Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Harvard in e.e. cumming's time by Susan Cheever

The Harvard University that Estlin Cummings entered in September 1911 was a place in the grip of enormous, conservative, regressive change.

Until 1909,. The of Harvard had been run with the aristocratic liberal rigor of Charles William Eliot, who had been its president for forty years. Eliot was a populist democrat in an elitist world who believed that any man could be educated by reading a five-foot shelf of classics – books that became the Harvard Classics. Eliot was so liberal that he had overseen the creation of Radcliffe College from what previously had been the Harvard Annex for women. Radcliffe women had their own classrooms, of course; women weren’t permitted in Harvard classes until 1943. Eliot had brought Harvard from being a provincial school to being a beacon of educational excellence for the entire country.

When Cummings got to Harvard two years after Eliot stepped down, the institution was slowly and painfully giving way to what would become the new Harvard under conservative, anti-Semitic, racist aegis of A. Lawrence Lowell, a Brahmin’s Brahmin who ran Harvard College for the next twenty-four years. Lowell “represented the conservative and exclusionary wing of the Protestant upper class as surely as Eliot represented its liberal democratic wing,” writes Jerome Karabel. He was also a brilliant fund-raiser.

Under President Lowell, the university would thrive and prosper when it came to money, enrollment, and buildings. Its endowment would go from $23 million to $123 million, its student body would double from four thousand to eight thousand, and many of the buildings that identify the Harvard campus today – the Widener Library, the Memorial Chapel – were built.

Under Lowell, the university would join the national mood of intolerance: for Jews, for homosexuals, and for women. President Lowell was distressed when the percentage of Jews in the 1922 graduating class rose to 22 from a genteel 7 in 1907. Lowell believed that democracy and the universities should be homogeneous – “homogeneous’ meaning that they should be peopled by white Protestant men. Lowell knew that his old-fashioned convictions would not be enough to change university policy or sway the disturbing liberal Board of Overseers. Instead he argued, first, that having a class that was 22 percent Jewish hurt Harvard’s applicant pool, because the right kind of parents didn’t want to send their children to a college with so many Jews.

President Lowell also argued that admitting so many Jews might add to anti-Semitism; his stated theory was that the more Jewish students were at Harvard, the greater the prejudice against them might be! “The anti-Semitic feeling among students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become forty per cent of the student body, the race feeling would become intense,” he wrote. President Lowell decided that Harvard should institute a 15 per cent quota system for admitting Jewish students. He was also against letting African-American students live in the freshman dorms, where, beginning in 1915, all freshman were required to live. This confused policy was quickly abolished. His policy regarding Jewish students was not so easy to resolve.

Lowell received a great deal of public criticism for his suggestion of a quota, particularly in the Boston press. Later, his rectitude was further tested when he served on a three-member commission appointed by Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller to review the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Lowell’s commission found that the two anarchists had been justly tried and sentenced. His role in sending Sacco and Vanzetti to their execution on August 23, 1927, is one of the ways he lives in history.

In response to Lowell’s quota suggestions, Harvard’s overseers appointed a thirteen-member committee, which included three Jews, to study the university’s “Jewish problem.” The committee rejected a Jewish quota but agreed that ‘geographical diversity” in the student body was desirable. At the same time the theoretically defeated President Lowell changed the application requirements to include a photograph and, if possible, an interview. As students began being admitted from the western and Midwestern states, the student body became once again predominantly Anglo-Saxon. By the time Lowell retired in 1933, Jewish students constituted less than 10 per cent of the Harvard student body.

Of course, during these decades there was no discussion of a group that was even more definitely barred from the precincts of the country’s most prestigious university –women. During the years when Cummings was at Harvard, in fact, women did not even have the vote. They had been campaigning for nit since 1848. In 1914, by which time women had become one fifth of the American work force, a suffragette named Alice Paul pushed the movement into militant tactics, which were brutally repelled with the consent of President Woodrow Wilson. Women were stripped and jailed, locked in solitary, and starved – all for the sin of demonstrating on behalf of women having the vote.

