American Fiction's Racial Landscape
August 5, 2013
Aug 5, 2013
26 Min read time
In contemporary American fiction, popular writers turn toward regions, spatial and psychic, where whiteness is once again normative, invisible, unquestioned, and unthreatened,
There’s a moment toward the end of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping when Ruth, the young narrator whose mother has recently committed suicide, finds herself utterly alone. She is exploring an abandoned homestead at the edge of a lake while her eccentric and unreliable aunt Sylvie has wandered off, perhaps never to be seen again. Ruth imagines the homesteaders who once lived there and the ghosts of children who died there, until gradually she begins to feel herself among them, more ghostly than real.
“Loneliness is an absolute discovery,” she says,
When one looks from inside at a lighted window, or looks from above at the lake, one sees the image of oneself in a lighted room, the image of oneself among trees and sky—the deception is obvious, but flattering all the same. When one looks from the darkness into the light, however, one sees all the difference between here and there, this and that. Perhaps all unsheltered people are angry in their hearts, and would like to break the roof, spine, and ribs, and smash the windows and flood the floor and spindle the curtains and bloat the couch.
A few moments later she gives in to this feeling of abandonment and lies down on the grass: “Sylvie is nowhere, and sometime it will be dark. I thought, Let them come unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart.”
While the kind of total isolation Robinson describes is quite unusual in late twentieth century America, the feeling Ruth experiences for a moment—what we can only call social guilt, the knowledge that out there, on any given night, are others raging against the cold and the indifference of a world that refuses to house them decently—is not. One could almost call this an allusion to the looming problem of homelessness (Housekeeping was published in 1980) if the novel didn’t immediately send Ruth into a spiral of self-pity and despair that excludes everything outside herself. Loneliness, after all, is an “absolute” discovery—a state, that is, of exquisite and bottomless self-absorption. In making such claims for uniqueness, isolation, and solitude, Housekeeping is, in a fundamental way, antisocial.
In a 2012 essay about the origins of Housekeeping, “When I Was A Child I Read Books,” Robinson reflects on European history and classical literature, the most important companions of her childhood in a remote Idaho town. “Relevance was precisely not an issue for me,” she says,
But I think it was in fact particularly Western to feel no tie of particularity to any single past or history, to experience that much underrated thing called deracination, the meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one’s eye.
“Deracination” is a fascinating word. The Oxford English Dictionary sources it in the French deraciné, racine meaning “root,” and gives it the meaning “to pluck or tear up by the roots, eradicate, exterminate,” with the secondary meaning of “uprooted from one’s national or social environment.” In a British context, it means “rootless” in the pejorative sense: a pretender, an arriviste, a fraud. But—not entirely surprisingly—in the hands of Marilynne Robinson, a firm believer in American uniqueness, it turns into an ideal: an Englishman’s self-eradication is an Idahoan’s starting point. In American language, we can’t help but acknowledge that the word defines itself, OED or no: it means not to strip the roots but to strip away race, to de-race oneself.
Language, as any philosopher or critical theorist will tell you, is its own kind of real estate, a field, whose ownership is hotly contested, and so it’s no surprise that Robinson stakes her claim to the American present by a reclamation, a reordering of words: race, identity, community, individual, democracy. At the same time, Calvinist that she is, she stresses that the struggle to undo race and achieve individuality is already lost. In modern culture, loneliness is seen as a pathology: “By some sad evolution . . . now people who are less shaped and constrained by society are assumed to be disabled and dangerous.” In another instance, but on the same theme, she lingers on how the word “identity” has changed from Whitman’s time to our own: “Rather than acknowledging the miraculous privilege of existence as a conscious being,” she writes, “identity seems now to imply membership in a group, through ethnicity or affinity or religion or otherwise . . . and this is taken to be a good thing.”
Robinson’s work derives much of its distinctive power from the way it brings an old and mostly forgotten severity of language and spirit back, just barely, into American English. But deracination is a long-lived and nearly universal trope in white American literature, and it remains an ideal and a covert fantasy in a country which today is about as far from racially homogeneous as has been possible in the history of humankind. In the most superficial moral sense, deracination invokes the old dream of colorblindness, the chimera of “the content of our character.” Subconsciously deracination probably has more to do with a desire not to have one’s visual field constantly invaded by inconveniently different faces—relationships that are fraught, unfixed, capable of producing equal measures of helplessness and guilt. But there is also, perhaps almost too easy to ignore, the question of scale—the scale our lives are measured against, the fundamental American desire to stand out on the horizon, alone with our thoughts, to be a figure against the visual field around us.
