Ryan Walters: Oklahoma Czar of Hate, Intolerance, and Transphobia

Nex Benedict was sixteen years old. Like many smart and ferociously curious kids, Nex enjoyed reading and drawing. They were into Minecraft and The Walking Dead. Nex was part Choctaw and had a loving cat named Zeus. They earned straight As.

In any sane and tolerant world, Nex would have blossomed into adulthood. In all likelihood, they would have lived a rich and meaningful life.

But that didn’t happen. Nex Benedict is now dead.

Nex Benedict is dead — needlessly dead, unpardonably dead, heartbreakingly dead — because they were nonbinary and lived in Ossawo, Oklahoma — a hotbed of hate and intolerance in which cruel, unrepentant, and opportunistic sociopaths like Ryan Walters (of which more anon) gleefully cranked up the temperature and brought out the most savage and hotheaded elements in its otherwise law-abiding population.

While the precise cause of death is still being investigated (according to a Facebook statement from the police department), what is indisputable is this: (1) There was a violent altercation in the Ossawo High School girl’s bathroom. (2) Nex Benedict suffered significant injuries from other girls as a result of this incident. (3) Despite Nex’s injuries, the school did not call an ambulance service for Nex. (4) It was recommended by the school nurse that Nex visit a medical facility. (5) The next day — February 8, 2024 — the Ossawo Fire Department were dispatched for a medical emergency, which resulted in Nex being conveyed to the St. Francis Pediatric emergency room, where Nex then died.

Ossawo, Oklahoma is a community of 38,732 people in which someone erected a “Let’s Go Brandon” billboard on US 169 near the 76th Street North exit and in which Alee McLain — a right-wing fanatic who is the admin of the Owasso Area Republican Women’s Club Facebook page — falsely accused Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn of encouraging an environment in which children were sexually groomed. (Osborn is a Republican who had been on the board of directors of Honestly, which focused in part on “youth sexual health.” Like many histrionic Republicans fond of using their deranged imagination to invent mythical dens of iniquity from pizza parlors, McLain bought into a conspiracy conjured up by the Oklahoma City Republican Women’s Club without question. It didn’t take long for the hateful froth to foam from the dank corners of her mottled mouth on cue.)

Oklahoma is a state in which cruel, hateful, and unremarkable bigots like Ryan Walters inexplicably become the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and enact callous policies that create intolerant impressions that kids pick up on.

Adults — particularly those who are far enough removed from childhood to forget how impressionable they once were — often ignore the reality that kids (and these kids, much like McLain, can sometimes be as old as fifty-five years old) pay close attention to what they say.

Walters undoubtedly knew this when he fomented hate and transphobic sentiment in his capacity as a public official last year. On June 29, 2023, Walters released a bigoted video on the Oklahoma State Department of Education YouTube account in which he declared:

And there’s dangerous consequences [sic] when common sense is vacated. And we’ve seen, we see a district here in the state where a boy was allowed to go into the girl’s restroom and assaulted two young girls there.

There was just one problem. Aside from misgendering a girl with his insufferably pompous illiteracy, Walters got the facts wrong.

Walters was referring to an October 26, 2022 incident at Edmond Public Schools in which a trans girl got into a physical dispute with a cisgender girl in a girls bathroom. But, as Assigned Media has reported, the details from the two girls are contradictory and murky. The right-wing “news” outlets that covered this incident made no effort to get the details from the trans girl’s perspective. The most neutral news story that Assigned ferreted out was, improbably, the conservative Washington Examiner — where the injuries in question were reported as “minor.” (It is also important to note that Edmond Public Superintendent Angela Grunewald — targeted by Walters in his unhinged state-sanctioned hate speech — was careful to observe, “We don’t want a student hurt at all, whether minor or serious.”)

Unlike this embellished Edmond case, the Ossawo, Oklahoma bathroom incident involved a trans girl who was victimized for being gender-fluid and who is now dead. And because Ryan Walters cannot perceive any LGBTQIA person as a human being — whether adult or child — a glimpse at Ryan Walters’s X/Twitter account reveals no statement expressing even a pro forma “thoughts and prayers” for Nex’s death. In other words, Walters is such an indecent monster, one so riddled with fury and intolerance, that he cannot even engage in the standard cosplay concern one sees from indifferent right-wingers after the latest mass shooting. He has, however, offered more lies, including the risible suggestion that Edmond Public Schools “embraces porn” (the books in question were The Kite Runner and The Glass Castle, which are both no more pornographic than someone wearing shorts on a hot summer day, as well as a baffling intolerance for drag queens. (Here are some interesting statistics from the squeaky-clean data wranglers at Gitnux: There are an estimated 6,100 drag queens in the United States. Approximately 72% of drag queens encountered some form of prejudice or discrimination in 2019. Walters then is clearly more of a force promoting intolerance rather than fighting it.)

Walters was motivated in large part by noted gubernatorial hatemonger Kevin Stitt — a 51-year-old man whose pitch-black hair and permanent scowl bears an uncanny resemblance to the inert and incinerated cilia in a lifelong smoker’s lungs.

