly identify the victims or the villains, and everyone looks merely young and silly, even dear. Sure, there are monsters in some pictures. But even monsters have explanations. Monsters become monsters, in fact, by refusing to be curious about the explanations and experiences of others. I survive my father by understanding my father. I choose to see what he cannot, so that he cannot define me.
I’ve looked up the Jesus boy occasionally over the years. Or I think I have; his name is common. There’s a man in an army uniform; there’s a man whose mother died. The one I think is him is posing for a photo in the desert. He did make it out there. I like to imagine him, like Jesus, wandering the desert and loving everybody. I hope he’s happy. I hope that, like Jesus, he forgives.
David “Chim” Seymour was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1911 as Dawid Szymin, the son of publishers of Hebrew and Yiddish books. A few years after he fled to Mexico, then relocated to New York , his parents and friends were killed in the Holocaust. It is impossible to separate this history from Chim’s development as a deeply empathetic photographer, attuned to the plight of displaced people, refugees, children, and all those at risk during armed conflicts. In a retrospective now at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, which includes 150 photographs from before and after World War II, one can see how sincerely Chim believed that photography, by influencing public opinion, could help change the world.
The show opens with a large portrait of Chim by his Magnum colleague Elliott Erwitt, complete with his humorous glance, tilted eyebrows above round glasses, dapper suit, silk tie, and cigarette dangling from his fingers. In 1947, Chim cofounded Magnum Photos with Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and George Rodger. For French magazines, he abbreviated his family name “Szymin” to “Chim”—shorter and easier to pronounce and, perhaps, in order to distance himself from his Jewish past.
Thematic, broadly chronological sections at the Jewish Historical Museum group the various stages in Chim’s development. His career took off when he was sent as a special correspondent to the Spanish Civil War by the left-wing magazine Regards, and he spent the next three years traveling all over Spain.
Although he did cover the front lines, Chim was not a typical war correspondent: he was mostly interested in reporting on the life and fate of ordinary citizens during the first war in modern history in which civilians were systematically targeted by aerial bombing, culminating in the annihilation of Guernica. In one expressive chiaroscuro photograph, the only light in the frame seems to emanate from a group of huddled children, crowded in an underground shelter as Nazi planes were bombing the island of Menorca. The deep shadows make us squint as if we were there with them.
This sensation of immediacy also characterizes an unusual series of three images, taken at close range, of Republican Basque fighters and a priest celebrating an outdoor mass before combat. Looking at these images, we understand that Chim’s photographs draw their power from his ability to tell a story in a sequence. He moves in, first from a bird’s eye view, with the soldiers and priest standing, then to close-ups of the soldiers kneeling and the priest offering communion.
But Chim also excels at the single image: an especially powerful, cinematic photograph, taken from above, shows a woman breastfeeding as she listens, rapt, to a speaker in a land-reform meeting in Estramadura. Land reform legislation was one of the significant issues dividing Republicans from Francoists. The image, which could be read as a “Madonna with Child,” a metaphor for Republican Spain, embodies hope for the future. Published in Regards in France, AIZ in Germany and NovaIbera in Spain, the image immediately became famous.
As a biographer, I have spent a decade studying Chim’s life and work, but while I was immersed in the minutiae of his life, his images had receded into the background. Seeing his photographs at the Jewish Museum made me reevaluate them. It struck me that this museum, whose modern galleries have been built on the remains of a seventeenth-century Ashkenazi synagogue, is a perfect home for the photographer: the multilayered architecture mirrors Chim’s complex itineraries across time and space.
In 1942, Chim enlisted in the US Army. Based with the APID (Aerial Photographic Interpretation Detachment) in Medmenham, near London, he spent World War II as an interpreter of aerial reconnaissance photography. He analyzed photographs taken by Spitfire aircrafts that flew over Europe photographing any piece of land with potential information about what the Germans were planning.
In 1947, he was able to return to reportage with “We Went Back,” a story commissioned by the American magazine This Week that traced the routes of the Allied troops across Europe. And this is where Chim’s career took a surprising turn: his images burst into color. One shot especially struck me: children building sand castles on Omaha beach in Normandy under the gigantic, whale-like shadow of an overturned landing craft. The machine bisects the blue sky and the yellow sands and towers over the children, casting a shadow of war. In a black-and-white shot taken in Essen, Germany, Chim captured a pram with a baby swaddled in white covers before the looming dark ruins of the city in the background (the caption indicates that he is the illegitimate child of a British soldier). The eloquent but jarring juxtaposition appears almost like a photomontage. A series of twelve photos Chim took in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, had never been printed before. Neijmegen was hit hard during World War II: more than 2,000 inhabitants lost their lives, and almost a quarter of the city’s housing was destroyed. The photographs document the still-visible wartime destruction, as well as everyday scenes of a city in slow recovery.
David „Chim“ Seymour/Magnum ImagesNijmegen, The Netherlands, 1947
David „Chim“ Seymour/Magnum ImagesA boy pulling a wagon in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1947
David „Chim“ Seymour/Magnum ImagesA crowd listening to a speech by socialist politician Pietro Nenni, Basilica di Massenzio, Rome, March 11, 1948
In the spring of 1948, UNESCO sent Chim as a special consultant to five European countries—Austria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and his native Poland—to report on the fate of the 13 million children who had been orphaned, displaced, wounded, or disabled by war. He traced a sweeping and in-depth portrait of these children who had been stripped of their childhoods. One of these images is instantly recognizable, though it’s likely that few could name its author: Tereska, a Polish girl in a Warsaw school for traumatized children, had been asked by her teacher to draw a home on the blackboard. But all she could produce is a tangled web of chalk lines. As I walk past the photograph, her terrified eyes seem to follow me, posing an unanswerable question. Along with Capa’s 1936 Falling Soldier, this is probably the most emblematic image of mid-twentieth century war. But while Capa’s soldier embodies “Death in the Making,” the title of Capa and Gerda Taro’s 1938 book, Tereska’s face is a powerful reminder that, for many, war would never end.
The UNESCO trip was the last that Chim took in Eastern Europe. Later in life, he couldn’t bring himself to work in the fraught territory of his birthplace. In the early 1950s, he settled in Rome and made witty and warm portraits of the Cinecittà stars, starlets, and producers, both in black and white and in color: Sofia Loren, Irene Papas, Ingrid Bergman and her twins, Roberto Rossellini at work. Though some of his portraits, such as that of Renaissance specialist Bernard Berenson examining a marble nude by Canova, are very strong, this section was my least favorite of the exhibition. It seems to me that during this period, Chim, traumatized by the Holocaust, turned his lens to the more superficial glamour desired by burgeoning illustrated magazines.
In 1950, another assignment from UNICEF brought him to the remote villages of Southern Italy, and, traveling with his friend, the writer Carlo Levi, Chim documented the improvised schools without electricity or heat where the elderly and children alike were taught to read and write by local volunteers. One image shows an old peasant’s hand hesitantly tracing his first letters on a page—that Chim did not show his face, thereby avoiding the risk of stigmatizing his subject, is striking and memorable.
From there, Chim pursued a broader visual investigation of the Italian South, with several stories on religious rituals and festivals. During the early 1950s, he documented the beginnings of Israel. The sense of hope and optimism that he felt the country represented is visible, for instance, in his joyful black-and-white image of an Italian immigrant proudly holding up his newborn girl, the first child born in the barren Alma settlement.
It was in Egypt, where he rushed in November 1956 to cover the Suez Crisis, that Chim met his fate. Four days after the cease-fire, he was killed, along with his French colleague Jean Roy, by an Egyptian sniper. For my biographical research I had interviewed Ben Bradlee, the journalist who was to become editor in chief of TheWashington Post, who was with Chim in Suez. As I walked out of Chim’s exhibition and into Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter, I recalled a scene Bradlee had described of Chim photographing hungry Egyptians stealing from a flour depot:
Men, women, and children were walking around powdered with flour like so many ghosts, up to their ankles in spilled white. I did not see Chim jump very fast out of the Jeep. Then I saw him—he was very small, walking slowly with his camera, chaos all around him… a lone figure, completely calm, clicking away. It was almost in slow motion. He looked at the scene and raised his camera and took these pictures very slowly.
“Chim, Legendary Photojournalist” is at the Jewish Museum, Amsterdam, through March 10, 2019.
Jean Toomer’s Cane was greeted in 1923 by influential critics as the brilliant beginning of a literary career. Many stressed the “authenticity” of Toomer’s African Americans and the lyrical voice with which he conjured them into being. His treatment of black characters contrasted starkly with both the stereotypes of earlier work by (mostly) white authors and the then current limitations of African-American problem fiction. As Montgomery Gregory pointed out for the new black magazine Opportunity, Toomer had avoided “the pitfalls of propaganda and moralizing on the one hand and the snares of a false and hollow race pride on the other hand.” Waldo Frank wrote, in the foreword to the book, “It is a harbinger of the South’s literary maturity: of its emergence from the obsession put upon its mind by the unending racial crisis—an obsession from which writers have made their indirect escape through sentimentalism, exoticism, polemic, ‘problem’ fiction, and moral melodrama. It marks the dawn of direct and unafraid creation.”
The unusual features and effectiveness of Cane can be attributed to the fact that its author was in rapid transition, vocationally, geographically, socially, and intellectually, between different identities. His unsettled position derived from both a complicated personal history and the unusual cultural moment in which he emerged as an artist. Born just two years after his famous grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback—a former governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction—had moved from a palatial home in New Orleans to a smaller, though fashionable, house in Washington, Toomer never really knew the father for whom he was originally named. His mother, Nina, gave birth to him just nine months after a wedding of which her father disapproved and then found herself abandoned when Nathan Pinchback Toomer (as Jean was first named) was only a year old. Nina moved back to her autocratic father’s home, on the condition that she change the boy’s surname to Pinchback and his first name to anything other than Nathan (her husband’s name). Eventually, the first name became Eugene, after a godfather; but friends called the boy “Pinchy.” His mother called him Eugene Toomer and his grandparents, Eugene Pinchback. Ambiguity of identity and a strong intuition of the arbitrary nature of social labels came early to Toomer.
