Rego on Roosevelt

I had the pleasure a couple of weeks ago to read my colleague Paul Rego’s new book on Teddy Roosevelt.  Although I’m a little more critical of Roosevelt than Paul is, his book seems very timely, and does a good job of pointing our Roosevelt’s continuing relevance.  Even this week John McCain morphed into a Roosevelt Republican taking on the Titans of Wall Street.  Whether McCain was convincing in doing so is another matter, but it was in line with Paul’s insight that Roosevelt remains a touchstone figure for many contemporary presidents and presidential aspirants.

I thought I was supposed to do a full-blow review/critical response to Paul’s book at a reception in his honor, but I had the honor of introducing him instead.  What follows are my meandering scribbles on Paul’s book, titled, by the way “American Ideal:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Search for American Individualism.” These don’t quite amount to a review since they’re mostly notes for a talk, but I thought I’d post them here anyway.

In some respects, Paul’s book focuses on the irony of his subtitle: Roosevelt’s search for an American individualism. Though an intellectual biography, Paul seems to suggest that Roosevelt doesn’t arrive at settled substantive positions so much as he grapples mightily with antinomies of American thought, practice and culture—the most important of these being the split between the pluribus and the unum in the American psyche. Born out of the Enlightenment, American politics and culture has never rested easily with the earlier notion of an individual as being one member of a group. Instead, the individual and the society are necessarily in tension with one another, if not actively opposed to one another. On this view, the individual is society’s other, not matter how much we may say that society’s could not be conceived of without individuals and vice-versa. On this reading, a search for an American individualism is a quixotic quest—my reading, not Paul’s—since to be an American is to be a part of a collective, but one which only defines itself through the exaltation of the individual. Nevertheless, however impossible the project, the struggle to reconcile these opposing forces gives Roosevelts work much of its energy and contemporary relevance, no matter that he didn’t completely succeed in his quest.

I especially like Paul’s tracing of the opposition between progressivism and individualism. For one thing, those people in American literature who pay any attention to Roosevelt tend to emphasize his individualism, and so Paul’s attention to Roosevelt’s progressivism was enlightening. Moreover, I learned a lot in Paul’s argument that at the turn of the twentieth century, progressivism was imagining largely in collectivist terms and was in some respects seen as anti-individualism. The complexities involved suggest, as Paul explicitly attempts to do, that politics of the early 21st century continues to bear the marks of the discourses of a century ago. Liberals still rocket uneasily between individual empowerment and government regulation and intervention, while conservative ideals of the self-made man and the destructive energies of capitalism collide, sometimes violently with the conservative values of community, family, and tradition. If Roosevelt has not solved the problem of the pluribus and the unum, neither, really, have we.

Paul doesn’t really take up the gendered elements of Roosevelts thought, and I think they are important on various levels. Roosevelts view of individualism is, in my view, deeply masculine, verging on masculinist, and one reason for the popularity of his books lay in his idealization of masculine activities—war, hunting, camping, and the like—as a remedy for the feminizing forces of culture. Ironically, of course, many conservatives perceived the government as just such a ‘feminizing” force, wherein a man had to give up his manly individualism in favor of the will of the collective. The identification of progressivism with the feminization of American culture is everywhere in American literature at least, and finds it’s way even in to contemporary politics. Think, for instance, of the fairly popular conservative dismissal of the liberal “nanny state,” and the preference that men pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Paul argues that Roosevelt was willing to use the powers of the state in order to enable the possibility of individual achievement. Whether this is genius or hopeless contradictory may depend upon your politics, but I’m struck by the way in which this structure is represented in one of Roosevelt’s signature achievements—the establishment of the National Park system. One reason, though not the only one, that it was brought in to existence was so a place where men could test their mettle against the forces of nature could be preserved in a rapidly urbanizing society.

Paul recognizes Roosevelt’s racism and makes the argument that he must be understood as a man of his time, and I think Paul also successfully shows that Roosevelt’s understanding of individualism did not exclude African Americans, making room for those of the race who in some sense transcended the handicaps associated with racial oppression. To some degree, this is a common argument made about someone like Lincoln—who Roosevelt took as an ideal. By modern standards would clearly be understood as a racist, but his thinking was supple enough to imagine the possibility of transcending the racial categories of his days.