‘Deracination’ is an American ideal: not to strip from the roots, but to de-race oneself.
For many white writers since the 1960s, the fantasy of deracination has become uncoupled from the wilderness as such. Wilderness is now more and more remote, as a concept or a destination, and has migrated onto the experience of landscape more generally—absorption in a landscape, confinement within a landscape, quest for a landscape, loneliness or alienation within a landscape. These landscapes, where inner and outer experience fuses in interesting ways, are nearly always empty of people of color. Of course, the absence of the original inhabitants is a defining, if usually unacknowledged, trope of American nature writing, but here I’m talking about a broader and more willful kind of elimination—a turn toward regions, spatial and psychic, where whiteness is once again normative, invisible, unquestioned, and unthreatened, and where repressed social guilt becomes a vague subjective state of discomfort and anomie, if it does not evaporate altogether.
• • •
In Crabgrass Frontier (1987), his definitive study of the rise of American suburbia after World War II, historian Kenneth Jackson lays out the facts very simply: compared to every other industrialized country, “the United States has thus far been unique in four important respects . . . : affluent and middle-class Americans live in suburban areas that are far from their work places, in homes that they own, and in the center of yards that by urban standards elsewhere are enormous.”
What Jackson doesn’t say—at least in part because it’s implicitly obvious—is that each of these four characteristics (population density, home ownership, residential status, commuting distance) is tinged, if not altogether saturated, with the racial history of the postwar era.
Speaking very loosely, we can divide this history into two periods: that of active, explicit racism, from the 1940s to the 1970s, in which most of our present-day suburbs were established, and that of implicit racism, elective segregation, and racism-by-proxy, beginning with forced busing and still operating robustly today. This second period transformed the suburbs and gave birth to “exurbs.” In these formerly rural areas, far from urban centers, development occurs very quickly, town centers spring up mostly on an ad-hoc basis (if at all), and workers commute long distances to cities or to the suburbs themselves.
During the first period, the suburbs played a leading role in one subset of American fiction—most obviously the works of Richard Yates and John Cheever. In those days the suburbs were new, but a generation later they became a theme and a subject in themselves. By the 1980s, when the center of gravity in American fiction had shifted back toward conventional, descriptive, narrative realism in the 1980s—it was the heyday of Raymond Carver, Richard Bausch, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beattie, Anne Tyler, Mary Gordon, Joyce Carol Oates, and Alice Adams—and the suburbs were a fait accompli. So too was the assumed failure of the great project of integration and racial reconciliation that occupied Baby Boomers in their youth.
Probably the most astute chronicler of this second postwar period is Charles Baxter, whose early stories traverse the suburbs and exurbs of Detroit, industrial America’s imploded icon. In “Fenstad’s Mother,” a white, thirty-something, childless, divorced computer programmer and composition teacher, whose great joy in life is ice skating—“to express grief on skates seemed almost impossible”—visits his mother, who was once a minor luminary in the civil rights movement and now is in the early stages of dementia:
The apartment smelled of soap and Lysol, the signs of an old woman who wouldn’t tolerate nonsense. Out on her coffee table, as usual, were the letters she was writing to her congressman and to political dictators . . . . Martin Luther King’s eyes locked into his from the framed picture on the wall opposite him. In the picture King was shaking hands with Fenstad’s mother, the two of them surrounded by smiling faces.
Deracination, in Baxter’s stories, is largely an unintended, unwanted side effect of geography: the collapse of the public sphere by the disappearance of the public square, what we might call the atomizing effects of the Reagan era, when the late Margaret Thatcher told us that there is “no such thing as society.” Deracination here is a profound sense of helplessness that extends from questions of historical purpose and racial justice down into the earth itself.
Describing the landscape of southeast Michigan in his story “Westland,” Baxter writes:
This land has been beaten up. The industrial brass knuckles have been applied to wipe out the trees, and the corporate blackjack has stunned the soil, and what grows there—the grasses and brush and scrub pine—grows tentatively. The plant life looks scared and defeated, but all the other earthly powers are busily at work.