Lowell was not alone in his general intolerance or his ant-Semitism in particular. The freshman E. E. Cumming’s favorite professor, Theodore Miller – his first Greek instructor and later a close friend – took a job at Princeton in Cumming’s third year at Harvard. Miller visited the Cummings camp in N. H. and introduced Cummings to a world of poetry – Shelley, Keats, Sappho – that the young New Englander had not read. It was through miller that Cummings discovered Greek literature as well as the Greek restaurants of Boston, it was under Miller’s tutelage that he first started working on the art of translation and the fragments of Sappho that appear in different patterns on the page.. Miller directed Cummings to a letter from Keats that became a credo for the young poets: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination.”

Yet even Dory Miller was immersed I and influenced by the repulsive anti-Semitic environment in this country at the turn of the century.  After he went south to teach at Princeton, Miller wrote Cummings that he was glad to have moved, because at Harvard he had to teach poetry with students like Cummings “sitting next to some little rough-neck Irish Catholic or Polish Jew.” Miller, who had been his mentor in his early years at Harvard, came to represent parts of the university that Cummings despised. There was accepted Anti-Semitism in education and accepted anti-Semitism in literature. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton’s best-selling 1905 novel, features a slimy Jewish character named Simon Rosedale who is described as having the unattractive characteristics of his race. In The Age of Innocence, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 19212, Wharton deploys the same character in the form of Julius Beaufort. Although Cummings was disturbed by anti-Semitism at Harvard and in Cambridge, and this was one reason he left, later in his own career the charge of anti-Semitism would be leveled at him and his work.

Another group that drew Lowell’s furious drive for homogeneity was homosexuals. A purge of homosexuals on the Harvard campus was carried out when Lowell convened a secret tribunal that interviewed thirty students and expelled the ones accused. At a time when homosexuality was illegal in many states, it was so condemned that few people were courageous enough to admit it. In those days, men like Cumming’s favorite Uncle George, for instance, were ‘unmarried” or “perennial bachelors,” as if even homosexuality had to be defined in relation to heterosexual marriage.

Cummings himself certainly had bisexual yearnings – yearnings that were so unthinkable as to be entirely suppressed. Although he dutifully wrote poems to women, the great devotions of his early life were to men – to his Harvard friends SD. Foster Damon and Scofield Thayer and especially to the tall,, handsome James Sibley Watson Jr, a senior a wealthy Rochester, New York, family who with his wife would become Cumming’s lifelong patron and friend. Watson’s wife reported in her memoir that when she met him Watson was already thrillingly scandalous in his hometown,. “He is interested in rather depraved, even degenerate literature – reads Baudelaire, you know, that sort of thing,” she was told before they met. During the course of dozens of wildly drunken evenings, Cummings and Watson seem to have become physically as well as emotionally close to each other. “Homosexual feelings towards Watson,” Cummings wrote in his journals. “time we drove fr. Boston –NY all night . . .”

Harvard was at a crossroads during Cummings’s five years there, and so was Cummings. When he entered the college, he was younger than most freshman – sixteen- and a slight 5’8” and looked even slighter standing next to his bulky father, who was more than six feet tall. A blond with refined, narrow features, he was painfully self-conscious about his body and his persistent acne. In public he often his behind a newspaper. Because he commuted from home, ( just a few blocks from Memorial Hall and across the street from William James- who had introduced his future parents to one another), he joined none of the clubs or fraternities that characterized most Harvard student’s time in the Yard.

At the same time his writing lost its conscientiousness, conventional pleasingness and began to lurch and jump with a manic, angry energy .  .  . began to be rebellious, rule-breaking and provocative. Formerly neatly dressed, he wore dirty clothes and forgot to shave. His behavior changed from that of a rule follower and believer in the Unitarian Church and all its puritanical precepts, as embodied in his powerful, hulking father, to being a trickster, a Loki, a character like a poetic coyote, the character who was always working below the surface to challenge authority and blow up the foundations of the comfortable world.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Introduction to Poetry of Witness by Duncan Wu

This book is the work of those marked by history.  It contains poets whose lives were shaped by insurmountable forces, thrown off course, even – at worst – destroyed.  Some of these poems were composed at an extreme of human endurance, on the brink of breakdown or death; all bear witness to historical event, and the irresistibility of its impact.

