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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

When in NoHo I like to stop in at The Raven, the local used bookstore. I don't think I've ever found something I was actually looking for there, but it is a window into what people are teaching (who would teach The Reivers I wonder? If it isn't Faulkner's slightest novel it has to be close. Maybe it was a course in meh books by great writers. You could do Across the River and Into the Trees, and The Breast, and Tough Guys Don't Dance....). Serendipity is what used bookstores are all about anyway, right? Bobby Thompson's obit was still fresh in my mind, so I walked out with a copy of Underworld. I'd read the famous prologue, Pafko at the Wall, when it appeared in Harper's, but by the time the book appeared I was past my Delillo phase. I'm now about two thirds into it, and although I like it a great deal, I wonder if history hasn't changed the way it will be read in the future in ways DeLillo obviously could never have intended.

In my notes on the book I wrote, "Is this the last pre-9/11 novel?" In one way or another DeLillo's Big Subject has always been America's Cold War paranoiac mindset. We're still paranoid, of course, in every sense of that loaded term, clinically and metaphorically, but the focus of our paranoia has shifted. Underworld does a beautiful job of capturing the feel of its time, but the mothballed planes in the desert are a different sort of symbol now. Those planes never dropped their bombs after all. The planes we think about today are like the planes Laurie Anderson sang about in O Superman-- a work that has similarly undergone an involuntary shift in meaning. American planes, made in America, that became bombs themselves.

Reading Underworld over the course of my travels the past couple of weeks I've found myself musing over the ambiguities of history in general. Wandering around in Columbia we came upon the soldiers and sailors memorial park. A. was not particularly interested, but I had a couple of hypotheses I wanted to test. The first was whether the Korean War dead were suitably memorialized. This has been an ongoing project for A's father, a Korea-era vet. Sure enough, there was no separate monument to the Korea dead-- they shared a stone with the WWII dead. Other than Ted Williams I am hard pressed to say what the two had in common, and this validated my father-in-law's complaints about the so-called "forgotten war". I was after bigger game than that, however, and I found it. Missouri is technically a border state, even today, but in the Civil War, Missouri was a border state that sent men and supplies to both sides, had its star on both flags, and had separate governments representing each side. Sure enough, the names on the Civil War monument were each listed with either the initials "USA" or "CSA"-- in roughly equal ratio. I was starting to count them so I could work out what the ratio was when an elderly woman approached us. "Are you looking for someone in particular?" she asked. We said we weren't, and she told us proudly that she had grandfathers on both sides-- and pointed out their names. So Missouri = Vichy I guess. In Europe there remains a lingering sense of shame, and I'd always thought that this was because the atrocities of the last century were still within living memory, but the Civil War is still sufficiently proximate to have the living avatar we encountered, and the poisonous flaws that permeated the Constitution still have their effects felt in our society. The whole trip had me thinking about the remedial efforts we've tried to take over the course of our history. EGA's prospective in-laws remind me of the 21st Amendment. One of the reception venues we looked at was the headquarters of the St. Louis Bar Association, which featured photographs of both the first woman lawyer in town and the first African-American lawyer. The woman came after, just as suffrage for women trailed the 15th Amendment by 50 years. (The woman, Lemma Barkeloo, was admitted in 1870. What must it have been like to have been a woman lawyer who wasn't allowed to vote?) I suppose at the time these things must have seemed progressive or even radical, but the perspective of history tells us otherwise. It is shocking that the United States tolerated slavery at all, ever. It is appalling that there was ever a time when women were thought incapable of participating in government. Driving back to the airport along St. Louis' Martin Luther King Boulevard I found myself thinking, "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." I wonder what Lemma Barkeloo would have thought about that?

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