On May 25, 2022, Governor Stitt signed one of the most transphobic laws on the books, requiring students at schools to produce their birth certificates for inspection and use the gender listed on that as the basis for what restrooms and locker rooms to use. (This followed a move by Stitt to ban a nonbinary gender marker on all birth certificates issued in Oklahoma.)

Walters naturally followed in these baleful footsteps like an eager bottom.

And because of this, Nex Benedict — a promising student — is now dead.

In all likelihood, Nex would not be dead if Stitt had not signed this bill into law and if Walters had not published his vile video on YouTube. It is almost certain that if these bigots had not pushed so hard and callously with their demagoguery, the people of Oklahoma would have eventually learned greater LGBTQIA tolerance, perhaps codified by state law.

But it seems that Walters and Stitt are more interested in being on the wrong side of history, much as Tulsa was on the wrong side of history in 1921. Keep in mind that Oklahoma is a state in which, just last year, the Sheriff of McCurtain County and several officials expressed a desire to string up Blacks and murder journalists. And while hundred of valiant and principled Oklahomans protested outside the Sheriff’s Office, the racist Sheriff still kept his job.

Now that blood is on Ryan Walters’s hands, the question is whether Ryan Walters will keep his job. His term ends in 2027 and, with xenophobia happening so fast, that seems too far away. There is a movement to impeach him. There have been floods of comments. But Walters will still continue to spout forth piss like some Speer-inspired fountain installed in 1930s Berlin. How many kids have to be brutalized before the people of Oklahoma decide that there is no place in their state for hate and death?

Tell Them While They’re Still Around

You don’t know her name. You’re not going to get her name from me. But she was dear to me in ways that I cannot fully convey and I loved her hard. And I also know that she loved me hard.

I got the call tonight when I was taking notes on Gnostic scholars in a bar while nursing a pint. This is what now constitutes a wild Saturday night for me.

I knew that the news was grave.

I ran outside into 28 degree weather so that I could offer my full attention. I forgot to put on my coat. Somehow that didn’t matter.

She was eighty-three years old. And now she was gone.

She liked mystery novels. She had a brilliantly dry sense of humor. She saw through all forms of bullshit — including mine, for I am a first-class bullshit artist when I want to be — in a way that made you always tell her the truth. And then she would tell you her truth.

I suspect that, had I never met her, I wouldn’t have been so committed to emotional honesty in all that I do.

My job during that moment outside was simple: keep the grieving party laughing. This is what I’m very good at. And sure enough he was doubled over on the phone when I delivered some dependable jokes. This is what I do. Later I alerted a mutual friend to call him and do the same. My friend said he would do so. My friend is also a jokester. We jokesters have the backs of our friends in ways that are more loyal than you could ever imagine.

She knew that I had defied the odds and climbed out of the abyss and improbably done something with my life after my breakdown ten years before. She saw pictures of me with my girlfriend and her kids. Most importantly, she knew that I had patched things up with her son and that we were speaking regularly again. We have known each other for a very long time and I still love him as much as I loved her.

Decades before, she gave me a place to stay when my own family declared me dead. Decades before, she saw just how fucked up my family dynamic was and she valiantly stepped in, knowing that it was a losing battle.

“My God,” I said, “she really didn’t need to do that.”

“I know,” said her son.

“That’s how amazing your mother was.”

“I know,” he said, crying.

And then I got him laughing again. Because I had to alleviate my friend’s pain. He’s done the same for me so many times.

She was so smart and so kind. The kind of mother I should have had but didn’t. Because I lost big at the family lottery. And she knew that.

And the greatest regret I have right now is not reminding her of that in her final days. That’s what is causing me to cry. I really should have talked to her more when I patched things up with her son.

But at least she knew that I ended up okay. She heard about the many adventures that her son and I had. And we kept her smiling and living in our own modest ways.

But I still regret not telling her directly. I regret not giving her the full epic theatrical storytelling treatment that gets me invited to parties.

And all I have to say is this. If you love someone, tell them how amazing they are while they’re still around.

It is a mistake that I keep making. But I’m going to do better.

Tell them how much you love them, how much their actions and gestures meant to you, while they’re still around.

Yes, she knew. I know she knew. But some things are better uttered. For you and the other person.

Tell them while they’re still around. Because if you don’t, the great void that they leave in their wake will feel even vaster. And you’ll have more regrets to add to the tab of life.

Tell them while they’re still around.

People with Mental Disabilities Are Not Your Online Playthings

On February 14, 2024, The Cut published an essay by Emily Gould. A few people forwarded it to me — perhaps because of my own checkered history with Gould, a history for which I feel great shame and deep regret about.

Presumably, a few of these people hoped that I would snark it up.

Well, I can’t. It is absolutely impossible for me to do so in any way after reading that essay.

Aside from the fact that Emily Gould is, like all of us, a human being, there’s also this to consider: I did wrong. Significant wrong. Tectonic-plate shifting wrong that has largely (and perhaps rightly) been perceived as unforgivable.

I am not asking for forgiveness. But because I have done wrong, it is my duty and my responsibility to address Gould’s essay. It’s important for people to know and fully understand exactly how the New York media world openly exploits people with mental health issues and how we perceive people on social media through these hideous fishbowls that only intensify the pain that they have to live with. They did it to me. They have done it to so many other people with Everest-sized hearts and stratospheric talent. They’ll continue to do it to others.