To William Meredith, the [poet’s engagement with the world is a matter of conscience, for “the imperfections of society .  .  . can only be responded to militantly, by poet and reader.” As he saw it, the distinctive experience of life in the twentieth century, with its perils and pitfalls, obliged him to act as a dissident: it was, he said, “the most urgent role at a time like ours.” Readers play their part in this process: Carolyn Forche argues for witness as “a mode of reading rather than of writing, of readerly encounter with the literature of that-which-happened, and its mode is evidentiary rather than representational – as evidentiary, in fact, as spilled blood.” If the function of the reader is to encounter ‘the literature of that-which-happened,” that of the artist is to testify – one to which writers are compelled by their relation to words. Forche observes that ‘poetic language attempts a coming to terms with evil and its embodiments, and there are appeals for a shared sense of humanity and collective resistance. These principles provide the basis of this book.

Although the concept of witness is the product of the last century, and hitherto applied to the writers of that time, this volume argues it is found elsewhere. Indeed, there is no lack of it in the canon. Why should that be? In part, it bears out Forche’s contention in her introduction to Against Forgetting, that the concentration of contemporary poets on the realm of the personal, almost to the point of myopia, is peculiar to recent times. Prior to that, poets commonly discussed experiences shared by the larger community in which they lived.

There is another reason. The experiences that compel our poets are frequently beyond the containing power of language. Forche quotes Paul Celan: language “had to go through its own responselessness, go through its horrible silences, go through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.”  The connection between the outside world and a work of art that testifies to its atrocities is unclear and, to a large extent, unknowable. The initial response of the imagination is silence, language seems inadequate to the task of  articulating fully our reactions to the extremes of experience.

It might be argued there is little new in this for the poetry of witness, despite its theoretical origins in the discourse of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has always been the means by which the imagination has articulated its response to war, imprisonment, oppression, and enslavement. Like Celan, we argue that, of all genres, poetry is best suited to the task. We refer to its ability to accommodate the sublime, the ineffable, that of which we cannot speak. This is admittedly a Romantic argument and, perhaps for that reason, its application to poetry predating the French Revolution might be thought irrational. Yet preromantic poets come as close to discussing emotions beyond verbal formulation as their successors, not the least in the case of Wyatt’s “Sighs are my food,” written during what he had every reason to expect would be his final imprisonment, or Surrey’s “The storms are passed, these clouds are overblown,” composed within days, perhaps hours, of his beheading.

Poetry of Witness  foregrounds the historical context inhabited by the author, obliging us to consider the manner in which it impinged on his or her vision. We have pondered at length the case of William Blake, witness to the riots of June 1780 when, over the course of nearly a week, tens of thousands of protestors stormed through London. The Gordon Riots, so-called after their instigator, the anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon, began with the destruction of the Catholic chapels of the Sardinian and Bavarian embassies. Rioters then besieged the residences of eminent Catholics. More than a hundred houses were destroyed; the mob to effective control of a number of roads and attacked London Bridge, the Sessions House at the Old Baily, and the Bank of England.

Blake was walking toward Newgate at around 6:30 p.m. on the evening of Tuesday June 6 when he encountered a group of rioters on their way to the nearby prison to which several of their number had been committed over the weekend. He watched as they proceeded, in a methodical manner, to demolish the building with pickaxes and sledgehammers. Within an hour, more than three hundred inmates were free, but the jail was torched before all were out of their cells, and the frantic screams of those inside were heard as they roasted to death. Fragments of red-hot metal shot into the darkening sky as huge pieces of masonry collapsed to the ground. Some protestors clambered onto the structure, perching precariously on window ledges that had yet to crumble. Others caroused in the street, as they broke open wine and liquor found in cellars used by the prison governor, while blacksmiths removed fetters from the ankles of newly freed prisoners.

As historians have long argued, the Gordon riots were motivated less by religious bigotry than by inequalities of income and social class, and Blake was aware of that. The protagonists were working people – small shopkeepers, pedlars, craftsmen, apprentices, discharged soldiers and sailors, waiters, and servants –whose actions were directed against the property of the wealthy (merchants, manufacturers, and other professionals), the most obvious example being Lord Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury, torched along with his “rich wardrobe,” “superb” furniture, and library of over one thousand books. As one historian observes, the riots manifested “a groping desire to settle accounts with the rich, if only for a day, and to achieve some rough kind of social justice.” An additional motive was their opposition to the American war, now five years old (which explains the large numbers of sailors among them).

