Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dos Who? - an OpEd about John Dos Passos by Professor Aaron Shaheen

Dos Who?

an OpEd by Professor Aaron Shaheen

When one thinks of the American modernist pantheon—and who doesn’t at least three times daily?—I suspect the usual names rise to the fore: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot.

For reasons not always so clear, the name that is often either left off this list, or is at least put on its second tier, is that of John Dos Passos (1896-1970). Dos Passos’s marginality is all the more surprising if one considers the level of sophistication and innovation behind his contributions to modernism.

For instance, the “camera eye” sections of the novels comprising the U.S. A. trilogy were every bit as instrumental in rendering the experience of modernity as Hemingway’s “iceberg” technique or Stein’s literary cubism. Hemingway’s and Stein’s larger-than-life personalities helped them live beyond the novels they wrote. In that crowd, how could the mild-mannered “Dos,” as he was often called, compete?  

In 2011 the life and writings of this frequently neglected writer experienced a modest resurgence when my colleague Victoria Bryan and I founded the John Dos Passos Society. We initially set limited goals for the organization—the publication of an annual newsletter, a showing at the American Literature Association Conference each May, and the occasional correspondence with other, relevant author societies.

But in its first full year of existence, the Society garnered enough interest and memberships that it began planning, at first idly and then intensely, an academic conference to be held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, (where I’m on faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) in conjunction with the one-hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, which Dos Passos saw up close as an ambulance driver on the Western Front.

The conference did indeed take place, and it attracted scholars and writers from not only the different regions of the United States, but also from Brazil, various European nations, and Japan. By the time the proceedings had concluded, talk was already underway about a second conference, this time in Madrid, a city Dos Passos knew intimately since his adolescent days.

Held in early June 2016, the Madrid conference commanded a generous amount of attention from the Spanish press, particularly after it played a crucial role in reuniting the descendants of the author with those of the author’s friend and translator José Robles, who was executed during the Spanish Civil War. No sooner had the first day of the conference begun than a participating Portuguese scholar volunteered to host the third biennial conference in Lisbon in 2018.

What propelled the success of the Society and, more generally, the growing international enthusiasm for Dos Passos? One must first concede that in much of Europe—Spain and Portugal in particular—the author never really went out of fashion. For instance, in Spain Manhattan Transfer (1925) has been in print ever since it was first translated into Spanish in 1929. But perhaps the most crucial element in this success comes in the form of the author’s grandson, John Dos Passos Coggin, himself an author, who at the time of the Society’s formation in 2011 had dedicated much of his own energies toward keeping his grandfather’s legacy alive.

Bearing a striking resemblance to his namesake, Coggin has done so not only though the website and his frequent participation with the Society, but also though various efforts to keep Dos Passos’s writings (particularly from midcentury forward) accessible to the public either in print or electronic form. Much of the grandson’s motivation and support has no doubt come from his mother Lucy, who from the ancestral home in rural Virginia is the chief executor of the Dos Passos literary estate.

While planning for the 2018 Portugal conference is underway, the Society is sponsoring a routable discussion titled “Dos Passos Today” at the American Literature Association annual conference held May 25-28 in Boston. The author once recalled how Ernest Hemingway used to “bawl [him] out for including so much topical stuff” in his novels. But as the Boston panel plans to show, the writer’s emphasis on history and politics, even from an earlier time, offers insight into how we live our lives today. Discussion topics will range from the writer’s presence in contemporary Brazilian politics to his appropriation in the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election.

The Boston routable scheduled for late May will show Dos Passos’s unnerving prescience. One can’t help but sense a manic energy in his writings. His observations in his fiction and non-fiction alike track the rise and decline of mass movements on both the Left and Right.

Since the year 2000, America has seen swift and dramatic political shifts, from the neoconservatism and overt religiosity of George W. Bush, to the swing leftward with the election of the first African American president in 2008, to the rise of nativist nationalism under Donald Trump in 2016. Given these massive swings in only a half-generation, one wonders if the country really knows what it wants any more than the characters who populate so much to Dos Passos’s fiction know.

