Yiyun Li on Seeing, Staring & the Necessity of Looking Closer

yiyun liThroughout human history, heedful observation has been the first step to deciphering the mysteries of the universe: Copernicus only realized the planets in our solar system revolved around the sun after countless hours staring through a telescope whereas Darwin only formulated his paradigm-shifting theory of evolution after rigorously studying the breathtaking diversity of the Galapagos.  Art, too, begins with observation.  The novelist, the photographer, the painter, the poet: before he can represent reality, he must see it, which requires he dispense with all preconception and prejudice.  To discover truth, whether as an artist or scientist, we must be willing to look closer— and be courageous enough to see things as they actually are.

The necessity of looking closer is what Yiyun Li, author of the heartbreaking autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End, ponders in her perceptive essay “Strangers on a Train,” one of forty six thought-provoking pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  An engrossing compendium of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  

When asked what inspires her, Li chose an excerpt from Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of Heart.  The passage describes Portia Quayne, a sixteen-year-old orphan who’s learned to evade people’s gaze:

Portia had learnt one dare never look for long.  She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learnt shyness from the alarm they precipitate.  Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered…You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face— what becomes of that child later you do not know.”

For Li, this passage captures an essential fact of human nature: most of us are embarrassed to be known.  Terrified of being seen for who we are, we avert our eyes from lingering glances and hide from intimacy behind self-imposed walls.  When others attempt to penetrate our defenses, we fortify our strongholds, remaining as remote as an island thousands of miles from the coast.  Not even our dearest friends are permitted unrestricted access to our hearts.  After all, if we lay bare our authentic selves, whether it be to casual acquaintances or to our closest confidantes, we risk being rejected and ridiculed: 

This passage describes an averted gaze— eyes we ‘avoid meeting’ because they are so revealing, so full of feeling, and the way these eyes themselves learn to turn away because they cause such alarm.  I think it’s a very cutting insight into human nature.  How often do we turn away from knowing another person fully as we could, avoiding even the eyes of the people we’re closest to?  And how often do we hide ourselves, afraid of being really looked into and seen?” 

 In a funny moment, Li confesses that— unlike Bowen’s timid Portia— she loves to stare, mostly because observing is how one begins to understand another’s soul:

I relate to this because I’m a starer; I’m interested in looking at people very closely.  I look at people I know, but I also look at people I don’t know.  It does make strangers uncomfortable— which, of course, I understand.  I’ve noticed that, in New York City, you’re not supposed to stare at people.  No one has enough space, and when people are in public, they’re trying to maintain anonymity.  But I stare at people all the time, because I like to imagine their lives by looking into their faces, looking at their eyes.  You can tell so much just from a person’s face.”

Other than our instinctual fear of ridicule, we avoid gazing too intensely in others’ eyes because we fear the secrets we’ll unearth.  Human beings are as unfathomable as the furthest reaches of the universe: we can launch satellites into space but it’s impossible to unravel all the enigmas of the cosmos.  

And therein lies the dilemma— we can never truly know people.  Our mother, our best friend, our lover: if we look at any of them too closely, we’ll realize they’re as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car.  On the surface, our mother may seem unadventurous but, if we plumb the depths of her past, we might discover she once gallivanted around the globe, sunbathing in Santorini and dancing all night at the Brazilian carnival.  Our best friend may seem vivacious and charismatic, so convivial she can effortlessly strike up a conversation with most people but, beneath her facade of sociability, she might prefer to be left alone.  Even after years together, some terrain of our lover’s character might remain unexplored.  Our kind, gentle husband might shock us when he loses his temper and smashes a plate against the wall.  Or a casual conversation about abortion might reveal he holds an opinion in direct conflict with our own.  Nothing is more mysterious than the human heart.  Though we tend to classify people into neat and tidy categories of semantic description (“mother,” “father,” “enemy,” “friend”), human beings contain “multitudes” to borrow the enduring words of Walt Whitman— they cannot be collapsed into a box.  When we look steadily at our loved ones, Li writes, we realize what we see is but a small fraction of who they are:

When I was studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop years ago, Marilynne Robinson used an example to demonstrate the inexplicableness of human beings.  I forget the context, and I’m paraphrasing, but she would say something like this: 

Sometimes, when you get home and your mother looks up, her eyes are so unfamiliar, and for a moment it’s as though she’s looking at you as a stranger on a New York subway would do.

I loved that idea— your eyes surprise your mother’s eyes, and for that split second everything is there: a whole emotional world that you don’t know well, so foreign and hidden that she briefly becomes a stranger.  Then she transforms, she becomes the mother you know again, and life goes on.  But, in that brief instant of eye contact, something is caught.  This is what we learn by looking at another person’s face— and also what makes us want to turn away.”

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No matter how terrified we are of seeing and being seen, the only way to unveil the truth of people— and the world— is to look closer.  This is especially true in writing.  In the words of Susan Sontag, “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world— a writer is a professional observer.”  For Lin, to write is to stare: to truly see characters in all their contradictions and complexities, we can’t flinch from what’s there.  As in real life, characters lie to us: they wear a public face, they weave stories about who they are.  And just as in real life, we must unravel our characters from the myths they tell.  Life is a masquerade ball where we disguise ourselves in more acceptable costumes.  If we are to find the man behind the mask, the person behind the persona, we have to strip away the endless shrouds of affectation and facade until we can see others uncut and uncensored:

“Writing fiction is kind of like staring, too.  You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on a train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you.  This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away.  I believe all characters try to trick us.  They lie to us.  It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world— no one’s going to be 100 percent honest.  They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are.  There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people.  People don’t want to tell you their secrets.  Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.