Right now they’re doing it to Emily Gould.

And that is absolutely wrong.

I have to put my foot down.

Enough is enough.

It is morally indefensible to leave Emily Gould so open and vulnerable to vituperative comments and attacks that she should not be reading right now.

Emily Gould is a human being who needs help. It’s truly that simple.

I attempted to leave a version of the below essay in the Cut comments, but, rather predictably, the New York Magazine people censored me. I’m honestly not surprised. Online hate is the only currency they have to recoup their investment on whatever vilely picayune amount they paid out to Emily Gould for her essay. This whole business of exploiting someone’s worst demons like this is a deeply sickening and repugnant three-ring circus that only grows worse as so many media outlets cut more jobs.

Here is the goddamned truth. I will not be able to sleep tonight if I don’t say what I have to say — which is probably not what you are going to expect from me. So here goes.

* * *

In 2007, Emily Gould put up a vicious post on Gawker in which she defamed me. I had made a splash as a quirky literary journalist with some reach. I was literally living hand-to-mouth and Gould was savage and merciless, ridiculing me as I was desperately trying to collect a check from a deadbeat editor to buy food. I later learned that Gould had been planting seeds of gossip about me on the literary cocktail party circuit.

Seven years after Gould’s post, I went through a significant mental health crisis that went terribly public. The same thing that’s happening with Gould’s essay. I was unwell, much as Gould here is unwell.

While reading this essay, I misted up several times, recognizing patterns of self-delusion that I believed in when I had my breakdown. You see, when I went through my own mental breakdown, I should not have been writing publicly like some monkey dancing for other people’s amusement in a zoo. At the time, I had the wrong friends, the wrong partner, and the wrong support group. I should have removed myself entirely from the media/literary circuit and asked for help and forgiveness. I did not do that. Instead, I went full-bore self-destructive, much like Gould here. That’s the great cruelty of mental illness: you truly and stupidly believe that you are invincible and you often refuse to acknowledge your own wrongs. Even when you are unknowingly and uncontrollably hurting people. (I feel so bad for Keith and the kids.)

I wrote an extremely vicious and completely unacceptable article about Gould that I still feel great shame about to this very day, that I again apologize for, and that I wish that I had never published. This piece was seized upon by the very rumormongering crowd that Gould ran with. It only served to exacerbate my crisis and erode the good will and high caliber offerings that I had spent years building up. When I returned with my podcast in an attempt to “reclaim” myself (like Gould here), Gould helped lead a hateful campaign against me and, in a now deleted tweet, expressed her great hope that I would kill myself. And it helped to push me over the edge, leading to an uncontrolled drinking binge, a suicide attempt, my hospitalization, six months of homelessness, and a long article with a substantial number of completely untrue and unverified stories about me that I still have to answer to nearly ten years later. Anyone who knows me in the real world knows who I am. Anyone who has never met me believes I am something else: a cartoonish villain that has been created by the media industrial complex. I am absolutely certain that there is a similar disparity between the Real Emily and the Media Emily. And I was absolutely wrong to perpetuate any notion of Emily Gould as a cartoon.

I have read Emily Gould’s essay three times. As someone who has been through the wringer and who has cleaned himself up, I am asking all of you to back off here. Please do not speculate. Please do not condemn. Please do not judge. You do not know Emily Gould anymore than I do. This is only going to make things worse for Gould, her family, and her friends.

Empathy. That’s what I’m calling for. Gould has the same problem I had: spill all your problems into a major public forum, get attention, but never entirely address the true underlying problems.

Emily, if you’re reading this, I urge you — as a fellow depressive who has no ill will towards you, who forgives you, and who apologizes for any harm I have caused — to keep your demons private and to not allow any editor to exploit your pain and depression for mercantile gain. And if you think you can’t do it, I’m telling you that you can. I got off heavy drinking. I got off cigarettes. And I was highly accomplished at both of those forms of slow suicide. I’m now in a happy relationship and I am a father figure to two lovely kids. And that matters more than any “fame” I once had or any infamy I now possess in spurts. Live. Be humble and grateful. Take care of yourself. That’s more important than being a writer. I urge you from the bottom of my heart to live the best and most peaceful life you can. We only go around this merry-go-round once and you, like anyone, deserve the best ride imaginable.

2/14/24 PM UPDATE: The exploitation of Emily Gould’s mental disability for financial gain appears to be much bigger than I initially estimated. Publishers Lunch reports that Gould will apparently be publishing a book version of her bipolar year with Avid Reader Press. Presumably, the essay featured in The Cut serves as a precursor. Gould’s original Twitter account was suspended — for reasons unknown. But she is still going strong with a Twitter account sanctioned by New York Magazine.

2/15/24 UPDATE: While I quietly unpublished my 2014 essay about Emily Gould (and its attendant comments) last night, my understanding is that some people are still able to access it through a Google cache. I respectfully request that you do not read it or track it down. There is no reason to cause any of the parties further pain or grief. Let me be clear: I fully renounce the ugly words that I wrote in 2014. It was a colossal mistake and I again sincerely apologize to anyone who I had ever hurt. Thank you.