After his mother’s 1906 remarriage, a move to a white neighborhood in New Rochelle on Long Island Sound, and then his mother’s death in 1909, Eugene returned at age fourteen with neither father nor mother to the Pinchback family in Washington, where his grandparents now lived in his uncle Bismarck’s home on Florida Avenue, in a mostly black neighborhood. He would later remember this milieu as one of a genuine distinction in culture, manners, and learning. Yet his family belonged to Washington’s “colored aristocracy,” a group that considered itself “above” most black people in manners and education. After graduating in 1910 from the famous, all-black M Street (later Dunbar) High School, he began consciously to think of himself as neither black nor white—or both black and white, belonging to both worlds and yet, because of that, removed from each.
Toomer entered an agricultural program at the University of Wisconsin—where he was apparently taken by many for a Native American—but dropped out after only a year. His interest in modern scientific agriculture and agricultural technology, joined with what he later learned from Marxist sources, informs his notion of the transformation of the rural South that pervades Cane. The “cane” of the book is that of sorghum, a plant brought from Africa during the slave trade. Throughout the southeastern United States, the cane-stalks of sorghum were crushed for their sap, which was then boiled to make molasses, the chief sweetener in southern homes. Sorghum molasses, moreover, was a key ingredient for “moonshine” whiskey in the early twentieth century. Yet, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was being replaced by cane sugar as new roads integrated the Southern countryside into larger national and international economic networks, networks that helped carry moonshine north via “bootleggers in silken shirts,” to quote from the opening of the second section of Toomer’s book.
In January 1916, Toomer entered the American College of Physical Training in Chicago. Fellow student Meridel Le Sueur, later a famous left-wing poet, would remember Toomer as “reserved, isolated, perceived as an Indian by the rest of the students.” A boxing instructor introduced him to socialism, and he began attending lectures by the famous left-wing lawyer Clarence Darrow and others on naturalism, atheism, and social radicalism. These overturned his prior notions of the world, and he began seeking a comprehensive theory of contemporary reality. He enrolled at the University of Chicago but dropped out after only a few months. Returning East, he took a sociology course at New York University’s summer school, then studied history at City College while he stayed with his uncle Walter. World War I broke out and he went back to Chicago, where he sold Ford automobiles and began writing while reading Bernard Shaw. Then he took a short-term job as a substitute physical education director in Milwaukee. The story “Bona and Paul,” the first of the pieces that would later make up Cane, may well have been drafted at this time.
After returning to Washington with neither a job nor a vocational plan, Toomer once again moved to New York to take a clerk’s post with a grocery firm. He attended lectures at the left-wing Rand School and there met radical writers associated with journals such as The Liberator, where he would soon begin submitting his work, and the New York Call, a voice of the Socialist Party of America, where he placed two pieces, his first appearance in print.
About the same time, influenced by Romain Rolland’s novel Jean-Christophe (which featured a composer-prophet fusing German and French “spiritual” inheritances into pan-European music), he decided to become a composer and took a second job as a physical education director in a settlement house to pay for music lessons and piano rental. He adopted the name “Jean,” inspired by Rolland’s hero and Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean.
In his later autobiographical manuscripts, Toomer played down the extent of his interest in socialism. His pieces for the Call clearly reveal, however, that he had found in Marxist theory a compelling framework for understanding racial as well as class exploitation. The socialist strain remains evident in references within Cane to “powerful underground races” threatening the foundation of bourgeois Washington. In a letter to his publisher while Cane was in press, Toomer described a new book project about “this whole black and brown world heaving upward against, here and there mixing with the white. The mixture, however, is insufficient to absorb the heaving, hence it but accelerates and fires it. This upward heaving is to be symbolic of the proletariat or world upheaval. And it is likewise to be symbolic of the subconscious penetration of the conscious mind.”
Even in the late 1920s, Toomer would write of how existing economic, political, and social systems formed the ground of racial division and exploitation. He turned increasingly to psychological and spiritual exploration, guided in part by a theory about the emergence of a new “American” race, of which he considered himself the first conscious member. Spiritual and psychological transformation, Toomer believed, would be the first step toward social reconstruction. Maybe a radically experimental literature could inspire this step.
Between 1919 and 1929, political conservatism and reaction had driven many left-wing artists to cultural radicalism, psychological and “spiritual” programs to transform society. Waldo Frank, already an important voice on the left, published Our America just as Toomer’s first pieces appeared in the Call, complementing the direction in which Toomer was moving. Believing that “Puritan” and “pioneer” traditions had prevented the emergence of a genuine American culture, Frank argued that the United States had no rooted peasant traditions out of which a national art might develop. Anglo-Americans had never put down roots in the continent, and the cultures of the Indian and Mexican had succumbed to white, industrial civilization. Industrialism and materialism rendered the nation a cultural and spiritual wasteland. Yet Frank believed the “spiritual pioneers” of the rising generation would move beyond naturalism and critical realism to a fusion of the revolutionist and the artist-prophet in the “bringer of a new religion.”
Like most white intellectuals of the time, Frank failed to take any notice of African-American culture, as Toomer would point out to him in 1922. W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed as early as 1903 that black Americans offered the only indigenous spirituality, the only folk song and simple reverence, the only genuine “culture” in a “dusty desert of dollars and smartness.” Just as he tended later in life to downplay the influence of socialism on his thinking, Toomer covered up much of his apparent indebtedness to African-American thought in his early intellectual development. He clearly had read Du Bois, for example. The controversy between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington (who had occasionally stayed at the Pinchback home) would surely have been a topic of conversation within his family, and the way in which he imagined African-American culture transforming Frank’s cultural nationalist program seems to owe much to The Souls of Black Folk. Alain Locke, a philosophy professor at Howard University, knew Toomer by at least 1919 and acted as an early adviser. He may have been the first person with whom Toomer shared some of the pieces that went into Cane.
The poet Georgia Douglas Johnson was also an important contact and source of moral support before Toomer had connected with white modernists. She expressed approval for how much he had “improved” through his contact with New York intellectuals. Toomer directed study sessions at Johnson’s home on the history of slavery, the social and economic forces behind racial ideology, and the position of the “mixed race group” in the United States. At about this time, Johnson wrote her own poems of the “new race” that would appear in the climactic section of her book Bronze. The sessions initiated by Toomer apparently formed the beginning of her regular “Saturday Nighters”—meetings of black writers and intellectuals interested in contemporary issues and literature. These helped incubate what came to be called the “Negro Renaissance.” Thus Toomer drew on two different communities of thinking, roughly centered in black Washington and Greenwich Village, in the years immediately preceding Cane.
Through his grandfather’s contacts, Toomer accepted a short-term position as substitute principal of Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, beginning in September 1921. Located a mile or so outside of Sparta (the “Sempter” of Cane) in east central Georgia, the school trained young black men and women chiefly for jobs in agriculture and light industry. Toomer spent only two months there before the principal returned, but the experience was pivotal. It exposed him for the first time to southern folk music in its native setting. Yet that black townspeople disdained the music as “shouting” only confirmed his belief that the folk culture would soon die out in the “modern desert.” He wished to preserve it while there was still time. The experience in Sparta unleashed a steady creative surge.
Toomer took a second trip to the South with Waldo Frank, who, though Jewish, “passed” as black so that they could travel and eat together while feeling the pressure of segregation, as Frank worked on the novel Holiday; the two men began thinking of their books as interrelated efforts to bring the South to artistic fruition. Upon returning to Washington, Toomer took a job for two weeks as assistant manager at the Howard Theater, a popular black-managed theater in the heart of what later became known as Washington’s “Little Harlem,” where African-American revues destined for fame in New York held trial runs. This experience inspired “Theater” and “Box Seat.” Toomer remained in contact with Alain Locke, who helped him place “Song of the Son” in The Crisis, which was the official magazine of the NAACP. Thereafter, other pieces from what is now Cane began appearing in “little magazines” associated with left-wing politics and the modernist avant-garde.
Toomer had read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of the Egg and Other Stories just before going to Sparta and asserted that these books had nourished his artistic response to the folk life there. His sketches owed much to Anderson’s method of de-emphasizing plot and developing instead a “lyric fiction,” using repetition and refrain to structure the work.
Like Winesburg, the first and last sections of Cane (which Toomer initially planned to form the whole of the book) presented a series of semi-independent stories or sketches, focusing on different characters, all set in the same locale. A sense of spiritual and emotional frustration, failure of basic communication between individuals, repression of “natural” energies, suffuse the book. They reveal the “chaos” of contemporary American life and the need for a spiritual awakening, a bursting of unconscious forces through the crust of worn-out traditions. In Cane, these forces are distinctly black and politically volatile.
Toomer aspired to go beyond Anderson and Frank, moreover, in response to the forces of industrialization and modern technology. The introduction of the machine, he believed, had destroyed humanity’s balance with Nature, creating spiritual conflicts to which artists had responded either by rejecting “the Machine” and suggesting back-to-nature programs or by accepting the machine as a necessary evil and creating aesthetic “counter-forms” against its destructive features.
He aspired to a “classic American prose,” a fusion of heterogeneous rhythms, words, and forms of pronunciation currently differentiated into conflicting racial and class dialects. Like jazz, slang and colloquialisms kept pace with the introduction of new forces into society; literary artists should do no less. Hence Kabnis’s tortured attempt to find words to “feed his soul”—his need to create “golden words” to transmute the terrors of southern history into aesthetic value and spiritual awakening is Jean Toomer’s as he worked toward his own voice under the pressure of southern life. But “Kabnis” ends before its central character achieves what Toomer and Waldo Frank would call “fusion.” Toomer intended “Kabnis” as the dramatization of a phase from which both he and the United States were about to emerge. Thus he ends the book on a note of uncertainty and transition—rather than resolution and achieved “identity” in either comic or tragic mode.
Cane, while a critical success, sold well below 1,000 copies, and Toomer never composed the books he had planned and described to Liveright as Cane was in press. He had come to believe that the literary vocation in its current state was part of the problem of modernity rather than a solution. The artist must learn to unify himself before attempting to provide a new vision for society. Toomer turned to G.I. Gurdjieff’s program “The Harmonious Development of Man,” which had much in common with beliefs Toomer already held about the need for a balance of intellectual, emotional, and instinctual aspects of the self. (He was not alone: many other writers and artists took the same direction at this time.) His disaffection with the literary seems intimately intertwined with a sense of his failure to free words from limiting forms of consciousness and social institutions—including the institution of race.
