[by Noah Yasskin]
The “Short Story Cycle” Delve Readers Seminar I participated in met for two hours every Wednesday night for six weeks at Literary Arts in downtown Portland. Our guided discussion took place around a gigantic wooden table in a storefront office. Several of us were Delve veterans, while others were Delve virgins. On the first night, we put away our smartphones and laptops and introduced ourselves without technological social mediation: Sam, Katie, Pat, Terry, Eddie, Nancy, Brett, Jim, Lissa, and me, Noah. Sam, an English professor specializing in American literature from 1850 to 1950, was our Guide to Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Phil Klay’s award-winning Redeployment (2014). I was the Scribe, responsible for giving an account of our conversation.
I came away from the experience of our Delve Seminar convinced that conversations about literature have practical lessons to teach us. Our discussions about these books were more than entertaining—they were humbling. At its best, a Delve Seminar not only informs us, it actually helps us. It is both educational and edifying. Far from a disinterested theoretical exercise, our six-week journey into the literary worlds of small town grotesques and Marine veterans turned out to be a solidarity-building quest for significance and meaning. Reading and discussing good literature with smart people can be a practical exercise that helps us understand and confront our selves and our situation in the world with greater clarity.
Early on, however, while reading alone, I seemed headed in the opposite direction. Far from helping me, Winesburg, Ohio and Redeployment contributed to my feelings of alienation. Both authors seemed to promote existential nihilism—the idea that our lives are without objective meaning, value, or purpose. Or, put more personally, nihilism is a sinking suspicion that God, love, justice, and morality are merely subjective illusions created to gloss over the hard truth of our being alone in an indifferent material universe.
Our group did uncover a lot of evidence to support such a negative reading of Anderson and Klay. The atomized and broken characters in Anderson’s and Klay’s stories are often inarticulate and misunderstood. We discussed how both books are packed with solitary persons who struggle to express themselves and fail to establish meaningful human connections. The people in Winesburg, Ohio are emotional cripples, isolated and inarticulate, unable to forms bonds with one another. They try and fail to explain their lives to themselves or to the central character, George Willard, the young reporter of the Winesburg Eagle. Similarly, in Redeployment, the war veterans are resilient, but most are both alienated from the families and communities they left “back home” and estranged from any bonds of brotherhood formed “over there.” None of the characters are successful and happy, and they all fail to form harmonious relationships. It’s bleak stuff.
In the early stories of both books, I thought I detected a hard-to-digest depressive realism and a morbidly infectious literary pessimism. Initially, the authors of these dark short stories appeared to be two hopeless misanthropes writing about other misanthropes, all while trying to turn me into a misanthrope. Several Delve participants also noted that both authors seem to be cool and cynical towards human life: life is painful and disappointing, and the facts of life are unkind and bleak. The publisher of Anderson’s first two novels, John Lane, refused to publish Winesburg, Ohio because the stories were “too gloomy.” Anderson even calls his small town characters “grotesques.” Similarly, Klay’s Marines are full of grief, self-loathing, and self-doubt. One character explains his isolation as a misanthropic predicament: “I didn’t know any vets in the city. I didn’t want to talk to any civilians.”
Read alone, these books could have been bad medicine. Because I didn’t heed any of the warning signs, these books added to my sense of anomie; they weakened the few remaining social bonds and moral norms that tied me to the social whole. In my hyperbolic and feverish imagination, I even feared these books might be contributing to the breakdown of whatever organic solidarity was left in society.
Thankfully, I had Sam and the more resilient Delve group to convince me that our authors were diagnosing our modern condition rather than advocating for it. It was at this moment that I learned my first useful lesson about reading: be open to the possibility that you might be wrong.
Mistaking diagnosis for advocacy also provided my second practical lesson: when literature helps us understand our situation in the world, literature helps us understand ourselves. And what did these two books reveal about our situation? By the end of the seminar and the end of the books, I came to understand that we shared with the characters in these books the modern secular predicament of being adrift in a world without God. The search for understanding, meaning, and significance that the characters experienced was also our search. I recognized myself as being, like George Willard, an individual facing the disorienting challenges of modernity.
According to Anderson, in modernity human relationships are unsettled, individuals are set loose from family bonds and religious and geographic communities. He was writing at the beginning of the 20th century, and his characters experience social dislocation because of secularization, industrialization, and the changing roles of women. One of my favorite chapters in Winesburg, Ohio led to one of our best discussions: the character Jesse Bentley, an Old Testament Patriarch of sorts attached to the old times and Biblical places, who waits for God to appear, but at times becomes doubtful and thinks, “God had deserted the world.” Anderson has Jesse hear the story of modern industrialism as one of materialistic values replacing religious ones:
The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him.
God never makes a sign, never becomes present to Jesse. Writing almost a century later, Klay recognizes the same symptoms of modernity, but focuses laser-like on continual war as the primary cause of his characters’ breakdown. In a story entitled “Prayer In the Furnace,” Klay recounts how a Marine chaplain attempts to console a soldier named Rodriguez over the death of his friend. He suggests that suffering connects soldiers one to another; the bonds of brotherhood are made of pain. At the end of the story, the priest fingers his small cross and says, “In this world, He [Jesus] only promises we don’t suffer alone.” Rodriguez turns and spits into the grass. “Great,” he says, not persuaded. Anderson and Klay write about a modern world where religious belief offers little consolation or community. Our conversation about these books gave us insights into our own historical situation both practical and existential. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to say reading and discussing literature is a mode of self-knowledge.