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Modern Library #61)

(This is the fortieth entry in The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: From Here to Eternity.)

Most of the largely sexist pigs who came up with the Modern Library canon were ancient men more fond of oinking and logrolling rather than upholding literary standards. (There was only one woman among these judges: to evoke a recent Marc Maron bit, “It was a different time”).

Most of these judges are now dead. Just as the regressive viewpoints they tapped within their 20th century hearts are now mostly pushing up the daisies. (Thank you, #metoo movement!) Oddball Christopher Cerf is the only judge still alive and I invite him to verbal pistols at dawn (or perhaps, more accurately, a feisty reckoning over a cup of morning tea) if he wants to respond to the list’s hideous gender imbalance. The remaining judiciary corpses include Gore Vidal (dead, past his prime in ’98), Daniel J. Boorstin (dead, past his prime in ’98), Shelby Foote (dead, covert Confederacy apologist, we’ll be getting to him in a few years, past his prime in ’98), Vartan Gregorian (dead, but, from all reports, a decent dude), A.S. Byatt (GOAT, literally just died in November, should have pushed back harder against these testosterone-charged fossils, being a Willa Cather fan seems to be her only fault), Edmund Morris (dead, past his prime in ’98 and about to destroy his career with Dutch), John Richardson (dead, past his prime in ’98), Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (dead, past his prime in ’98), and William Styron (dead, perilously close to being done in ’98, but dammit he at least gave us Darkness Visible, which was rightly included on the Modern Library nonfiction list).

Anyway, it says a great deal about the casual misogyny of these then doddering judges that a hopeless and unremarkable square like Willa Cather (the kind of teeming bore that other teeming bores genuflect to) somehow secured a much higher slot than such indisputable virtuosos as Iris Murdoch, Jean Rhys, and Muriel Spark. It says a great deal that Willa “Cream Corn” Cather — a plodding rustic rube without a soupçon of edge who wrote sentences so loathsome that, only ten minutes after reading an especially awful exemplar, I sprout wings from my back, descend with my fangs upon innocents in Manhattan, and destroy random chevron-studded façades and angelic statuary mounted on art deco skyscrapers hundreds of feet above the streets (if you Google around, you’ll find TikToks out there depicting my frightening transmutation; it is a display that is not for the faint of heart) — is apparently more worthy of commendation than Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, Octavia Butler, Angela Carter, Zora Neale Hurston, Jane Bowles, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Harper Lee, who were all denied a single spot on the list.

In 1998, did the Modern Library Judges fear what was then called an “outspoken” woman? Did they wish to consign “innovation” solely to men? Were they unsettled by the many waves of feminism? Did they try to argue that an insufferable reactionary goody little two-shoes like Cather was a feminist because she exposed spousal discontent through only the barest minimum amount of effort (see Alexandra in My Ántonia; if you think that’s a “radical” depiction of what women had to go through, I’ve got a bridge I can sell you here in Brooklyn) and because she was a closeted lesbian (even as she was tearing down other women of letters privately and publicly)?

At this point, we’ll probably never know. The likeliest scenario is that Cerf will stay mum and take the problematic history of these internal discussions to the grave. And let’s face the facts: the dude wouldn’t meet me for tea even if I whipped up a fun electro cover of one of his two hundred plus compositions for Sesame Street. (Yo, Chris, I’ve got terabytes of samples on my desktop! If a goofy emo punk version of “Monster in the Mirror” whipped up on my synth over the weekend will get you to cough up about this regrettable state of affairs, then I’ll do it! Seriously, that “wubba wubba wubba wubba woo woo woo” just begs to be rasped out in the manner similar to the late Can singer Damo Suzuki.)

The wondrous Dame Hermione Lee, who remains one of our greatest living literary scholars, has written a solid and truly admirable bio advocating for Cather. And while I appreciated Lee’s volume in much the same way that I will always stump for Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, which reckons with the question on why so many people love Celine Dion, make no mistake: I consider anyone willing to go to the mat for Willa Cather to be some terminally unhip rooster without a shred of literary taste, the kind of unadventurous sod who would invite suicidal thoughts if you got cornered by him at a cocktail party. Lee gets special dispensation from me because she’s awesome — in large part because she wrote an invaluable Edith Wharton book (and I am, of course, crazy about Wharton). In fact, in quoting a passage from One of Ours that described junk, Lee identified a possible class-based literary divide between people like me who detest Cather and certain frou-frou bourgie types who think that she’s the cat’s pajamas (Christian Lander, you were so asleep at the wheel on the Cather front when you ran your excellent satirical blog!):

There is a hint that junk, once it starts ageing into antiques, might be seductive (an American writer with more entropic tendencies, like Nathanael West or Thomas Pynchon, would have loved that cellar) but, more often, junk is just pitiful, like the debris of Claude’s marital house: ‘How inherently mournful and ugly such objects were, when the feeling that had made them precious no longer existed!’ [OOO, p. 223] When Claude comes to the ‘dump-heap’ of the French battlefields, he has already been living in a civilization (Cather suggests) which has not needed a war to turn itself into rubbish.