I think for instance of Martin Howe and John Andrews, the respective protagonists of One Man’s Initiation (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921), who at first embrace participation in the First World War but then recoil in horror after getting exactly the experience they sought. How different is the present collective American consciousness, with all of its contradictions and ambiguities, from Manhattan Transfer’s Jimmy Herf and Ellen Thatcher, who swerve wildly, even violently, from one pyrrhic answer to life’s problems to another?

These shifts may also reflect that of the writer himself, who by the mid-1930s had abandoned his leftist leanings for a more conservative vision, seeing the latter as the better alternative for preserving individual rights in a century increasingly overrun with the collusion of big government and big business.

Then perhaps, after all, the manic state of national and world politics, more than academic conferences or even a devoted grandson, can best explain the rise in interest in Dos Passos, as is evidenced by the way he has shown up recently in other media.

The author has appeared in film, either as a character (in the 2012 HBO film Hemingway and Gelhorn) or as the subject of Sonia Tercero Ramiro’s 2014 documentary Robles, Duelo al Sol, which recounts the author’s friendship with the scholar José Robles, whose execution by Soviet partisans during the Spanish Civil War initiated Dos Passos’s disillusionment with leftist politics.

This friendship is also recounted in the 2006 Spanish-language nonfiction book by Ignacio Martinez de pison titled Enterrar a Los Muertos, which in 2009 came out in an English-language translation. Finally, a book on the tortured friendship between Ernest Hemingway and Dos Passos has just recently been published by James McGrath Morris titled The Ambulance Drivers. (McGrath initially wanted to make the book exclusively about Dos Passos but was convinced by his editor that the book would sell better if it included Hemingway.) In each of these works the theme of swift and uncontrollable movement—be it in the realm of global politics, personal friendships, or in some inevitable combination of the two—prevails.

But prevails to what end? Usually destruction. Daughter, the automobile enthusiast from 1919 (1932), goes to her inglorious death at the hands of a hung-over pilot in a plane crash, taking her unborn child with her. In a drunken frenzy, Stanwood Emery, the wealthy playboy from Manhattan Transfer, sets himself on fire while singing advertising jingles. In these and other instances, self-annihilation seems nearly as compulsive as booze, sex, or fame.

And in this regard, Dos Passos is at his most prophetic. The choices we make—in our personal friendships, our politics, our finances, or even our consumption habits—often seem to carry the simultaneous promise of liberation and imprisonment, of a beginning and an end.


Aaron Shaheen
UC Foundation Professor of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Campus Box 2703
615 McCallie Ave.
Chattanooga, TN 37403

Friday, May 12, 2017

Jewish reporters at major news sites worldwide focus ​on climate change issues, global warming impact events

Jewish reporters at major news sites worldwide
 focus ​on climate change, global warming issues

By staff writer, with agencies

Climate change and global warming impacts us all, and Jewish reporters have often been on the front lines of climate reporting, from George Monbiot in the Guardian newspaper to Andrew Revkin at the New York Times and now with Politico. At Think Progress, Joe Romm delivers sharply worded and well-researched diatribes against climate denialists and he doesn't mince words. And at the New York Times' recently reorganized Climate Desk under Alaska-born-and-raised Hannah Fairfield, veteran Times reporter John Schwartz covers national climate issues along with a team of top-notch journalists.

In France,
Raphaelle Leyris ​reports on climate issues and cli-fi novels at Le Monde newspaper in Paris.

Since global warming is a particularly vexing and complicated issue, it attracts reporters of all faiths unafraid to battle entrenched climate change deniers who populate the current Republican Party under the administration of President Donald Trump.

Even New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. is getting into the act.

According to Hadas Gold, a Revkin colleague at Politico, Sulzberger is completely behind his new hires at the Climate Desk and is adamant that his newspaper will continue to focus on climate change, including more photo essays about rising sea levels impacting cities worldwide, and environmental rules, regulations and other policies rolled back during Trump's first few months in office.

In addition, Gold noted, a recent issue of the Times glossy Sunday Magazine was dedicated to the future of the Earth's climate.