A more typical writer of this era, Ann Beattie, elides race simply by narrowing the aperture of her lens to one rigidly demarcated social milieu—northeastern, white, liberal semi-bohemians, most of whom originate in New York City and then flee to Westchester, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Utah, Key West. (Not for nothing is her selected stories entitled Park City). Beattie’s characters, like so many people of their generation and demographic, see certain landscapes, certain visual and spatial markers, as a comprehensive balm for all that ails them: to choose one example among a thousand, Tom, a bereft divorced father in “Greenwich Time,”
makes the night-light pulse like a buoy bobbing in the water and tries to imagine that his bed is a boat, and that he is setting sail, as he and Amanda did years before, in Maine, where Perkins Cove widens into the choppy, ink-blue ocean.
Often, as one might expect, these fantasies turn out badly—the vacation houses are sold, or abandoned; the supposedly quaint town is vulgar and overpriced; the neighbors disappoint; the new friendship goes sour—but Beattie’s faith in the enterprise remains largely unchanged, if to judge only by the fact that her stories have followed the same trajectory for nearly four decades. And Beattie is a relatively mild and agnostic example: more fervent adherents of the cult of Elsewhere—Annie Proulx, Kent Haruf, Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, Robinson herself—have tailored their whole careers around remote, awe-inducing landscapes peopled by quirky, salt-of-the-earth, hard-living folks, nearly all of whom happen to be white.
• • •
If we come to see ownership and flight as the two interdependent forces, in yin-yang fashion, shaping white American experience in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we couldn’t ask for a better literary icon than Richard Ford, whose novels and stories have ridden both of these trajectories more or less simultaneously, moving back and forth from the New Jersey suburbs of his celebrated Pulitzer-winning Frank Bascombe trilogy to the mountain-and-plains West of such books as Rock Springs (1987), Wildlife (1990), and Canada (2012). Ford also represents a third notable chapter of this same story: that of a child of the Jim Crow South. Ford left Jackson, Mississippi for Michigan State as a teenager, determined—as he suggested in a 1996 Paris Review interview—to leave his Southern identity behind:
I simply didn’t understand some very fundamental things in Mississippi in the early sixties and fifties: why it was we went to separate schools, why all this violence. . . . I couldn’t piece it out, couldn’t make racism make sense. . . . I was not brave enough or committed enough or selfless enough to stay in Mississippi during the civil-rights movement. . . . I wasn’t enlightened. I was nothing, that’s what I was. But I knew I was a little nothing—which helped.
The defining feature of Ford’s work could be summed up in the word “rootlessness,” both in the subjective sense—refusal to be defined by one’s family of origin, hometown, region—and in the broader, if not quite objective sense: a resistance to the claims of any kind of history or consciousness of the past. It’s this second rootlessness—what Robinson calls “the meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one’s eye”—that characterizes Frank Bascombe, who in other ways is very much a stick-in-the-mud, a transplanted Southerner who settles in New Jersey as a young family man and stays through three careers and two marriages into prostate-ridden old age. In a characteristic early passage in The Sportswriter (1986), Bascombe puts it this way:
My own history I think of as a postcard with changing scenes on one side but no particular or memorable messages on the back. You can get detached from your beginnings, as we all know, and not by any malevolent designs, just by life itself, fate, the tug of the ever-present. The stamp of our parents on us and the past in general is, to my mind, overworked, since at some point we are whole and by ourselves upon the earth, and there is nothing that can change that for better or worse, and so we might as well think about something more promising.
Or, to put it even more baldly, a little earlier in the novel: “There are no transcendent themes in life. In all cases things are here and they’re over, and that has to be enough. The other view is a lie of literature and the liberal arts.”
Make that an emphasis on the word “liberal.” What Bascombe articulates here, and what Ford has made clear in his personal essays, could be called a kind of homespun existentialism, or pragmatic, bedrock American common sense, or post-Protestant agnosticism, but in its most basic formulation it’s what the philosopher J.M. Bernstein has called the ideology of the “sovereign individual,” the belief shared by virtually every American conservative:
We presume the government is answerable to us, governs only with our consent, our dependence on it a matter of detached, reflective endorsement; and further, that we intrinsically possess a battery of moral rights that say we can be bound to no institution unless we possess the rights of ‘voice and exit.’ . . . All these institutions and practices should be seen as together manufacturing, and even inventing, the idea of a sovereign individual who becomes, through them and by virtue of them, the ultimate source of authority. . . . suppressing to the point of disappearance the manifold ways that individuality is beholden to a complex and uniquely modern form of life.
