The River Ran Red
As an African-American man who grew up in the Deep South, in an environment of abject racial segregation, I found that David Gessner’s article “Dangerous Ground” (Autumn 2018) conjured up a wide range of emotions for me. It’s both laudable and remarkable that Gessner established a friendship with his African-American student Will—one that transcended the teacher-student relationship—and courageous for Gessner to defend him, after Will had several confrontations with Wilmington policemen. However, I did consider it to be poor judgment on Will’s part when he refused to shake the hand of one of the officers who had previously profiled and confronted him. The officer’s offer of a handshake may have been disingenuous, but there was nothing to lose by keeping open a conduit for possible communication. Hubris, bitterness, or hate on either side of the equation is unfortunate. Misdirected anger can be so destructive.
One other observation from the article relates to the horrific riots of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, during which the minority white population formed a mob, destroyed black businesses, including a black newspaper, killed many, and drove the survivors into the Cape Fear River. Some may think this horrific act was an infrequent occurrence; but race riots were pervasive and occurred across the nation, North and South. I recall vividly my parents’ discussion of the same kind of tragic act that had taken place in 1921 in Tulsa. The number of black citizens killed in Tulsa is imprecise, but it was estimated to be more than 150. The rioting white citizens destroyed black businesses and hundreds of homes. Tulsa was then America’s wealthiest black community. Recalling such history, though painful, is needed because most of America’s majority population remains oblivious to the extent of atrocities that have transpired.
Henry W. Foster Jr., MD
Vanderbilt University, Nashville
It is interesting that David Gessner and Will end their walk near the mouths of the Cape Fear River. The dual mouths were a major reason the Civil War could go on for as long as it did, since materials could be brought in either way to resupply the South. The fluvial split certainly seems to reflect where we are as a society right now, but eventually the river has to mix with the waters of the Atlantic and join the bigger world—we just have to look beyond the barriers and do what we can day to day.
Rumors Greatly Exaggerated
It has long vexed me to see established literary authors declaring the death of the ancient art form that lies at the center of their own life’s work. Not only is Robert Coover’s guesswork in “The End of Literature” without substance, but his declaration suggests a hostility to reading and to readers and even an ignorance of history.
How many people could read the epic of Gilgamesh when it was scribed on sheets of vellum or papyrus? Very few, presumably. How many could read the Bible in its original form? The philosophies of Aristotle in either Greek or Arabic? The Latin-only theology of the Middle Ages, which was at last transformed by the Reformation, a movement fueled primarily by a popular desire to possess and read biblical translations in the local vulgate? Through the vast historical struggle for the right to read, perhaps five or 10 percent of the global population was literate. Reading, for millennia, was a pastime of the elites. But after Gutenberg, and after broad, publicly funded education programs took root in the 19th and 20th centuries, literacy for the first time in history began to go “viral.” Since just before WWII, literacy rates have been rocketing. Reading is at such a robust place right now—with millions of books printed each year, more people in more countries becoming more educated, and more young writers producing more work—that we seem unable to realize that we exist in an age of supernova-like literary abundance. The phenomenal rise of film, television, handheld video games, and the Internet comes amid a rising flood of new and reissued novels.
People keep reading, and not only popular works but also classics—difficult books longer than 280 characters. I know many such readers. Not academics, students, writers, hermits, or Luddites, but computer techs, tax attorneys, military photographers, set decorators, human resources staff, and electricians—all of them have shelves and shelves of books in their homes. When I arrive for dinner or a drink, we talk about reading and books. It’s almost like we live in a world that Coover doesn’t know exists.
In fairness, I do see some cause for pessimism. The total number of people who read at least one book per year has gone down since the 1980s (a pattern that correlates with the stagnation of wages and the introduction of neoliberal programs in the ’70s). And illiteracy in the United States, unlike in every other developed nation, is on the rise. Yes, watching clips online is ever more popular in our “high-velocity time.” Yes, so much of what is published is commercial pap. But how to explain the popularity of Elena Ferrante, Alan Hollinghurst, Ottessa Moshfegh, Yiyun Li, James Lasdun, among so many other great writers? Could there be some cause behind America’s shrinking readership other than Facebook and Twitter? Could education, income inequality, and access to health care be factors, as well? Might these factors contribute to the average American’s ability to carve out time enough to read a book?
Coover writes that in the future we’ll have some “new” method of communicating “story”—one that presumably involves links and memes and holographs and chattering AI robots, and all kinds of cheap claptrap he himself wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. For centuries—literally centuries—end-times clairvoyants have tried to convince us that the fun is over for books, that they have served their purpose, that mankind is now moving on to psychotropic drugs, or vaudeville, or color photography, or film, or Twitter—yet these predictions have never come true. Electronic e-readers, if you recall, were once supposed to take down the publishing industry in one fell swoop. It never happened. Did anyone bother to notice? Perhaps we should try to, from now on.
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