From Edmund Pettus to John Lewis Bridge Now!

I am not a fan of cancel culture. Hegel once said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” He exaggerated, though it is true we don’t learn much. We need to look the ugliness of the past (and the present!) in the eye rather than sanitizing it or we won’t learn anything worth learning. More importantly, extremists caught up in antifa, BLM, and cancel culture moments are handing Trump a huge campaign issue. If Trump is reelected, not a damn thing extremists are doing will matter.

John Lewis in 1965
There are, however, times in which cancel culture is justified. The symbolism of a mule-drawn wagon bearing the body of Representative John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, is profound. Lewis was a decent man, a champion of civil rights, and a victim of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of 1965, when he and 600 marchers tried to cross the Alabama River and into Selma.

Who was Edmund Winston Pettus? The short answer is that he was a racist. That doesn’t tell us much, nor does the first line you read in most online biographies: “a U.S. Senator from Alabama from 1897-1907.” It’s not pretty, but most white people were racist well into the 1960s and beyond; that’s why there was a civil rights movement and why John Lewis tried to cross the Pettus Bridge in 1965.

Edmund Pettis
As for Pettus (1821-1907) being a “U.S. Senator,” that’s almost a joke. Pettus grew up in Alabama, where his family owned slaves. Young Edmund was an ardent supporter of slavery. Pettus fought in the Mexican War (1846-48) and briefly moved to California–just in time to help exterminate most of the Yuki natives who had the audacity to leave their reservation. He wasn’t there for the infamous Mendocino War of 1859 in which troops finished the job, but he would have applauded it. (Today there are fewer than 250 full-blood Yukis left.) He moved back to Alabama in 1853 and beat the drums for secession, though ironically the region around Selma was mostly opposed to it. When the Civil War began, he gleefully joined the Confederate army.

Pettus was captured when Vicksburg fell, but the Union foolishly released him in a prisoner exchange. He was immediately promoted to brigadier general and sent to Tennessee. He also took part in unsuccessful attempts to repulse Sherman’s March to the Sea until he was put out of commission by a leg wound that some have claimed was self-inflicted. He was again jailed, but pardoned after the war.

Caroline Randall Williams, gt. gt. granddaughter of Pettus
Pettus falls into the category of unrepentant traitor. As an Alabama Democrat–back then, the Democrats were civil rights opponents–he supported the infamous Black Codes, the collective term given to scores of laws across the South immediately after the Civil war that sought to disenfranchise and deny civil liberties to ex-slaves. Pettus then became an outspoken opponent of Reconstruction. When it ended in 1877, he became the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Alabama had the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the lynching of African Americans. We have no evidence that Pettus actually took part in these, but as Grand Dragon it’s inconceivable he did not know about or sanction them. He remained a Klansman for the rest of his days. Like many white Southerners, his racism did not quell his lust for black women. He fathered a mixed-race child, probably via rape. (A black woman bringing charges against a white man under Alabama’s post-Reconstruction laws would have been unthinkable.)

Peach of a man, right? It didn’t prevent Pettus from becoming a U.S. Senator. Bad history articles will tell you that Pettus was “elected” to the U.S. Senate in 1897 by “defeating” James Pugh. Not quite. Pugh was no prince either, but Pugh "lost" his renomination to the U.S. Senate courtesy of party leaders. Until the 17th Amendment was enacted in 1913, citizens did not choose U.S. Senators; they were appointed by individual state legislatures. That of Jim Crow Alabama placed Pettus in Pugh’s place.

Pettus served until his death in 1907. Try finding anything significant he did during his decade in the Senate. Nonetheless, in 1940 the state of Alabama slapped Pettus’ name on a bridge. I’d like Pettus to be remembered–as a traitor, war criminal, racist, and hypocrite. Put up a museum display for future generations to ponder in disgust. As for the bridge, there is but one sane thing to do. It is time for the John Lewis Bridge to span the telling of a far more heroic past.

