Authors: Andre Dubus
to Philip and Michel Spitzer
T IS A
blessing for me to be published in Canada. My own country has at its borders Canada and Mexico, and both of these countries make better beer than any made in the United States, save Anchor Steam and Samuel Adams Boston Lager, made by small breweries. In the winter and early spring of 1982, while my wife, Peggy Rambach, was gestating our daughter Cadence, we visited Toronto and, later, Montreal. Ronald Reagan was what I used to call the President, before the government's domestic and foreign policies dissolved, for me, that word, and it rewrote itself in my mind as profanities and obscenities: a pained, despairing chant, incantations against greed and injustice, a cursing prayer and final cry for compassion and respect for human rights and human life, for a president and a government that would even love life rather than deny it. The Canadians we met were sympathetic. They listened to us, sadly shook their heads, as one does when hearing a new acquaintance tell stories of a childhood with brutal parents.
In Toronto and Montreal there was also a tangible sanity in the air: the velocity of city traffic was a casual motion compared to that of Boston and Massachusetts in general, as if the drivers of those cars had not been consumed by a system that demanded that they lose touch with their true selves, and sacrifice their use and even contemplation of time and their very souls as well. I still do not believe I saw even an empty cigarette package on the streets of either city. I took to Toronto a heavy winter coat I no longer wanted; I meant to give it to a beggar, like those on the streets of cities in the United States. Everywhere I went I carried it or wore it. But where were the people of the streets? In New York City, where forty thousand people have no homes, I could have given away that coat in the first block I walked. Finally I gave it to a priest to give one of his parishioners. There was one beggar in Montreal, on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. He asked for money in French, then in English when he saw our puzzled faces, and we gave him money, and Peggy said to me: We finally see one, and he begs bilingually; our president can't even do that. And of course I did not have to worry about protecting Peggy from violence. Gradually, walking in these cities, I shed the wariness, the alertness, of my walks in cities in the United States where two women I love have had their own nights of violence.
There is another reason I feel blessed by this publication in Canada: my admiration for my sister and brother writers of your country. There are too many to name, and I am afraid I would forget a name or two, only to remember them too late. So I will mention only one of them, for my friends in the United States to whom I've sent his book,
The Lost Salt Gift of Blood
, had never heard of him, and this gives me the notion that he is unheralded, neglected, and if that is the then it is indeed a sad truth. So I salute here Alistair MacLeod.
It is a blessing to write in the United States: a strange, perhaps even an insidious blessing. The great Chief Joseph of the Nez PercÃ© died in 1904, the same year that Anton Chekhov died but did not truly leave us. We are a young nation whose people traversed the land from east to west, laid railroads (Thomas Berger's magnificent
Little Big Man
tells us that the Cheyenne Indians could not understand the white man's fascination with straight lines, the Cheyenne themselves preferring to live in circles, from tepees to their daily lives in circular harmony with life and death and the spirits of the dead), dug for gold, erected fences for the profit of cattle barons and, it seems today, never stopped anyplace to create a culture, or even to continue the ones from their forebears. William Faulkner, in
, writes that the only reason small towns grew in the midwest was because someone's wagon broke down on the way to California. So while an American Indian who fought for his country and his people and tried to lead them to Canada died in the United States, one of the world's greatest writers died in Germany and was buried in Russia, some thirteen years before his motherland's old culture, victim of its ruling class, suffered a revolution it deserved. Then, as with so many revolutions, a new form of slavery grew. I know a jazz musician who fled Bulgaria because, among other reasons, he was not allowed to play jazz.
The totalitarian mind is a mystery, at least as I see it in the faces and hear it from the mouths of politicians in my country. They seem never to read literature, they seem to know nothing of the arts, and yet with some satanic instinct they know the arts are dangerous. If a pianist can leave the melody and improvise, a crack begins in the wall these people need to erect around us. Philip Caputo wrote a solidly supported and wise article about what we call in the United States post-Vietnam syndrome. This is a country that seems more intent on and proud of finding a name or phrase or initials or acronym for phenomena than exploring their causes. Caputo's article explains, as fully as anything I've read, why so many Vietnam veterans are in prison, why so many suffer what was called shell-shock or battle fatigue in the two world wars, but it does not strike and often ruin these men until years after their combat experience, even ten years after. In the beginning of his article Caputo refers to Virgil's
, showing that the Romans knew that when soldiers return home from war they need a public cleansing of what they have seen, what they have felt, what they have done: a ritual to welcome them back to the lives they left. As I read that, the profanities and obscenities wrote themselves again in my mind, in place of that title, that position, that used to have at least a connotation of dignity for me. And I thought: When will we ever have a president who has read Virgil, read anything at all by the men and women who have written the poems and plays and fiction that have, by little and by little, shown us how and why we live. My only answer is that most of our politicians and too many of our citizenry are directly related to those first foreigners who went from east to westâfor survival, yes; and with courage and moral values, yes, many of them, maybe even most of themâand destroyed the Indians and their culture, and somehow did not replace that culture with one of their own, and with moral values, or at least none deep and strong enough to last. The metaphor for this is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Cheyenne found game and fish there, and they went there for the food they needed, and treated that land as a gift. The white men came and dug in the Black Hills for metal, for gold. So I suppose too many men of power, from Reagan to Henry Ford (“is bunk”) arc finally the metal dug up from a lovely place where animals and fish and birds lived, enough of them to be killed with care and gratitude and to feed people without becoming extinct.