The drama surrounding the publication of Cane epitomizes the fact that no person considered “Negro,” according to the one-drop rule of the United States, could get a hearing except under the sign of blackness, even if they did not consider themselves black. Horace Liveright probably was interested in the book partly because it was by someone he considered black. He considered the “race” of the author crucial to marketing Cane. Toomer objected, and Liveright (who was Jewish) then expressed wonder that he would wish to “dodge” the fact of his racial identity, infuriating the author. Nonetheless, washing his hands of the advertising program, Toomer explicitly allowed Liveright to “feature Negro” if he wished, while insisting that any representation of the book to reviewers and the like and anything purporting to reflect Toomer’s own views must not refer to him as a Negro but reflect his own “fundamental position”: “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine… I expect and demand acceptance of myself on their basis. I do not expect to be told what I should consider myself to be.”
He had made that position known to the head of the Associated Negro Press well before Cane’s publication. Responding to Claude Barnett’s inquiry about his racial identity, Toomer replied, “The true and complete answer is one of some complexity, and for this reason perhaps it will not be seen and accepted until after I am dead… The answer involves a realistic and accurate knowledge of racial mixture, of nationality as formed by the interaction of tradition, culture, and environment, of the artistic nature in its relation to the racial or social group, etc. All of which of course is too heavy and thick to go into now. Let me state then, simply, that I am the grandson of the late P.B.S. Pinchback. From this fact it is clear that… I have ‘peeped behind the veil.’ And my deepest impulse to literature (on the side of material) is the direct result of what I saw.” Contrary to some later narratives, Toomer was not attempting to “pass” as white. He would adhere to his own self-understanding while allowing others to make of him what they would. He considered himself the first conscious member of a “new race” coming into existence in the United States, and Cane itself attests pervasively to this idea, in that it presents a cycle of history coming to a close, awaiting the birth of a new one. Cane, he famously insisted, was a “swan song.”
Being identified as a Negro author would not only violate Toomer’s philosophy and personal self-conception but would also lead people to interpret his work entirely in relation to issues of racial identity, as “Negro literature.” He fully realized that his self-definition would lead many people to the same conclusion as Liveright—that he was “dodging” his racial identity. Many of Toomer’s black readers and white friends already thought of him as a Negro, knew his family as a Negro family, and would not have understood his self-description any more than Horace Liveright did. He neither cut off such friends nor avoided other African Americans. Quite the contrary, in addition to starting a “Gurdjieff group” composed mostly of African-American artists and friends, he continued to have black friends visit him in Greenwich Village.
In 1925, Toomer gave a lecture at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, then the intellectual hub of black Harlem, “Towards Reality,” in which he greeted the budding Negro Renaissance as “evidence of a two-fold fact, the fact that the Negro is in the process of discovering himself, and of being discovered” by the culturally aware members of the white world. “I would be receptive of his reality as it emerges,” he concluded, “(being active only by way of aid to this emergence), assured that in proportion as he discovers what is real within him, he will create, and by that act create at once himself and contribute his value to America.” This was hardly the act of a black man attempting to “pass” as white. The black Harlem newspapers reported on the event to a readership that thought of Toomer as a Negro. The white editor John Farrar, who also thought of Toomer as a Negro, reported on the event for the Bookman, finding the lecture a bit too “abstruse.”
Alas, it was one thing for Toomer to work out a position in his own mind and to share it with his friends. It was quite another to project his concept into “this American world in which, as I had come to realize more and more, there was this fixed view that in this country a person must be either black or white.” When faced with official government forms, which did not allow for his self-identity, he would identify himself or be identified as alternately “Negro” or “White,” but this did not signal the adequacy of such labels. As Allyson Hobbs has argued in an award-winning history of passing in the United States, Toomer was not “confused, racially misidentified, or frustrated with the limits of language, but rather struggling to convey a holistic understanding” in a society that would not, and still cannot, accept that understanding.
None of Toomer’s seeming compromises about letting people come to their own conclusions about his racial identity contradicts his commitment, however utopian, to the idea of a “new race.” Cane is full of inarticulate members of this new group of “Americans” (both “black” and “white”) who have yet to become “conscious” of themselves, in Toomer’s phrasing. Violation of the color line provokes ostracism or death for others, as Americans resist the “merging,” haunted by wraiths of the past and established socio-economic structures. This feature of his book remained illegible to critics for over half a century.
Americans were not going in Toomer’s direction. Indeed, the great irony of Toomer’s career is that modern American racial discourse—with an absolute polarity between “white” and “black” at its center—took its most definite shape precisely during the course of his life. The United States would be more segregated at the time of Toomer’s death than it had been at the time of his birth, despite the dismantling of some of the legal bulwarks of white supremacy. The “mulatto” designation disappeared from the US Census in 1920. Only in 2000 could people choose to mark more than one racial “box” on the census forms. Toomer probably would have found even this misguided.
It is a sign of the fundamentally segregated nature of American society that Cane could only be understood as a “black” text and in relation to African-American identity. Toomer’s connection with the Harlem Renaissance largely accounts for the availability of his work today. Georgia O’Keefe (with whom Toomer had had an affair in the 1920s) and Toomer’s former white roommate at the University of Wisconsin wanted to bring it out in the 1950s, when Toomer also renewed his copyright, but only after he died was the book reissued, in the context of the “black aesthetic.” Interest in African-American literature, and the Harlem Renaissance in particular, brought Cane back to public attention—and into print—some forty years after its second small printing.
It must be allowed that Toomer would be upset; it must also be allowed that this connection is not inappropriate. Not only was Cane a tremendous influence upon the Harlem Renaissance and later African-American writing, it was produced by the same confluence of institutions and even individuals that helped produce the Harlem Renaissance. But while it is entirely fitting to read Cane in the context of African-American literary tradition, it is just as important to recognize that Cane can be read in relation to other traditions and movements. Indeed, it is precisely the liminality—and mobility—of Toomer’s “identity” in a society obsessed with clarity on this score that motivated the restless searching through which Cane came about, through which Toomer left it behind, and without which there could be no book like it.
This essay is adapted from the author’s introduction to Cane, by Jean Toomer, which is republished by Penguin Classics on January 8.
A kindling sense of apocalypse is business as usual for Californians, who live almost nonchalantly with impending doom. Wildfires eat up the landscape, roar into the cities, drop tons of choking ash in the mountain-locked valleys. Mudslides come in winter and spring. Underfoot is the constant threat of “the big one,” the earthquake that will end everything in a few minutes. Dwindling rivers, drained lakes, and recurring droughts keep the southern and most populous part of California in a state of anxious thirst. The most recent drought lasted from 2011 to 2017, and 2011–2015 was the driest period since record-keeping began in 1895.
Yet quotidian life hums on. “There’s no explanation for it, but we feel immune,” a wealthy Angeleno told me. California’s gross economic output is almost $3 trillion, which, were it a sovereign nation, would make it the fifth-largest economy in the world. Today the Republic of California, as a couple of dozen settlers christened it in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, again feels like a breakaway state, with its own mores, laws, phobias, and monumental contradictions.
The California legislature’s rebellion against President Trump’s polices may be the most serious one that an individual state has mounted against the federal government since South Carolina threatened to secede over cotton tariffs in the 1830s. (California’s present-day secessionist movement, called Calexit, has little popular support. Californians don’t see themselves as separate from America but as its epitome, “the keeper of its future,” in the words of its highest elected officials.) The terms of the rebellion were set on November 9, 2016, the day after Trump won the presidency, when the heads of the state senate and assembly issued a joint statement declaring that California “would lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.”
“Resistance” has become an overused word, but state lawmakers have made good on their vow. The California Values Act, or sanctuary law as it is popularly known, restricts cooperation between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has become, in California and elsewhere, a roving deportation force with something resembling paramilitary powers.1 The Justice Department has sued California over the law, and last March then attorney general Jeff Sessions traveled to Sacramento to encourage a gathering of California’s Peace Officers’ Association to “stop actively obstructing federal law enforcement” and “protecting law breakers” at the behest of “the most radical extremists.” Sessions got a polite but far from enthusiastic reception. Most local police have enforced the sanctuary law. Some, like Sheriff Donny Youngblood of Kern County, at the southern end of the Central Valley, where thousands of undocumented farmworkers reside, have openly defied it and given ICE free rein. Youngblood has deemed Bakersfield, the county seat whose population is 50.5 percent Hispanic, a “law and order city,” not a sanctuary. The city of Los Alamitos in Orange County passed an ordinance that exempts it from the sanctuary law. Other localities have contemplated doing the same.
The Justice Department lawsuit is only one of many that the federal government has filed against California since Trump took office. The state prohibits employers from granting immigration officers entry to workplaces in order to verify the legal status of employees without cause, another point of contention. ICE officers haunt courtrooms, grocery stores, bars, housing complexes, and school parking lots, trawling for immigrants who have worked in California for decades and creating, a restaurant employee in Fresno told me, the feeling that “we are being hunted the minute we step out of our homes.” With every new court ruling the legal landscape changes, leaving immigrants unsure of their legal status. Meanwhile, ICE intensifies its push into their lives, insisting that California’s sanctuary law has forced it to invade communities where “illegals” reside, and that if an atmosphere of fear has set in, it’s the state’s fault, not ICE’s.
With equal defiance, California has strengthened its carbon emissions laws in response to the EPA’s rollback of the Clean Air Act, fuel efficiency standards, and other environmental regulations. Every new home built in the state is required to have solar panels, and in September Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would make California’s electricity grid 100 percent carbon-neutral by 2045. In addition, the legislature has passed the country’s strictest net neutrality law, a strike against the FCC’s nullification of Obama-era regulations. These are more than token actions. California is the nation’s biggest consumer of automobiles and other manufactured goods. Its laws influence, and sometimes dictate, the way consumer products are made across the US.
