After six decades as a prominent print journal, Washington and Lee's acclaimed literary journal Shenandoah is available at shenandoahliterary.org. The digital version - Volume 62, Number 2, is now online. The homepage also includes a Poem of the Week, an Archive Feature of the Month, audio files of contributors reading their work, an essay on featured artist, William Dunlap; brief and extended reviews and a rotating series of 100 arresting quotations. Those seeking information about submissions, prizes and the publication's history - from Tom Wolfe through Flannery O'Connor and W. H. Auden up to Rita Dove and Charles Wright- will find a wealth of information on the site. Further links reveal a description of the WLU English Department's Internship in Literary Editing program, along with comments by both the winter 2013 interns and recent graduates. All aspects of the journal are interactive and invite reader comment. Finally, Shenandoah's blog "Snopes" will introduce provocative topics and encourage readers to engage in discussion. Bloggers will include staff members, interns and special guests.
For over half a century Shenandoah has been publishing splendid poems, stories, essays and reviews which display passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief.
Founded in 1950 by a group of Washington and Lee University faculty and students, Shenandoah has achieved a wide reputation as one of the country's premier literary magazines. Work from the magazine's pages has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Spiritual Writing, The O'Henry Prize, New Stories from the South and The Pushcart Prize, as well as numerous other anthologies and quite literally thousands of collections by the original authors. Recent issues have featured Pulitzer winners Natasha Trethewey, Claudia Emerson and Ted Kooser, as well as fiction by James Lee Burke, George Singleton, Alyson Hagy, Chris Offutt, Bret Anthony Johnston and Pam Durban.
Because Iâ€™ve written previously about American gun violence in an editorâ€™s note on this site (Volume 62, No, 2: â€œGun Culture and Gun Cultâ€), this blog seems an appropriate place to register a kind of addendum, a question I have about Donald Trumpâ€™s reaction to the on-air murder of two Roanoke journalists who lived and worked about an hour from my home. Itâ€™s a question I wonâ€™t ever be in a position to ask the candidate, and I have no expectation that any working journalist or producer will be willing or allowed to ask, so here goes.
I was astonished to hear Trumpâ€™s comment that, if the WDBJ employees Alison Parker and Adam Ward had been armed, the two journalists might have been able to protect themselves from this horrible ambush. My question is simply, â€œHow?â€ I recognize that details are not Trumpâ€™s forte, but Iâ€™m trying to imagine the scenario for him. Suppose the journalists were both comfortable with handguns, trained marksmen, veterans of combat simulation courses who practiced on a regular basis. This is, after all, the most intelligent way to be â€œarmed,â€ though not the practice of journalists, except in rare cases, even in war zones. But just suppose they were.
Weâ€™ve seen the footage. Alison Parker is holding a microphone, focused on her interview subject (and letâ€™s even arm the interviewee, as well, though still oblivious to the assassin lurking behind her). Adam Ward is operating a video camera that requires both hands, concentrating on his craft, focusing, zooming, improving the angle, moving about. The interview is in a resort town, the subject uncontroversial, the circumstances unthreatening. Anyone but a trained and on-duty personal security guard would have been attending to the task at hand: get the story.
Then a Glock-wielding man emerges from the surrounding background blur of people, vehicles, buildings, ornamental vegetation. Without warning, he opens fire. Rapid fire. Heâ€™s motivated, fixated, and he evidently knows how to shoot. What I want to hear from the advocates of the “good man with a gun solution” is how the victims should have known to or could have been able to take preventive measures, evasive action, to return fire between the first shot and their last breaths. How many seconds are we talking about here? How does the self-defense scenario unfold?Â Think of the armed policeman in Houston, the New York officers sitting in their car. . . all armed and trained, all now dead.
What Trump has done is to invent an alternative scenario thatâ€™s so unlikely â€“ given timing, disposition of shooter vis-Ã -vis the positions of the victims, sheer common sense â€“ that is less realistic than the gun fights of Roger Moore Bond films. And why would he do that, instead of perhaps recommending that interviews be done in secret or by and with only those in body armor and helmets?
I believe Trump has two agenda items here. First, he must be careful never say anything to make his 2nd amendment zealot supporters question his allegiance to them and (yes) their economic power, despite his claim that he needs no money from anyone, ever. Secondly, he tends to blame victims. People to whom unfortunate things happen are another caste, those who lack his charm, his likeability, his boldness and enterprise, his infallible managerial expertise. What heâ€™s saying is that he (and people like him, if there are any) are just too shrewd, wise, alert, intelligent, beloved to get shot.