Literature helps us confront our challenges by identifying and clarifying the situation we find ourselves in. Throughout the books, Anderson and Clay demonstrate how characters respond to the threats of meaninglessness, nothingness, and mortality. Near the end of Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson even seems to anticipate the themes in the philosophy of Existentialism. He directly identifies the threat of “nothingness” and the expresses the disorienting idea that “the world was full of meaningless people saying words.” The “sadness of sophistication” comes to the protagonist George Willard when he grasps the limitations of his life and hears the call of death. “He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun.” Similarly, Klay confronts the absurdity of continual war and the nakedness of soldiers stripped of ideals. As one disillusioned vet puts it, “A human being in enough pain is just a screaming animal.” By the end of the seminar, I came to think that Anderson and Klay recognize the threat of nihilism, and I came to hope that they share my sentiment that literature should help us resist the resentment and depression that it leads to.
Our discussions revealed existential rather than scientific truths. In Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson holds up the power of art and the artist to help us understand others and ourselves. “All arts are like mirrors,” writes the philosopher Alain, “in which Man learns and recognizes something of himself of which he was unaware.” Most stories in Anderson’s cycle conclude with a “grotesque” character achieving a moment of greater self-awareness. In “The Untold Lie” in the beautiful country around Winesburg, two characters make a momentary connection: “The whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become alive when they stood in the corn field staring into each other’s eyes.” Malcolm Cowley wrote: “That single moment of aliveness—that epiphany, as Joyce would have called it, that sudden reaching out of two characters through walls of inarticulateness and misunderstandings—is the effect that Anderson is trying to create for his readers or listeners.” These moments of understanding help the characters develop because they widen horizons. Anderson’s characters are fixated on a narrow idea of themselves and trapped in a provincial small town worldview. This, however, does not have to be our fate because art has the power to expand our horizons and reveal truths about the human condition. What kind of truth does art reveal? “Art brings forth truth,” wrote Heidegger. “In a single bound, art brings to the fore, as an established safeguard, the truth of existence.” The essence of Art is not its ‘representational’ character, but its ability to disclose a world. Anderson reveals the narrow world of Winesburg; Klay reveals a bifurcated world of Marine veterans in Iraq and back home. It’s missing the point to require these worlds to be strictly representational or entirely accurate. Literature shows us artistic truth, a matter of opening up, which is not the same thing as scientific truth, a matter of correctness. Such existential truths broaden our horizons and help us escape the trap of a narrow self-understanding.
Listening to others and subjecting my initial views to the scrutiny of the Delve seminar group led me to see that my first reading of both authors as literary pessimists and nihilistic depressive realists was wrong. Lesson one: be open to being wrong. Anderson and Klay are not contributing to nihilism, but identifying it and responding to it. Lesson two: literary arts can help us clarify and understand our situation in the world. Two useful lessons.
My third practical lesson was about the nature of conversation. Lesson three: meaningful civic conversation is still possible. Prompted by clear-eyed authors and guided by Sam’s expertise, our shared search for understanding did lead to significant conversations and shared understanding. Our modern condition does not require us to be pessimistic and nihilistic. We are not in solitary confinement in our brains. Our books were full of tales of failed communication, but our Delve Seminar participants were frequently successful at communicating the meaning and significance of what they had read. More often than disagreeing, we found common ground. Although we started with our individual viewpoints, we strove for a more universal communal agreement.
The Delve model of civic and civil communication through guided discussions about literature works. It works even when discussing books about the failure of communication. Klay places less emphasis on the horizon-widening power of art in Redeployment than Anderson does in Winesburg. His ideal is more like Literary Arts or Jurgen Habermas, the theorist of communicative rationality, who holds up civil conversation in the public sphere as the best model. In his speech accepting the 2014 National Book Award for Redeployment, Klay said: “I can’t think of a more important conversation to be having— war’s too strange to be processed alone. I want to thank everyone who picked up the book, who read it and decided to join the conversation.”
Our Delve seminar succeeded—in a civil and public manner—in joining that conversation. It wasn’t always an easy one. One of the participants said of the challenge, “Klay touches on undiscussable themes.” The inability of overcoming the divide between civilian and soldier is one of the major themes of the book. Klay has a character, a respected Staff Sergeant named Haupert, explain, “You don’t talk about some of the shit that happened. We lived in a place that was totally different from anything those hippies in the audience could possibly understand…You can’t describe it to someone who wasn’t there, you can hardly remember how it was yourself because it makes so little sense.” Someone posed the question, “Can Klay’s short story collection help us overcome the divide between soldier and civilian?” With varying degrees of reservation, our group mostly answered, “Yes, it can.” All of us admitted, though, that a large gap remains. One participant said: “I can’t bridge the gap. All I can do is listen. Stop opinionating. Just listen, without judgment.” Perhaps listening without judgment is the best bridge of all.
Discussing literature, I concluded, can help us. It is a practical activity, not a disengaged, disinterested theoretical exercise. Mutual understanding emerges from our shared practical quest for meaning and significance. Like the characters in Winesburg, Ohio and Redeployment, we start with our prior involvement in the world and our partiality. Rather than a barrier to understanding, our limited viewpoint turns out to be the condition that enables understanding. Every participant contributed to the group. Through open discussion, we progress from a partial viewpoint toward a more rational and universal understanding.
The seminar ended with us reflecting on the experience of discussing these books in person. Connection and understanding between people is difficult, perhaps always partial, but possible. To some extent, we were able to overcoming the divide between our modern urban lives and the traditional rural characters in Winesburg, Ohio and the divide between our civilian lives and the experience of soldiers in Redeployment. Yet a divide remained. All of us face the modern threat of nihilism and the breakdown of community. Yet we came together for a civic and civil conversation. For a seminar that started as a disinterested inquiry into an academic question, we ended with communal and practical quest for understanding. Discussions about literature can help us overcome the gaps separating us from the characters in these books and though unsaid, I suspect, from one another.