You have to love that “Cather suggests” parenthetical that Lee drops into this cogent analysis. (Don’t worry, Hermione! We cool! I have Quincy Jones’s wonderful Sanford and Son theme playing in the back as I write this paragraph!) I guess you could say that I’m one of those readers who is more drawn to authors with “entropic tendencies.” I believe you can find beauty in damned near anything. Including junk. But Cather, despite stumping for the heartland, is more of a rebuking prude who never earned the right to be a snob. She’d rather throw out the junk and align herself with the sanitarium/cornflakes crowd: you know, the alternative medicine quacks sent up decades later in T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. I know you whipper-snappers are keeping up with me in our age of conspiracy theories, rampant cognitive decline, and unfounded character assassination on social media. Or at least I hope you are!

There’s also the question of whether Cather’s “literary sensibilities” can be entirely trusted. Of The Awakening, Cather had the audacity to write, “I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme.” One might say the same of a hopeless stiff like Cather herself, though she does not possess anything especially exquisite in her early works beyond country bumpkin exclamation marks. She condemned Mark Twain — arguably the greatest wit that American letters has ever produced — as a man of “limited mentality” and “neither a scholar, a reader or a man of letters and very little of a gentleman.”

Yes, I realize that all this was written in the nineteenth century and it is incredibly absurd to pick a fight with somebody who has been dead for nearly eight decades. But I’m telling you. After reading far more Cather than I needed to for this essay, I had actual nightmares about Cather strangling me while laughing in a menacing high-pitched titter. These dreams were so terrifying that I would not even wish them on my worst enemy. And if I have to write about this mediocre and humorless nitwit from Nebraska because she’s on this goddamned Modern Library list, well, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, them’s fighting words.

Let’s take a look at some of the trite and treacly bullshit that Cather was banging out when she rolled out the howitzers against these legends.

From “Paul’s Case”:

The young man was relating how his chief, now cruising in the Mediterranean, kept in touch with all the details of the business, arranging his office hours on his yacht just as though he were home, and “knocking off work enough to keep two stenographers busy.”

Note the redundancies here (“cruising in the Mediterranean” and “arranging his office hours on his yacht”). Even an oft prolix mofo like me recognizes this sentence as interminably long, presumably extended to cash in on the word rate.

Or how about this overwritten nonsense from “The Sculptor’s Funeral”?

The grating sound made by the casket, as it was drawn from the hearse, was answered by a scream from the house; the front door was wrenched open, and a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking: “My boy, my boy! And this is how you’ve come home to me!”

I’m very forgiving of melodrama in fiction, but this is unpardonable corn pudding with an objectively disagreeable sweetness that would be rightly laughed out of any MFA workshop today. The sequence of events here is all wrong. “Drawn from the hearse”? Well, where else would the casket come from? Some giant descending from the heavens? The attempt here to create poignant emotion falls flat with this overwrought dialogue. “My boy” was enough. But we get two in a row, followed by the kind of awful expository dialogue I go out of my way to avoid as a radio dramatist.

And then I read the soul-destroying novels. O Pioneers! was a vicious slog. The Song of the Lark — with its hideous reactionary parochialism and its incessant reliance upon gossip — will have you howling at the ceiling over how stiff and superficial it is. And My Ántonia? You’d honestly be better off spending your time listening to The Knack’s “My Sharona” on repeat for six hours.

Which finally brings us to Death Come for the Archbishop after a lot of throat-clearing. (Look, I’m trying to have fun here. My Cather deep dive was a deeply unpleasant reading experience!)

The common narrative propped up by Cather’s fusty and foolish boosters is that, much like Robert Johnson meeting the Devil, Cather went down to the Southwest (particularly Santa Fe) in the summer of 1925 and came back “reborn” with a renewed “sensitivity” for other cultures. But this, of course, is a lie. And it certainly doesn’t explain why Cather, much like a hopped up Zionist airhead denying Israel’s genocidal complicity, didn’t glom onto the indigenous people who lived in the region, but chose to fixate on the Christian authorities who longed to convert them.

I can see the Cather acolytes arriving at this point in my essay, suggesting that I have deliberately misread Death, which is oh so “sympathetic” to the indigenous people of New Mexico. But at what cost? Depicting Mexicans as noble savages? Emily of It Was Evening All Afternoon arrived at a similar conclusion in 2009. So did Kali Fajardo-Anstine over at LitHub. But why not just go straight to the text to see how docile and obliging the locals are?

When this strange yellow boy played it, there was softness and languor in the wire strings—but there was also a kind of madness; the recklessness, the call of wild countries which all these men had felt and followed in one way or another. Through clouds of cigar smoke, the scout and the soldiers, the Mexican rancheros and the priests, sat silently watching the bent head and crouching shoulders of the banjo player, and his seesawing yellow hand, which sometimes lost all form and became a mere whirl of matter in motion, like a patch of sand-storm.

A strong argument can be made that Cather was a white supremacist, particularly given her treatment of non-white characters in her odious final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which features hideous Black caricatures in the form of Bluebell and Lizzie. In an October 14, 1940 letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher available at the online Willa Cather Archive (I am greatly indebted to Hermione Lee for her endnote), Cather wrote:

I loved especially playing with the darkey speech, which was deep down in my mind exactly like phonograph records. I could remember exactly what they said and the quality of the voice. Just wait till our wise young reviewers, such as Clifton and Louis, sadly call attention to the inconsistency in Till’s and Nancy’s speech,- never knowing that all well trained house servants spoke two languages: one with white people and one with their fellow negroes.

