Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why We Should and How We Can Preserve Our Local Literatures (part 1)

I first learned about the literary works of Delaware artist Howard Pyle when I was in junior high school or maybe the higher grades of elementary school. Pyle’s literary works were designed for child readers, many of them retelling older stories about Robin Hood and King Arthur, but some were original stories. For a long time I was led to believe that Pyle was the only literary artist Delaware ever produced. Sometime during my high school or college years I heard about the Milford Bard just before I learned that his name was John Lofland. I was led to believe that his work had been mired in a kind of 19th century parochial literary obsolescence and for a long time I didn’t even bother to find out anything about him. The only thing I learned about Lofland was his reputation, which was promoted as unsavory, and that was outside of any exposure to him in school.

Now, 45 or 50 years later, I’m still on my journey of discovery of Delaware’s literary past—closer to the end of it, I hope, than its beginning. Along the way I’ve discerned why Pyle was promoted over Delaware’s many other literary artists. Pyle was safe. No one would question the world around them as might occur after reading the serious works of Lofland and nearly all the marginalized local literary artists who followed him.

My journey of discovery has been a delightful one for me, discovering that those who populate Delaware’s literary past did not work in isolation. The names of known American literary artists like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Paul Laurence Dunbar, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane—just for starters—kept popping up in direct connection with those from Delaware who I began to conclude had been unjustly obscured. My delight was peppered with dismay regarding not only the relative unavailability of their works, but the general ignorance of their works by those who should actually have known better, namely those charged with the course of studies for our various educational systems. We can’t depend on local newspapers and magazines to maintain awareness of this segment of our cultural heritage. Unlike visual art and musical and theatrical events, literature does not have the same kinds of social connections. The consumption of literature, with the possible exception of poetry readings, is usually limited by the boundaries of a single press run and consumed within the privacy of personal space.

The more we remove ourselves from formally learning about our literary history and the substance of the literary works that accompany that history, the more superficial and the more vulnerable our cultural identity becomes. We’ve already lost so much. An example can be provided by an adjacent cultural project of mine, that of recovering Wilmington’s rich jazz legacy. It’s generally acknowledged that Wilmington produced one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever to pick up a trumpet, namely Clifford Brown, who is actually a product of many who contributed to the legacy that made his success possible. There had been so much material that could have demonstrated this legacy that contributed to Wilmington’s place in the American history of jazz, but so much of this material was never considered important and, as a result, was relegated to the local landfill by those who saw no importance in saving things like recordings made for broadcast in local radio stations, publicity photographs, copies of articles and handbills and other ephemera that would have told a richer and more lasting story than the sketchy and uncorroborated one handed down to us.

Regarding literary history, here’s another example: I once had a casual conversation with an octogenarian poet in Wilmington, the former Delaware Poet Laureate David Hudson, about Wilmington poet James Whaler, his poetry and his connection to Hart Crane. Whaler’s work has been completely forgotten. Of his two books of really stunning poetry, only a single copy of Hale’s Pond, which was praised publicly by Louis Untermeyer, can be found in the annex of the University of Delaware’s Special Collections. Whaler’s Green River, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Hart Crane, is not to be found in either the Wilmington or University of Delaware libraries. Had I not had that conversation with Hudson, who died seven years ago, I would have known absolutely nothing about Whaler and would not have had the opportunity to rediscover his work in order to share what I had discovered.

The longer we proceed with not preserving aspects of our cultural legacy, the greater the chance of loosing them forever and the more disconnected we get from ourselves as a community.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Arts and Civil Society on Maggie’s Farm