"This [climate] journalism [we do] is unrivaled in its sophistication and imagination," Sulzberger wrote in a recent message to readers. "The support of our subscribers is what allows us to pursue such ambitious stories all over the globe."

The Times offers readers a free online newsletter from its Climate Desk to keep track of future stories and insights.

​In related newspaper news, the unique ​Alaskan background of Times climate editor Fairfield is interesting and makes for a good story. She was raised in Fort Yukon by Episcopalian missionary parents who ministered to the ​spiritual and community needs of ​indigenous Gwich​'​in Athabascan population of the tiny rural village close by the banks of the mighty Yukon River. Fairfield spent her first 18 years there​,​ and in the university town of Fairbanks​,​ before going to college in the Lower 48 and later  joining the Times as a digital storyteller in 2000.​

Fort Yukon, population 600, where Fairfield spent the first four years of her life is populated by Native Alaskans whose ancestors have lived in Alaska for over 10,000 years.  Fairfield moved with her parents to Fairbanks to attend the local public schools, finishing high school in 1992.
In Fort Yukon, her parents and their four children lived in the Episcopalian mission church house and offered what services the church could, including baptisms, weddings and burials. They were one of the few white families in the village, and according to the family, the children cherished their time there.

Think things like Fairbanks at 60 degrees below for three weeks in the winter of 1989. Think life in a subsistence village of rural Alaskans whose ancestors go back centuries. Think boat trips on the Yukon in the summer, fishing for salmon, and yes, eating salmon. Lox!

So what does Alaska mean to this very well-placed climate journalist, Hannah Fairfield? And how has her experience growing up in a Christian missionary family in rural Alaska shaped her views  on nature, God and global warming?

Although a happy and dedicated New Yorker now, and loving it, old-timers in Alaska contend that once you live there you can never really let the place go in your heart and mind and soul -- or in your view of the way the world works. Ask any Alaskan, past or present. It's that kind of place. The Last Frontier.

I know this feeling because I lived in Alaska for 12 years in the late 1970s and 1980s -- mostly in Juneau but with two long winters in Nome -- and although I left the state in 1991, I still keep Alaska close in mind and my experiences there in fact led me to find a home later on in a growing cli-fi community of artists, writers, dreamers and climate activists.

Another thing I am looking forward to, hopefully, will be Fairfield's future policy of capitalizing the word "Earth" in Times' articles about climate change and global warming, since there is no reason on Earth to keep lowercasing it, as the newspaper does now.

It's not "earth Day" in April every year. It's "Earth Day," with a capital E. It's time for the New York Times to adjust their editorial style and start showing more respect for the Earth, our home planet.

Dean Baquet, the top editor at the Times, recently put it this way, in announcing Fairfield's new climate gig in a staff memo: 
''With Hannah's appointment, we aim to build on what has already been dominant coverage of climate change and to establish The Times as a guide to readers on this most important issue. The subject has taken on more urgency as the Earth's temperature continues to break records and a new political leadership in Washington appears poised to make sweeping changes to policies meant to limit carbon emissions."


AND MORE from TIKKUN magazine

Tikkun magazine invites a climate activist of the literary to explain himself


A few weeks ago, I approached Rabbi Michael Lerner in California, the founder of Tikkun magazine, about writing a blog post for his publication, and he kindly invited me to send my piece in. A few days later, it was published, with the headline "A 'Cli-Fi Missionary' with Jewish Roots Who is Fighting Global Warming."

I started off the oped in a conversational way, writing: "I'm a climate change literary activist and gadfly, and I'd like to talk to you today about something I call cli-fi."

And then I told my story, parts of which are excerpted here, noting: "I'm close to 70, and I graduated from Tufts University in 1971 with a major in literature, and promoting the literary fortunes of cli-fi is now my life work. And I'm Jewish, and my Jewish education and family life in western Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s plays a central role, even today, in my climate activism.

''So what's cli-fi? It's a subgenre of sci-fi, according to some observers, and a separate stand-alone genre of its own, according to others. I feel that cli-fi novels and movies can cut through the bitter divide among rightwing denialists and leftwing liberals worldwide over the global warming debate. I'm not into politics; I'm into literature and movies.