Nevertheless, I wonder if some of the issues surrounding race as well as gender don’t go closer to the root of the problem Roosevelt faced, which would be in how the individual is imagined as an individual. That is, the political conception of the individual in American history is always imagined in raceless terms; however, in our conceptualization of race until very recently, only white people can be raceless. To be black is to be raced; in other words to be inherently marked as identified with a collectivity. By contrast, whiteness is more usually understood as the sign of individualism, of being unbounded by tribe, history, tradition and society. In short, to be free. The great literary essay on this idea remains Achebe’s meditation of Heart of Darkness, where he rightly points out that the travails of Conrad’s white characters depend upon the facelessness and inarticulate jabbering of the black mass that makes them stand out as individuals. In other words, however much room we may make in our conceptualization of individualization for specific black people, this is very easily transmuted in to the understanding that others can become individuals by becoming just like me—in which case they are no longer clearly other in terms of race.

This having been said, I tend to agree with Paul that the structure of this thinking can’t be blamed on Roosevelt, since it is part of the structure of American thinking per se. He did not invent it, nor is it completely clear how he could have escaped it. Instead I think it points to the notion that perhaps the reason these issues cannot be reconciled is that they begin with a deeply flawed notion of what it means to be an individual, however attractive that ideal may continue to be.

Treasure Island, Buried

As some may remember from the distant past of this blog, I set out to actually read a whole e-book from start to finish on Book Glutton, all this in honor of read a book month, or read an e-book month, or some other kind of month. Given that most Americans don’t even read one book a year, e or otherwise, I am so proud of myself for managing to fulfill my quota in a mere three weeks. Or so. Anyway, I finished Treasure Island about a couple of weeks ago, but have been too swamped with work (and my kids soccer games) to collect any thoughts. And, of course by now, given that I am uncomfortably close to my fiftieth birthday, I have actually forgotten most of the experience. So the comments that follow are no doubt not anywhere nearly an accurate reflection of my experiences but more a kind of fiction of what I construe could have happened in my reading experience. Pierre Bayard and Roland Barthes would be so proud.

First Treasure Island itself. What a romp! One consequence of being an academic is that works in my specialization I am always reading as an academic. Which probably means dully and ponderously. So when I read for pleasure…well, I never really do read for pleasure. But let’s just say that in order to re-activate the pleasure zones in my reading brain, I often have to get far away from stuff I have to teach or write about in my official capacities.

Treasure Island is surely a boys book in a certain sense of that word. For all the sturm and drang about about the dominance of masculine narratives in the canon, it’s worth saying that boys books aren’t much appreciated as boys books per se. They have to first be turned in to “LITERATURE.” That is, something ponderous and masculine rather than, well, rompish. If “rompish” even qualifies as a term of analysis. And much of what we talk about as literature–things like The Great Gatsby as exhibit A; things like The Scarlet Letter as exhibit B–are really chick flicks dressed up to go out on the town. No wonder boys don’t read.

But then there are boys books. Romps that lose their fun in becoming literature, or which are ignored because they seem resistant to literary seriousness. Huckleberry Finn used to be sold as a boys book, in fact, though now it is banned from high schools. For my money Melville’s most readable works are Typee, Omoo, and Redburn. Works written for adolescent boys, and adolescent men, who were looking for a little tittilation in thinking about naked polynesian breasts. Let’s be truthful folks. How many of us really truly loved Moby Dick. Confession of the week. I can’t bring myself to finish Pierre. And I did my master’s exams on Melville. I think I read the Cliff’s notes. Perhaps if either book did more to foreground Polynesian breasts I would get more interested.

In any case, Treasure Island, falls into the category of a boys book so stereotypical that we now can hardly feel it as anything but predictable. The boy in search of a father since he’s lost his own. And finding fathers in all the wrong places, especially among barely disguised pirates who everyone and their mother knows are pirates except apparently Jim Hawkins himself.

I was struck in reading it by how much Jim is the characteristic “good boy.” The loyal son to his mother. Although the novel is often described as a coming of age story, there’s a peculiar sense in which jim is already aged. He is already formed as the good man that he will become, protector of his mother becomes protector of his friends and ultimately, even, the protector of his erstwhile enemy, Long John Silver.