What makes Ford’s work so appealing, I think, even to people who don’t accept (or don’t pay attention to) the political implications of his logic, is that he invests this sovereign individuality with great pathos. He makes it seem, as few others have, the necessary, natural, unavoidable order of things. Take, for example, the story “Optimists,” from Rock Springs, in which a middle-aged man recounts in great detail the night when, at fourteen, he witnessed his father murder another man by punching him in the heart. After that night, the boy lived with his mother for two more years while his father was in prison. Then he joined the Army, leaving the wreckage of his unhappy family behind. “I was apart from all of it,” he says. “And when you are the age I was then, and loose on the world and alone, you can get along better than at almost any other time, because it’s a novelty, and you can act for what you want, and you can think that being alone will not last forever.” But being alone, apparently, does last forever. At the end of the story, the man meets his mother in a supermarket; they have not seen each other in fifteen years, and he is all but incapable of accounting for himself:
‘I’ve been down in Rock Springs, on the coal boom,’ I said. ‘I’ll probably go back down there.’
‘And I guess you’re married, too.’
‘I was,’ I said. ‘But not right now.’
‘Do you ever see your dad?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I never do.’
‘I wish we knew each other better, Frank,’ my mother said to me. She looked down, and I think she may have blushed. ‘We have our deep feelings, though, don’t we? Both of us.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We do.’
‘So. I’m going out now,’ my mother said. ‘Frank.’ She squeezed my wrist and walked away through the checkout and into the parking lot.
The Irish writer Frank O’Connor, in his book The Lonely Voice (1963), called these kinds of characters a “submerged population,” that is, a marginalized, isolated group capable of evoking great pity. But in truth Ford’s characters are never really played for our sympathy: their reticence, their hard-won self-sufficiency and disinterest in family ties, are not antiheroic in the existential sense but actually heroic. The wisdom granted by their sometimes-tragic circumstances doesn’t just assuage their pain; it allows them to affirm their authentic selves.
‘Realist’ writers believe that individuals are best exposed against a largely erased background.
What unites Ford with other writers of the same persuasion (including Beattie, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Joy Williams) is a belief that individuals are best exposed (or only exposed) against a largely erased background, a deliberately subtracted and elided social and cultural context. Strangely, though this approach is highly stylized and deliberately artificial, critics have always described these writers as realists: Joyce Carol Oates praised Rock Springs as “the very poetry of realism.” This kind of wishful thinking explains a great deal about the spatial imagination of the ’80s, in which the minimalist aesthetic embraced “a concept of ‘free’ space, unrelated to intention,” to quote Jay Parini’s essayas the critic Jay Parini once wrote about Beattie. But, as any real estate developer knows, there is no such thing as free space. To put it more plainly, the non-assertion of privilege, even the rejection of privilege, doesn’t mean that the privilege disappears. It only becomes more difficult to dislodge.
• • •
The problem with reading Ford sympathetically—as an anguished Southern exile who has tried to develop a broader frame of reference, a kind of humanistic, individuated outlook impossible in the land of his birth—is that he has a habit of crossing over the lines of normative, polite, post–Civil Rights era behavior. In all of his books, including last year’s Canada, his present-day narrators—white men who live well outside the South—refer to black people, repeatedly if not consistently, as “Negroes.” In the first paragraph of Independence Day, set in 1988, Ford sensuously evokes the town of Haddam, New Jersey in midsummer: “Summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god.” And
In the Negro trace, men sit on stoops, pants legs rolled above their sock tops, sipping coffee in the growing, easeful heat.