Rob Weir   


I Give It to You A Middling Effort

I Give It to You (August 4, 2020)
By Valerie Martin
Penguin Random House, 304 pages.

Valerie Martin is among my favorite novelists, but I must give a mixed review to her upcoming I Give It to You. There is much to like about any novel set partly in Tuscany, and Martin has a gift for storytelling, though this time plot lines and plot holes too often overlap. Martin also leaves herself open to charges of class insensitivity.

The novel opens in 1983, when Jan Vidor, an English professor at a Pennsylvania college, books a vacation stay on the grounds of a Tuscan country house. Her plan is to work on a new novel, but that scheme veers in different directions when she arrives at Villa Chiara (“bright villa”). The grounds bespeak wealth, but of a faded variety that starkly contrast with Jan’s light and airy quarters in a converted out-building. Days pass before she meets her hostess, Beatrice Bartolo Doyle, whose family owns the villa. Beatrice (Bee-ah-traay-chee) is an Italian professor at a small college and lives part of the year in New York State, which she dislikes. (She doesn’t seem to like teaching much either.) Jan’s fascination for Tuscany dovetails with Beatrice’s devotion to her native soil and forms the basis for a long friendship.  

I Give It to You is a multi-generational chronicle of the slow decline of the aristocratic Salviati/Bartolo family. Jan infers that the Mussolini years (1922-45) somehow diminished family fortunes, but surviving family members are silent or vague about what happened, which side they were on, and why Beatrice’s gentle uncle Sandro was killed during the waning days of World War II. This is odd, as Beatrice shares intimate details of being a graduate student in Boston and of her brief marriage to an Irish American man whose surname she and her son bear. Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” Tell it slant around a writer and she will try to straighten it, even if it takes years. Martin asks us to consider a writer’s craft. Should stories and biographies–told and untold–be used as raw material for one’s own yarn?

Jan is the book’s narrator, though mostly a passive and non-judgmental one. It is unclear whether she is also an unreliable one. That’s fine, as a major strength of I Give It to You is the ambiguous questions it poses. When someone answers a novelist’s query with a family story and says, “I give it to you,” does she merely mean she is recounting a tale, or is she giving permission for the novelist to do with it as she wishes? Does the dialogue we read–the chapters skip between real time and the past–represent Beatrice’s actual words and stories, or are they sections of the book Jan ultimately writes?

In my estimation Martin misses the boat by making Jan an underdeveloped character. We know little of who she is other than a curious observer. How can she not be appalled by the aristocratic haughtiness of Beatrice and her cousin Luca? This is especially evident in their expectations that those living on the estate should be forever deferential, and their expressed outrage when commoners show distressing signs of raising their own status. Along similar lines, how can Jan not make more of the fact that David, Beatrice’s adult son, is a pompous ass who has inherited his mother’s sense of privilege? Readers are free to choose whether Jan is clueless, starstruck by nobility, living vicariously through Beatrice, or as heartless as her erstwhile friend.

Novelists, like poets, are often introverts but they tend to reflect upon the human condition. If Martin would have us see Jan as both inquisitive and a relentless researcher, how can she be so obtuse? There is a logical disconnect in the small questions Jan asks in the name of uncovering the past, whilst ignoring big (and obvious) ones about the present. How can social class never come up in discussion? How is it that Jan never considers whether her friendship with Beatrice is deeper than the bottom of a wine glass? She doesn’t, thus the novel’s final lines ring hollow and false.

I Give It to You has been billed as a novel about “writing, friendship, family and betrayal.” Be forewarned that “writing” is the only uncloaked part of this equation, and even it raises more questions than it answers. One senses that Martin has too many devices in the fire, not the least of which is that Americans in Tuscany have gotten generous workouts in literature­. Martin herself has previously trod upon Tuscan turf in Italian Fever (1999). Despite being a different kind of book, the latter also involves a villa with secrets, the intoxicating effects of Italy, and a buttoned-down American writer. There is also the matter of a trans-Atlantic novel–parts take place in Boston, Cape Cod, New York State, and Pennsylvania–that strain for vitality outside of Italy. Likewise, the relationship between Beatrice and Jan seems only to bloom under a Tuscan sun.