In other words, Jim is already his own father, a boy seeking for a father he doesn’t really need or want. Thus, explaining Jim’s constant penchant for running off for no good reason, whether in to the apple barrel or jumping ship to gain the Island ahead of the others, or stealing the ship out from under the noses of the pirates themselves. Jim is a boy who doesn’t need a father because he is a father already, the one who can save those even whom he despises. Sprung whole and righteous from his own loins. (This is, of course, also a description of Milton’s Satan, but I won’t press the point).

For my money, this makes Treasure Island more of an adventure story than a coming of age story or bildungsroman. Jim is already who he is or will become. He is threatened by evil, but he is not tempted by it. Huckleberry Finn could worry about whether he is going to hell, and he could play his pranks on the slave Jim on the raft for his own selfish ends and pleasures, but Jim Hawkins always chooses the good and we always know he will. And perhaps more importantly, he always knows he will. Thus the story is not about whether Jim will be good and will grow as a human being–he doesn’t grow at all. It is more about whether goodness will out. Does goodness pay off in the end? Is goodness the treasure that we can have without seeking.?Will goodness save our own necks from the noose, and perhaps the necks of Long John Silver as well?

Well Stevenson seemed to think so. I’m tempted to say it’s a vapid vision of the world, where the mutineers of the world exist not to tell me that I too might be one, but as foils for my own moral self-display. Nevertheless, this criticism is awfully literary and ponderous. So I’ll stop before I lose sight of the fact that I actually loved reading it.

Of course, I also weep when watching Brian’s Song. What does this prove?

More later about the actual experience of reading on book glutton.

Boys and Their Toys

Mark Bauerlein, blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education, posted some interesting reflections on boys and reading this past week . He’s reflecting on the iPulp Fiction Library, which is probably worth a blog in itself. The library, run by a friend of Bauerlein’s, exists to promote reading, especially though not exclusively for boys, by reinvigorating the tradition of the dime novel by providing free onlineipulp fiction.

A few excerpts from Bauerlein’s blog:

Five years ago I would have written back with something like, “C’mon, can’t we push a little Melville and Swift instead?”

Not anymore. Books of any kind compete with so many digital diversions that just about any fiction that encourages long reading hours is worth a look — pulp or sports or Western or murder mystery or classic novel. Reading researchers believe that sheer volume of reading plays a large role in the acquisition of basic literacy skills and vocabulary, and that print matter of even child-oriented books can be more verbally challenging than some of the best television shows. (Read this entire article and note its far-reaching findings.)

Furthermore, I believe, the boy reading problem is reflected in the growing achievement gap between girls and boys. Admissions officers see this every year. At my old school, UCLA, the entering class last year was 59 percent female. Across town at Cal State-LA, the undergraduate population is 63 percent female. And officials expect the discrepancy to increase.

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Real Men Don’t Read

Bauerlein is touching on one of my pet concerns, partly because I have a son who reads a great deal, while also trying to maintain his coolness quotient in being a basketball and soccer player. While being further concerned with enhancing his growing reputation as a lady killer. Lady killers not found in libraries as a general rule.

“Real Men Don’t Read” could probably be a slogan on a best-selling adolescent t-shirt, is my general guess. Boys learn mostly to impress girls by carrying their books, not by reading them. I also feel this poignant sense of protectiveness for the few men who wander in to my literature classrooms. Among English majors nationally, women outnumber men 3 to 1.

(Side note: a quick google search calls up 5180 pages with some version of the phrase Real Men Don’t’ Read. Fewer than I might have thought, but the idea is out there.)

So, I mostly agree with Bauerlein here. It is surely a truism by now in higher education that there’s a problem with young men and higher education. Indeed, it’s fair to say that more and more colleges are starting to treat them like an underrepresented minority.

(And, incidentally, I see more and more posts from women—including a response to Bauerlein’s blog–that, in a different context, would sound just like white people ridiculing the supposedly inherent inferiority of black people. Along the lines of “If boys weren’t so stupid, there wouldn’t be a problem.”).