[…]

That’s why I stare at my characters.  Not physically— I can’t really see them physically— but in an act of imagination that’s similar to the way I stare at people in real life.  It can be harsh, but I think I like the harsh, true things you see when you don’t turn away.  The writer must never look away.  You can feel it in a book when a writer flinches away from seeing too deeply into his characters.  You really have to strip your characters naked, every single layer, to finally understand them.”

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Kathryn Harrison on Why She Writes

kathryn harrisonFor colossus of modernism James Joyce, writing in English was the “most ingenious torture
ever devised.”  For Kurt Vonnegut, it was a heartbreaking reminder of the difficulty of articulating himself: “When I write,” he confessed, “I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”  Hunter S. Thompson also humorously  described the torment of putting pen to page: “Writing is the flip side of sex— it’s good only when it’s over.”  Those of us who’ve stared down the blank page know to write is to battle your inner saboteur:  

Who do you think you are?  What makes you think you have something worthwhile to say?”  

“Really…that’s your topic?  All your ideas are hackneyed and tired.  Millions of people have already written the same thing and have written it better.”

“Nothing you do will ever be intelligent/funny/original enough.”  

If you write, you invite your most merciless demons to your desk day after day.  Sometimes writing even a single sentence is beset with debilitating self-doubt.  Yes, there are days of creative rapture, blissful moments when writing is a mystical convening with the muse but they are few.  Most days writing is work: rather than scribble in a fit of ecstatic revelation, we combat one line after another.  No matter how hard we try to quell their rebellion, our sentences continue to mutiny.  More often than not, the act of expressing ourselves requires excruciating effort: instead of feel seized by a divine power, ideas pouring forth from some otherworldly plane, we experience each sentence, each word as a struggle.  At times, writing a meager one hundred words is a trudge up a steep hill. 

So why, when writing is such a demoralizing profession, do novelists and essayists, poets and playwrights, willingly put pen to page?  In her timeless essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion, patron saint of mythic 1960s LA, observed, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”  When distinguished author and National Book Critics Circle member Meredith Maran posed this perennial question to twenty of our era’s most acclaimed authors in her indispensable collection Why I Write, the answers were as assorted as the authors.  Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan remarked she writes “because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  New Yorker contributor Susan Orlean responded in characteristically beautiful, understated prose, “I write because I love learning about the world.”  Fearless poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied she wrote “to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead” while controversial bad boy James Frey wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  

One of the most insightful responses came from Kathryn Harrison, writer of haunting, hypnotic beauty whose memoir The Kiss shocked audiences around the world.  When first published in 1998, the deeply disturbing account of her incestous affair with her father was both lauded and scorned: while novelist Tobias Wolff argued Harrison redeemed her dark subject matter with the “steadiness of her gaze” and the “uncanny, heartbreaking exactitude of her language,” Wall Street Journal critic Cynthia Crossen admonished her to “hush up.”  Thankfully, Harrison ignored her detractors.  A woman of remarkable candor, today she continues to turn an unflinching eye toward the taboo.  But what, exactly, motivates her to write— especially when speaking the unspeakable has historically made her the target of vehement vitriol?  Like many overachievers whose obsession with success conceals deep-seated feelings of inferiority, Harrison hoped writing would finally be an accomplishment impressive enough to win her mother’s approval:

“I write because it’s the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love.  It has everything to do with my relationship with my mother.  I spent my childhood in an attempt to remake myself into a girl she would love, and I’ve translated that into the process of writing— not intentionally, but just as I was always looking beyond my present incarnation toward the one that would woo my mother’s attention, I’m always looking toward to book that hasn’t come out yet: the one that will reveal me worthy of love.  

[…]

When it’s great, writing can be ecstatic.  Even when it’s just hard, it’s always involving.  The moments that are sublime— I get just enough of them that I don’t lose hope of being given another— are only so because for that moment, when even as little as a sentence seems exactly right, before the feeling fades, it offers what I think it must feel like to be worthy of love.  I want praise of course; it’s a cousin of love.  But equally important to me is a bit of evidence, here and there, that a reader got it, saw what I’d hoped to reveal.”

When pondering why she writes, Harrison notes writing is a meaning-making machine, a consoling way for her to comprehend what at first seems unfathomable:

“I write, also, because it’s the apparatus I have for explaining the world around me, seemingly the only method that works.  By the time I was in high school I’d discovered that the process of hammering text on the page— being able to articulate things, to get them right— offered not only consolation but a place I could live inside.”

The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing.  Today, we know it more informally as being “in the zone.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named this transcendent state of complete absorption “flow.”  To experience such an elevated state of consciousness, explains poet of resplendent prose Diane Ackerman, is to be transfixed in a “waking trance.”  When artists throughout the ages have compared creating to being a vessel, they were describing this psychological process.  For Harrison, writing is a portal to this euphoric, almost otherworldly state of being, a magical place where she can both erase and affirm her identity:

One thing I love about writing is that in that moment, I am most completely myself, and yet totally relieved of my self.  I don’t really like spending that much time with myself when I’m not writing, but when I’m in that strange paradox of being most and least myself, I can be transcendently happy, rapturous.  Those moments are rare— I’m doing well if it’s two percent of the time— but memorable, like a drug you have to get back to.”