 The only authoritative account we have of Blake’s involvement emphasizes his disinclination to be there. In the first major biography of then poet, Alexander Gilchrist wrote; “suddenly, he encountered the advancing wave of Blackguardism, and was forced (for from such a great surging mob there is no disentanglement) to go along in the very front rank, and witness the storm and burning of the fortress-like prison, and release of its three hundred inmates.” Every biography is a product of its historical moment, and Gilchrist’s is no exception. By the early 1860s, when he was writing, radical causes were in temporary retreat, Chartism having been crushed out of existence as decisively as the campaign for Parliamentary reform four decades earlier. Regardless of the evidence, Gilchrist could not allow it to be thought that Blake was party to the collapse of civil law in central London.

While it is most unlikely Blake would ever have fought alongside an anti-Catholic mob, it is conceivable he sympathized with at least some of their actions. The destruction of an ancient prison in the heart of London, horrific though it may have been, must have stirred the man who would write, “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion,” and declare fellow feeling for “the captive in chains & the poor in prison.” Blake was the same generation as many of the rioters, having completed his own apprenticeship less than a yearn before. He must have understood their grievances; if so, he was not alone. The army refused to fire on them, aware of the sailors among the crowds. Urged by John Wilkes to raise the posse comitatus, the Lord Mayor declined. Nor would the Court of Aldermen lift a finger to suppress them.

Whatever his feelings about what he witnessed, we can be sure Blake would never forget the sights and sounds of that evening, which brought him as close as he would ever get to a full-scale revolution – a subject that recurs throughout his writings. G.E. Bentley  Jr. observes that

Images of ‘burning’, “fire”, “flames”, and “rage” in his poetry and in his picture of “Fire” are likely related to the scenes he saw during the Gordon riots, and from them one may construct a description of the riots: “all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire”, “a mighty multitude rage furious” “in flames of red burning wrath”, “Albions mountains run with blood, the cries of war & of tumult”, “Above the rest the howl was heard from Westminster launder &louder”, and “Around St James’s glow the fires”; from Westminster “Eastward &Southward &Northward are circled with flaming fires”, “In thunder smoke & sullen flames & howlings & fury & blood”, “in dungeons circled with ceaseless fire”; “All is confusion, all is tumult”. Blake’s visions of apocalypse come partly from personal experiences.

Bentley’s observation underlines the value of Forche’s ideas to the way in which we think about writers and their work. In recent decades, Blake has been appropriated by those who encounter him as a mythmaker or cryptographer, with the result that his art is rendered cerebral, the plaything of intellectuals. Poetry of witness reminds us that Blake’s art grew out of his life. It argues that, at the point at which the artist confronts extremity – whether imprisonment, torture, or warfare – his vision is altered irrevocably, turning utterance into testimony. Blake was not the same after his encounter with the Gordon Rioters. Perhaps he reveled in the spectacle of Newgate in flames and followed the mob over successive days, watching as one institution after another was reduced to ashes. It taught him what anarchy and destruction looked like. He knew the terror and excitement that came from watching the world burn down – and, as Bentley argues, those feelings pass into the mainstream of his work. . .

The poems in this book are acts of resistance. Some of our authors defy injustice to the extent of incurring the wrath of those willing to impose the ultimate sanction of death; some face risks, whether on the battlefield or in the forum of public debate, with the outcome not in an afterlife but in the here and now; all testify to the impress of extremity. Our reading of their work carries its own responsibility – not solely that of understanding the world from which it came, nor of comprehending how dearly such utterances are bought, but also that of being receptive to its burden.

That the poet bear witness to extremity is the requirement by which we have measured our judgments. By “extreme,” we refer to experiences that are the result of societal injustice, the depredations of the state, or sins of omission – specifically war, imprisonment, torture, and political oppression of various kinds. The fundamental argument of this book is simply and clearly articulated: each poet earns his or her place in “dialectical opposition to the extremity that has made witness necessary.” Such sensibilities are not the product only of recent times, but a perennial feature of human history –for the imagination has always been on trial. Poetry of Witness presents some of the finest works to emerge from that tradition, arguing they rank alongside the greatest in the language.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Inequality, the Market and Democracy by Wilkinson and Pickett

The weight of evidence – our own and that of many others – and its continued rapid accumulation, make the important between income inequality and social dysfunction inescapable.  But ill-founded and politically motivated criticism can muddy the waters and leave people with the impression that the evidence is less clear than it is. Imagine if someone were to assert (with no justification whatsoever) that climate science had not taken account of, say, the effects of variations in the salinity of different oceans. Unable to evaluate this claim, the inexpert listener might assume that this was an important factor, and that perhaps it had not been properly considered.