The reports from the NEA emphasize just how drastic the non-reading problem is for men as opposed to women. This, in fact, is one of the main reasons I’m dubious of those defensive responses that suggest reading on the net is just as good as any other kind of reading. Studies used to suggest, at least, the higher levels of comfort boys had with the net and all things digital, but that is long past. Even if men are now spending all their time reading online, it apparently isn’t doing them any good. They score consistently far lower than women on all kinds of tests for reading comprehension and language abilities. Indeed, studies suggest that girls now spend more time online and post more written content than boys. Boys dominate in only one area—video content:

Girls continue to dominate most elements of content creation. Some 35% of all teen girls blog, compared with 20% of online boys, and 54% of wired girls post photos online compared with 40% of online boys. Boys, however, do dominate one area – posting of video content online. Online teen boys are nearly twice as likely as online girls (19% vs. 10%) to have posted a video online somewhere where someone else could see it.

All of this goes to show why my daughter thinks it’s weird that I blog, and my son ignores it entirely. I am, no doubt, working out of my feminine side, or perhaps my inner 17-year-old female child.

In any case, generally speaking, I have my doubts that boys are making up for their lack of reading books with a lot of reading and writing on the net.

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What Should Big Boys Read?

I think that not a lot of attention has been given to reading material especially for boys in schools. I’ve mentioned Jon Sciezka on this blog before, and I think the work he’s doing with boys’ reading is important. A colleague seemed flummoxed when I suggested to her that for a lot of boys, maybe most boys, The Great Gatsby is the equivalent of a chick flick, as is most of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and most of the others we call greats. Generally speaking, though, I agree with the following post: “Why Hemingway is Chick Lit.” Among other things the post gives us the following completely unscientific but telling anecdote:

“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan in the Guardian last year. The British novelist reached this rather dire conclusion after venturing into a nearby park in an attempt to give away free novels. The result?

Only one “sensitive male soul” took up his offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same.

We can talk about patriarchal power all we want, but in general patriarchal power is exercised on the playground by those boys who make fun of Shakespeare, not those who actually bothered to read something other than the Spark notes.

Still, I’m a little hesitant. It’s not clear to me that reading a lot of anything is by itself a great thing for reading or a great thing for boys. n+1 famously argued that we’re so obsessed with a reading crisis that we think we should praise everything that’s written and praise anyone who reads the morning paper. I’m not sure that reading a dime novel is in and of itself superior to a film or even a complex video game; better, probably, for developing vocabulary to some degree, but not better for other kinds of developments–assuming that a film and a video game develop different kinds of competencies and visual literacies. It would be important to understand reading on a continuum. What builds the habit of reading in boys, and what makes reading seem like just another drudge assignment?

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Can Reading Make You Cool?

More from Bauerlein’s blog

More leisure reading might help, and books like iPulp Fiction Library’s appeal to boys a lot more than the “problem stories” and identity narratives that fill Young Adult shelves in the libraries and bookstores. Back in high school, I remember boys passing around books as a kind of cool underground connection — including jocks and “stoners” (as they were called then). I was hit hard by The Brothers Karamazov and The Sound and the Fury when I was 18, but those didn’t catch on. What did was Ball Four, a knuckleballer’s diary of a season with the Seattle Pilots; North Dallas Forty, a novel about a receiver for an NFL team; Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (yes, really); and someone snagged a copy of The Happy Hooker, too.

Do these kinds of secret reading networks still exist? We have Harry Potter, of course, but that’s a different thing, a juggernaut of popularity. Also, there is little evidence that Harry Potter has made many teenage boys read a lot of other books besides Rowling’s. We read the books above not because everybody else did, but because they met a curiosity, or a need, or insecurity, or humor, or heroism that we felt inside, or wanted to. Some of them had some good writing in them, too.

Bauerlein looks like he must be about my age, and the list above confirms it. I never actually got around to Fear of Flying and The Happy Hooker. Much too repressed. On the other hand, Ball Four and North Dallas Forty…Yes, god, yes… Also the Brothers K. Must have been the in book with high school administrative poohbahs in the 70s.

I’ve reflected in the past on the idea that books function as signs to other readers as much or more than as stories that are to be read. The person that—in an earlier generation—carried Catcher in the Rye or On the Road in his hip pocket or who sat sullenly under a tree reading a book while dragging on a cigarette was making a kind of public statement.

To some degree I think this is still true, but I wonder if its been permanently displaced by digital culture. People make a statement by having old-fashioned books at all, not the specific texts that mark them off from readers of other books.