“Negro trace” draws on a common Southern expression for a neighborhood or quarter, but it is completely out of character in a novel about New Jersey in the ’80s. No one in Haddam—or Princeton, its real analogue—would have any idea what Frank Bascombe meant if he used the phrase in conversation. A few pages later he renames it the “darktown section.” Moreover, the description of men “sitting on stoops, pants legs rolled above their sock tops,” brings to mind pictures of sharecropper’s shacks in the South, an image more appropriate of To Kill a Mockingbird.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that Ford’s relationship with black characters remains at this level of stereotype and objectification, just as it would be unfair to say, as many people assume, that as an ex-Southerner he has tried to erase or evade the presence of black people in his fictional America. Race, he says, is a subject that he would rather avoid, but in point of fact he can’t resist bringing it up in idiosyncratic, sometimes troubling, sometimes moving ways. Independence Day, which strikes all the notes of the major chord called America—July 4, the Baseball Hall of Fame, Self Reliance, The Declaration of Independence—is also, when viewed as a very loose but still-consistent plot, a parable of racial reconciliation. Though the novel’s focus is Bascombe’s disastrous attempt to heal his troubled teenage son Paul by taking him to Cooperstown, that quest is framed by Bascombe’s agonizing efforts to sell a home to a highly annoying pair of clients, the Markhams. The Markhams are, for complicated reasons, leaving an idyllic pottery-making life in Vermont for what Bascombe calls, over and over, “the real world.” The Markhams can’t even begin to afford the kind of house they want, and Bascombe would like nothing more than to rent them one of two houses he happens to own in the Negro trace. Not that Bascombe is a slumlord—at least not by his own admission. He invested in this property, he says, partly to “stash money where it’d be hard to get at,” but mostly for “the satisfaction of reinvesting in my community”:
I would, I felt, be the perfect modern landlord: a man of superior sympathies and sound investments, with something to donate from years of accumulated life led thoughtfully if not always at complete peace. Everybody on the street would be happy to see my car come cruising by, because they’d know I was probably stopping in to install a new faucet . . . . What I thought I had to offer was a deep appreciation for the sense of belonging and permanence the citizens of these streets might totally lack in Haddam (through no fault of their own), yet might long for the way the rest of us long for paradise. . . . The residents of Haddam’s black neighborhood, I concluded, had possibly never felt at home where they were either, even though they and their relatives might’ve been here a hundred years. . . . And so what I thought I could do was at least help make two families feel at home and let the rest of the neighbors observe it.
It’s an astonishing dramatization of what we might call postmodern white paternalism: “superior sympathies and sound investments.” The Markhams, however, aren’t buying it. Joe, the plug-ugly, snarling ex-potter, is an unreconstructed racist (odd, in a person from his time and place), and not until a dismaying series of reversals and the near-end of his marriage, plus the calamities Bascombe suffers in the meantime, does Joe finally, inevitably suffer a change of heart, four hundred-odd pages later. Whereupon Bascombe exults in the triumph of his ideals: “Alive but unrecognized in their pleased but dizzied heads,” he says of the Markhams,
is at least now the possibility of calling on [the neighbors] with a hot huckleberry pie . . . of letting little dark-skinned kids sleep over; of nurturing what they both always knew they owned in their hearts but never exactly found an occasion to act on in the monochrome Green Moutnains: that magical sixth-sense understanding of the other races.
“That magical sixth-sense understanding of the other races” isn’t how anyone would describe Ford’s own writing on race, in Independence Day or elsewhere. To use another Southern colloquialism, it’s a hot mess, a mangling of excellent though questionable intentions, resentful subterfuge, orotund sentence architecture, and, more than all the rest, an unspeakable certitude that the speaker is free to declaim and an authority on whatever his eye rests upon. Ford’s is a prose of ownership, of confidence in its own ontological condition. It reflects an unquestionable self-assurance that in our culture and era only white males can have.
Deracination underwrites the fantasies of escape that drive so many of our impulses.
And what happens, we might wonder, when this roving eye comes to rest on the subject of race itself? Ford’s writing and interviews are full of asides on the subject, but the closest he’s ever come to a full-on reckoning is a 1999 New York Times Magazine essay, “In the Same Boat.” Ford’s assignment—which in retrospect is so absurd it seems to have come out of a comic novel—was to travel down the Mississippi from Hannibal, Missouri, in a riverboat. He would be joined by Stanley Crouch, whom he had never met. Due to inclement weather, the riverboat trip barely happened. But Crouch and Ford, like any writers would, made the most of the opportunity to collect their checks. After beginning with obligatory remarks about Huck Finn and how Crouch was a very affable and pleasant man to spend a few hours with, Ford presents the good news and the bad news together:
Most of what I currently think about race involves just the usual rotating miscellany of racial attitudes and reactions that are on most white people’s minds—whites, that is, who aren’t bigots. These include a self-conscious awareness that I wouldn’t knowingly bar anybody from anything because of his race; that I don’t get nervous when I see that my 747 pilot is black . . . . The usual liberal agenda. On the less ecumenical side . . . . ‘’White’’ and ‘’black’’ are not really races to me, and I have no wish to make them be, or to make being white a consideration in knowing me. And so I don’t completely understand why black politics, black culture, black literature, black identity are still so widely sanctified and haven’t become passé in the view of most intelligent people.
Beyond that, I don’t understand why anybody might think I would personally apologize for the abomination of slavery when I never caused it. . . . I’m interested that it’s more or less socially O.K. for blacks to call each other niggers but equally O.K. to start fistfights with me if I do it. None of this is really anything terribly serious, I realize, and generally falls under the heading of nothing human ever being perfect.