In a moment equal parts tough love and practical no-nonsense, Harrison concludes by dispelling the long enduring myth of the suffering artist.  Though we sentimentalize the image of the artist as a tormented drunk, Ms. Harrison, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, maintains the most productive writers are actually sane, happy and healthy— not irreparably fucked up.  A real writer doesn’t harbor romantic notions about his profession (“Writing is hard…coal mining is harder.  Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal?  They do not.  They simply dig,” Cheryl Strayed counseled with hard-earned wisdom in her advice column Dear Sugar) nor does he wait around for the mercurial muse to whisper a masterpiece into his ear—he treats writing just like any other job.  In other words, he shows up:

“Writing is a job.  If you’re going to do a job, you’re going to do it everyday.  You’re going to get enough sleep, and not fall into dissolute habits.  I never had a romantic idea about writing.  In grad school other people would spend the evening drinking, then tear home to write something at three in the morning, thinking the work would be exceptional because of the exceptional circumstances under which it had been produced.  You don’t write by sitting in a garret thinking the muse might arise under some particular circumstances.”

Jennifer Egan on Writing as a Magical Mode of Time Travel & the Dark Side of Success

jennifer eganGeorge Orwell once said writing a book was a “horrible exhausting struggle.”  Oscar Wilde, who had more of a dandy’s flair for the dramatic, compared the artist’s life to a “long, lovely suicide.”  Artists throughout the ages have romanticized their demons, believing torment a requisite component of the creative process.  “If my devils were to leave me,” luminous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke worried, “I’m afraid my angels would take flight as well.”  To create- we’ve been told- is to suffer.  Artists are dark and brooding, too temperamental to forge intimate human bonds, too promiscuous to be faithful lovers.  They’re deplorable drunks who most often meet their demise drowning in their own vomit or passing out in gutters.  They put their heads in ovens and chop off their own ears.  We glamorize these notions of the tormented artist as if it were somehow noble to be so desperately dysfunctional.  But being an artist doesn’t mean being miserable.  Despite our cultural fascination with the figure of the suffering artist, when asked why she writes in the altogether lovely collection Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan- like many of her fellow scribes- speaks with an ecstatic, almost rapturous love for her craft.  In response to the titular question, she replies she writes for the bliss of being transported to another world.  For her, writing is an act of enchantment, a magical mode of time travel in which she can live countless other lives without leaving her home:

When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.  I don’t think my husband can tell.  It’s a double life I get to live without destroying my marriage.  And it’s heaven.”

After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for her tour de force A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan ascended to the utmost heights of literary superstardom.  While securing such a prestigious prize might have assured others of their own genius, Ms. Egan didn’t let the applause go to her head.  Because she had served on judges panels herself, she had the insight to understand that luck had played a vital role in her success.  A Pulitzer didn’t designate her the voice of a generation or prove her superior literary talents.  If anything, all it proved was that A Visit From the Goon Squad had tapped into the zeitgeist— it had simply been the right book at the right time.  Though in the modern meritocracy we tend to conflate winning with being the best, Egan knows “making it” has less to do with a work’s objective quality than with subjective taste.  Whether you earn a critic’s commendation or a critic’s scorn, whether you garner illustrious prizes and rise to literary acclaim or toil away in bitterness and anonymity is largely a matter of chance:

In one hundred years, if humans still exist, and if anyone remembers the name Jennifer Egan, they’ll decide whether I deserve the Pulitzer or not. The question doesn’t preoccupy me. I’ve judged a major prize and I know how it works. It all comes down to taste and, therefore, luck. If you happen to be in the final few, it’s because you’re lucky enough to have written something that appeals to those particular judges’ tastes.

I think my book is strong, and I know I did a good job. I also know it could have been better. There are plenty of books out there that are also good, and those writers could also have had the luck I had. Deserving only gets you so far. Winning a prize like that has a lot to do with cultural forces; with appetites at work in the culture.”

Though most aspiring young writers look longingly to the day they’ll arrive at the dazzling peaks of literary fame (not to mention probably sell their grandmother’s kidney to receive an honor as impressive as a Pulitzer), Egan speaks ambivalently about her newfound success: while on one hand, she’s grateful to have written a book so universally beloved, she— like novelists throughout time misfortunate enough to compose a massive bestseller— is tormented by the more than likely possibility she’ll never write such a popular book again.  Whatever she writes next will be compared to Goon Squad and inevitably be found less than.  When a “writer” is transfigured into an “author” and a “person” transmutes into a “persona,” writing is no longer a private act of creation undertaken for the sheer transcendent joy of putting one word against another— it’s a public act debased with worries of how we’ll be perceived by others.  Will the next book sell as many copies?  win as much praise?  Hurled into the limelight by the Goon Squad’s blockbuster success, Egan finds herself battling these voices more than ever.  Like many featured in Why We Write, she seems to yearn for the days before she was published, a time when she was not yet beholden to publishing houses or the public, a time when she wrote for no one but herself.  In order to maintain our integrity as artists and safeguard the playful exuberance of writing from the commodifying forces of the market, Egan suggests, we must not write for approval but for the joy of writing itself:

The attention and approval I’ve been getting for Goon Squad– the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes- is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing.  And it’s dangerous.  Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be the goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work.  I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.

I’m curious to find out what influence this will have on my writing.  I won’t know until I start another book.  A scenario I could easily envision is the following: I start the book, feel it’s not going well, and start to freak.  My rational side says, “Let’s get one thing straight.  You’re going to hate the next one.  The whole world’s going to hate the next one.”  I have no idea why this one got so much love.