I hope this blatant racism and this boorish boasting helps you to understand why I have felt morally obliged to ratchet up the rage.

When Cather was at work on Death, a Cleveland Press reporter asked her what it was about. She replied, “America works on my mind like light on a photographic plate.” Jesus Christ, could you be any more pretentious? (Hermione Lee informs us that Cather, when making a trip to a writer’s colony as Death squeaked out of her precious mind, was “not remembered for her conviviality.” Which is a gentle way of telling us that Cather was completely fucking insufferable.)

To give Willa the Imperialist Prig some credit, I will say that Death Comes for the Archbishop is slightly better than the early turgid works, although that’s a bit like saying that the Limburger with the least amount of mold that you pick up from the charcuterie plate — you know, that stinky piece you nibble at out of politeness at a party simply because the poor host is blind and she had no idea that she was paring pieces from ancient heads that had been sitting in the fridge since the Clinton Administration — is the bomb.

Death opens with three cardinals and a bishop “talking business” about establishing a new vicarite in New Mexico, which Cather with full colonialist glee tells us is “a part of America recently annexed to the United States.” Bishop Ferrand, the missionary who headed out to the Old West, is ancient and weather-beaten and describes the desolate and fissure-ridden landscape for which these vaguely sinister religious mobsters hope to open up a franchise.

Jean Marie Latour, a thirty-five-year-old naif from Lake Ontario, is enlisted to be the point man converting all the Mexcians and the indigenous people who live in the region. And after these men of the cloth scoff over Latour’s intelligence (or lack thereof), Cather cuts to 1851, where Latour is on his way to Santa Fe. Cather does a decent job describing the limitless “uniform red hills” that Latour takes in on his journey. And there is a modicum of grit in this early chapter that, while a far cry from the satisfying description of Cormac McCarthy at his best, I largely enjoyed.

Unfortunately, after this promising start, my interest waned significantly when Latour began whining about not packing enough water for his journey and losing all of his possessions other than his books. It’s safe that Latour is a far cry from Chaucer’s many priests, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, or even Father John from M*A*S*H. He reveals himself quite rapidly to be an insufferable little shit and I started feeling sorry for Father Joseph Vaillant, Latour’s boyhood friend who accompanies him on the journey to Santa Fe. On the other hand, if you’re friends with a pompous windbag like Latour, then you probably deserve your shared misfortune.

As Father Latour is taken in by some locals, he finds a strange peace in the “bareness and simplicity” of the settlement. He quickly occupies space in a quietly domineering way and listens to the “simple” life stories of these people. I couldn’t help but wonder why a religious man like Latour was so ungrateful, but then I remembered how Cather herself hadn’t exactly been gracious to the many writers who tried to help her. Maybe the fact that Death can be read as a critique of religious imperialism is largely an accident.

Latour starts bragging about how great Americans are. You know, those white people who swooped in and destroyed the Mexican churches and stripped these good people of their religion? Those colonial assholes? They’re great, aren’t they? And, of course, Cather, by way of close narration through Latour, cannot feel any empathy for such debasement.

At this point, I began to loathe Latour with all my heart because of his cluelessness and his insensitivity. And I very much hoped that Cather would deliver on the promise of her title well before I was halfway through the book. Latour is very particular about a meal, telling some indigent to serve him a portion without chili because, as a Frenchman, he does “not like high seasoning.”

Not long after this, Latour is setting up his vicarite. And, of course, it’s Vaillant who is assigned to do all the cooking so that Latour can write endless letters in French. The bishop then takes the opportunity to bitch about the soup. Some friend this motherfucker is.

And even though condemning white privilege with this setup is easier than shooting monkeys in a barrel, I’ll give Cather some points for acknowledging hardscrabble reality:

The wiry little priest whose life was to be a succession of mountain ranges, pathless deserts, yawning canyons and swollen rivers, who was to carry the Cross into territories yet unknown and unnamed, who would wear down mules and horses and scouts and stage-drivers, tonight looked apprehensively at his superior and repeated, “No more , Jean. That is far enough.”

I suppose that Cather defenders will defend her belittling of Mexicans by pointing out how Vaillant is described as ugly. Maybe they’ll point to the way that Vaillant and Latour save an old Mexican slave named Sada. But their “help” involves this woman “obeying” the Padre and being ordered to go to church and pray. Sada really doesn’t have any agency other than wanting to return to her religion. And this, quite frankly, is nothing less than an insulting scene of religious tyranny and white privilege. As for the sinister murderer Buck Scales, it says quite a bit about Cather’s dormant xenophobia that his evil is defined equally in terms of interracial marriage: “All white men knew him for a dog and a degenerate—but to Mexican girls, marriage with an American meant coming up in the world. She had married him six years ago, and had been living with him ever since in that wretched house on the Mora trail.”

If you thought Jeanine Cummins was bad, try taking Willa Cather out for a spin. There’s no way I can defend Willa Cather and her repugnant insouciance in 2024. Her prose simply isn’t good enough for me to align myself with Hermione Lee. And I am pleased as punch that I will never have to read this mean and hideous writer ever again.

