Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Preface to Volume XXVIII

 

Hefting the thick collection, I realized you can read through these hundreds of pages and never get even a glimmer of the fact that the extraliterary, “real” world has been upended, radically and permanently, by the eruptive appearance and the unpredicted rise to power of a narcissistic upstart, a megalomaniac and bully utterly indifferent to traditional checks and balances. Is it a problem, I asked myself, a weakness, when writing is  so little engaged with the world as not to notice the advent of an authoritarian who makes a mockery of political norms and institutions, of the democratic revolution he claims as his warrant? Thin-skinned, insecure, easily provoked, an exceptionally dangerous personality to occupy a position of unimaginable power. A man of violence, but also a cold one – cynical, sneering, incapable of imagining himself even mildly mistaken. Not without certain impressive if limited gifts, to be sure. But friendless, loveless, lacking humanizing vices or pleasures, a cynic who derives his mandate from the vulgar crowds he agitates and yet holds in utter contempt. A machiavellian schemer with an inexhaustible need for affirmation and adulation, an insatiable appetite for public attention, endlessly demanding loyalty from others while unable to give it himself, obsessed with founding a dynasty and spectacularly incompetent in the ordinary tasks of engaging emotionally with people. You know who we're talking about.

That’s right. Astonishingly, Napoleon appears nowhere in Jane Austen.

We have an expectation, from the beginnings of modernism in the late nineteenth century, that literature must engage with the times, and their challenges, and I wouldn’t disaffirm that. But I’d also note that it’s one of the profoundest proofs of Austen’s value that the lives she narrates in such pitchperfect detail are entirely comprehensible, familiar and recognizable two hundred years later, without once explicitly connecting with the man all agree redrew the map of the world. There’s a deep affirmation in the fact that Bonaparte, who was busy starting what we’d call probably World War III or IV if we hadn’t taken so long to realize we were going to have to number them, doesn’t really matter all that much, though every aspect of our current geopolitical situation is traceable to him (and further back. I’m plumping for the Thirty Years’ Unpleasantness as the real First World War).

I anticipate no partisan counterblast to the claim that ours are unsettled and unsettling times. Everyone’s aware of some serious deck-shuffling going on, few doubt that things are approaching a moment when we will talk about the After as something quite different from the Before. But there’s surprisingly little hint of it in these pages, as I came to reflect only during final editing.

We didn’t plan that way, we didn’t select for it. In fact, there was very little topical material coming over the transom (and of that little, nothing we felt was up to standards). Austen would have recognized Fred Yannantuono’s awkward choreography of the dinner companion who somehow compels you to cooperate in his boorishness. In her time too there were people so used to being mistrusted that not being regarded as sinister came as a sort of revelation. So look to Abigail Warren’s poem for the wonder of the passage where the permanent local pariah Huckleberry Finn, whose natural virtue made him thoughtlessly heroic in the instant of need, hears the unimaginable words, “It's a name that can open this door night or day, lad!—and welcome!”

These were strange words to the vagabond boy's ears, and the pleasantest he had ever heard. He could not recollect that the closing word had ever been applied in his case before.

That’s a durable moment of human triumph.

In gloomy library archives, I’ve thumbed through dusty magazines that were current at the same time my grandfather was, and there are those demigods, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, still fresh as this morning’s paper. But that was the mark of their genius. Because the newspapers they read, and most of their fellow writers, are not, not, not fresh. I’m thinking of so many well-meaning fables of worthy lower-castes who showed themselves deserving but not demanding and thereby gained an opportunity to elevate themselves to something approaching dignity but not achieving competitive threat… oh they're too awful to talk about. Trust me, it amounted to a genre, a popular one, and certainly of interest to literary and other historians, but you do not want to read that “timely” stuff.

In the fiction here, “Rocks” is literally dated: 1994. But kids other than Dujuan, in other times and places, have and will struggle with the choices he confronted. Karl Harshbarger lent us another story of his ongoing character, Casey. In some ways it’s like Dostert’s, forty years earlier, a thousand miles (and a whole world) away. But the same problem: the end of innocence as a boy comes to terms with the power and permanence of harm. We all learn irreversibility, and are transformed by the encounter. “A Third World Dinner” is also a period piece but we're still dishing up leftovers and belching the aftertaste in 2017.

Our cover photo comes from architectural historian Brett Rogers. Follow the link to his documentation at the Missouri Folklore Society. Those men were building that barn exactly as their great-grandfathers had done. As Faulkner said of Dilsey and her family, "they endured."

As we are indifferent to mere relevance neither do we actively seek (nor discourage) "genre" material. We don’t often run stories I’d define as humor, but Olaf Kronemann, writing out of his experience as a physician, brings us a rather dark specimen.  This issue also offers stories I’d call “action” and “suspense,” though they are much more than that. We seek poetry and fiction that’s bigger than its time, its place, its genre. We test submissions against an admittedly subjective standard of memorability – is this something that will stick with readers? In thirty years of teaching and editing, I have read tens of thousands of stories. There are a few hundred I remember. Not one of them stuck because it really hit home with what was happening in Congress that week or looked like what was a TV hit that season.

Enjoy. Linger with these memoirs,  poems and stories, because we chose those we thought would linger with you.

 

Adam Brooke Davis

Kirksville

July 4, 2017