But part of me thinks, they liked my last book.  Hurray.  Now we move on.  The moving on will undoubtedly involve massive disappointment on the part of others.  It never happens this way twice.  In a way, I find that sort of freeing.  My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one.  If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with Goon Squad, it’s never going to lead to anything good.  I know that.  Stop getting better?  There’s no excuse for that.”

Mary Gaitskill on How Books Help Us Penetrate Outward Personas & See the Person Beneath the Exterior

“Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things,” remarked Rebecca Solnit, “from the most mary gaitskill - Version 2practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships.  Some books are wings.  Some are horses that run away with you.  Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends…Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.  Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles.  Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning.”  For Eudora Welty, the miracle of books was their ability to liberate us from the limitations of our own personality: “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” she said, but “the man who never reads lives only one.”  Whereas for Joyce Carol Oates, reading was the sole means by which we could slip into “another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

The humanizing power of books to infiltrate the ordinarily impenetrable barrier between “us” and “them” is what Mary Gaitskill ponders in her lovely essay “I Don’t Know Anymore,” one of forty six stunning pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  A delightful trove of wisdom from authors as diverse as Aimee Bender, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  As reassuring as good conversation and a cup of coffee, Light the Dark offers insight and inspiration not only to aspiring writers but to anyone who’s been enthralled by the imaginary world of books.  

When asked what inspires her, Gaitskill chose a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina.  Anna, a passionate, sophisticated woman, has just left her husband Karenin for another man.  After getting deathly ill, she writes to Karenin begging for his forgiveness.  At the height of her fever, she confesses to him, “There is another woman in me, I’m afraid of her— she fell in love with that man, and I wanted to hate you and couldn’t forget the other one who was there before.  The one who is not me.  Now I’m real, I’m whole.”  For Gaitskill, what’s remarkable about this exchange is how both Anna and Karenin behave in way that’s totally out of character:

“Anna’s speaking about the decisions she’s made in the third person— as if the person who betrayed Karenin was a stranger.  And she does seem to be transformed here, as though she’s become a different person.  I was so surprised by that.  I think of it as a very modern insight, Tolstoy’s idea that there may be two, or more, different people inside of us.  

And it’s not just Anna.  As his wife tells him she loves him, begging his forgiveness, Karenin transforms, too.  The man we’d thought could never be anything but stiff and dull turns out to have this entirely different side to him.”  

Though this moment gives us hope for the estranged couple, their reconciliation doesn’t endure: Anna never talks about the “other woman” inside her again.  So which, Gaitskill wonders, is “the real Anna, and which is the real Karenin: the people they are at the tender bedside moment, or the people they become afterward?”  Tolstoy never offers a definitive answer.  Perhaps the regretful Anna who displays remorse for her wrongdoings, Gaitskill speculates, is the “truer part of herself.”  Perhaps death has a way of dispelling the falsehoods we tell.  Who knows?  

What’s genius about Anna Karenina is the way it probes the complexities of the self.  Like all great characters, Anna and Karenin reveal man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  Rather than confine his characters to shallow and superficial categories, Tolstoy agrees with champion of the human spirit and paradox-embracing poet Walt Whitman’s belief that man is “large and contains multitudes.”  Anna is both the unfaithful wife and the repentant cheater just as Karenin is both a spiteful husband betrayed and a man willing to forgive her.  By granting us access to a character’s inner self, a self often at odds with the facade he presents to the world, books remind us every person has an interior life we’re not privy to.  Like us, others suffer from fear and insecurity.  And like us, others possess yearnings so intense they don’t dare be uttered.  Literature’s humanizing power lies in its ability to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable abyss between self and other.  As Gaitskill concludes, “the truest parts of people can be buried”— we must be more empathetic and largehearted toward each other.

Writing Lessons from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”

In the lavish prose that is her signature, Francine Du Plessix Gray defines seduction as a kind of “challenge to create a tension between the promise of gratification and the refined delay of that gratification-to intimate how much information I shall offer and how much I shall withhold.”  No writer was a better master of seduction than Ernest Hemingway, whose economical writing style revolutionized English prose.  A revolt against the ornate artistic flourishes of the 19th century, Hemingway’s minimalist style pioneered a fiction “in which nothing crucial—or at least very little—was stated explicitly.”  His philosophy- known as the “iceberg theory”- rested on the belief that a story’s deeper meaning should be intimated- not expressed directly.  In much the same way the majority of an iceberg lies beneath the water where we can’t see, most of a story- he argued- operates underneath what a text says unambiguously.

One of my favorite professors described it this way: all novels have two levels, a narrative and a story.  The narrative is the surface: character, dialogue, setting.  Most readers can decipher at this level of what is literally being divulged on the page.  What isn’t being disclosed, however, is harder to grasp but infinitely more interesting: is what a character says what she actually means?  why does she pause dramatically before she speaks?  when her lover asks if she’s okay, why does she look away?  In Hemingway, these uncertainties are pregnant with possibility: you have to dig beneath the narrative to get to the real story.  Much like a painting’s white space heightens its colors or a symphony’s silences make its notes more resonant and full-bodied, what’s implied escalates tension and compels us to keep reading.  