“The usual rotating miscellany,” he assures us. “None of this is really anything terribly serious”: that is, slavery, black culture, “black” and “white” as categories, the use of the word “nigger.” This, in Ford’s view, is how race appears as a subject to “most white people—who aren’t bigots.” There’s perhaps no more honest expression of default white attitudes toward race in the age of white flight and re-segregation: for white people living in low-density suburbs or exurbs, which is to say most white Americans, to think about race is a choice, and not a very serious or meaningful one.
• • •
Why do well-intentioned, intelligent, thoughtful people so often fail to grasp the extent of their own privilege, and respond so belligerently to any suggestion that corrective action might be justified as compensation? One answer, developed over decades in academic circles, and now slowly filtering into the wider cultural conversation, is the concept of “invisible capital”: the enormous interlocking network, or feedback loop, of social, cultural, and economic advantages that white people have historically possessed and passed down, often unconsciously, to their children. In The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (1998), the sociologist George Lipsitz argues that probably the least visible—and most significant—node in this network is control over real estate:
Blacks are not likely to number themselves among the forty-six million Americans today who can trace the origins of their family wealth to the Homestead Act of 1863, because almost all that land was allocated to whites . . . . 98 percent of Federal Housing Authority loans [between 1932 and 1962] went to whites . . . . The living legacy of past discrimination combines with the impact of contemporary discriminatory practices in mortgage lending, real estate sales, automobile credit financing, and employment to impose artificial impediments against asset accumulation . . . . Because they face an artificially restricted housing market, the current generation of blacks has lost $82 billion collectively; the next generation is likely to lose $93 billion.
It’s not hard to imagine that the spatial deracination we’ve seen in white fiction of the last three decades arises out of a profound discomfort with the persistence of profound and worsening structural discrimination; deficits in education, resources, and health; and economic segregation even after the enormous changes of the Civil Rights era. Of course, there are any number of white writers of Ford’s generation who have taken the opposite tack and written brave and wonderful novels that interweave characters of different races: Russell Banks, Madison Smartt Bell, Rosellen Brown, Susan Straight, Susan Richards Shreve, and Richard Price, just to name a few.
But those are lonely voices; those are the exceptions. The dominant strain of fiction by white writers in this era represents what we might cynically call a massive reinvestment in white identity through the demarcation of new terrain (the exurbs) or through the reinvention of old (wilderness, urban gentrification). A more generous interpretation would be to see this fiction as a kind of willed amnesia, underscored by the reluctance of many creative writing teachers to confront issues of race and identity directly in the classroom and by the disinclination of most prominent book critics—an overwhelmingly white group—to bring race into play when writing about white authors.
Deracination, as a fantasy, even as a whole category of thinking, isn’t going anywhere. It’s part of the American bedrock, like peanut butter, Paul Revere, and the personal Jesus. (It’s present, in a different mode, in African American fiction too, from Invisible Man to Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village.”) But among these writers of the last thirty or so years, it reflects not so much an interest in dispassionate empathy as an impulse toward erasure and avoidance. Deracination invokes a fear of the present, which boxes writers into smaller and smaller spaces.
Moreover it elides and whitewashes what Leslie Fiedler, in his seminal essay “Come Back Ag’in to the Raft, Huck Honey,” called “that moral discrepancy before which we are helpless, having no resources for dealing with a conflict of principle and practice.” In the most concrete sense, deracination underwrites the fantasies of escape that drive so many of our movements and impulses today: the desire to “get away from it all,” to find our own piece of paradise, a gated, filtered, curated realm of experience in which the ordinary world is kept at bay.
If we think back to Ruth’s moment of awakening to the plight of “all unhoused people” in Housekeeping, we can see how fragile, and how potent, the experience of radical empathy can be. Empathy, and a subsequent understanding of justice, can’t be sustained in a vacuum. Yet, in so much contemporary American fiction, a vacuum is exactly what we have: a systematically, if not intentionally, denuded, sanitized landscape, at least when it comes to matters of race. An optimist might say that this trend can’t possibly continue, but if we look at the popularity of the HBO series Girls—a fantasy of a virtually all-white, bohemian, twenty-something Brooklyn that critics hail as the “voice of a generation”—we might say that, to the contrary, spatial deracination has begun to metastasize. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but in our current situation, many American readers, even well-meaning ones, haven’t learned to live outside one.
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August 05, 2013
26 Min read time