Next Up: Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer!

From Here to Eternity (Modern Library #62)

(This is the thirty-ninth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Wapshot Chronicle.)

American history has always been a series of tranquil and joyful moments just before some terrible spill of the cosmic wheelbarrow. The ebb and flow of American life, as it has been and as it always will be, can be perceived as a recurring nightmare: of life, love, felicity, and possibility cast asunder in an unsettling uproar claiming some permanent end to innocence. The hanging chads and butterfly ballots ushering in a presidential monster, only to be eclipsed (and even normalized) sixteen years later by an even greater beast, a lusus naturae even more unhinged and more unsettling. The planes hitting the towers. A pandemic wiping out more than one million Americans. And, of course, the planes that attacked Pearl Harbor and stirred America from its slumber, shoving us into the Second World War.

In our rush to wrap our shivering minds in the warm blanket of nostalgia, as we recall epochs that were seemingly safer and stabler, we often forget that living did not stop and progress was not halted by the deafening clamor of sinister cornets warbling from left field. The best artists have always understood that each deep stab of history’s merciless dirk is answered by reflection and repose, of the battered and bruised emerging triumphantly from these setbacks with resilience and rejuvenation.

We were never like that. We were always like that. The push and pull continues unabated by the “winners” snorting with sow-soaked hubris at the top of the media food chain, with scant regard given to the unsettling totality.

Enter James Jones in 1951, whose massive masterpieces From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line are little remembered by anyone under fifty today.

I may very well be the last person under fifty to have signed on for the full James Jones experience. Not even the perspicacious film critic Glenn Kenny finished the Jones doorstopper that he named his thoughtful blog after, but I did.

* * *

From Here to Eternity is a peacetime novel bolstered by a trinity of misfits: a former boxer who grew up poor and who invites trouble named Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (or Prew), a total maniac from Brooklyn who works in the kitchen named Private Angelo Maggio (in other words, a violent and unhinged toxic man who would be immediately canceled, if not arrested on sight, in 2024), and Sergeant Milt Warden, who is having an affair with Karen Holmes, naturally the wife of Captain Dana Holmes, who is the man in charge of G Company. Ther’s also Mess Sergeant Maylon Stark, who, while a minor character in Eternity, I mention here because Jones would take the names and temperaments of these men and reuse them for The Thin Red Line and Whistle, the next two books in his World War II trilogy. So in The Thin Red Line (another Jones masterpiece), Prewitt becomes Witt, Stark changes into Storm, Warden transmutes into Welsh. Then Whistle comes along and Witt is Winch, Prew is Prell, and Stark is Strange. It’s a clever move by Jones to show the interchangeability of certain personality types within the military-industrial complex. Thirty years before Richard Gere famously wailed “I got nowhere else to go!” in An Officer and a Gentleman, Jones understood the painful truth about rudderless men flocking to the military more than anyone.

Mention From Here to Eternity to anyone today and they will probably remember (that is, if they do remember) the famous love scene on the beach with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. But as undeniably romantic as this cinematic moment is, I would say that “Re-Enlistment Blues” probably captures the spirit of the book better than the waves sweeping across gorgeous Hollywood actors (and, hey, I’m not going to deny that Lancaster and Kerr are both incredibly sexy in that scene). I’ve taken the liberty of covering the song, if only to remind the world that it was Jones who wrote the lyrics (since fewer people read these days, why not set the record straight on TikTok?):

You see, Jones rightly perceived the military as an all-encompassing instrument designed to turn fuckups into soldiers through often brutal regimentation. (One can see the full unforgiving horrors against the more libertine and free-thinking men on display in the novel’s brutal chapters in the stockade.) In a December 8, 1939 letter to his brother Jeff, Jones wrote, “I, who am better bred than any of these moronic sergeants, am ordered around by them as if I were a robot, constrained to do their bidding. But I can see their point of view. Nine out of every ten men in this army have no more brains than a three year old. The only way they can learn the manual and the drill commands is by constant repetition. It is pounded into their skulls until it is enveloped by the subconscious mind. The tenth man cannot be excepted. He must be treated the same as the others, even if in time he becomes like them.” A little less than four decades later, Jones would hold to this unsettling truth in his compelling memoir, WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering: “Men who had been raised to believe, however erroneously, in a certain modicum of individual free-thinking were being taught by loud, fat, devoted sergeants to live as numbers, by the numbers. Clothes that did not fit, when they could see clothes on the shelves that did fit…Being laughed at, insulted, upbraided, held up to ridicule, and fed like pigs at a trough with absolutely no recourse or rights to uphold their treasured individuality before any parent, lover, teacher or tribune. Harassed to rise at five in the morning, harassed to be in bed by nine-thirty at night.”

