In response to William D. Sinkins (Letters, Summer), I should point out that my April contribution, "A Primer of African-Canadian Literature", was neither a review nor a bibliography. It was a bibliographic essay. I trust that he will now know the difference.
George Elliott Clarke
Durham, North Carolina
Blacks in Grey Army
In a recent review of Ervin L. Jordan's "Black Confederates & Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia" (Summer), Michael Coren takes what seems to be gleeful pleasure in bringing to light what he considers scandalous truths: "Abraham Lincoln and his sometimes murderous generals did not command an angelic army." Moreover, he asks us to consider as significant facts which he feels clear: "the detritus of prejudice and presumption from the waters of truth.by clarifying our understanding of the past." The facts: some blacks were sympathetic to and supportive of-to the point of enlisting in-the Confederacy.
Truths of the first kind are trivial. Most with even a cursory knowledge of the Civil War know that Lincoln's army was oftentimes brutal; its soldiers, on many occasions, were racist and given to pillage and rape. Most of us know too that Lincoln wrestled with the issue of slavery, leading and being led by the logic of events to a tragic and in many ways profound understanding as to what slavery had wrought.
Truths of the second kind are more interesting but need to be considered in their proper context and with extreme care. The noted Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, in his books "To Be Free: Pioneering Studies in Afro-American History" (1948), and "American Negro Slave Revolts" (1943), mentions most of the facts that Michael Coren finds shocking. It is not surprising that some blacks were supportive of their masters. It is not surprising given human nature and the bonds of sympathy which surround even those in desperate situations that not a few slaves cared about their owners and their families. And as for the main point that the South decided upon the regular enlistment of blacks as soldiers, this was agreed upon with great anger and opposition only in the last months of the war when the Confederacy was certain to lose. Michael Coren does not inform the reader of this. (See Richard E. Beniger, Herman Hattawy, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr., in "Why the South Lost the Civil War", University of Georgia, 1986, for a full discussion of the steps leading to recruitment.)
One suspects that the real reason Michael Coren is championing this book is because he feels it supports his revisionist approach to the Civil War and current Afro-American politics. Without explicitly denying that slavery lay at the heart of the Civil War conflict, he does so by deftly claiming that the North did not fight the war over slavery issue but rather for reasons of expansionism. This is highly debatable-after all the question as to which new states were to be admitted into the Union turned on the nature of these states: free or slave. While the North's own racism obscured the slavery issue, the South knew that the expansion of slavery into these territories was necessary to preserve the institution of slavery in their own backyards. It was only after the Civil War that the ideology of states rights, considered in abstract, was taken up by those who sought a rationale and exoneration for their military and moral defeat.
What Michael Coren also intends to do in this review is tame what he regards as the excesses of Jesse Jackson and our own Charles Roach and Dudley Laws. What comes across instead is a not too unsubtle attempt to belittle and keep these activists in their intellectual place. The condescending and mean-spirited attitude informing this revisionist account of the Civil War and the black experience therein is unworthy of Mr. Coren. Even more unworthy is the fact that Books in Canada agreed to accept such an unnecessarily provocative review.
Will Time Tell?
If one accepts Webster's definition of criticism as "the art of judging the merit of any performance", one is led to conclude that John Goddard has not mastered his art. In his "North End Rock & Roll" (September), his lack of judgement is clear. The musician's efforts are seen as mere reflections of their biographers and condemned or praised accordingly. John Einarson the "engaging amateur" is pitted against the potentially entrepreneurial Stephen Ostick. Goddard devotes four paragraphs to cementing Einarson's reputation for being an all-round nice guy. In contrast, his review of Ostick's book takes up only two paragraphs and is solely dedicated to its pretentious (in his view) content. Is it not premature in 1996 to proclaim a band whose second album "sold four million copies and attracted three 1995 Grammy nominations" as one-hit wonders? It cannot be denied that the Guess Who, by virtue of their longer history, would yield more anecdotal material but whether or not it was more central to their music than that of Crash Test Dummies is questionable.