A follow-up question, if itâ€™s allowed: does Donald Trump carry a pistol? Or does he just have armed security guards around him? If he doesnâ€™t, does he have any notion how much is involved psychologically in the decision to carry a weapon and how much effort is required to be proficient enough with one to make a positive difference, in situations where the lethal scenario unfolds slowly and tactical knowledge becomes valuable?Â Americaâ€™s most successful military sniper was gunned down. Would he have been able to protect himself if heâ€™d had a weapon . . . in his hand? When James Butler Hickok was shot, he carried two Colts, but Jack McCall came at him from behind, like Vester Flanagan. The famed gunfighter never had a chance.
I wonder if Trump has ever seen anyone shot to death or even been in the presence of a non-range, non-hunting discharge of a weapon, had the experience of hearing that first round crack and the shock that follows for anyone in the vicinity. To know what to do and have the reflexes and instinct to do it â€“ that requires both training and a certain kind of temperament.Â Ask any policeman about that.Â Or ask a soldier.
When I was in college I witnessed a murder by handgun. Morning, outdoors, brisk beautiful day. Coming up a campus roadway, my friend and I saw two men silhouetted on a rise, maybe 75-100 feet away (some details are now faded, others indelible). One raised a gun and pointed it at the otherâ€™s head and fired. I have no idea exactly what my friend and I did physically at that instant; itâ€™s gone from my mind. But if the shooter had chosen to go for us next, weâ€™d have been easy prey. He shot himself instead, but I keep wondering if thereâ€™s any sign in the miles of Trump footage weâ€™ve been exposed to that he would have reacted more effectively in the moments after that first shot on that windy campus morning or out at Smith Mountain lake this past week. Even if heâ€™d had a sidearm and an excellent shooterâ€™s eye and hand, even if heâ€™d been spared the first round of the volley. No footage Iâ€™ve seen suggests he is qualified to judge what will or wonâ€™t save a victim from bullets.
If the journalists had been armed, they might have been able to save themselves. . .Â .Â That is not the position of a man who has brought imagination, experience, calculation or empathy to the question. Itâ€™s not the position of a man who â€œtells the truthâ€ or â€œsays what he really thinks.â€ Itâ€™s just the reaction of a man who talks.
Po Lick Tickle Wreck Test?
â€œPCâ€ came into my world as an acronym for â€œpolitical correctnessâ€ about the same time it seeped into common usage for â€œpersonal computer.â€ For some reason, my resistance to the abbreviation in either case was immediate. Maybe too much like the British â€œwcâ€ or our â€œRC,â€ to which I was partial on a July day. The latter term has now been eclipsed by brand names (HP, Apple â€“ oops â€“ Mac) and more design-specific terms like laptop, pad, tower. I suppose that eclipse is because the former term has so permeated our public dialogue that it hogs the field.
At first, I saw â€œpolitically correct,â€ especially in reference to speech, as a useful term, if employed precisely, a way to distinguish real correctness (right reasoning, manners, considerateness, civility, respect) from feigned correctness, the pretense of sensitivity or hypersensitivity. But it didnâ€™t work out as Iâ€™d hoped. Almost anywhere I look up the term, itâ€™s immediately identified as a pejorative (and combative) term deployed to assail anyone who is presumed (or imagined) to be speaking with a calculated desire to mollify and avoid offense to minorities and other groups, especially those with little income but significant ballot power. A kind of band wagon insincerity. It seems we have Dinesh Dâ€™Souza (with a little assistance from liberals who used it as an ironic in-joke) to thank for this, largely, and the result is that genuine empathy and fair-mindedness get conflated with the manipulative espousing of respect extended to a person or group whose favor one wishes to curry (a term, I should point out, I borrow from equestrian usage rather than the vocabulary of cuisine).
Hate speech, racial profiling, stereotyping â€“ certainly these are public, and therefore political, issues. But first theyâ€™re personal. Theyâ€™re rude, and itâ€™s no surprise that a politician who would bloviate about having no time for political correctness would be quick to add that an entire nation has no time for PC. Maybe weâ€™d better slow down, if thatâ€™s what it takes to become deliberative and gracious, to grant and display dignity. In political circles, I suppose this is called being diplomatic. Such pronouncements as the â€œno timeâ€ claim are always in a charged context and usually furnished by people whose diction, figures of speech and style of delivery all suggest that they would have little time for real correctness â€“ compassion or politeness â€“ so urgent is their agenda, so certain their mission.