It is well known among writers that drama dwells in the unuttered.  No where does the unsaid drive drama more than in the opening line of Hemingway’s masterpiece Farewell to Arms:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” 

hemingway

As a lover of poetic prose who prefers the complex constructions of a Faulkner or the opulent language of a Fitzgerald to the unornamented word choice of a Hemingway, I initially dismissed this passage as further proof that Papa was overrated.  Where was the beautiful, baroque wording?  the cultivated vocabulary?  the sumptuous figures of speech?  Hemingway’s plain diction- his monosyllabic, elementary school words, his exasperating obsession with “and” and “the”- seemed the hallmark of a less skilled writer- that is, until I read Joan Didion’s exceptional New Yorker essay, “Last Words: Those Hemingway Wrote, and Those He Didn’t.”  Her penetrative close reading of A Farewell to Arm’s opening line finally made me appreciate the genius of Hemingway’s storytelling:

“That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six such words myself.  Only one of the words has three syllables.  Twenty-two have two.  The other hundred and three have one.  Twenty-four of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.”  There are four commas.  The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of “the” and of “and,” creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of “the” before the word “leaves” in the fourth sentence (“and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling”) casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.  The power of the paragraph, offering as it does the illusion but not the fact of specificity, derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information.  In the late summer of what year?  What river, what mountains, what troops?”  

joan didion

Never in that first line does Hemingway explicitly state the year, never does he make clear that the “troops” to which he refers are fighting in WWI, the war to end all wars.  Though we’re often taught that specificity is at the heart of good writing, a masterful storyteller knows sometimes its more compelling to leave things incomplete.  Certainly, there are times when precision in phrasing is absolutely necessary- in an instruction manual, say, or any legal document where you sign your name- but stories exist in the ambiguities.  In his brilliant book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing- the same compendium of writing wisdom that gave us Hersey on the impact of understatement and Plath on the unifying power of motif– journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark maintains a story is an enigma: what compels an audience to turn the page (or binge-watch another episode) is a mystery.  As quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, “love is three quarters curiosity.”  If we want to seduce our audience, then, we have to conceal more than we disclose:

Writing Lesson #1 

“As important as what you put in is what to leave out.  This is easy to say but hard to do.  After you’ve written a draft, read it aloud, but only to yourself.  If you read it to someone else, that person may ask questions, which will lead to a longer draft.  That can make things clearer.  But if your goal is spare prose, it helps to listen for the useless or distracting word or phrase.  It may look right on the page.  But when you hear it, it may sound like that extra note in a trumpet solo.”  

As a non-conformist who always had the obnoxious need to rebel against prevailing taste, it was natural for me to despise Hemingway: he was the leader of the Lost Generation, the man who single-handedly invented the style of the modern age– in other words, yet another over-hyped dead white man, a representation of the establishment I hate.  This was a controversial opinion in most university classrooms, filled as they were with devoted Papa admirers.  But no matter how unpopular, I’d defend my case against the man of machismo: his lean, muscular writing- I insisted- wasn’t innovative nor was his simple style the conscious choice of an artist so much as the heedlessness of an amateur lacking skill.  He couldn’t choose words with the careful ear for their connotative meanings like Plath; he couldn’t string together evocative sentences like his friend/rival Fitzgerald.  

Not only did I despise the sparseness of his prose- I hated his incessant repetition of the same words.  Jesus H. Christ, Hemingway!  Is it really necessary to repeat the word “leaves” four times in a short passage of one hundred and twenty six words?  Did you never learn how to vary your word choice?  But just as I came to appreciate Hemingway’s austere story-telling, I eventually recognized the artistry of his repetition.  His continual repeating of “leaves” wasn’t a sloppy oversight- it was an intentional choice.  But why return to the word four times?  In literature, “leaves” are archetypal symbols for maturity that signify approaching death and decay.  According to Clark, Hemingway repeats this word to underscore how war annihilates all, one of A Farewell to Arms’s paramount themes:

“When something is over designed, we often criticize it as being too busy or cluttered.  The same is true of the arts.  First it was Miles Davis and then Tony Bennet who preached the virtues of knowing which musical notes to leave out.  Didion is so tuned into Hemingway that she can see the small deletions, which can create a big effect.  It is not obvious why the deletion of the before leaves makes such a big difference, but it does.  Perhaps the effect upon the reader comes from the establishment of a pattern followed by a variation of the norm.  Notice that the word leaves appears four times in the passage, in three cases preceded by the article the.  In the third example, the disappears, only to be restored in the last two words.  The author sends out lots of signals that leaves is important, including repeating it four times, then letting it stick out at the end of the paragraph, abutted to the white space.  

So what is the difference between “the leaves” and “leaves”?  Perhaps it is the difference between specificity and generality.  Between things that are contained within a space or moment and those that suddenly appear.  The defines certain leaves that are covered with dust and fallen.  Without it, I get a greater sense of chaos- once living things scattered to decay.  

Sometimes in stories, leaves are not just leaves.  Falling leaves are a convenient and ancient emblem for the loss of life and the change of seasons.  They may be dropping from the trees between summer and winter.  But remember that the dust of the roads coats the leaves, acting, perhaps, as a kind of environmental defoliant.  And where does that dust come from?  From troop movements.  Why are the troops there?  To wage war.  And what does the war do?  It tramples everything, kills everything.  So maybe the dust is not just dust at all.  Maybe it’s an iconic symbol of mortality.  Dust to dust.”  