Of course, secret reading networks do exist. One wants to ask Bauerlein if he’s ever been online. But partly that’s the point. They exist facelessly on far flung digital networks rather than being part of the identity formation of groups within industrial-sized high schools.

Also, they have now mostly been displaced by video games. My son and his friends are sorted in two different ways: those who read books and those who don’t, and those who play Halo and those who don’t. The difference is important. Book readers are lumped together regardless of content of what they read—whereas in an earlier age of adolescene boys might have sorted themselves by whether they read Ken Kesey, Isaac Asimov, or Herman Melville. Gamers discriminate among themselves assiduously, marking themselves as belonging to different groups by the games they play and their competence at their choices.

To some degree I wonder how this works with e-book readers. The e-book itself shapes every text to a common and universal appearance. Thus, reading my e-book in the local coffeeshop, I can make a statement about myself as an e-book reader that will draw the attention of others and show my solidarity with others who are technologically sophisticated. But I can’t display the title of the individual book. The dividing line is not between Peyton Place and Moby Dick, but between digital and non-digital, with little room for specific self-display.

Nevertheless, none of this I think gainsays Bauerlein’s general opinion that iPulp is probably a very good thing in general. I browsed over the site. Not generally my cup of tea, but it should be right up the alley of the alienated middle schooler who likes that kind of thing. It looks to me that the site is set up for use on ipods and iphones, but I couldn’t figure out anyway to load to any other kind of reader or even to download to a computer.

Of course, that may itself be only a sign of my general unhip uncoolness when it comes to digital illiteracy. I’ll have to ask my 13 year old how to do it.

After he gets past teaching me how to play Call of Duty.

And Halo.

And Gears of War.

And…

Reference: Maureen Dowd, My Hero

Actually not, since half the time I think Dowd substitutes irratibility for thoughtfulness. Still, I thought this article was an interesting reflection on some of the gender issues I’ve also been taking up the last couple of days. According to Dowd:

“There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing. “

This strikes me as unfairly harsh. Clinton is a few country miles from Nixonian. But it does suggest that Clinton’s own construal of the gender war that’s going on over emotion is suspect. Clinton defended herself by saying male leaders are allowed to cry while women aren’t. All tears are not, in fact, equal, nor do they communicate similar things.

Men do, in fact, cry on the campaign trail. Strategically, no less. Cynically, no doubt. But the prospect of a man gaining points by crying because the trail is so hard and the people so unheeding is unfathomable.

Dowd goes on:

“Hillary sounded silly trying to paint Obama as a poetic dreamer and herself as a prodigious doer. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said. Did any living Democrat ever imagine that any other living Democrat would try to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire by comparing herself to L.B.J.? (Who was driven out of politics by Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire.)”

“Her argument against Obama now boils down to an argument against idealism, which is probably the lowest and most unlikely point to which any Clinton could sink. The people from Hope are arguing against hope.”

Author! Author! Of course, I’m always most impressed with Dowd’s brilliance when she agrees with my own brilliant opinions.

Barack Obama, Black Lothario?

In the final 24 hour run-up to Hillary Clinton’s victory this evening, seduction was in the air. Literally, actually, as a word used in repeated reference to Barack Obama by Clinton supporters interviewed in the street. I somehow remember Hillary herself or someone from her campaign using the word, but it may be a false memory. I can’t find a reference anywhere on the net, in any case. This a different kind of jab at Obama’s eloquence than those I’ve noted over the past couple of days, but one still freighted with gender and the politics and history of race in the United States.

Just out of curiosity, I googled “Barack Obama” and various versions of the word “seduce.” Seduction, Seducer, Seduced. I came up with about 70,000 instances. Discount the ubiquitous advertisements for sex aids and dating services and you’ve still got a healthy discourse of Barack Obama, the seducer of our political souls.

According to one news service, “Obama woos women,” and describes Obama as “not just attracting scores of young voters, but also seducing women and independents ahead of Tuesday’s primary.” A blogger on the Huffington Post tells us the that “The mere idea of someone who can write (and presumably therefore think) in a complex yet compelling fashion is almost irresistibly seductive” .

Main stream news outlets use the term, and the discourse extends overseas. The Brits especially seem a bit dismayed by Obama’s overly sexualized politics. The Economist says that at a typical campaign rally “Mr Obama eventually moseys onto the stage and starts massaging the crowd with his seductive baritone.” Barack Obama, political call boy.