All of these efforts have turned California into the repository of many liberals’ hopes of rescuing America from the ravages of Trump. But how realistic are such hopes? If rescue means regaining a Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives, then California has done its part. In an astonishing turn of events even for this bluest of states, all seven congressional seats held by Republicans in districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 went Democratic in the 2018 midterms. These included two seats in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most conservative parts of the state, where Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both relatively moderate Republicans, were narrowly defeated. (Valadao lost by 529 votes in the 21st District, the last race in the US to be called.) In Orange County, birthplace of the John Birch Society and Richard Nixon, Democrats now hold every congressional seat, some of them in districts a Democrat had never won. Only seven of the state’s fifty-three congressional seats are now held by Republicans. (It’s worth noting that Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, and Devin Nunes, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee—both Californians and two of the most fanatical Trumpists in Congress—were reelected.) Today only 25.3 percent of registered voters in California are Republicans, a new low.
If, on the other hand, rescue means lifting the country out of a deepening abyss where the bottom 60 percent of households owns just 2 percent of total wealth and more Americans scramble for a living wage, then California offers little hope. When housing costs are factored in, it has the highest poverty rate in the US. More than a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in California, and encampments of the destitute are a part of the landscape in almost every major city and in many towns.
As I traveled through the state recently, housing, not Trump, was the main subject on people’s minds. Lawmakers seem paralyzed in the face of the country’s most dire housing emergency. Local municipalities have no power to regulate their own housing stock: a 1995 law allows landlords across the state to raise rents to whatever the market will bear when a tenant moves out. The real estate lobby is so powerful that a liberal Democratic legislature has repeatedly declined to overturn or even reform the law. A ballot initiative to repeal it, known as Proposition 10, was defeated by more than twenty percentage points on November 6. Both Gavin Newsom and John Cox, the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, opposed it, on the grounds that stabilized rents would discourage new construction—by potentially reducing profits—and exacerbate the housing shortage. There is no conclusive evidence that this is true—New York City, with about one million rent-stabilized apartments, has plenty of development.
At the same time, in most localities homeowners have tight control over their neighborhoods and reject proposals for moderately priced multi-unit buildings. The standard liberal objection is that greater housing density will increase traffic and air pollution and overload fragile public schools. The school system was a victim of Proposition 13, a homeowners’ revolt in 1978 that froze property taxes—the primary source of school funding—for both commercial and residential real estate. Prior to its passage, California had one of the finest public school systems in the country and was ranked as high as fifth among all states in spending per pupil. By 2009 its rank had fallen to forty-seventh. Proposition 13 discourages people from selling their homes, since a change in ownership results in a much higher valuation for taxes. This in turn contributes to a “lack of product,” as realtors call it, driving up prices. In the second quarter of 2018, the median price for a home in California was $597,000, beyond the reach of three out of four residents.
Nimbyism among most homeowners has become an automatic posture in California, a residue of the slow-growth movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which sought to curb the excesses of developers who pounced on every valuable swath of land with thoughtless, often environmentally destructive projects. Conservation and development don’t have to be at odds, but over the years conservation has devolved into a blunt, socially acceptable instrument for limiting the construction of affordable housing. In a perversion of governmental regulatory intentions, arcane provisions in the California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 are used by homeowners in cities to block high-density development that would reduce pollution and help alleviate the housing crisis. Partly as a result, a unit of affordable housing cost $425,000 to build in 2016, the highest in the country.
For California to meet its antipollution targets it will have to allow the construction of more apartment buildings, especially in areas near mass transit lines where residents wouldn’t need cars. But in April, a bill that would give the state the power to override local zoning laws and approve buildings four to five stories tall near transit lines was squashed in the legislature before it reached the floor. Debate about the bill exposed California’s split psyche, torn between the myth of the self-reliant Far West and the challenge of social emergencies that only the government can solve. On the campaign trail, Newsom made it clear that he wouldn’t sign the bill if it were passed, though he has promised to build 3.5 million new homes by 2025. (A revised version of the bill is being introduced, this time with the support of Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti. Governor-elect Newsom has yet to endorse it, and its fate is unknown.)
Housing pressures from Silicon Valley ripple outward in every direction. In 2017 the median salary at Facebook was $240,000 a year; at Google it was around $200,000. Nevertheless, many of these employees have resigned themselves to a two-hour commute in order to find living quarters they can afford, pushing up prices in Oakland to the north, Salinas to the south, and across the Coast Ranges as far east as Sacramento and Fresno. Meanwhile, the homeless colonize almost every public space: under freeways, in parks, in private lots whose chain-link fences have been cut and bent open. Pup tents and ripped plastic tarps are everywhere. Thousands more live out of cars or RVs parked on the street. In a considerate act that nevertheless seemed to acknowledge the government’s impotence, Oakland mayor Libby Schaff put up sheds and a central toilet facility in a parking lot near a freeway. In Berkeley I met a public school teacher who was living in her Honda. I was surprised to see virtually no new construction in Berkeley, despite the fact that everyone I talked to, homeowner or not, bemoaned the ruinously high cost of housing. In Salinas, 110 miles south of San Francisco, I visited a two-bedroom apartment with thirty adults and children living in it, the adults sharing the rent, almost all of them with jobs.
In Southern California the situation is no better. Los Angeles, with a population of four million, has 53,000 homeless; Angelenos routinely refer to their city as “the homeless capital of America.” Thousands more live in garages, campgrounds, and makeshift shanties in private backyards. In Orange County rundown motels on the edges of cities and towns are crowded with working families paying week to week for their rooms. Disneyland in Anaheim is the largest employer in Orange County, with 30,000 “cast members,” as its hair stylists, costumers, custodians, puppeteers, candy makers, ticket takers, security guards, and hotel and food service workers are called. A recent survey of Disneyland employees found that “two-thirds meet the department of agriculture’s definition of ‘food insecure’; fifty-six percent are worried about being evicted from their homes or apartments,” and 11 percent reported being homeless at some point in the last two years.2 This invisible homelessness—people living not on the street but without a fixed shelter or address—stretches throughout Orange County: a professor at the University of California at Irvine (UCI) told me that at least 10 percent of his students sleep in their cars.
Irvine, with a population of 275,000, is a flawless expression of California’s exclusionary property laws and the nearly absolute power of its largest landholders and developers. The city wasn’t shaped by restrictions imposed by the Nimbyism of individual homeowners, as in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County, but rather by a single vast corporate entity. Irvine was built on land owned by the Irvine family, originally known as the Irvine Ranch. James Irvine, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, accumulated the holding—a remote, drought-stricken 93,000 acres—between 1864 and 1868 with money he made selling supplies to gold prospectors from a store in San Francisco. It was still intact in 1960, when the Irvine family hired the architect William Pereira to design the core of the city on 10,000 acres and plan the development of 80,000 acres around it. The holding hasn’t been broken up; today it is owned solely by Donald Bren, who acquired it from the Irvines in 1977.
Irvine may be the most fully realized vision we have of a large private city—planned, paved, and spotless. It isn’t so much governed as managed, a real estate venture rather than a municipal entity. It is not a bedroom community. It has set itself up as a mixed-use business center, able to provide its residents with jobs. Toshiba, Allergan, Broadcom, Western Digital, Gateway, and Taco Bell, to name a few, have their corporate headquarters there. Pools of water along the parkways soothe drivers’ sun-fried eyes. Office parks and high-rises are, almost without exception, clad in black metal, gray concrete, and reflective glass.
In 2006 the median rent in Irvine was higher than that in any city of more than 100,000 in the country. When the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis hit, houses there kept their value. When its highly regarded school system faces a budget cut, Bren writes a check to cover the shortfall. A modest “starter” house can be bought for $729,000. I visited one for sale in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, a beige stucco structure that conformed to Bren’s insistence on Mission Style architecture. The realtor had me put plastic covers over my shoes before entering; as I inspected the property, she busied herself with catching a fly that had invaded the house. A middling house in a gated neighborhood can be bought for $2.3 million. The realtor who showed me one proudly described himself as “half Anglo, half Vietnamese.” He pointed up a hill where, about a mile away, another “community” was under construction, with houses going for $6 million. “Prices keep going up,” he said. “A lot of Chinese are coming, new arrivals, and they pay all in cash.”
Kia Hamadanchy, a thirty-two-year-old Irvine native, told me, “There’s no real poverty in Irvine. Poverty isn’t allowed. If a homeless person is spotted, the police are called, they pick the person up, drive him to Santa Ana,” a majority-Hispanic city seven miles to the north, “and drop him off.” (The homeless students at UCI live in other parts of Orange County.) Irvine is consistently ranked the first- or second-safest city in the country. “But,” Hamadanchy said, “everyone is obsessed with crime,” as if their security were so precarious it could be shattered at any moment.
Hamadanchy graduated from University of Michigan Law School “at the worst time, during the 2008 recession,” and worked in Washington, D.C., for Senator Tom Harkin, and then for Senator Sherrod Brown. He came back to Irvine to run for Congress in 2018, as a Democrat, and was one of four losing candidates in the so-called jungle primary—the top two candidates advance to the general election, regardless of party—on June 5 for the 45th District. His parents immigrated to the US from Iran, and he said that during the campaign
people told me I needed a Starbucks name, like Ted or Brett. They tell this to every Muslim or Arab. There’s never been an Iranian elected to office in Orange County. Iranians don’t vote. They’re too cynical about politics because of what they experienced in Iran.
The 45th District had never sent a Democrat to Congress, but Clinton carried it in 2016. Mimi Walters, the Republican incumbent, was seen as vulnerable this year for voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Shortly after the election, she was declared the winner by three percentage points, the outcome most observers had expected (she had won by seventeen points in 2016). Her Democratic opponent, Katie Porter, a protégé of Elizabeth Warren who was considered too liberal for the district, had won only 20 percent of the primary vote. Even more discouraging for Porter’s chances was the fact that in the primary only 13 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls. But when mailed ballots were counted after the November election, Porter scored a major upset. Irvine, the largest city in the district, is now 45 percent Asian, and in California 68 percent of Asians disapprove of Trump. The racism that drives his anti-immigration rhetoric appears to have helped Porter win.