''We are a world now divided bitterly over climate change issues. In my view of things, novels and movies can serve to wake people up in ways that politics and ideology cannot. That's where cli-fi comes in. In my late 60s, with a heart attack-related stent keeping my ticker ticking, and my days numbered now, I'm combining my Jewish heritage with its emphasis on social justice with my personal concerns about the future impacts of man-made global warming.

''As a Jewish person, I learned from an early age the need to look out for others and have empathy for the world at large. Climate change is the most important issue the humankind has ever faced. As a Jew, I cannot look away.

''Ten years ago, I coined a new literary term I dubbed 'cli-fi' for 'climate fiction' novels and movies. My coinage with its modelling of the sci-fi term, was picked up by reporters for the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and San Diego Jewish World where I write occasionally pen a freelance column about Jewish life and culture.

''In 2015, I set up a website called The Cli-Fi Report to broadcast my views about cli-fi and to gather feedback from literary critics and novelists around the world.

''I fund my work myself on a very small shoestring budget in my sunset years, but I had a father who left me an inheritance more important than money: a Yiddish term called 'menschlekeit.' And to be a PR guy for cli-fi in my late 60s is in direct gratitude for the good life I've had on this planet, and it's also my way of saying thanks to my dad and mom, Bernie Bloom from Avenue J in Brooklyn, and Sylvia Epstein Bloom from Blue Hill Avenue in Boston.

''What I want to say today, here in Tikkun, is thank you Bernie and Sylvia. You both taught me that it was important not only to be a mensch in one's daily life but also to try to help 'repair the world' -- tikkun olam in Hebrew.

''And for me, with my contribution of a new literary term to the world, that is what my work on the climate fight is all about: tikkun olam. I am not writing a book about cli-fi, I am not appearing on TV talk shows, and I am not making a documentary about my work. I am not interested in fame or money.

''And despite not having stepped foot in a synagogue for over 40 years,  I'm as Jewish as they come, and I recognize the importance of my Jewish heritage, first described in the second creation story in the Torah, to steward the Earth's resources. That's why I was inspired to coin and publicize the cli-fi term: to try to save future generations of humankind as global warming impact events make themselves felt worldwide more and more over the next 30 generations of man. I'm a visionary of sorts, but I don't hear supernatural voices. I only hear my parents saying to me: 'Danny, don't give up!'

''And so help me God, I'm never giving up.''

After the oped was published online, two responses from readers came in that resonated with me, one from a Jewish man in North America, and another from a Jewish man in Australia.

Richard Schwartz wrote: "Kudos to Dan Bloom. Since most people prefer fiction and movies to factual material, his approach could be a major help in increasing awareness about climate change, so important to help shift our imperilled planet onto a sustainable path.''

And Evan Shapiro, a novelist and public relations consultant in Australia, reached out to me in a longer reaction, writing:

''Thank you for sharing. It's a fascinating and well-outlined perspective. While I'm from Jewish decent, I wasn't brought up Jewish. My grandparents were observant, but both my parents declared themselves as atheists and gave my siblings and I a very liberal upbringing and education here in Australia. My feelings about being Jewish are by no means simple. There have been times in my life I've felt it keenly. There are particular aspects of my life that also make me feel very Australian, though by no means is that very traditional, either.  It's an interesting place to find yourself. As I get older, however, I feel more and more human and observant of social conditioning of all kinds that may or may not have affected my outlook. Appreciative of my background and upbringing but open to looking well beyond them, if that makes sense. It's that sense of humanity beyond the label, or perhaps beneath the label that drives me to communicate ideas of human compassion. From a human perspective, how can we not save our one and only precious planet? Thank you for sharing your honest and open article. I really enjoyed it.''