Heaven knows, the excesses of what is called PC are invitations to satire, such as the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that â€œBaa Baa Black Sheepâ€ is offensive, and in the fierce and divisive culture wars that have permeated this century so far, political correctness, moral correctness and even conventional rectitude have become weapons rather than tools of investigation. To call someone politically correct is tantamount to saying he or she is a panderer, insincere, a con artist.
As a teacher and writer, I have a dog in this fight. Maybe two dogs. I want my classes to feature both candid discourse and sensitivity (with diplomacy and accuracy). A hard balance to strike, if the participants have reasons to fear or despise common cause and mutual understanding. Fortunately, that doesnâ€™t often happen. Students who take my courses in editing or the writing of poetry and fiction are usually attuned to the lovely and deadly possibilities of words. I give them early on this wisdom from Scott Russell Sanders: â€œThe work of language deserves our greatest care, for the tongueâ€™s fire may devour the world or light the way.â€ I vote for light. Itâ€™s important that we limit wordsâ€™ use as weapons, for once the fire ignites, winds may blow, lightning snake and everyone may get singed.
My second dog in the fight has to do with the actual writing done in such classes. I donâ€™t know how writers who wish to explore the human condition in a significant body of work with admirable range can do so without on occasion presenting characters whose language is sometimes coarse, objectionable, even despicable, but itâ€™s up to the writer (no small charge here) to make it clear that the character may not be the narrator and that the narrator may not be the author. Thereâ€™s no record of an audience stoning the actor who plays Iago particularly well, though we scorn the character, while being provoked and mystified by him, even learning from his speech and behavior. Itâ€™s a tricky business. Though Huck is Twainâ€™s moral center, the boyâ€™s language behavior is often no better than that of the ruthless scoundrels in the story (not to mention the well-meaning but misguided and naÃ¯ve parrot-folk who havenâ€™t come to Huckâ€™s experience of brotherly love). How does Twain make certain the reader understands that the author trusts Huckâ€™s heart more than his tongue? Itâ€™s powerful difficult, but Twain cannot persuade us that his story is 14 carat and not foolâ€™s gold if Huck refers to slaves as â€œAfrican Americans.â€ Twain crosses on the thin ice, as artists often must do. We keep our fingers crossed.
If it seems that Iâ€™m tiptoeing around here, being PC myself, Iâ€™m aware of it, and I hate it. In a classroom I will utter the offending syllables in quotations and direct conversation about them. In an imaginative text â€“ a story or a poem in which the persona is at some remove from my vocabulary â€“ Iâ€™ll seldom hesitate to go for the realistic, even (Cormac) McCarthyesque vernacular over the euphemism. Itâ€™s seldom a pleasure to do that, but often medicinal necessity, for the vitality and authenticity of the story. As the culture wars have progressed, Iâ€™ve spent more time contemplating how much offending speech my characters need to be allowed, and at what point it is akin to piling on. Lenny Bruce makes a cogent point when he writes about his obscenity trial for uttering a particularly coarse phrase in public. Over and over the prosecutor and judge repeat the offending phrases, and Bruce comes to understand that they like saying them, with impunity. Thatâ€™s only natural, I suppose, but thereâ€™s no free lunch, and freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. We do indeed need to calculate about what we say, but not to curry favor or invite approval, not to camouflage enmity as righteousness. Certainly we owe something to the ideas we wish to express; we owe them precision, thoroughness and some deftness of expression, but we also owe our audience and our subjects common human decency. We owe that even to ourselves.
Itâ€™s moments like this I miss cartoonist Walt Kellyâ€™s Pogo (Ponce de Leon) Possum, his ever-refreshing if oblique take on things, but maybe I should just remember his revision of Oliver Perryâ€™s victory proclamation after the battle of Lake Erie: â€œWe have met the enemy and they are ours. . . . â€ Kellyâ€™s version is: â€œWe have met the enemy and he is us.â€ A hit, a palpable hit. Perry, by the way, is also remembered for his battle flag: â€œDonâ€™t give up the ship.â€ Donâ€™t know what Kelly would have said on that one, but it seems sound to me, so we sail on, trying to use language with fairness, thrift, precision, finesse, wisdom but without losing the human heat. Now thereâ€™s a thought. â€œExcelsior!â€ as Kelly’s Alfred Gator would say.
