In the angry and masterful American short story, Barn Burning, William Faulkner introduces us to Abner Snopes, an embittered sharecropper with an introspective 10-year old son named Sarty, as well as a murderously vindictive streak, that changes all whose path he crosses. This story finds Faulkner, writing in 1939 at the height of his naturalistic powers, his tone both frighteningly spare and mordantly funny. Ab Snopes is one of those fuckups who cannot get out of his own way and blames all others for his dearth of character and lot in life. This is not lost on his son, from whose point of view the story is told. Abner exacts his revenge in the hellish and cowardly acts of arson the story’s title describes. There are horrible images throughout this story, visually and aurally. The one that haunts me still; the sound of horses burning and screaming in their inferno, just trying to stay in the world. It is a searing and unforgettable story and for my money, the finest short story I’ve ever read.
I’m fond of the short story, having been treated to Raymond Carver’s, Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From, as well as Nelson Algren’s peerless collections, The Neon Wilderness and The Last Carousel as a young artist. It’s dawned on me lately what these very different collections all have in common.
In my favorite pieces from these fine books, the thematic unity of the searching American (the one trying to find a place in the world, or trying to fit into his own) seems to be a unifying element–this, and the idea that our geography somehow becomes our destiny.
Abner Snopes is the itinerant sharecropper, wandering the countryside, only to be relegated to doing the scut work for his betters, day after day. . .searching for a better life. . .each day eroding his hope and his humanity in equal, mundane measure.
This is our country’s great failing. . .and great virtue. We search. Restlessly and relentlessly, we search. The tidally shifting circumstance of class, geography and opportunity, shape the “who” and “where”–and what we become.
This search? It is present in all of our American behaviors since we lit onto Plymouth Rock; relentless and bloody expansion West to wider rivers, higher mountains and more bountiful fields. The search was propelled by the twin mixed blessings of our collective imagination and relentless desire to conquer. In Carl Sandburg’s, The People, Yes, he observes we, the people, and every onerous settling of this new land. We forget that America is a still relatively young culture in contrast to the rest of the world and the land was big enough to let its new inhabitants get lost in, and to forget every transgression committed in the name of finding our place in it. I often think of our country as a place of colliding cartographies; each new boundary or line on the map hustled, pilfered or otherwise looted from the first people of this nation. Every map a lie and thus, now, the lie we’ve all agreed upon.
It is the job of the artist to search, to observe and to bear witness. If we do this scrupulously, well then, we know truth of this troubling landscape; this stolen property we call home.
Whitman asked of us in his splendid poems, to bear witness, to take always, the full measure of ourselves, our place. . .every leaf of grass. Whitman himself watched the bloody preservation of the Union in the Civil War. At one point, while searching for his brother who was thought to be dead, he looks at a pile of amputated human limbs and he asks himself if this Republic is worth the pile of severed limbs in front of him. The crucible of the Civil War led him to deeper, more profound questions regarding our bloody need to conquer.
The thing I’ve admired the most about Bob Dylan’s career is the search. The furious path of an insatiable mind. . .always at work . . .the poet who changes shape and definition with every assessment. I think of the Bob Dylan of Blonde on Blonde and the Bob Dylan of Time out of Mind, two very different records unified by one contrary spirit. The searching takes its toll. Dylan looks every second of his age and the idea that rue art must eventually extinguish life in its practitioner, has some gravity when we get a look at the 70-year old Dylan. Searching exacts its price at every juncture.
I’ve made a living as an artist for a quarter century. For 20 of those years, my wife Michele has suffered and celebrated every triumph, setback, glowing moment and bitter disappointment with me. My restlessness has, at times, caused her great pain. The endless searching not only taxes the artist, but those close to them as well. Every time I swore I was alone and all on my own in this mess, she’s been there to tell me I am not. We’ve endured the bumps and dire difficulties and she is always the strong one. Last week we celebrated 20 years of marriage. She could have done way better than me.
This one is for her.