By David Skinner
Many of us will contemplate the Civil War during the sesquicentennial, and Randall Fuller inaugurates the proceedings with a study of how the war changed the poetry of Walt Whitman. Writing verse that echoed the drums of war in 1861, Whitman envisioned a poetic response that was muscular and heroic. A year later, after the massive Northern defeat at Fredericksburg and after he’d walked the hospital wards in Washington, searching for his brother, he began thinking of war and the poet’s responsibilities very differently.
Less poetry seems to be written today in this vein, charged with idealism and yet heavy with the weight of national destiny. Today’s poets are more likely to be scholars of the self, and closer in spirit to the confessional culture Trysh Travis explores in her NEH-funded Language of the Heart: From Alcoholics Anonymous to the Oprah Winfrey Show. Christine Rosen, an essayist who reveals some of the moral shifting behind our shifting mores, looks at what it means for American society to have discovered solace in the public display of our private wounds—and then to market the exposed self for the sake of commercial success and voyeuristic entertainment.
Secrecy, too, has its unfortunate aspects, as anyone familiar with the private life of Isaac Newton has to acknowledge. Difficult, paranoid, and angry, he was subject to more than a few dark and irrational humors. The very image of science and a mechanistic universe, Newton was himself not a product of the Newtonian universe. Obsessed with chymistry, also known as alchemy, he performed countless experiments in search of the magical formula that would unlock the secrets of nature, as Sam Kean explains.
Also in this issue, Mo Yan, the adventurous Chinese novelist who has been compared to Kafka and Joseph Heller, talks with Chairman Jim Leach. Mo Yan, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, but embarked on his literary career just as it was coming to an end, says his work is, among American writers, closest to that of William Faulkner. This will come as a challenging comparison for Faulkner partisans, but it makes a perfect excuse for exploring the strange, comic fantasy of novels such as Red Sorghum and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.