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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thanks to Charles Olson, or Why I Read History

Charles Olson caught my attention on two fronts when I was a young, apple-cheeked writer trying to figure out poetry. One, as a writer doing things with language that I at first resisted but found myself drawn to: disjunction, foreign language, and a primrose of a narrative that rejected straight lines. Two, the immediacy of history, even in its smallest elements. With Olson, they certainly could be pretty small.

Prowling amidst Olson’s work, and that of those affected by him, decidedly helped me into a writing sensibility that I could work with. The sense of history’s immediacy gave me some power to feel contrite, and empathetic. That is, history became a common all, a touchstone by which.

That lesson from Olson about history comes to mind now, with two books. I am reading Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson. During the time up to this past election—Obama vs. Mitt for all the marbles—I read Truman by David McCullough. Both books seem to bear on contemporary events.

As a president, even as a candidate, Truman seems unlikely. He didn’t go to college, which nowadays would be an impossibility. Even a knucklehead like G. W. Bush “went to college”. Truman was simply a farmer thru the first part of his life.

WWI gave him an opportunity to establish his leadership skills. He became captain of an artillery unit, with a good dose of unlikelihood. His practical skills and his ability to get along with people helped him succeed. After the war, his haberdashery was successful enough until the depression took the bottom out. He was not a stumblebum, as some have claimed: the circs were bad.

He was social. He joined the Masons, that network, and otherwise stayed connected to people. He kept in touch with the men who served with him in the war. The father and uncle of a long time friend ran the Democratic machine in Missouri. Truman became Judge then Senator as part of that machine by being reliable. He earnestly went about that business. Missouri was a completely Democratic state then, tho there were factions. He managed to cross factions.

Truman was never anyone’s first choice. Others had failings of one sort or another, and there was unsullied Truman. The same happened when he became Vice President. All the sparkling choices either cancelled themselves out or revealed stridencies that spoiled their venture. Even running for president, Truman was a second choice.

I’m getting wordy here. Truman had practical accomplishments, not designated ones like a plum degree or some shifty exploit in the business world. Specifically, he wasn’t some buffed up myrmidon for Silver Spoon Inc.

Truman had the aroma of racism and anti-Semitism, the product of the era. Yet Truman was, to use a Masonic term, square. He was the first president to press for civil rights, for instance. Given the racist air of the past few years—bestirred by Barack Obama’s presence on the national scene—it shouldn’t amaze that Truman pushed for anti-lynching laws. I mean that lynching could have somehow survived in a culture that legislates against, you know, murder. Yet we know that defenses for racism are silently on a lot of lips.

Truman supported the creation of a Jewish state, against considerable contention. I felt a real sense that expediency was not his central motive. He had this firm sense of what’s right, not the wavering declarations of a candidate who fine tunes the talking points to the specific stupid audience.

Reading this book, I saw how many issues have changed little. I also see how efflorescent dickheads have commandeered the machine. Poll-reading jellyfish (not to insult jellyfish) pretend to stand up straight. Mitt Romney was only an oppositional concept, not a real candidate (McCain was just an opposition). As troubadour for a racist audience, Romney didn’t push where push needs pushing. Imagine Mitt Romney sitting down between Churchill and Stalin one month after being sworn in.

Truman was direct in his language, sincere, and thoughtful. He wasn’t always “right”, that would be a ridiculous expectation. But he was real at what he did, which is an expectation we should have for our political leaders. He had little money when he became president and little when he left, tho a book deal from Life Magazine soon gave him funds. Can any president since say the same?

I have had Battle Cry of Freedom for years now, but only now am reading it. When I first got it, my interest in the Civil War circled around the battles, the drama. McPherson takes his time getting to that. McPherson is a full third of the way into the book before he gets to the attack on Fort Sumter. He provides a detailed rendering of the forces that led to the war. It’s not just state’s right versus anti-slavery, as everyone can realize. It’s many divergent forces, social, political, and stupid, that brings this country to an angry implosion.

The jibber jabber about secession today exhibits zero comprehension of what that might entail. It’s a childish sort of whining by those who think they aren’t getting their way. The slavery issue, which the framers of the Constitution dodged, took a long coming to this head. How could a country exist with a division on this issue? It finally could not.

I recently found myself writing rather “partisan” pieces in the days leading to the election. It was how I dealt with the ghastly urgencies of false language and disrupted empathy, Glenn Beck type assholes with simulated virtues in their mouths. Iniquities spoil our language because it is so difficult to find words that will stand true in the face of war, slavery, anti-Semitism, and such other doors that close on our humanity.

Charles Olson gave me a sense of mission as a writer. Language has been undermined by political underwriters. The necessity, then, is to find ways to write words, and read them, such that meaning isn’t twisted by endeavour. Olson helped me to see this path.

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