Hamadanchy is wry about growing up in Irvine, though his affection for the city is obvious. As a boy, he and his friends would hang out at a vast outdoor shopping environment—one hesitates to describe it merely as a mall—called the Spectrum Center. It is designed to resemble a perfect American village, like the stage-set town in the movie The Truman Show. The brick-and-tile streets wind pleasantly through a city of shops, with a rectangular commons planted with artificial turf and a Ferris wheel. The commons is crowded with shoppers, their children eating ice cream or racing across the turf. Loitering is encouraged: wicker chairs, round brass tables, and umbrellas appear on one “street”; on another street unraveled bolts of cloth are strung tautly overhead to give shade. One wanders through different architectural motifs and facades, an artificiality so complete, so thought-out in every detail, that it feels like a performance. It is the Irvine Company’s masterpiece, a perfect consumerist dream.
Gavin Newsom, who won the race to succeed Jerry Brown as governor (and “head of the California resistance,” as a New Yorker headline called him) with 61.9 percent of the vote, is a typical Bay Area Democrat: socially and environmentally progressive, with a Machiavellian allegiance to developers and large landholders who have been the major force in state politics since the Gold Rush. “You can’t run for statewide office without money from developers,” Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, told me. There is scant hope that Newsom will be able to put a dent in the state’s problems, especially when it comes to housing. Since his bold defense of same-sex marriage as mayor of San Francisco in 2004, he has been a cautious politician, a self-described “passionate free-enterprise Democrat” who drapes himself in fashionable social justice platitudes. He will continue California’s fight against Trump’s immigration and carbon emissions policies, but it’s difficult to imagine him backing reforms that would put his political career on the line.
Google, Apple, Netflix, Facebook, and the other behemoths of Silicon Valley that are the chief source of California’s enormous wealth have benefited extravagantly from Trump’s corporate tax cuts—particularly the provision that lowered the tax rate on corporate cash repatriated from overseas. There is little evidence that top executives at these companies are displeased with the Republican regime in Washington. California’s tech billionaires have shown a preference for dramatic acts of personal philanthropy over political donations, the more traditional way of parlaying wealth into influence. They have cultivated the image of benevolent lords with the power to replace the usual functions of government. An example of this is Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, a cloud computing service based in San Francisco. Benioff makes large contributions to public schools and hospitals that would fail without him, in effect paying out of his pocket for basic services that government cannot—or will not—provide. But donations are dependent on the philanthropist’s whim—should things go sour, they can be discontinued in the blink of an eye.
Because of Proposition 13’s property tax freeze forty years ago, 70 percent of California’s budget, which for 2018–2019 totals just over $200 billion in spending, depends on personal income taxes, 46 percent of which are paid by the wealthiest 1 percent. To illustrate the state’s precarious reliance on its richest residents, a single zip code in the town of Palo Alto, where Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Larry Page, and Apple CEO Tim Cook live, accounted for nearly $1 billion in state taxes in 2016. A bad year in the stock market, with reduced capital gains, could lead to a deficit, even if the overall economy does well. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a mild recession would result in a $20 billion deficit; a moderate recession would cut revenues by $80 billion and leave the state $40 billion in the red.3
Funds for affordable housing, health care, and education would be slashed just when the state needs them most. The vulnerability of a huge swath of California’s population is acute—in addition to those already living in poverty, millions more are what social workers call “one event away” from destitution. A substantial increase in homelessness is almost unimaginable because it is already so widespread, but it could easily happen.
California has a history of turning sharply to the right during hard economic times. In 1994, after defense industry jobs vanished with the end of the cold war and the state descended into a protracted recession that included a real estate crisis and the collapse of local banks, voters passed Proposition 187. That initiative, promoted with the slogan Save Our State (S.O.S.), blocked undocumented immigrants from access to health care, education, and other state services. Fifty-nine percent of the electorate voted for it. Republican governor Pete Wilson rode the anti-immigrant wave to reelection, then ordered state and local employees to report suspected “illegals” to the state attorney general. Although it was struck down by the courts and eventually led large numbers of Californians to abandon the Republican Party, Proposition 187 has provided a roadmap for the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies.
Like the rest of the US, California is in a pernicious trend of steady GDP growth and low unemployment accompanied by the amassing of wealth and power by the few and intractable poverty for the many—the result less of joblessness than of the increase in minimum-wage service jobs, as well as the high cost of housing. A recent article in The Economist points out that the state’s GDP rose 78 percent in real terms between 1997 and 2017, and “the number of people with jobs has grown almost without interruption since 2011.” At the same time, 45 percent of California’s children are living at or near the poverty line, as defined by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, which have come up with a measure that takes the cost of living into account. Eighty percent of those below the poverty line live in households with at least one working adult.
As a result of these inequities, America’s richest and most liberal state is also its poorest. Yet Californians have recently demonstrated a willingness to put aside immediate self-interest for the common good. On November 6 voters declined to repeal a statewide gasoline tax that is used to build and maintain roads; and in 2016 Angelenos levied a half-cent sales tax on themselves to fund the most ambitious mass transit expansion in the city’s history.
These initiatives suggest that voters may be inching toward the acceptance of more sweeping reforms—even ones that affect their own pocketbooks. Such reforms would have to begin with an enormous housing initiative with the power to overrule the parochial interests of homeowners and developers; they would also include a change in state rent laws and new conservation regulations that couldn’t be used as a pretext to limit the construction of housing for people of modest means.
California’s politicians say that Proposition 13 is untouchable, but is it? At the very least, voters are likely to support an end to the tax freeze on commercial real estate, which would restore a reliable stream of money for schools and affordable housing. But homeowners who have profited spectacularly from rising property values should also have to contribute. California was once famous for its ability to lift its residents out of poverty. This was partly because of its exemplary education system and partly because of an ever-increasing supply of housing built on seemingly endless tracts of land. Today that model of urban sprawl is rightfully dead. But the state has found no model to replace it. For inspiration officials might look to the city of Minneapolis, which has eliminated single-family zoning in every neighborhood, allowing for three units on plots of land where only one was permitted before.
Numerous studies show that stable, affordable housing is the most important factor in people’s social and economic well-being. California cannot address the most essential needs of its residents if it must always defer to homeowners’ dislike of traffic or less-well-off neighbors. If elected officials have the will to enact reforms that would spread the benefits of the state’s prosperity, California would be more than a symbolic “state of resistance.” It would point the way to a future beyond the dystopian nightmare of haves and have-nots that is now the main threat to America’s democracy.
—This is the second of two articles on California.
See my previous article, “In the Valley of Fear,” about undocumented immigrants in the San Joaquin Valley, The New York Review, December 20, 2018. ↩
See Peter Dreier and Daniel Flaming’s exhaustive survey, “Disneyland’s Workers Are Undervalued, Disrespected, and Underpaid,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2018. ↩
See the excellent article by Melanie Mason, “Can California’s Next Governor Fix the State’s Problems? It Depends on Palo Alto,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2018. ↩
Jed Rakoff’s interesting review [“Hail to the Chief,” NYR, November 22, 2018] of Joel Richard Paul’s new biography of John Marshall suggests that Marshall’s opinion in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) left the Indian tribes with no remedy in the federal courts for the wrongs of the government, and rather directed them to the “kindness and power” of the government itself; but that really is not a fair characterization of the opinion. Marshall’s statement, in the phrase that Rakoff says even his admirers should “cringe to repeat,” that the tribes’ relation to the government “resembles that of a ward to his guardian,” is the foundation of the modern doctrine of the federal trust relationship toward Indian tribes that has finally (though admittedly, nearly a century and a half after Marshall conceived of the concept) been found to give rise, in certain circumstances, at least, to a cause of action for damages against the government when it breaches that trust.
A year after the Cherokee opinion, after Georgia prosecuted a preacher named Samuel Worcester for entering Cherokee land without the state’s permission, Marshall had another opportunity to opine on the status of the Indians, and in terms that have been cited hundreds of times since then, wrote in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that “the Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force.” That passage is the basis for what is today the well-established and vitally important doctrine of tribal immunity from state laws, a crucial component of tribal sovereignty.
While it is true that, as a practical matter, Marshall’s decisions were of little help to the Cherokee, especially in light of President Jackson’s fervent determination to move the eastern tribes to the Indian territory (now the state of Oklahoma), the enduring authority of his conceptual view of the relationship among the United States, the states, and the Indian tribes cannot be gainsaid. Marshall singlehandedly fashioned several of the most critical underpinnings of the field of federal Indian law.
Richard W. Hughes
Rothstein Donatelli LLP
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Jed S. Rakoff replies:
As a leading Indian law attorney, Mr. Hughes is naturally pleased that some of Marshall’s statements ultimately proved helpful to the Indians—though “admittedly, nearly a century and a half” after huge damage had been done. But the sad fact is that in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Marshall, instead of recognizing full Indian sovereignty, decreed that the Cherokee Nation should be wards of the federal executive, well knowing what that would mean when the Great White Father was Andrew Jackson. And it was only when the plaintiff was a white Protestant minister, rather than a native American, that Marshall, in Worcester v. Georgia, felt free to utter the words that, again much later, became helpful to Indians themselves. As Professor Paul Finkelman notes in his excellent new book, Supreme Injustice (2018), “Marshall’s years on the court also coincided with a relentless push to remove Indians from the eastern part of the United States…. Marshall’s decisions in [Cherokee Nation and Worcester] provided the legal basis for taking all land from Indians.” The fact that some of Marshall’s words were much later put to good use cannot erase the immediate practical effect of his Indian decisions, which ranged from ineffectual to devastating.
Stephen Greenblatt [“Damn It All,” NYR, December 20, 2018] contrasts to ill effect Catholic punishment in the afterlife with that of what he alleges is the rabbinic version. According to him, “For the ancient rabbis” the opposite of heaven “was not a place of torture; it was more like a state of depression.” How benign. The truth is something else, however. The Babylonian Talmud has the destroyer of the Jerusalem Temple, Roman general Titus, burned to ashes, reconstituted, and burned again, forever. The ancient rabbis place Jesus in a cauldron boiling with hot excrement for eternity (BT Gittin 57a). Not a place of torture?
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
Stephen Greenblatt replies:
In their complex, rich textual tradition, the Jews, like the Christians and the Muslims, speak with many voices, and it is always possible to find contradictions to almost any claim made about them. But in the Hebrew Bible Sheol, often translated as “hell,” simply refers to the grave, the melancholy destination, as Job makes clear, for both the righteous and the unrighteous. I see no evidence that Rabbinic Judaism developed anything like the vast, elaborately detailed subterranean torture chamber so graphically depicted in The Penguin Book of Hell. The Jews had many worries, but the prospect of going to hell does not seem to have figured prominently among them.