(And “moseys”? Do the Brits even know what “mosey” means? Having grown up in Oklahoma where people really do mosey, I can testify that Obama does not do mosey. My general sense is that Kenyans, Hawaiians, and Indonesians–the cultures which Obama grew up around–don’t do “mosey.” Chicago? I have my doubts.)

Even French philsopher Bernard-Henri Levy has gotten in on the act saying that Obama has decided” to stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead”.

What role is the representation of language, especially as it plays out in relationship to race and gender, serving in this campaign. The emphasis on Obama as a seducer makes his eloquence—his greatest political asset—a net negative. The seducer, almost always a man, uses language to deceive others, almost always vulnerable women, for his own nefarious ends. The image of Obama as seducer in some ways “hypermasculinizes” his use of language, over and against the femininizing implications of using flowery rhetoric that I parsed yesterday. In either instance, though, language, especially as used by a man, is empty and suspect.

There’s a long tradition of being suspicious of language in the West. Satan was, if nothing else, a good rhetorician. In the American context, the Puritan plain style that dominated American letters from the Puritans to Hemingway and on to latter day inheritors like Raymond Carver was deeply suspicious of ornament and rhetorical figure. This tradition was, in practice, deeply masculinist. The real man, like Raymond Chandler’s heroes, used words sparingly if at all, and the words he used were to be direct and to the point. Girls, by contrast, talk too much and use language too well.

The figure of the seducer, then, embodies an interesting conflation of hypersexualized masculinity and a failure of manliness. I say “failure” both because the seducer depends upon language–a “feminine” and suspect tool–and also because the purposes to which that language is put fall short of various images of manly integrity.

The portrait of Obama as a seducer leaves me a tad uncomfortable in terms of the discourse of race, especially as it has been applied to Obama’s appeal to young white women. In some ways Clinton has positioned herself as the maternal protector of the virtue of the nation, and of women especially, sounding cautionary notes to all those wayward and impressionable young 18 to 30 somethings who are in danger of being swept off their feet, swooning in the arms of a grinning black lothario.

I suggested yesterday that Obama’s literary persona blunted fears of a black male planet; but it is intriguing to me how the rhetoric of seduction plays in to and enhances those very same fears. In the New York Times yesterday, Gloria Steinem all but explicitly cast down the challenge to white women to stand up to the black male threat—pointing out that black men have always gotten ahead before women.

The specific of race, class and gender make Steinem’s claims dubious in themselves. Look at things like the life expectancy or class status of white women and black men and ask whose shoes you’d like to be in on average. More, Steinem conveniently glosses over the fact that many white feminists in the nineteenth century actively opposed black male enfranchisement on the basis of racial superiority. I don’t think Steinem goes quite that far, but I don’t like the smell.

The image of Obama as a seducer may not be being actively promoted by political operatives. It may even be true. And I’m not sure it has had that much of a political effect. Clinton won because she worked hard–as is her wont–and because New Hampshire voters troubled by the economy thought she would do a better job. Not, I think, because she mocked Obama’s use of language.

Still, it’s not too far from ugly.

Side bar: Hillary’s Tears: Human all too Human.

I was pretty harsh on Hillary yesterday and today she goes and cries. I’m sure there’s a connection.

I’m fascinated by the media’s decision to say that she didn’t cry; her eyes merely filled with tears. (What? They are going to zoom in on her face and, if one of those brimming tears falls, suddenly she’s weak?? ) Somehow too, this made her miraculously human for the reporters in the room. I’m not mocking it. I felt it too. After 35 years of hard work it finally seemed like maybe it was just a little too much. Indeed, I was appalled that some in the media questioned whether the tears were pre-planned. Probably a reflex action from a campaign that has seemed buttoned down and machine-like from the beginning. I suspect she’ll get a five point bounce in the polls. Not to be cynical about her tears, but this is the kind of thing that was missing from her candidacy—the sense of spontaneous humanity that Obama pulls from the air with the greatest of ease.

In a just world, perhaps hard work would be all that matters. Not our world, I’m afraid.

