Conjunctions:29 Tributes

If only we could have paid homage to them all, our forebears and predecessors, all those writers who have gone before us. Mark Twain would surely have been included, and Frederick Douglass. Anne Bradstreet, of course. A few essays had been proposed on Nora Zeale Hurston, Wallace Stevens, Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, even Isaac Bashevis Singer and others, but circumstances prevented them from coming into being. Who else is absent and why? Certainly one obvious impediment was limitations of “SPACE,” to paraphrase invertedly the opening of Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, his homage to Melville that largely inspired this issue. And yet, what a brilliant congregation of writers is celebrated by forty-five fellow authors in the pages you hold in your hands.

     Surely it is valuable to think of who else is here in spirit. You can compile your own list, maybe starting with Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Wright, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, H. D., Donald Barthelme, Arna Bontemps, Washington Irving, Katherine Anne Porter, Vachel Lindsay, Tennessee Williams, Amy Lowell, Margaret Fuller, Kate Chopin, Jean Toomer, John Steinbeck, Stanley Elkin, Booker T. Washington, Raymond Carver, Claude McKay, Laura Riding, Frederick Jackson Turner, Ellen Glasgow, Robert Frost, Louisa May Alcott, e. e. cummings, Horatio Alger, Thomas Merton, William Inge, Sarah Orne Jewett, Truman Capote, May Swenson, John Dos Passos, Mary Moody Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Muriel Rukeyser, Thornton Wilder, Chester Himes, Edgar Lee Masters, Frank Norris, Jean Stafford, William Wells Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Monette, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Jones, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Roth, Nella Larsen, Charles W. Chesnutt, Louis Zukofsky, Sherwood Anderson, Lorraine Hansberry, Jack London, Paul Blackburn, Carl Sandburg, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sidney Lanier, John Berryman, Eugene O’Neill, Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, Paul Goodman, Patricia Highsmith, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Wolfe, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Lowell, Haniel Long, James Schuyler, Dorothy Parker, Ted Berrigan, Peter De Vries, Wallace Stegner, Helene Jackson, Delmore Schwartz, Henry Adams, John Crowe Ransom, Marcus Garvey, H. P. Lovecraft, Fitz-James O’Brien, George Oppen, F. O. Matthiessen, Dorothy West, John Cage, Randall Jarrell, Alice Childress, James Merrill, Joel Oppenheimer, Jack Spicer, Charles Henri Ford, Walker Percy, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne ... the catalogue might fill pages as it continues to build toward mere incompletion!

     Most of the writers honored in Tributes are best known as novelists, poets, story writers or playwrights, which is great and appropriate. But in a literature as manifold and hybrid as that of these United States, it would have been equally representative to have included historians (like Francis Parkman) and justices (like Oliver Wendell Holmes), translators (like Mary Barnard) and newspapermen (like Ring Lardner), screenwriters (like Orson Welles) and political leaders (like Malcom X), lyricists (like Ira Gershwin) and inventors (like Buckminster Fuller), philosophers (like William James)—and even an occasional president who could weave ideas with words in exceptional ways (like John Adams, or Abraham Lincoln).

     This is all to say that the intention was never to provide a comprehensive accounting of American literature. Tributes should be seen as an invitation to begin to have a look at where we have been, as a various and often dissociated fellowship of American authors, in order to see where we might be headed—together and apart—in the future.

     The choice of authors honored was happily left up to the contributors. So there are two pieces on Gertrude Stein and nothing on Hemingway. Prokosch is here but not Stephen Crane, nor Hart Crane, nor the creator of Ichabod Crane. There is a tribute to Dr. Seuss but the author of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is neglected. A number of contemporary writers were invited to pay homage to an American writer, one who made something possible for them, whether that was the act of writing itself, or writing a certain book, or in a particular manner, or living in a way that was consonant with the work of writing. This is an anthology of personal enthusiasms—enthusiasm as Emerson defined it: exuberant and magnanimous—a colloquium Whitman might have seen as a progress of vistas.

     And it’s with Whitman, of course, along with Emerson, where many meditations about American literature have typically found their source. Still, what is American literature? Emerson believed it must be autochthonous and original, must look to itself for inspiration and resource, and following his criteria it’s easy to see why he often doubted its existence. Is American literature no more than the collected products of writers who by accident of birth, or socioeconomic design, or immigration, are by nationality American, citizens for better or worse of the United States? And how long do you have to have been here to count as American? Several generations on a cotton plantation or the time it takes to arrange a green-card marriage? Was Russian-born Nabokov really American, though he became a citizen; was Henry James, who became at the end of his life a British subject, ever really American? British-born Paul West, who writes so eloquently on Faulkner, has been an American for over half his life, and is living proof that the art itself transcends national and bureaucratic boundaries. In every way it is ultimately temperament that dictates the answers.

     Finally, if American writers are supposed to have an original relationship with the universe, like others have had, then how is the relationship original? Is American literature an idea only, then, an idea about one’s relationship to the universe? If so, is it available to anyone, Americans and non-Americans alike? (Maybe that’s why nineteenth-century Latin American writers recognized Whitman not only as a prophet of personal acquisitiveness and political expansionism, but also as a great poet long before their northern colleagues did.) Is there an American literature, or are there American literatures, each marked by individual idioms, manners, subjects? Or is it fruitless to speak of racial, ethnic, class-based, sexual and geographical distinctions when each writer by necessity must wage her or his own eccentric articulation against and within a culture that tends to devalue the individual voice in favor of consensus? Do such questions begin to erode fundamental purposes of the very activity of asking?

     If we can’t answer, at least we know where these questions come from, and we honor both the questions and those who would try to answer. If we don’t know, maybe never can know, precisely what American literature is, we are quite aware we’re not the first to not know. This shouldn’t in any way suppress our desire to pay homage to a handful of the great ones who wrote, many of them against all odds, in this country we’ve inherited. The tributes in this issue are offered in that spirit of magnanimity.
 
—September 1997
New York City

Bradford Morrow is the editor of Conjunctions and the recipient of the PEN/Nora Magid Award for excellence in literary editing. He is the author of The Diviner’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the fiction collection The Uninnocent (Pegasus Books). A Bard Center fellow and professor of literature at Bard College, he lives in New York City.
Martine Bellen’s works include This Amazing Cage of Light (Spuyten Duyvil) and the monodrama opera Moon in the Mirror (text cowritten by Zhang Er and music by Stephen Dembski).