As The Washington Post’s correspondent in Paris, I have interviewed a number of the characters Mark Lilla cites in his essay “Two Roads for the New French Right” [NYR, December 20, 2018]. Lilla’s account fails to confront the white supremacy at the heart of a movement he ultimately describes as a “coherent worldview.” Although he is correct that there are important evolutions underway on the French and European right, he overlooks an implacable bigotry that remains the essence of the project. Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.
“Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic outbursts,” Lilla writes. But in many cases, xenophobia is far from peripheral. The hatred of migrants and foreigners is the essence of the pitch that the contemporary European right has made to voters. How else do we explain the tendency of right-wing parties across the continent to focus on a so-called “invasion” of migrants, even as their numbers continue to fall? Arrivals are down to their lowest levels since 2015, when Europe experienced a historic influx of migrants and refugees that triggered a political crisis with no apparent end in sight. The leaders of far-right and, now, mainstream conservative parties across the continent are focusing squarely on immigration and the alleged threat to national identity it poses. In many cases, the rhetorical line between “right” and “far right” is increasingly difficult to delineate.
This is exactly the climate that has enabled the rise of Marion Maréchal—formerly Marion Maréchal-Le Pen—the twenty-nine-year-old scion of France’s, and probably Europe’s, best-known far-right dynasty. A darling of Steve Bannon, Maréchal addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington this past February. Lilla quotes Maréchal’s remarks in that speech extensively, as ostensible evidence of a new intellectual movement among a younger generation of European conservatives. But he selectively omits other lines from that same speech, which clearly situate Maréchal in a right wing terrified by the prospect of a white majority apparently under siege. “After forty years of massive immigration, Islamic lobbies and political correctness,” she said at CPAC, “France is in the process of passing from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam, and the terrorism is only the tip of the iceberg.” Given that Lilla quoted so much else of what she said, readers of The New York Review deserve to read the extreme words from a woman Lilla presents as both “calm and collected” and “intellectually inclined.” Her speech was also fundamentally dishonest: according to most available estimates, Muslims count for no more than 10 percent of the total French population.
I have interviewed Maréchal twice for the Post: once in Paris in April 2017, and then again in September 2018, when I saw her at the Institute of Social, Economic, and Political Sciences (ISSEP), the new educational enterprise she founded in Lyon. What bothers me most about Lilla’s account is that he appears willing to accept uncritically and at face value the image that Maréchal and her associates attempt to project, which is that they are intellectuals and thus entitled to legitimacy. But if we must discuss her ideas, there is one animating concept that seems to fuel her entire project: le grand remplacement, the notion that Europe’s white majority is in the process of being replaced by Middle Easterners, North Africans, and sub-Saharan Africans. It’s a concept largely derived from the polemicist Renaud Camus, but it is by no means confined to France’s, or Europe’s, political extremes. In any case, few have defended it as doggedly as Maréchal. As she said in 2015: “There is in fact today a substitution of certain parts of the territory of so-called native French by a newly immigrated population.” To that end, in Lyon, when she described to me the project of ISSEP, she kept using the word enracinement—“rootedness.” A rather suggestive choice for a business school’s mission statement, no?
I would also point out that a number of the widely discussed evolutions on the French and European far right today—especially the attempted inroads with the gay community, the Jewish community, and women—also belong to this same narrative. Right-wing leaders have largely based their appeals to these groups by stoking fears of a Muslim other that is somehow a threat to the local “civilization.” To take just one example, consider what Maréchal told me in 2017: “Today we have a phenomenon of radicalization where sharia is being applied in immigrant neighborhoods,” she said. “Women’s rights are losing ground in those neighborhoods.” However much we discuss the degree to which right-wing figures like Maréchal are evolving on these issues—and I am still unsure how much of that narrative to believe—we have to acknowledge that the hatred of the other is prior to that evolution, and in fact is often the reason behind it.
Lilla describes Maréchal’s ideas as the sign of a new politics that somehow blends traditional conservative social values with an attention to ecology and a hostility to market economics. I agree that what we’re seeing does present a new blend of ideas that once would have had nothing to do with each other. But this new blend is still an ideology of exclusion, and there are important historical antecedents to consider in that regard.
For example, Lilla seems particularly intrigued by the environmental consciousness of the leaders of this new far right. He is of course correct that any substantive environmentalism is certainly lacking on the American right these days, but ecology was also a fundamental component of French intellectual history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the reactionary French writers of that era, such as Maurice Barrès, ecology was primarily a means of defense, as it appears in his novel Les Déracinés (1897): it is a return to the land, almost always invoked as the territoire, but most importantly it is a reaction against modernity and the forces seen to inspire it. For many right-wing French writers in the nineteenth century, those forces were the Jews. Today’s far-right extremists do not deviate from that history when they blame migrants for France’s social ills. After reading Lilla’s piece, I replayed the recording of my most recent conversation with Maréchal, and the words she chose are the same as those invoked by previous advocates of organicist conservatism. “We are in a territoire,” she said at one point. “We have an ecology to respect.”
“Marion is not her grandfather,” Lilla writes, referring to the founder of the Front National and notorious Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen. But what evidence does he have for that claim? When I met her for the first time, I asked Maréchal about her grandfather. This was her response: “I am the political heir of Jean-Marie Le Pen. At the Front National, we are all his heirs. He was a visionary.” Although she has nominally condemned anti-Semitism, she ultimately had this to say about his infamous 1988 remark, repeated many times since, about the Nazi gas chambers being a mere “detail” in the history of the Second World War: “I do not think he meant to harm anyone by saying that,” she told me.
I agree with Lilla that we should absolutely be paying attention to what is happening in these circles, but we must also be more honest about what, exactly, we are witnessing.
Paris Correspondent The Washington Post
To the Editors:
Mark Lilla’s calm and moderate piece on the new French right tracks what has been developing in France over the last two years, especially regarding Marion Maréchal. But he might have gone even further. It is clear that during this period there has, as he says, emerged a coordinated and sympathetic affinity between seemingly disparate nations, but less as a new right Popular Front, as he suggests, than as a new Fascist International. One could include in this International not only many governments in Central and Eastern Europe, but also those of Italy, the Philippines, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, India, soon Brazil, and even Israel (under its current and seemingly permanent regime, but culturally impregnable in terms of the stranglehold the religious right holds). There is also potential for fascist governments in France, Argentina, and Chile, and possibly in Australia and Japan—with the US and Russia as the two poles of gravity. Building such an International is not only Steve Bannon’s serious project but also apparently that of the Trump administration: as Richard Grennell, the US ambassador to Germany, recently said, his job was less to fulfill traditional diplomatic obligations than to support and coordinate the Alternative für Deutschland with fraternal movements across Europe.
Lilla’s mention of Charles Maurras was essential. He cast a postwar spell over more people than anyone wants to talk about, and his burial was never complete. But one might also think of the section in The Great Gatsby where Tom Buchanan rants about the colored empires and the end of white hegemony (“If we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged”), which Nick doesn’t take seriously: “Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas.” In America such ideas will never be stale, and that goes double for Europe.
Mark Lilla replies:
Writing about the political right has never been harder. Different kinds of right-wing ideologies and political formations are proliferating and shaking liberal governments around the world, as Greil Marcus points out. This makes it difficult to keep track of all the developments, distinguish them, and establish the connections between them. At the same time, liberal and left forces that want to resist these developments are increasingly hostile to learning anything that does not conform to their settled ideas about the right. A misplaced wokeness works like Ambien, dulling our curiosity and willingness to engage, and thrusting us into an intellectual twilight where the only thing we see is the familiar specter of white supremacy.
James McAuley has written excellent pieces on the French right and Marion Maréchal, so perhaps it is a déformation professionelle that leads him to read my own article inside out. It was not an article primarily about Marion; had it been, I would have discussed most of the things McAuley mentions. Neither was my ambition to offer an overview of the French right and reach a general conclusion about it. Rather I was concerned with new elements on that right, two of which drew my attention. One is newly active Catholic social conservatives who fall between the establishment Républicains party and the far-right Rassemblement National (né Front National), both of which are generally secular. The other is a group of young Catholic intellectuals who have rather coherently linked their social conservatism to a severe critique of contemporary globalized capitalism. Having written a book on reactionary intellectuals, I am quite aware of antecedents to that link running back to the nineteenth century, not only on the right. But ever since mainstream right-wing parties embraced neoliberalism in the late twentieth century, there has been no serious critique of capitalism on the right in any major Western country. These young French writers remind us that it is still possible. That Marion has picked up some of their ideas, or at least the rhetoric, shows that they might have consequences—though not necessarily those they intend.
All of this strikes me as not only worthy of note, but important given the growing influence of the right just about everywhere. That is not to say that it is benign. As the title of my article stated clearly, there are two paths before these young intellectuals. One is to start developing “a renewed, more classical organic conservatism” inflected by Catholic social teaching that could have a moderating effect by counterbalancing the far right and offering an alternative to it. The other is to contribute to building an aggressive Christian nationalist ideology that one writer I quoted called “revolutionary, identitarian, and reactionary,” in concert with other similar forces in Europe responsible for the “xenophobic populist outbursts” I also mentioned. McAuley is quite right to point out Marion’s caginess in speaking in these two registers. And like him I would probably bet on the nationalist strain dominating in the end. Which would force these young writers to choose: that’s the drama.
In any case, this is what I was trying to get at in the article. But a reader of McAuley’s letter who had not seen the piece might come to a different conclusion: that it was intended to whitewash Marion (or her grandfather, or right-wing forces everywhere; it’s unclear which) and ignore the real animating forces on the right, which are “white supremacy,” “hatred of the other,” “bigotry,” and “an ideology of exclusion,” all whipped up by the phantom of immigration. In other words, never mind all the things that seem new, forget the writings about family and sexuality, forget all the talk about organic community, forget the lashing out against neoliberalism and tech giants, forget Pope Francis (an inspiration for some). It all comes down to hatred: “Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.”