What often appear to be ‘balanced’ discussions in the media can be misleading. This happens even in areas of science where the accumulation of evidence leaves little legitimate room for doubt.  For example, if 98 per cent of climate change scientists agree on an issue, and 2 per cent disagree, then inviting one person from each camp to take part in a new program or public debate can leaver people with an impression that an issue is much more controversial than it is. Only those viewers or readers who are particularly diligent or highly motivated will be able to pursue the issues in detail.  Rather than considering our replies to political attacks on our work, we expect some who are opposed to greater equality will simply be content to imagine that this issue is ‘controversial’ and can now be safely ignored.

Perhaps the best tactic in this situation is to address the beliefs that motivate the attacks. In Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway suggest that the defense of a kind of free market fundamentalism is the most plausible explanation of why the same individuals and institutions are often involved in attacks on research in areas as diverse as tobacco control and the evidence on climate change. As well as defending the free market, they see themselves as countering tendencies to big government and protecting democracy. The same beliefs are likely to guide the attacks on evidence of the social damaging effects of inequality.

If that is the motivation, then it is based on a serious misconception, one which is almost the opposite of the truth.  Greater inequality actually increases the need for big government – for more police, more prisons, more health and social services of every kind. Most of these services are expensive and only very partially effective, but we shall need them for ever if we continue to have high levels of inequality that create the problems they are designed to deal with.

 Several states in the USA now spend more on prisons than on higher education.  In fact, one of the best and most humane ways of achieving small government is by reducing inequality.. Similarly, the assumption that greater equality can only be achieved through higher taxes and benefits, which presumably led The Tax Payer’s Alliance to publish its criticism of The Spirit Level, is also a mistake. We have been at pains to point out that some societies achieve greater equality with unusually low taxation because they have smaller earnings differences before taxes.

There are few things more corrosive of a properly functioning democracy and of the market than corruption and unbridled greed. Although the international measures of corruption currently available were designed primarily to assess levels of corruption in poorer countries, they strongly suggest that one of the likely costs of greater inequality is increased corruption in government and society more widely. Trust and the strength of community life are weakened by inequality, and this is true not only of interpersonal trust, but also of trust in government – the difference between the attitude of Americans and Scandinavians  to their government is well known.  The international data and data for American states suggests people  trust government less in states with high levels of income inequality.  Whether or not this reflects a greater separation of interests and an increasing sense of ‘us and them’ between people at opposite ends of the social ladder, it certainly suggests that too much inequality is a threat to democracy.

Economists sometimes suggest (usually following an extremely simplified and miscalculated version of Hayek’s hypothesis) that the market is like a democratic voting system: our expenditure pattern is, in effect, our vote on how productive resources should be allocated between competing demands. If this is true, someone with twenty times the income of another effectively gets twenty times as many votes. As a result inequality seriously distorts the ability of economies to provide for human needs: because the poor cannot afford better housing, their demand for it is ‘ineffective’, yet the spending of the rich ensures scarce productive assets are devoted instead to the production of luxuries. . .

Rather than being a threat to democracy and the market, reductions of inequality are surely an essential part of their defense. As this book shows, greater equality will benefit even those who would deny the evidence. Understanding the issue is already changing attitudes among politicians. In Britain The Spirit Level has been endorsed across the political spectrum. In a major speech at the end of 2009, David Cameron, now the Conservative prime minister, said The Spirit Level showed ‘that among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do the worse according to almost every quality of life indicator . . .per capita GDP is much less significant for a country’s life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest in the population . . .We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain poorer for it.’  In September 2010, in his first major speech as leader of the Labor Party, Ed Miliband said ‘I do believe this country is too unequal and the gap between rich and poor doesn’t just harm the poor, it harms us all. If you look round the world – at the countries that are healthier, happier, and more secure – they are the more equal countries.’ Liberal Democrats in the coalition government signed pledges committing themselves to reducing inequalities.

Words are a start, but changing policies and politics, changing the way our societies organize themselves, will require the evidence to be recognized even more widely.