“Vary your words” is a dictum proclaimed in classrooms everywhere.  Since we first put pen to page, we- being dedicated students- obeyed this decree, conscientiously perusing the thesaurus and straining to find a synonym so we wouldn’t repeat the same thing.  “No, we couldn’t possibly use a word twice!” we thought, dreading the stern, too-serious ink of our English teachers.  So instead of repeat the word “argue,” we used the sophisticated “assert” or the official-sounding “declare.”  Though we’ve been taught that repetition is a sign of an inferior writer, Clark suggests it’s an indispensable addition to any wordsmith’s toolbox.  As writers, we can repeat to emphasize, to highlight, to underline, to underscore.  Just as Hemingway restates the word “leaves” to call attention to the devastating effects of war, we can reiterate a symbol or image to reinforce the underlying message of our work:

Writing Lesson #2 

“Repetition is different from redundancy.  Don’t strain yourself looking for synonyms.  I’ll point this lesson out several times in the book.  Think of repetition as a drum beat.  Somehow, a marching drummer can repeat a rhythm countless times without making it sound tedious.  After a while, the rhythm becomes unnoticeable, almost like a heartbeat.  But it must be done with a purpose.  Beware of those times when you unintentionally repeat a word or image.  Readers will judge you as inattentive.”

Writing Lessons From John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”

hiroshima

“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote.  Nowhere do we witness this eternal struggle more movingly than in Hiroshima, John Hersey’s unforgettable account of that fateful day on August 6th, 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped.  Hailed as the “most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of WWII,” Hiroshima follows six survivors as they navigate the devastating aftermath of nuclear war.  Obliterating 100,000 lives in an infernal blast that will reverberate through the centuries as human history’s “most unspeakable crime,” the atom bomb is an unsettling reminder that the human heart is neither wholly good nor evil.

Hiroshima stands as a masterpiece of reporting for its ability to humanize the Japanese people at a time when words were weaponized as instruments of war.  Rather than reduce them to a one-dimensional demonized “enemy,” Hersey revealed Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, Father Wilhem Kliensorge, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, Toshiko Sasaki, and Hatsuyo Nakamura as ordinary people: people who were staring out windows and sitting at their desks just as they had hundreds of times when their lives were forever shattered by an unprecedented act of war.  While some reporters marveled at man’s ability to harness the cataclysmic power of atomic energy (New York Times staff member William Laurence, the only journalist to witness the terrible technology first hand, wrote with wonder, “It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire.  It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.”), others focused on calculating the staggering number of lives lost or capturing the wasteland left behind (New York Herald Tribune’s Homer Bigart observed when he visited Hiroshima in September 1945 that “across the river there was only flat, appalling desolation, the starkness accentuated by bare, blackened tree trunks and the occasional shell of a reinforced concrete building.”)  Hersey took a different approach.  Hiroshima, originally published as a 30,000 word feature in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker, is now considered a landmark of new journalism, a style of reporting that blended the impartial facts of traditional journalism with the pacing and storytelling of a novel.  By funneling the harrowing events of that historic day through the soul-expanding subjectivity of stories instead of the heartless objectivity of mere numbers, Hersey was able to demolish the barricade between ally and enemy so often erected by war.  The result is a compassionate document that- as one critic put it- “stirs the conscience” of the soul.

Hiroshima’s first line is perhaps one of journalism’s best-known:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

In his instructive new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark seeks to break down this stellar first sentence so we can better understand how it works.  A curator of spellbinding sentences and lover of lively prose, Clark contends the secret to writing well is hidden in literature’s masterworks or- as Matthew Arnold might say- in “the best that’s been thought and said” in the world.  If we want to be compelling writers, we just have to crack the code.  “Cracking the code” means paying attention to how an author mesmerizes us with his words.  Like Hemingway, does he seduce us to turn the page by revealing less information than he withholds?  Or like Plath, does he create a sense of unity by repeating an overarching motif or symbol?  In much the same way authors of that endlessly edifying guide to close-reading How to Read a Book revere books as absent teachers, Clark believes literature has a wealth of writing wisdom to offer.

So how, Clark wonders, does Hersey manage to captivate us from Hiroshima’s very first line?  The sentence itself is rather simple: 63 words, 32 of which are only 1-syllable.  There is no flamboyant expression, no elaborate sentence structure, no theatrical melodrama.  Even the subject matter is mundane: other than the offhand reference to the bomb “flashing above Hiroshima,” the sentence focuses on the ordinary and everyday, particularly one Miss Toshiko Sasaki, who’s doing the most uninteresting thing you could possibly conceive: turning her head to chat with a co-worker.  So why is this one of the most riveting first lines in all of literature?  For Clark, the secret is pacing:

“This feels like a most unconventional way to begin a story.  In spite of the importance of time to the telling of all narratives, we rarely see this degree of temporal specificity in a first line.  The word exactly is not a modifier but an intensifier.  We then learn the minutes, the hour ante meridiem, the month, day, year, and time zone.  That’s seven discrete time metrics before a verb.  The rhetorical effect of such specificity is that of a historical marker.  Something world-changing is about to happen (a meteor struck the earth; a volcano exploded; a jet plane flew into the Pentagon).  Chaucer’s springtime at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales is generic and cyclical.  In Hiroshima we are about to meet a group of pilgrims who share an experience that is triggered at a specific moment in time.  

In a way, time is also about to stand still.  Clocks and watches, damaged by the atomic blast, stopped at the moment of destruction.  This symbol of the stopped watch in relation to Hiroshima is repeated as late as 2014 in the updated version of the movie Godzilla.  The original was made in Japan in 1954 and is widely recognized as a science-fiction, monster-movie allegory of the consequences of nuclear destruction.  In the updated version, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe carries around the talisman of a pocket watch owned by his grandfather, killed at Hiroshima.  The time is frozen at eight fifteen.”  