That sentiment is so common on the left, and not only in France, and so fruitless for confronting the contemporary right, in all its manifestations, that I’m moved to respond, though this was not my original subject. The forces McAuley lists are real enough in our societies. But it is foolish to deny or minimize social realities that xenophobes exaggerate and exploit, in the vain hope of cutting off their oxygen. Equally foolish is an unwillingness to take up fundamental political questions that the xenophobes give bad answers to, and to try giving better ones—questions like Ernst Renan’s “What is a nation?” These avoidance instincts must be resisted. If there is anything we’ve learned in recent decades, it is that closing our eyes or establishing taboos on what can and can’t be discussed, or how, always backfire. The left needs to present people with a fuller reality than the right presents, not an equally restricted one.
For example, illegal immigration in France has indeed dropped since 2015—but the levels before then were already fueling anger and frustration, since neither the French state nor the EU had been able to master them. And unless one believes in open borders, citizens are perfectly right to expect that whatever level of legal immigration has been democratically decided will be enforced. If not, the democratic system itself will look illegitimate. Uncontrolled immigration, along with economic globalization, are the major factors behind the growing distrust plaguing liberal democracies. It is not just bigotry.
But of course, as McAuley knows quite well, the term “immigration” is really a euphemism in France for the Muslim population as a whole, which is largely made up of citizens and legal residents just living their lives. It obviously serves the xenophobes’ interests to use the term to undermine their legitimacy. This is the real danger. But it does not help to deny that there are pressing problems of Muslim integration into European societies, or to pretend that this is simply because of that xenophobia. There are challenges in neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and prisons. And those challenges contribute to demographic worries, which a demagogue like Renaud Camus exploits with his dystopian “great replacement.” Though the Muslim population has grown to only 10 percent so far, over a quarter of all children born in France have at least one parent born outside Europe, most from Muslim countries. So the Muslim population will continue to grow. What this will mean for French republicanism, the secular ideology that undergirds the state and the educational system, is unclear. But labeling any discussion of such matters racist will only sell more copies of Renaud Camus’s books.
For those concerned about the antiliberal forces gaining strength in world politics, the most important thing is to maintain one’s sangfroid. Before we judge we must be sure of what exactly we are judging. We need to take ideas seriously, make distinctions, and never presume that the present is just the past in disguise. Greil Marcus falls into that last trap, I’m afraid, by shifting from discussing the affinities among countries to imagining a Fascist International with poles in the US and Russia. Whatever we are facing, it is not twentieth-century fascism. Hell keeps on disgorging new demons to beset us. And as seasoned exorcists know, each must be called by its proper name before it can be cast out.
I moved to New York in 1992 to be an artist and fell into walking dogs for a living when my half-sister, Moira, convinced me it would be more interesting than washing dishes or serving coffee, the only kinds of jobs I’d ever had. Moira taught me everything: leash and walking technique, analyzing canine body language and breed characteristics, cleaning up after them. It was all new to me.
Moira was in a unique position to help. She was a well-respected dog trainer and ran a pet-care referral service over the phone from her apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. She added my name to the list of available walkers, and when new dog-owners—referred by local veterinarians or word of mouth—called her, seeking training advice or a list of trusted walkers in the area, I was suddenly in the pet-care business. I initially thought of it as a job like any other: a stop-gap solution to the question—“What’s the least stressful, most leave-it-at-the-office way to earn a living while I make my art?” Of course, it’s more than that now, in part simply because of how long I’ve been at it. Laboring against my genuine fondness for the dogs I’ve come to know and love, however, is the job’s inescapable cultural symbolism as a service-sector position that does not, to say the least, confer great status—something about which I feel considerable ambivalence.
In the beginning, Moira procured every job for me, and by necessity, I took them all—even if it meant working for volatile personalities like her friend Eva, whose teacup poodles Brownie and Silver I walked for several months while I was learning the ropes. Eva was a sour, demanding person, the type who seeks power because having it is her only insurance against unreserved rejection by the world. Her disagreeableness wasn’t limited to withering put-downs; she dabbled in casual exploitation, too.
Once, after babysitting Brownie and Silver and her two cats while she was out of town for her father’s funeral, Eva returned and refused to pay me. I’d stayed at her apartment many times before, and always as a paid arrangement. It was a job, after all. But she’d somehow got the impression that my admittedly shabby living situation was so unenviable that substituting her relatively palatial and luxurious accommodation for mine was remuneration enough.
Feeling used, I wrote and hand-delivered a bridge-burning letter, the only line of which I can still recall is: “You make me feel like a cog in a machine.” Considering that, by hiring me, Eva was doing a favor for my sister (who was doing one for me), my lack of gratitude did not sit well with her. We spoke by phone that evening. “I DON’T EVER WANT TO GET A LETTER LIKE THAT AGAIN,” she yelled into the receiver.
Fortunately, business soon picked up and I was able to let Eva go. Moira gave me her blessing, assuring me that peace of mind was worth more than money.
Rapport with the dogs is my primary concern, but I’ve invested quite a bit of emotional labor maintaining the many interstitial relationships established over the years. As a highly-visible almost-member of the community, I make small talk with my dogs’ neighbors and building superintendents, as well as my clients, in the various lobbies, stairwells, and elevators, and then also on the sidewalks, streets, and stoops. Like water, these relationships each find their own level and over time settle into something between polite acquaintance and genuine friendship. None of this is part of the job proper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Quite to the contrary: while there is the simple business of the job—walking dogs—there’s also the need to be regarded as a trustworthy person of integrity. Only the first part can be taught.
To the best of my knowledge, I’ve built a good reputation among my colleagues and clients in the neighborhood where I work. But there have been mishaps over the years that I regret. Mistiming my exit through a closing apartment door once, it slammed shut on a golden retriever’s tail. Nutmeg howled and lunged. Fifteen years later, that’s still the only time it’s happened—but I think of it all the time. Then there was the occasion when, entering a dog run (after first allowing the dog I was with to go through), I opened the gate to avoid stepping in a puddle—but in the process allowed the greyhound that was standing close by to bolt. Bounding over the puddle, the dog shot off into the park’s larger, unfenced regions.
I apologized to the dog’s two owners as they barreled past me after their runaway dog. “It’s okay,” the woman said, generously. “You never know what a dog will do.”
The three of us chased their dog to the park’s perimeter before I remembered I was on the clock and had left my charge back at the dog run. I returned empty-handed, fretting and somber. I saw the greyhound’s owners the following day. They weren’t put out. Their dog had apparently run straight home and was waiting for them on their building’s stoop.
One day, I got a call from a client of Moira’s named Daniel. He was a closeted corporate attorney with the least tidy domestic proclivities I’ve ever encountered. He and his orange Shiba Inu, Valentina, lived in the far West Village in an enormous compound that was chock-a-block with celebrities and the blandly rich. The lunch time walk I gave her daily would be sufficient for most nine-to-fivers, but as Daniel was more of an eight-to-eighter, Valentina spent many hours between my walk and Daniel’s after-work walk alone in the darkness. I think he felt guilty for neglecting her, for one day—in an inspired bit of wrong-headedness—he brought home Ariel, a white Shiba Inu puppy, hoping, I suppose, that her presence would take the edge off Valentina’s neediness and perhaps absolve him.
I was forced to walk Valentina and Ariel separately because Ariel had grown up in the country and her highly-charged aversion to, among other things, honking taxis, billowing baggies, and New York City’s ubiquitous construction sites made walking her an exercise in crisis management. I kept her outside for forty-five minutes (per the terms of my agreement), but because walking her was an aggravating struggle, I sought corner-cutting methods. Taking her to the dog run at Washington Square Park where I wouldn’t have to do as much, and the onus would be on her to mingle and entertain herself, seemed like a happy medium.
The problem was that Ariel was not a well-socialized dog, and while she was relatively unflustered during one-on-one doggy greetings on the street, she’d never been exposed to the unregulated chaos of a dog run. When we arrived at the Washington Square Park run, I opened the first of two gates, entered, and closed it behind us. Then I opened the second gate, entered and closed it behind us. As I began removing Ariel’s leash, she was already tugging away from the other dogs’ welcomes.
Just then, someone unlatched the second inner gate and came in. Before they could close it, Ariel ran past, squeezed her waifish torso beneath the outer gate’s low aluminum rail, and took off in the direction from which we’d come. She sped west through the park, across MacDougal Street, then along Washington Place. I had no expectation of catching her. Yet I had no choice but to give chase. Several people from the dog run followed.
Ariel didn’t make it across Sixth Avenue. A truck skidded to a halt, pinning her to the asphalt. I collapsed where I stood on the sidewalk, in shock and horror. When I got to my feet, I stumbled, dazed and bawling, over to her. I lifted her from the ground and held her in my arms, her bristly white coat contrasting with the bold streak of red that flowed from her mouth. I caught a cab to the nearest vet, but Ariel was dead on arrival. The doctor on duty called Daniel at work and gave him the news. I left Ariel’s body at the vet’s and walked back to Daniel’s apartment to drop off her leash and collar. As I stood in Daniel’s filthy living room looking down at Valentina, the immense disparity between what I longed to impress upon her at that moment and what I was able to made me weep.
I blame myself for Ariel’s death, though it was the result of an honest mistake. But given what I know now about canine body language and behavioral psychology, it is a mistake I’d be far less likely to make today. I’m not sure I deserved Daniel’s forgiveness, but he gave it to me all the same, and I continued walking Valentina for another year or so until they moved away.
I walked Sammy the yellow labrador at least twice a day, Monday through Friday, for thirteen years. I find all dogs valiant and amusing, but for whatever alchemical reason, in Sammy’s case, our regard for each other never rose above a simmer. Her owners, Phil and Beth, were corporate-finance professionals, extrovert one-percenters—everything I’m not. Being in their orbit taught me a lot about class and privilege, though it would have remained all business between Sammy’s family and me were it not for one incident.
That day, I let myself into the apartment at the usual time and found Beth and Phil sitting on their pristine white couch in near-silence. She was crying, he was studying the floor. Because something out of the ordinary was clearly afoot, I asked, “Should I take Sammy out?” Beth said yes, and then explained, “We’re having a really bad argument.” Exacerbating the awkward stillness in the room was Sammy, underneath the coffee table, one foot in front of the sofa, refusing to come out. After my gentle prodding proved ineffectual, Beth yelled at Phil: “Help him!”