Reconnecting Individual Plight with Common Struggle
Well, he hands you a nickel,
He hands you a dime,
He asks you with a grin
If you're havin' a good time,
Then he fines you every time you slam the door.
(“Maggie’s Farm,” by Bob Dylan)
     Civil Society, which includes nonprofits, unions, and artists, needs a common vision that reconnects individual plight with common struggle nationwide. I was reinforced in this conviction by three articles that appeared Tuesday in my local paper, the News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware.
     The first deals with the dearth in funding for Delaware non-profits, as reported by Mary Kress Littlepage, author of “Philanthropy in the First State.” According to the report, state non-profits “lack the organization, financial stability and sufficient support from foundations, corporations and individuals to handle the state's growing needs.” If this is true in tiny Delaware, U.S. banking capital and home to half the nation’s corporations, it is replicated, I am sure, all across the United States of Maggie’s Farm.
     The second, an AP story by Brett Zongker, describes President Obama’s salutary interest in the arts, evidenced by White House performances, arts workshops there, and an infusion of stimulus funds into the arts sector, which, according to the article, “employs nearly six million people at a hundred thousand nonprofit art groups.”
     The last, seemingly unrelated to the other two, actually strikes the common theme: the atomized approach to the human condition that focuses on individual plight rather than social solutions to that plight.
     The story touts a visit by celebrity scold Bill Cosby, who brought his personal responsibility message to inner-city youth at Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House. Author of "Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors," Cosby asserted in an interview that "[s]ome people seem to use the fact that racism exists to create an inertia of entropy,” adding that “[s]ome 'poverty pimps' want us to not move to become unstuck."
     Now, it is a recurrent myth that Black leaders from Frederick Douglas to W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, and Al Sharpton trade responsibility for victimology.
     Not so fast on connecting “the Cos” to that myth. Maybe he agrees with Frederick Douglass in how taking individual responsibility can turn folks from “victims to victors”: "He who would be free must strike the first blow."
     Striking the first blow is not the recommendation of Littlepage’s nonprofit study, which was prompted by the Public Policy Institute, an affiliate of the state Chamber of Commerce. It prescribes “more robust leadership so the nonprofit community can speak with a stronger voice to donors and local governments.”
     Don’t expect John Taylor, formerly of the News Journal and now Institute Executive Director, to invite anyone to challenge corporate wisdom at the follow-up forum scheduled at the University of Delaware March 22 and 23.
     Neither in community service nor in the arts may one “strike the first blow” without untoward consequences, even when one’s weapons are mere words, unless one speaks with an empowering common vision and powerful allies.
     For example, while the Obama administration may have signaled a revival of state support for the arts, Obama appointee Yosi Sergant was blown out of his National Endowment for Arts job when he suggested that artists address health care, education, and the environment, after Fox News mouth Glenn Beck belched.
     Similarly, the nonprofit ACORN, which pushed charity too close to empowerment, was entrapped, framed, and slandered by Fox and then unconstitutionally stripped of its funding by the Democratic-controlled Congress. At this writing, the U.S. Eastern New York District Court has just issued an injunction against the funding cut-off.
     In both cases, when conservatives led the charge against a civil society of empowerment, liberals led the retreat.
     Civil society, according to the London School of Economics “refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action,” distinct from “the state, the family, and the market,” but whose relation to state, family, and market remains “complex, blurred and negotiated.” It is essential to the workings of democracy. Negotiation and uncoercion are key.
     The problem is that civil society in the USA is atomized and obsessed with individual victimization, if you will, counseling a foreclosed homeowner here, protesting prison conditions there, advocating for individual identities of race or gender, or writing a pretty lyric about dreams of roses blossoming in the ordure. As we have seen, when civil society challenges power, then state and market will turn from negotiation to coercion, which negates both civil society and democracy.
     So how do we revive “Hope,” now foundered on bank bailouts, militarism, and astroturf tea parties? How do we move to a common vision, a common struggle, and a successful grassroots movement?
     One model is what I have observed working and writing in Ecuador, a model adopted in various ways throughout Latin America. Civil society—unions, left parties, NGOs, women, gays, charities, liberation churches, artists—have developed a common vision, an alternative to the “neoliberal” triumphalism of big banks, captive political parties, and free market individualism. In fits and starts, they have made dramatic advances recently across the continent, with the voices of the poor now heard, their needs addressed, and a flowering of people’s culture.
     It is time for local artists and writers to rebuild their roots in the community and to fulfill their role in civil society. Get your nickels and dimes from Maggie if you can, but unite to demand power to the people.
Sunday, Dec. 13 Update:
     The News Journal dropped the other shoe Sunday with three op-eds and an editorial on the non-profit crisis, "indicative" according to the editorial, "of a 20th century sense of entitlement to donors based more on stated needs. . . than. . . an ability to get the mission accomplished as efficiently as possible. " Not too much about the sense of entitlement to bailouts for banks after wrecking the economy or to tax cuts for corporations who have outsourced jobs and accelerated the needs addressed by non-profits beyond their capacity to "get the mission accomplished."