Picking up on yesterday’s post, I’m also struck by the way this stuff is so thoroughly gendered. It is almost absolutely impossible to imagine Obama getting away with tears in reflecting on how hard it is to campaign. Or even the brink of tears. We could forgive Edwards if he got brimming eyes while talking about his wife’s cancer, and probably even if he watered up while talking about a young girl who couldn’t get a liver transplant. But if he started dripping over how hard it is to fight the fight, you can be sure his fight would be over. Hillary, of course, doesn’t have it easy; she’s expected to be hard and tough and a man among men, but she’s also got to be soft, got to reassure us that she hasn’t lost the woman within even while she’s going toe to toe with the bad guys. Tears do it for her.

Men would not be forgiven it, as Ed Muskie wasn’t. Men have to show their humanity in different ways. By playing bass guitar for a rock band at the local bar. By reading books that suggest depth but not weirdness. By hunting for geese in Iowa in below zero wind chill.

It’s hard on everyone.

Barack Obama Sings America

Let it be said now. Barack Obama channels Walt Whitman.

Nevertheless, something there is in a political woman that doesn’t like poetry in a man. MSNBC reports today that Hillary has chosen to attack Obama by mocking his eloquence. She’s been stumping in New Hampshire, saying “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” One of many jabs that Hillary uses to demonstrate her superior manliness to Obama and his fluff, the quote comes originally from Mario Cuomo. Another Clinton favorite: “I’m a doer, not a talker.”

May be. Though it does seem to me that Hillary is a little tone deaf on this one. She is, after all, campaigning and not governing, as if she has forgotten that she has to campaign after all. I’m also not so sure it’s a wonderful move to deride the citizenry for having false hopes. (Who does she have writing this stuff?) All of this is of a piece of Hillary’s general effort to demonstrate that she has the cojones to be president. And that her own cojones…among other things…are a lot bigger than Edwards or Obama.

Indeed, I was fascinated with the way last night’s debate among the Democrats degenerated toward a variety of male stereotypes—as if we can’t get past the masculine image even at this moment when the stereotypical image of masculine leadership seems to be less stable than ever.

In one corner, we had Edwards the pugilist, who seems bound and determined to be fighting everyone and everything. “You can’t nice these people.” Another jab at Obama’s apparently suspect masculinity. I wished someone would give Edwards some valium, or else a good book to read. In another corner we had Richardson the affable elder statesman (who, in my estimation, pushed himself a notch closer to the vice presidency). Clinton played the hardnosed greybeard realist with her nose to the grindstone. She’s apparently been working non-stop for 35 years. Does it occur to her that when she says this most Americans say “Why don’t you take a vacation. I would. In fact, I’ll be glad to give you one.”

Which left Obama to be….What?….again, something that seemed new, that didn’t seem to quite fit in.

Still, I’m getting far afield from my original purpose. I’m intrigued by the role that literary metaphors are playing in the political campaign so far, and especially in Hillary’s latest attacks. The Huffington Post had a much quoted blog a few weeks ago to the effect that Obama was poetry and Clinton was prose. Hillary’s attack picks up on this dichotomy and falls into typical masculine stereotypes that men who like poetry are just a little too effeminate for comfort, at least for political comfort. Hillary’s attacks called to my mind Maureen Dowd’s skewering in the New York Times of John Kerry in two different op-ed pieces because he not only read but also wrote poetry. Didn’t this signify somehow, Dowd seemed to imply, that Kerry was too unreliable, too unserious, or at least not serious in the right ways, to play with the big boys. See June 8 2003 and March 7, 2004 in the New York Times.

Picking up on my post from yesterday, I’m intrigued with how the candidates use literature as a means of communicating something about themselves, and whether what they reveal about their literary tastes and interests says anything about them. I went on the respective candidates’ Facebook pages to see just what it said about their literary interests.

About Hillary I discovered….zilch, zero, nada. Indeed, Hillary’s Facebook page offers absolutely nothing about her personal interests at all. As if in playing out the traditional masculine split between public and private, she has to absolutely deny that she has any personal interests whatsoever. Or maybe it is just that her personal interests only extend to becoming president of the United States.

Of all the candidates, Obama’s is the most extensive, the most diverse, and the most dominated by literary texts. He names Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, The Tragedies of Shakespeare, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Parting the Waters, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Self-Reliance by Emerson, The Bible, Lincoln’s Collected Writings.