I Give It to You has fascinating diversions, especially for those lucky enough to have visited Tuscany. These are, however, exactly that: diversions. It’s not a bad novel–Martin is too talented to write rubbish–and it bears saying that it holds one’s attention. Nonetheless, I Give It to You is a case in which the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Rob Weir  


Weather: A Hazy Novel

Weather: A Novel (2020)
By Jenny Offill
Alfred A. Knopf, 205 pages.

Have you ever seen any of those Woody Allen films in which Manhattan pseudo-intellectuals prattle on with great conviction about things they grasp only tangentially? Transfer the Lower East Side of the 1980s to Brooklyn Heights in the 2000s and you have the idea of Jenny Offill’s Weather. It has been widely hailed, but it will certainly be on my list of the worst books of 2020.

Offill plays off of two meanings of weather: metaphorical atmospheric shifts in social paradigms and “weathering” trauma. Those who like the book see it as a tale of our times from 9/11 to Trump and COVID. Those of us who dislike it see it as an unfocused expression of existential angst concluded with deus ex machina hope. To be sure, we live in trying times, much of which makes an appearance in the book: assortative mating, culture clashes, climate change, drug addiction, racism, struggles in the gig economy, and, worst of all, fear that the Anthropocene age is coming to an end. If you believe the last of these to be true, do you bother to get your teeth cleaned?

A young woman named Lizzie is at the center of Offill’s novel. She washed out of graduate school, much to the chagrin of her mentor, Sylvia, who pulled strings to secure her a place as a university librarian. Sylvia is (apparently) a social psychology professor who also has a podcast so popular that she is on the lecture trail and would like Lizzie to help her answer her mail. Lizzie does so, though she has a lot of her plate already. Her mother is ill, she and her husband Ben have an active son, Eli, whose needs must be balanced, and Lizzie’s brother Henry—to whom she is creepily attached—is an addict constantly trying to get straight. (As if marriage and a child of his own are good ways to accomplish that!)

These are the bare bones of the novel. Don’t expect flesh to appear. The book is written in small paragraphs, each set off from each other, and frequently disconnected. They appear more as diary entries, or perhaps real-time thoughts jotted in a journal. Some are aphorisms—though Pudd’nhead Wilson this isn’t—and others are fears real or projected. Many are also doomsday and disaster scenarios. Quite a few passages are beautifully written, but two major issues emerge. First, I can relate to running mental doomsday scenarios. I do it myself, but I am aware that they are fundamentally stupid, because the future immediate and hereafter is unknowable. Second, Offill’s literary device is by nature dissociative.

We know early one that Lizzie is smart, but a neurotic mess. She goes to Margot for meditation classes, which serve to give her bigger questions rather than helping her achieve Zen. She uses a private ride service she can’t afford because she worries she might be the only client of “Mr. Jimmy,” frets over a “doomed adjunct” slowly going squirrely, and avoids people who might engage or enrage her. She is a recluse who lives in her head, yet she somehow summons the energy to make survivalist plans with her husband. Alas, that’s about all she ever does. So what are reading, Wom[a]n on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown? Nope.  

The book has been praised for its dark humor, but I found it just plain annoying even though the issues Lizzie considers are important ones. Distinctions made between what is impossible and “barely possible” or unbearable and “barely bearable” are insufficient for an ending that feels more like resignation than resolution, and more barely connected than really connected. Any allusion to hope is akin to an Amazon delivery person who sprints to your door, drops the package on the porch, and jogs away. Weather is well written, but to what purpose? Like many of the novel’s detractors, the best I can say is that it’s short.

Rob Weir