When From Here to Eternity dropped in 1951, few novelists — with the possible exception of Richard Aldington’s bracingly sardonic Death of a Hero — had dared to betray this unspoken memorandum of understanding. That the truth arrived in fiction six years after the surrender of Japan suggests that it was meant to be confronted, though not in expedient fashion. Three years before, Norman Mailer had merely presented the loneliness and dehumanization of his soldiers. But Jones was prepared to go much further than this, tackling military life with all of its blunt involutions. And it is testament to Jones’s great talent as a writer that Angelo Maggio — the anarchic id at the center of this massive novel — remains an inexplicably poignant figure, a character who charmed Frank Sinatra and, according to his biographer James Kaplan, caused Ol’ Blue Eyes to brood at night speaking his lines from the book and insisting that only he could play the part. (The role salvaged Sinatra’s then flailing career. Sinatra would go onto win an Academy Award for his performance in the 1953 movie. Indeed, it can be plausibly concluded that Sinatra would never have been Sinatra without James Jones. Without Maggio, Sinatra would have ended up as a forgotten crooner, some footnote in 20th century history.)

* * *

In stitching all these threads together, Jones was hindered by Scribner’s legal team, which demanded a low-salt version of the authentic soldier dialogue. Only a few years before, Norman Mailer had caved to the censors to get The Naked and the Dead published, using “fug” in lieu of a now commonplace word that one hears frequently from the mouths of enthusiastic teenagers (and causing Dorothy Parker to say, upon being introduced to Mailer, “So you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck.'”).

But Jones saw the revision as a creative challenge. In his poignant memoir, James Jones: A Friendship, Willie Morris (who was so tight with Jones that he finished writing the final installment of the World War II trilogy, Whistler, after Jones’s death) got the inside skinny from editor Burroughs Mitchell on how Jones approached this:

It was very hard work; Jim’s ear was so exact that you couldn’t easily remove a word from the dialogue or substitute for it. But he kept doggedly at it, and eventually he began to treat the job as a puzzle, a game, and was delighted with himself when he found solutions. It was characteristic of him, then and afterward, that when an editorial decision was made, a look of anguish would come over his face, he would get up and pace, and finally he’d either accept or say, “I just can’t change that,” looking even more anguished. Finally I reported to Mr. Scribner that we had cut all the fucks we could cut, although not the lawyers’ full quota, and Mr. Scribner cheerfully accepted the situation. That was certainly part of reason why, when Charles Scribner died suddenly, Jim insisted on going to the funeral. He said he knew that Mr. Scribner had been worried about Eternity — but he had gone ahead and published it.

In our present age of sensitivity readers and books being banned or unpublished for spurious reasons, righteous career-destroying ideologues are no less wild-eyed or humorless than their right-wing, anti-art, anti-Critical Race Theory, and casually transphobic counterparts — the kind of regressive dipsticks who wrongly complain about how Russell T. Davies’s new stories for Doctor Who are “too woke” because of pronoun recognition, Davies equipping the TARDIS with a wheelchair ramp (and proudly introducing Ruth Madeley as a disabled UNIT adviser), and the marvelous inclusion of nonbinary characters. But make no mistake: tyranny against expression is not confined to any political affiliation. It is difficult to fathom any modern day corporate publisher who would possess the stones to stick with an author’s artistic vision in the way that Charles Scribner did. (Only four decades after the publication of From Here to Eternity, a gutless vulgarian by the name of Richard E. Snyder, head of Simon & Schuster (which would gobble up the Scribner imprint in 1993), would kibosh the publication of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, before it was picked up by Vintage, where it would become a huge success (and be reinvented by the inventive Mary Harron as an unforgettable film adaptation mocking toxic masculinity, much as Ariel Levy and John Turturro recently adapted Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre for the stage in similar fashion). Thankfully, Snyder had the decency to drop dead of heart failure last June after living a long and spineless life lining the coffers of his corporate overlords by publishing “inoffensive” tomes.)

Jones wandered into the writing world a bit too late to get the full Maxwell Perkins treatment (he famously demanded to see Perkins in person as a young writer; Perkins received him and encouraged him, but passed away before he could devote his editorial energies to the entirety of Eternity), but he did have timing on his side, with the valves of permissible dialogue being slowly loosened in the early 1950s, culminating in the opprobrium that Grace Metalious would receive five years later for Peyton Place.

The uncensored version of From Here to Eternity was published by The Dial Press a few years back and, having read both the original and the uncensored versions, I would say that the latter is far superior. There are small differences, such as Maggio allowing a man to go down on him to land some extra cash:

“Oh, sall right. I admit its nothing like a woman. But its something. Besides, old Hal treats me swell. He’s always good for a touch when I’m broke. Five bucks. Ten bucks. Comes in handy the middle of the month.”

But these restored scenes really tell you about the quiet desperation of soldiers. They wait for payday. They augment their meager pay with card games in the latrine. They spend ridiculous amounts of money on sex workers. And they do this because, well, there is nothing else for them. In her incredibly underrated book Stiffed, Susan Faludi documented this problem in the 1990s from a variety of vantage points and concluded that the repugnant patriarchal cues and the way that American culture is conveniently superficial about anxieties that scar lives is equally applicable to men as well as women. And we cannot even begin to solve the underlying problems unless we are honest about all this. As journalists now lose their jobs and sites like The Messenger close their doors and kill their content without notice, it’s incumbent upon us to find the ballsy artists like Jones and stick up for them even when their honest sentiments are offensive or make us uncomfortable. More than five decades after its publication, From Here to Eternity still makes a valiant case for the need to tell and publish the truth.

Next Up: Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop!