I don't generally post about the anniversary of September 11th, but I found myself thinking about it ever since I created my syllabus for the fall and found myself filling in a slot for Thursday, September 11th. I was teaching on that day in 2001 -- or rather would have been teaching that day, except classes were soon cancelled and justifiably so -- and there are two recurring images to me of that day that are purely personal: weaving my way through downtown traffic after picking up my son from day care and the small classroom in Corcoran Hall in which I would have been teaching.
It's really insignificant, isn't it? I think of that classroom and the students and that we were churning our way through early American literature at that point so early in the semester, having gotten through that dreadful Puritan crap (no offense to you early Americanists out there, really...someone has to be interested in that stuff) and we were in the midst of talking about the Revolutionary War era and those great products of the Enlightenment, Franklin and Paine.
Franklin, in his inimitable way, would have had a field day with our President repeating the mantra that the terrorists hated us "because of our freedom." Can you imagine Franklin, who in his day slyly ridiculed the religious right and slavery, sitting still while our supposed leaders perpetrated the worst kind of intellectual and moral laziness on the American public?
Paine, of course, became persona non grata in the United States after he decided that the same spirit of freedom that burst forth to fight for self-government would also be on the side of reason in the fight against superstition...but he was sadly mistaken...not too surprising for a country in which it's still common for athletes to think a supernatural entity is personally allowing them to score touchdowns.
I'm not going to lie: I thought then and still think now that the connecting thread of all American literature was the fact that we could do better -- that we weren't living up to our promises, our expectations, our ideals. Hope and disappointment run hand in hand through our best literature.
How can you read Souls of Black Folk and not see the investment in American ideals that Du Bois has alongside his bitter anger and disappointment that those ideals aren't much more than hollow words where race is concerned? The Great Gatsby is powerful because it shows how easily the American Dream is co-opted (for Nick) or misunderstood (for Gatsby)...boats against the current indeed. Russell Banks's Continental Drift, Whitman's Song of Myself, Emerson, Thoreau, Cather, even good old Cotton Mather. They all traffic in our contradictions and failures. They all say with Allen Ginsberg that there's still work to be done, they're putting their queer shoulders to the wheel.
I don't think you produce great art if you think we've arrived at perfection.
You don't get anywhere by refusing to ask questions.
Where does John Brown fit into all this?