Still it is a blessing to write here. Even poets and short-story writers can publish their work, for we have so many good literary quarterlies, and all the poet or story writer must do is submit and submit and submit. I once placed a story, after seven years of rejections, with
, when that magazine was very young. The manuscript paper had become thin, and I had to type the first page again, for someone had left the brown circle of a coffee cup on it. And if we do publish, we can even get teaching jobs in colleges and be spared the physical, mental and spiritual endurance demanded by writing at the end of an eight-hour day of other work. And of course our Constitution and Supreme Court allow us to write with freedom. The writers of the Constitution may have foreseen that old piece of metal from the Black Hills, Ronald Reagan, who denied Farley Mowat entrance to the United States.
The insidious element of the blessing of writing in the United States is the status of those of us who write. Most of us are members of the middle class or, economically, the lower middle class. Our readers are, generally, people who turn to literature for pleasure. So the effect we have on our country is largely limited to people like ourselves, people who share something in common with our visions, as varied as they may be. We do not reach the twenty million Americans who do not have enough to eat. Nor do we reach those in power who could, with compassion and incredible simplicity, change these peoples' lives. My own heroes in America are people like Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, Jr. If I were poor and homeless in New York City, or a migrant fruit worker in the sixties, or a black in the sixties, I would rather see Dorothy Day or Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, Jr. approaching me on the city sidewalk or in the fields and vineyards or in the ghettos than a poet or fiction writer with a free copy of her or his book. We writers are cared for by federal and state grants, by colleges and universities, and by some publishers; we are protected by the laws of the land; yet like heirlooms placed together in a room to preserve us, we talk to each other, we write for each other, and those readers who have not yielded to a society's obsession with money and death and its fruits: acquisition and a deification of the human body, which is more ephemeral than a sturdy tree.
Robert Penn Warren, that grand and durable and wise man, once said he believed that so many of our writers come from the south because growing up in the south (in Warren's youth and for years afterward) gave one a constant dialectic: inside one's home was warmth, hospitality; then one stepped outside into a world of daily injustice, and often that collision of forces drove one to write. That is a paraphrase, and, having grown up in the south during segregation, I do not know whether or not I agree with it. Because I do not know why I write; I only know that if I don't write, I will lose all harmony wth the earth and the people I love and with God. Or, as Waylon Jennings sings in a song whose title I cannot recall: “I've always been crazy but it's kept me from going insane.”
An honest writer of poetry or fiction or drama cannot decide to write about injustice, simply because it exists. A journalist can, for her or his goal is to write what she or he observes, and so to expose it to others. The poet and fiction writer and dramatist can only write what is in her or his heart, and hope the heart is a compassionate one. This limits us to the truths our hearts are trying to learn. Few of us are among the twenty million hungry in this wealthy land. And if I tried to write about the daily suffering of those people, and the pandemic selfishness and greed that is directly responsible for their suffering, I would end not with a story but an essay. And it would not affect anyone who could do anything: bring food and homes and dignity and hope to those millions. William Faulkner could do it, using Jefferson, Mississippi as a microcosm. But he would do it because he was listening to the voices of his heart, not because he set out to write a book that would change our society and even believed the book could do that. He must have known that if art affected the majority of the people, few young men would have gone to another war after
. And, much more often than I, and much more deeply than I, he must have spent many a sad evening, with images of the victims: the long-destroyed Indians, and the poor and wilfully neglected of all races in twentieth-century America, those millions he could only grieve for, and could never really help or even comfort. So he listened to his voices and wrote and left for us the books, the music of his prose that imparts to us the compassion and grief of those evenings, so we feel them too, along with the impotent yet defiant knowledge that there is nothing we can do but write and read, while our land moves even more rapidly onward from Fitzerald's sorrowful portrait of it in the closing passage of
The Great Gatsby