As writers, what can we take away from this unforgettable first sentence?  Just as Hersey uses temporal specificity to stop time and signal that something history-making is about to happen, we can decelerate- or “freeze frame”- our narrative to amplify drama and build suspense:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Stories are about time in motion.  But there are moments when time seems to stop, at least in narrative terms: when the atom bomb drops, when Kennedy is shot, when the Challenger explodes.  As a writer, you can mark that moment when time stands still.  Freeze a movie into a still frame.”

stopped watch

Hiroshima is not only a paragon of pacing- it’s a matchless example of understatement.  “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima,” observed New Yorker journalist and political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg.  When a story is as momentous as Pearl Harbor or September 11th, it seems made for the newspapers.  There’s conflict, there’s catastrophe, there’s lives lost.  But though it’s tempting to hyperbolize, a good writer will restrain himself.  What makes Hiroshima so powerful is the way Hersey lets the material speak for itself.  Instead of indulging in melodrama- say, by sensationalizing the carnage or heavy-handedly accentuating the scene’s pathos- Hersey writes in a matter-of-fact style, employing only plain words all the while maintaining a dispassionate, journalistic tone.  As Clark explains, when a story is “big,” the key is to write “small”:

“In bringing us finally to the main part of the sentence, the author puts into practice two reliable rhetorical strategies, one from ancient Greece, the other from the American newsroom.  The name for the first is litotes, or understatement- the opposite of hyperbole.  While an unwise writer might overwhelm us with the visceral imagery of destruction, Hersey chooses to introduce a most common scene of daily life: one office worker turning to another, allowing the drama to unfold.  In the face of astonishing content, step back a bit.  Don’t call undue attention to the tricks of the writer.  

A related strategy comes from an old bit of newsroom wisdom: “The bigger the smaller.”  Nowhere was this strategy used more than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11th.  Faced with almost apocalyptic physical destruction and the loss of nearly three thousand lives, writers such as Jim Dwyer of the New York Times looked for ways to tell a story that seemed from its inception “too big.”  Dwyer chose to highlight physical objects with stories hiding inside of them: a window washer’s squeegee used to help a group break out of a stalled elevator in one of the Twin Towers; a family photo discovered in the rubble; a paper cup used by an escaping stranger to give water to another.  

The author of Hiroshima offers readers something akin to writing teacher Robert McKee’s “inciting incident.”  This is the moment that kicks off the energy of the story, the instant when normal life is transformed into story life.  All the characters described in the first paragraph are experiencing a version of normal, everyday life- given the context of an ongoing world war- but whatever their expectations, they were changed forever at the exact moment the atomic bomb flashed over Hiroshima.”  

Writing Lesson #2 

“Given the exact nature of the news and the death toll, the author’s narrative feels somehow underwritten, in a good way.  There are no elaborate metaphors.  The author keeps the focus on the cast of characters and not on his own feelings or emotions.  In general, this is a good rhetorical strategy.  The more powerful or consequential the content, the more the author should “get out of the way.”  This does not mean that craft must be set aside.  Instead, it means craft must be used to create a feeling of understatement.”

“Let America Be America Again”: Hughes & Trump’s Two Visions for America

langston hughes

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Back in November, I was terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency.  Today, I’m even more stumped at how such a man could conceivably win.  Bigoted, racist, misogynistic, bombastic, narcissistic.  Trump is a fear-mongering demagogue who deals in divisiveness and threatens to destroy the very foundations on which our democracy is built.  If you could somehow get past his unconscionable proposals to ban Muslim immigrants and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, if you could somehow ignore his despicable behavior towards women, if you could somehow disregard the countless of allegations women have made accusing him of sexual harassment and assault, how could you possibly ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the slightest clue as to how our government works?  Trump is a business man, not a politician.  While many right-wing nut jobs (looking at you, Sarah Palin) claim that’s his appeal, it’s only logical that a man with no experience in government would have a hard time in the White House.  Unlike Clinton who proposed detailed, meticulous plans to reach her objectives, Trump only made vague promises during his campaign…and offered no concrete means of fulfilling them.  Terrorism?  ‘Ban Muslims!’  Immigration?  ‘Build a wall!’  As J.K. Rowling so insightfully noted, Trumpism is synonymous with proposing “crude, unworkable solutions” to complex problems.

So how has this man rallied such passionate, borderline frenzied support?  Trump’s ascendancy can no doubt be attributed to a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, a general feeling that the system is rigged against the little guy.  Trump sticks an unrepentant middle finger at social niceties: when he’s not calling his opponent a “nasty woman,” he’s telling Access Hollywood how he “grabs women by the pussies.”  Though such comments should be appalling, many Americans appreciate Trump’s particular brand of brash frankness.  To those disillusioned blue-collar workers in Trump Land, the Republican candidate’s refusal to succumb to modern standards of political correctness is part of his charm.  His reviling comments are even a badge of his honesty.  “Look what he openly says about minorities and women!” Trump nuts must think, “he won’t pussyfoot around the issues!”