My God, the guy actually reads. I mean, I have no doubt that these pages are massaged and picked over by staff for the kinds of messages that might be sent. (More on Mitt Romney’s choice of Huckleberry Finn—an apparently quick correction from an earlier choice of a novel by L. Ron Hubbard that earned guffaws from the blogosphere last year– and Mike Huckabee’s choice of The Holy Bible in another day or two). But Obama has to have actually read this stuff, and he has to actually read books for his own interest. Having read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson not only helps him with the literary crowd—he doesn’t really need the help, they’ll mostly vote for him anyway—it also helps him with moderate and educated evangelicals who found Robinson’s novel immensely complex and moving, testimony yet again that the connections between literature and religion are hardly dead. They’re just quiet.

By comparison, I guess I was disappointed at the fact that Hillary didn’t list anything at all. I dug around for awhile—unscientific word searches on Google—and finally found a reference at the NEA where Hillary suggests her favorite book as a child was “Goodnight Moon.” A lovely choice. I read it ad nauseum to my kids, but am now far enough removed from the cuteness that I get warm fuzzies at the sound of the title.

Has she read anything since? She did not list a favorite adult book on the NEA. I also just found a blog on the same topic at Huffington Post that says Hillary chooses Little Women and The Poisonwood Bible. However, I can’t find anything else readily available that confirms these choices. Still, I think they are worthy choices if true. John Lundberg finds them too predictable. I’m not sure that I agree but they do suggest a certain prepackaged quality of control and safeness to me. The bitter attack on fundamentalism in the Poisonwood Bible won’t win her fans with the hardest core of fundamentalists, but, again, they wouldn’t vote for her anyway.

I admit to disappointment in having to dig so hard to find out anything about Hillary’s literary tastes. Whereas Obama strikes me as a person to have in your book group. What a great conversation that would be after eight years of a president who can’t be bothered by literature. Too much nose to the grindstone for the imagination to have much play for Hillary. Somehow it says something to me that Obama is presenting himself as a literary man while I have to dig and dig to figure out if Hillary reads anything other than the bible she apparently carries with her everywhere—and which still does nothing for her with the biblically literate electorate.

Still, I’m wondering if Hillary’s graybeard, workaholic, no-time-for novels, approach to this political campaign will really win out in the end. America famously honors novels more in the breach than in reality. Real men—and Hillary in some ways has to prove that she’s man enough for the job—have no time for literary folderol. Obama’s depth and complexity run the risk of seeming, well, wimpy, something both Clinton and Edwards have keyed in on.

I’ll take a risk here and say that Obama can get away with it because he’s …black. Odd leap, I realize, but bear with me. In white America’s racial codes, black men are portrayed as hypermasculinized, all body and no mind. There’s a lot of scholarly material out there on the historical fears that white Americans have of black American masculinity (I’ve drawn on some of this and use it in my book on masculinity and religion in the Harlem renaissance—freely admitting that “book” is a hopeful word for the 400+ pages that now sit in my computer, just starting as we are to sniff around for a publisher). Obama’s literariness and his lyrical eloquence serve to humanize him for a white audience that, while improving, is not so very far removed from the appeals of Willie Horton ads. Henry Louis Gates, after all, has pointed out that historically blacks used literacy—the ability to read and write literature—to demonstrate their full humanity to white audiences. I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that Obama’s literary card softens residual white fears of a black male planet.

Obama’s poetry, his admirably diverse literary interests, serve the purposes of showing him once again as a uniter, someone who brings all things together. He brings black and white together. He brings Herman Melville and Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare together. He brings male and female together. He brings his hard political and his soft literary sides together.

Obama’s literariness strikes me as genuine and authentic—though I realize that in this day and age even authenticity is pre-packaged. His literariness quite clearly matches and even enhances his political imaginary. Obama’s literary “softness,” deadly to men like John Kerry and John Edwards–and perhaps deadly, too, for political women like Hillary Clinton–plays to the idea that he can be all things.

He is large. He contains multitudes.

He too sings America.

Side note: I’ve added Liz Laribee’s blog, peaceamillion, to my blogroll. Liz is one of the funniest, and best, young writers that I know. Of course, I don’t know that many young writers. Sorry, Liz. The truth will out. No seriously. Everyone should go delight in Lizworld.