Around the end of the year I hope to run an assigned reviewerâ€™s formal, adjudicated, long-ruminated assessment of Rebecca Makkaiâ€™s collection of short stories Music for Wartime (Viking, out right now). For the moment, however, Iâ€™m going to offer a brief, enthusiastic but personal response to the book by a woman who served as my student assistant at Shenandoah for three years and now has become, through no fault of mine, something of an indispensable writer for our current literary culture, or more importantly, for avid, artful readers.
Yeats told us that â€œthings fall apart,â€ as Makkaiâ€™s stories attest, but she also recognizes, even invokes, a counterforce: things also converge. Needs, opportunities, capacities, chemistry â€“ sometimes they rise and converge, not because the world has read Oâ€™Connor, but because the spirals of experience fluctuate. A person (or character) with a particular energy or ability meets someone with an appetite or unacknowledged defect or limitation. A healer, a teacher, a witness is about as likely as a nemesis.
A dying artist finds the partner he needs via the unlikely introduction of a punch in the nose (â€œGood Saint Anthony Come Aroundâ€). A scruffy male musician offers sanctuary to a beleaguered female violist struggling with a question of morality and tact (â€œCrossâ€). An old and damaged master violinist teachers a sensitive, even clairvoyant young boy the chance to see his frailties and potential, as friends find refuge in beauty from the history of atrocity. It all sounds pretty standard for short stories when I put it that way, but Makkaiâ€™s stories render these situations and people with great attention, resourcefulness and grace. She recognizes â€œthe urgency of everythingâ€ but constructs her stories with great patience, precision. My favorite of the stories, â€œThe Worst You Ever Feelâ€ records the â€œmagic of survivalâ€ tapped into by some of the Romanian emigreâ€™s who gather in young Aaronâ€™s parentsâ€™ house, but the whole collection seems woven around â€œthe music of survivalâ€: devotees of classical music are among the most riveting of the protagonists, and even Bach appears as a character in â€œCouple of Lovers on a Red Background.â€
One of the beauties of Music for Wartime (which seems to be any time) is the dynamic between the contemporary domestic issues â€“ lovers drawing apart, the AIDS epidemicâ€™s impact on the art community, bombings, racial profiling and miscommunication â€“ and the modes of the stories, which run from the naturalistic-realistic narrative to folk tale features (â€œIâ€™ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.â€), Kafkaesque mysteries and Borgesian twists of events. A fugitive from tyranny finds another manâ€™s briefcase, then relocates to build a new life around the case ownerâ€™s identity until the burden of imposture overwhelms him. A boy is smitten by visions and also occupies himself with constructing stories, and who can say where the one leaves off and the other begins? A circus elephant dies in a town, and the wondrous events and afflictions that follow seem Biblical (â€œThe Miracle Years of Little Fork,â€ available in the current issue of Ploughshares).
Tragedies and trifles abound, but Makkaiâ€™s carefully calibrated threshold of attention and her depth of sympathy, perhaps surprisingly balanced by her broad humor and sometimes wicked wit, make it impossible to anticipate her next move.
But her larger moves so far have been impressive. The Borrower, her first novel, is about flight from persecution, acceptance of difficulties and the role books play in the coming of age. The Hundred-Year House, her second novel, released last year, is a mystery and a tragedy, a comedy and a treasure hunt, a tail of twisted timelines and identity shifting to almost Ovidian degree. Love and the instability of identity run through her work, which is confident and risky. Makkai has a fearless imagination and a virtuosoâ€™s range of tactics, but the heart is at the center of this collection, as she interrogates readers on the nature of reality, â€œreality shows,â€ masks and masques and mysteries, the necessity of preserving music. Anyone who has read several of the stories but not â€œThe Miracle Years of Little Forkâ€ will have no apparatus to deal with the dying pachyderm elephant, the assimilation of the circus people, the Biblical assaults of weather, the transformation of the pastor. But in the end, they will seem necessary and coherent.
The publication record of these stories is impressive, most notably the inclusion of four of them in four different volumes of The Best American Short Stories. Itâ€™s refreshing to discover that the sometimes crazy literary world, often smitten with fads or brands, has recognized Makkai boldness and her precision.
This testimony, remember, is not offered as an objective or even fairly subjective review. Itâ€™s a fanâ€™s enthusiastic recommendation, one manâ€™s unprofessional opinion. Iâ€™ve been reading these stories singly as they appeared over the past decade, and as much as I enjoy and appreciate her novels, I hope every day that Makkai is somewhere working on a new story, or that oneâ€™s about to appear in a journal. If you see that before I do, let me know.
[By the way, The mid-August issue of The New Yorker recommends this â€œ impressive collection,â€ but Iâ€™m sticking to my guns.]