The kinds of people Trump attracts are just one of the many ironies of last year’s election season.  Trump is a titan of the 1%, a New York City billionaire, not a self-made man but the product of generational nepotism, yet his campaign won the allegiance of millions of Trump soldiers from the lower middle classes.  Why?  Trump-of all people-won’t represent their interests; if anything, he’ll proceed to represent his own.  In office, you can bet he’ll slash taxes for the rich and continue an onslaught of dangerous economic reforms that will line the pockets of the elite and make the poor poorer.  Clinton has been a champion for the lower classes her whole career yet the white lower classes refused to vote for her.  She’s “untrustworthy,” “dishonest,” “power-hungry,” they said.  How, I wondered last November, how could people be so stupid?  How could people so blindly, willingly, enthusiastically vote against their own interests?!?!  

Because Trump stands as the master of the most effective political tactic of all: divide and conquer.  According to Karl Marx, father of the communist movement, the ruling class protects its power by pitting the lower ranks against each other.  Trump has been taking a play from the Hitler playbook all along.  Like the infamous furor, Trump capitalizes on the fear and discontent of average men to garner support for his cause.  And much like Hitler, Trump has found a convenient scapegoat to blame for all of America’s problems.  Whether it’s illegal immigrants or possible terrorist Muslims, Trump exploits the blue collar, white American fear of the foreign other…and the particularly white fear of losing their long-standing power.

Trump campaigned on the promise to “make America great again,” a promise many have interpreted to mean once again make America white, racist and exclusionary.  Like many of his conservative predecessors, Trump took advantage of a kind of widespread nostalgia, a yearning to resurrect our former national glory.  And like many, he exploited the inherent ambiguousness of the term “America.”  What does it really mean to be American?  What is America?  For the conservative, America is capitalist industry, rugged individualism, free markets; for the liberal, America is equality of opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity.  What, exactly, America is remains open to debate: it’s a relative term whose meaning shifts depending on the dictionary.

Unlike Trump who yearns for an America long past, poet Langston Hughes believes America is a dream that has yet to be fulfilled.  Though there’s a nostalgic quality to his longing (in the first line, he wistfully pleads, “Let America be America again” in a way that eerily echoes Trump’s campaign slogan), there’s equally a sense that America is an ideal we have yet to achieve.  In what will become a pattern in the first third of the poem, Hughes punctuates the end of the first stanza with a parenthetical aside:

“America,” he confesses, “was never America to me” (Hughes 5).  

Here “never” poses a logical contradiction: how can America be itself “again” if it “never” existed in the first place?  

Hughes may employ the romanticized images of our national history-the dauntless “pioneer,” for example, settling the rugged, untrammeled frontier-but he does so to reveal them as mythos.  Just as our history books conveniently rewrite the genocide of millions of Native Americans as the glorious fulfillment of manifest destiny, we cherish the American dream as truth when, for many, it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.  Hughes’s parenthetical speaker reminds us of this unsettling fact.  Though we pay lip service to democratic notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, the fact that the speaker is syntactically ostracized by parentheses proves that “liberty and justice for all” ironically only applies to a privileged class.  

One of Hughes’s many narrative talents is his ability to shift perspectives.  Later in the poem, he adopts the voice of mainstream America, an America who’s shocked-even a little offended-that someone could make such a claim:

Say who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?” (Hughes 17-18).  

Here, the presence of italics indicates the intrusion of another voice, one we haven’t heard before.  Because these lines are phrased as questions, we can assume they’re directed at someone.  But who?  Hughes’s choice of words might provide some insight.  The people to whom the speaker refers are not expressing themselves loudly or confidently but “mumble” which suggests they’re silenced and marginalized.  “Darkness” furthers this idea as those he addresses are literally rendered invisible by ignorance and denial.  If we consider the context of the poem, it makes sense that the voice is responding to our earlier parenthetical speaker:

“There’s never been equality for me

No freedom in this ‘homeland of the free'” (Hughes 15-16).

For most Americans, the realization of their country’s hypocrisy is too devastating to bear.  Who, they wonder, would draw such a “veil across the stars?” (Hughes 18).  If stars are proud symbols of American patriotism, the fact that such accusations draw a “veil” across them implies America’s legacy of exclusion diminishes the speaker’s national pride.  The word itself carries solemn connotations, evoking doleful images of attending a funeral.  However, the only thing that’s died is our speaker’s aggrandized portrait of America.  Turns out the “dream” he’s treasured so dearly is just that, a dream-it only exists in the abstract.

So “who,” to return to our earlier question, is our speaker addressing? who is “mumbling in the dark”?  The answer comes in the following lines:

“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars

I am the red man driven from the land

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek” (Hughes 19-22).  

For Hughes, it is the presence of the working-class man, the Indian and African American, that indisputably proves the American dream an enticing but ultimately untrue fiction.  His use of Whitman-esque anaphora proves the defining feature of the stanza.  Each beginning with the emphatic repetition of “I am” before listing yet another class barred access to the American dream, these lines reflect Hughes’s vision for his homeland.  In much the same way that each line originates in the same place but ends in difference, in Hughes’s America, each person is bound by a common identity but permitted the freedom of their own distinct individuality.  The poor white man, the Negro, the red man driven from his rightful home: though at the time this poem was published such minority groups were still struggling for self-determination, Hughes believed they had an equal right to sit at the American table.  Today in the era of Trump, this same struggle continues.  While Hughes’s America is expansive enough to accommodate a multitude of voices, Trump’s America seems terrifyingly restrictive.  

But when the future of our nation seems bleak, as it does today, we must not despair.  Rather we should remember Hughes’s rousing words: though he says it “plain” that “America never was America to me,” at the end of the poem, he swears a triumphant oath that “America will be!”