Thursday, May 11, 2017

Canadian TV talk show talks up 'cli-fi' short story by Canadian writers titled "Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change"

Canadian TV talk show talks up 'cli-fi' short story by Canadian writers titled "Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change"

27 minute video from TV talk show in Canada:

Canadian TV talk show talks up 'cli-fi'

by staff writer

For a group of 17 short story writers in Canada, putting together a collection of stories for a new anthology titled "Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change" was a labor of love and a commitment to speak up about the risks and fixes for runaway global warming. Bruce Meyer put out a nationwide call last year for short stories from Canadian authors, and 300 submissions came in, he told this blog. And during a recent television appearance on the "The Agenda" in Ontario hosted by veteran journalist Steve Paikin, Meyers said that he chose 17 stories for the final cut. The book was published by Exile Editions with Michael Callaghan serving as editorial director. Stories by Kate Story, Peter Timmerman, Leslie Goodreid and Nina Munteanu, among 13 others, are contemporary examples of cli-fi writing of the short story kind, and they are getting media attention now across Canada and the rest of the English-speaking world, from Australia to Britain.

Paikin introduced his  TV program that included Meyer, Story and Timmerman on the studio set, by noting that that the new climate change fiction anthology is charting new literary territory.

"Climate change is no fiction, but a new short story anthology attempts to bring an imaginative response to one of the world's greatest crises," he said. "The Agenda welcomes the book's editor and several of its authors to talk about their fictional tales, and why writers need to respond to the threat of climate change."

​For the next 30 minutes, the three panelists and their host chatted about climate change and literature. ​

climate is not infinite
​," Meyer, a well-known literary figure in Canada, said in the introduction of the anthology.​
The air we breathe, the water we need to sustain life, even the temperature of the day, are all necessary ingredients for the survival of human beings. That said, what we remove from beneath the ground – the coal, oil, gas and metals – do not simply disappear because we release them into the air or the water. The more we make, the more we need to unmake, and that creation of new things, that use of non-renewable resources for energy is an enormous expression of our self-deception: we merely rearrange what already exists in the world, and those rearranged things do not simply disappear because we want them to. The world
s capacity to absorb and tolerate misplaced carbon, among other things, has reached the point where the balance of nature has been permanently altered by human activities. What is one day
s resource will become another day
s waste and another day
s waste will become another day
s poison. The result of this process is already evident.

Imagining the results of climate change is nothing new
though it has not been a topic of necessity for most writers in Canada
​, Meyer added, noting:​

​[Canadians] ​
learn to ignore those things that do not celebrate our potential for failure. We write about our successes because success reinforces that status quo and comforts us. The uncomfortable topic, the unsettling reality, is a hard sell to readers and an even harder sell to writers as subject matter.

So his new anthology is an attempt to change all that in literary circles in Canada, he said.

Canadian literature, by virtue of its thematic matter, should offer some hope
​," according to Meyer.
Canada has produced a literature that is conscious of its setting. The ramifications of nature are omnipresent in the works of Canadian writers; yet for all the wilderness musings of snowfalls or even hard-scrabble dustbowl farming, climate change has not been a major concern, until now. This anthology was an answer to a call that was made by Margaret Atwood in April of 2015.

Meyer explained that​
Atwood visited Barrie, Ontario
​ that year​
to speak at a high-school literary festival
​with ​
a theme: our relationship to the world and what we can do to save it. During her address to the audience, Atwood reminded everyone of the warnings Al Gore, had sounded in his
​2006 ​
An Inconvenient Truth
The film went into
​worldwide ​
theatrical release and roused considerable international discussion.

In the middle of Atwood
discussion of the impact of climate change,
​Meyer recalled, ​
she paused and put a question to the audience:
Where are all the Canadian writers who should be addressing the greatest crisis of our age?
​" ​
There was dead silence. No one knew how to respond.

Atwood had been doing her part with her
​"Maddaddam" ​
trilogy of
​climate-themed ​
novels, but the idea of Cli-Fi, the fiction of climate change, had not entered the Canadian imagination as a convenient topic
​," Meyer said.

So the seed was planted for Meyer to create an anthology of Canadian short stories about climate change, and in consultation with publisher Callaghan, the wheels were set in motion. From Margaret Atwood's lips to Bruce Meyer's editorial vision, this book was born.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

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