A few days later, Beth explained the scene I’d walked in on. While working out six months earlier, Phil had sustained an injury for which Beth had hired a physical therapist to help with treatment. Phil was now leaving Beth for her.
I carried on walking Sammy, working just for Beth. Over time, we became close. While all relationships are a dance, some are yoked closer than others to convention. Inherent in my boundary-less arrangement with Beth were potential pitfalls we should have been warier of. She encouraged me to hang out in her apartment between walks during the day, and I became a fixture there. She gave me unfettered access to her state-of-the-art entertainment system, speedy wifi, and brand new iMac. When she went out of town and I stayed overnight with Sammy.
On evenings when she arrived home before I’d left for the night, we’d sit at her kitchen counter drinking white wine and eating fancy cheeses. Mostly, we talked about her divorce, about love and its many compromises, and her future dating prospects as a divorced mother of one in her late fifties. During one tipsy conversation, she brought out a world map and we took turns pointing to cities we’d visit one day. She was occasionally flirtatious, but romance was out of the question; we had nothing in common and she was almost twenty years my senior. Also, our needs were different: she needed a friend; I needed a paycheck.
Beth once told me I would never be out of a job because she would most certainly get another dog when Sammy eventually died. But I ended up quitting—ground down by Beth’s escalating demands for Sammy’s care. When Beth began insisting that Sammy would eat only food freshly cooked on a skillet (never in a microwave) and fed to her by hand, I started preparing my exit.
Beth didn’t hire someone to walk Sammy after I quit. Instead, it became another item on her housekeeper Katia’s daily to-do list. When I ran into her on the street a few months ago, Sammy had been dead for several years. She told me that Beth never did get another dog. She had three boyfriends, but no dog.
My sister Moira passed away back in early 2001. She had taught me everything she knew about New York City and then she was gone. Death is like violence—not always surprising but always shocking. She had lived four and a half years beyond what had been, initially, a diagnosis of breast cancer with a six-month prognosis. That extension was a gift but one that, because I’d resigned myself years earlier to her eventual passing, was impossible to fully appreciate.
The building Moira lived in is in the neighborhood where I work. I avoided walking down her block for years after she died because thinking about her was too painful. For a time, when I did pass her old building, I would pause and faintly genuflect, like a good Catholic passing a church. This ritual didn’t last. One intends to “never forget,” but running counter to this solemn impulse is life’s inexorable onrush. I now occasionally pass her old building and it may not occur to me until days later that I completely neglected to conjure her.
Some names have been changed to preserve privacy where necessary.
In his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich published as This Is Orson Welles, Welles speaks nostalgically of the time he spent with his father in a tranquil enclave of 1920s Illinois, comparing it to “a childhood back in the 1870s. No electric light, horse-drawn buggies—a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life.” “Anachronistic” was the right word. When Welles was an infant, Booth Tarkington had already memorialized the disappearance of that old-fashioned world in a 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons—which Welles would film so stunningly in 1942—that was also a simmering polemic against the forces of industry and greed that had befouled the one he grew up in. In 1918, Tarkington came as close as anyone to being America’s preeminent writer, a copiously productive novelist and playwright who was both a beloved entertainer and a respected national figure.
Penrod (1914), his nostalgic sketches of an Indiana boyhood, had instantly become part of the culture. With the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Magnificent Ambersons, he struck a more mournful and ambivalent note. The force of Ambersons is in its ambivalence. Tarkington must acknowledge that the decline of the Ambersons has as much to do with their own arrogance and shortsightedness as with economic transformations beyond their control, but his sympathies are with them as he describes how their privileged domain at the heart of the city is defiled by the dirt and unbreathable air of industrial pollution, and implicitly by the cruder values of interlopers and immigrants.
In the novel’s central drama—the successful effort of the spoiled young heir George Minafer to thwart his mother Isabel’s remarriage, to the industrialist Eugene Morgan—youthful pride struggles self-destructively to preserve a world and a set of values that have already disappeared. George’s blindness to the effects of his actions, Tarkington suggests, can be forgiven as the result of his upbringing; he is finally the victim of that magnificence he has been raised to revere. Much as the novelist regrets the changes that befall the family, he also recognizes their inevitability.
What is most striking is Welles’s faithfulness to the novel’s language. The particularities of the way Tarkington’s characters talk, as well as the cadences of the omniscient third-person narrator, were evidently essential to Welles’s conception of the film. He preserves the slightly dated locutions like necessary evidence, the priceless patina of a lost time, of a piece with the lovingly recreated furniture and fashions and popular amusements. Even if the film dazzles in the first place with its visual audacity—the constantly evolving nuances and surprises in the way we are shown things, the accents of antiquarian style, the changes of frame and texture, the sustained labyrinthine camera movements and abrupt, jarring close-ups—from the start it’s the language that is foregrounded. A black screen is the backdrop for Welles’s unforgettably sonorous opening narration: “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city.” Only after this, as if the visual were a secondary level, are we shown an American-gothic house and a horse-drawn carriage passing in front of it, which might be a tintype pasted into an album, image following word as if the film were to be an illustrated storybook.
It would be hard to overestimate how much of the film’s power resides in its deployment of speech. In recollection, the voices play back indelibly. After enough viewings, they start to feel like part of your own family history: Joseph Cotten musing on the impact of automobiles (“It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls”), Agnes Moorehead leaning back against the stone-cold boiler (“I wouldn’t mind if it burned—I wouldn’t mind if it burned me, George!”), Ray Collins’s Uncle Jack reporting on his sister’s health (“I found Isabel as well as usual. Only I’m afraid as usual isn’t particularly well”), Richard Bennett as the dying Major Amberson muttering to himself about eternal questions (“The earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth”).
No doubt the lines stick in memory in part because of the pointed and beautifully recorded vocal performances of an extraordinary ensemble, but almost every word we hear in the film is by Tarkington. Much would of course be lost in RKO’s edit, but even in its surviving form, the film is a stunning demonstration of Welles’s genius for pinpointing the most expressive moments in the original text, while letting others go by. Tarkington was a masterful storyteller, but his presentation of character has a certain theatrical flatness; Welles’s paring away has the effect of making the characters both more mysterious and more profoundly real. If the novel was already a meditation on a vanished time, the film stands at yet a further remove, probing the surfaces that Tarkington has salvaged to detect whatever further truth has been secreted there. For all his powerful nostalgia, Welles works in a questioning and conflicted spirit. He tells the same story as Tarkington, in the same words, but he ends—or would have ended, if the film had not been taken away from him—in a very different place.
Welles’s version of The Magnificent Ambersons closed with a melancholy epilogue—a skeptical Cotten described it as “more Chekhov than Tarkington”—that he thought the best thing in the film, in which Eugene visits Fanny in her boardinghouse. What he relates to her of his visit to George corresponds roughly to the narrative of both book and release version, but evidently this was staged in an entirely different mood, with other boarders shuffling about in the background, a raucous comedy record playing on a Victrola, Fanny looking away, lost in her own thoughts, and Eugene, having registered his inability to communicate with her, walking out alone and then driving off into the darkening city, now thick with traffic: a far cry from Tarkington’s somewhat half-hearted gesture of redemptive uplift.
At this time of the year, it’s hard to avoid publications’ lists of the Most-Read Pieces of the Year. The desire to parade one’s greatest hits is understandable, though it does seem a little superfluous simply to resurface articles that already topped the Most Popular charts. We thought we’d introduce a little human agency, instead of leaving it to an algorithm. What follows is an eccentric list, in no particular order, of twenty essays the Daily ran this year that didn’t, in fact, break the Internet but that we and some of our colleagues on the Review just really liked.
“The Death and Life of a Great American Building,” by Jeremiah Moss, is an elegy for the St. Denis, a 165-year-old, soon-to-be-demolished former hotel in Manhattan, whose final incarnation was as an ecosystem of therapists and psychoanalysts.
“Renoir’s Onions,” by Christopher Benfey, is a fine example of his genre of blending memoir with artistic and literary aperçus to create brilliant connections.
“The Challenge of ‘Chronic Lyme’,” by Rachel Pearson, was a beautifully executed account of a doctor’s encounter with her patient—and with the patient’s beliefs about her condition.
“Inside the Mayo Clinic,” by Shelley Salamensky, provides the patient’s perspective on a medical institution with a remarkable heritage—including thousands of lifelike wax models once used for teaching.
“Johnnie Tillmon’s Battle Against ‘the Man’,” by Judith Shulevitz, was the second in her continuing series “Forgotten Feminisms,” in this case looking at the remarkable welfare rights movement led by black women in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy,” by Debbie Bookchin, is the incredible story of how Murray Bookchin’s vision of radical democracy was adopted by the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan and took root in Kurdish-occupied Syria—an experiment now threatened by US withdrawal.
“The New ICE Age: An Agency Unleashed,” by Tina Vasquez, was ahead of the curve as an in-depth look at the government bureaucracy that has been at the center of the Trump administration’s immigration policy.
“My Great-Grandfather the Bundist,” by Molly Crabapple, is, of her several wonderful pieces of work for the Daily this year, probably the one that gave us all the most satisfaction—even if it doesn’t feature her art.
“Memories of Mississippi,” by Danny Lyon, was an account by the veteran Magnum photographer of his work as a rookie documentarian for SNCC during the early years of the civil rights struggles in the Deep South.
“How My Father Made Landfall,” by Sylvia Poggioli, was a multilayered memoir of her discovery of an unpublished Auden poem among the papers of her Italian emigré father.
“The World of Cecil Taylor,” by Adam Shatz, was an appreciation of the life and work of the late jazz pianist that had everything, including some lovely personal vignettes.
“‘Silence Is Health’: How Totalitarianism Arrives,” by Uki Goñi, was the chilling account of a democratic society’s slide into murderous authoritarianism by an Argentine journalist who lived through the country’s 1976–1983 military dictatorship.
“Cats, Doris Lessing, and Me,” by Vivian Gornick, as you can tell by the title, checks every box in the category of What’s Not to Like?