In addition, his schoolboy enthusiasm for the events surrounding the creation of "American Woman" is quite surprising given that it is as anticlimactic as Clinton's admission that cigarettes cause cancer. This is news?
One can only hope that Goddard's history of Canadian rock and roll will be more even-handed and just than this review.
Michael Coren writes (September): "Come on, Susan; we are frightened of cancer or of invading armies.not by comments about arts funding."
But Susan Swan is right to be frightened. As Northrop Frye wrote in "Elementary Teaching and Elemental Scholarship", "In a modern democracy a citizen participates in society mainly through his imagination.and nothing but literature, in a culture as verbal as ours, can train the imagination to fight for the sanity and the dignity of mankind."
A society that does not support its small independent publishing houses (which cannot survive only on sales and which are, as Margaret Atwood said recently, what farm teams are to the major leagues) is a society that does not value the imagination. And a society that does not value the imagination is doomed, in ways that I predict will frighten even the intrepid Mr. Coren.
Marilyn Gear Pilling
Sight for Sore Eyes
I was stunned by Sherie Posesorski's impudent review of Lisa Moore's Degrees of Nakedness (May).
Whose idea was it to unleash Posesorski onto this powerful book?
Please, in future, do writers the courtesy of finding reviewers who are sympathetic to the projects.
Preferably reviewers as committed to art as Lisa Moore is.
I could go on but I have a sore eye.
I wish to correct an error made in the photo credit that accompanied David Reed's perceptive review of my book Jonestown: A Poem (September). Credit for the author's photo should have gone, not to John Reeves, but to Paul Orenstein.
Ted Whittaker ("Sympathy for Food Devil", October) may be right in suggesting that John Lanchester is making a food-related joke in calling his gross character Tarquin Wynot. However, given the odious nature of the character, it's probable that Lanchester is simply drawing on the common North London slang word "winnot", which describes the hard material sometimes caught in the hairs of one's bum. Naturally, it also serves as a term of scorn and derision.
Roger Burford Mason
I really like the new format-especially the tabloid size and the paper stock. Please, maximum substance. If I'm not challenged to think, I find something else to read. Fear not controversies. Your readers are not conservative senior citizens. Some of them, myself included, are twenty-something industry participants who crave the muck. Criticism is a good thing. Keep up the good work, and thanks very much.
The September issue is terrific. Robert Fulford's interview with Saul Bellow, Bernard Kelly's piece on Emile Nelligan, M. T. Kelly's canoeing exegesis: all first-rate.
I open BiC with anticipation these days. Can't remember when that last happened.
I want to thank you for the article about me by Virginia Beaton in the October issue. As a bonus treat, you followed this up with a delightful and illuminating review of Coastline of Forgetting, a small book of poetry I had published in 1995.
I want especially to thank reviewer Tim Bowling for going out of his way to provide so much helpful literary and vocational advice to me. He was truly a brave soul to delve into my "muddled galaxy". The critique about my self-congratulatory nature was a valuable observation. I own up to the weakness that I am, alas, a truly happy person, probably one of the happiest writers on the East Coast of North America, although I've never been able to prove this out. This propensity to celebrate my life here in Nova Scotia is undoubtedly out of order in the modern world of poetry and has led me fatally into the realm of what Mr. Bowling calls "self-satisfied revelations of cosmic wisdom." (With his permission, I'd like to use that as the book title of my next volume, so as to warn off readers who need darker, more serious, and sturdier texts than my own.)
I'm grateful that Tim Bowling found a "whiff of poetry" in my book. Maybe that's a sign that I'm at least slightly on the right track in my twenty-five-year writing apprenticeship. As to the fact that my "philosophy carries all the weight of a Hallmark card," I have taken this as well-intentioned advice and sent off a copy of my book along with the review to that very greeting card company, hoping that Mr. Bowling's recommendation will carry some weight and that they will indeed use my material on their products, thus generating a secondary income for me while ever hoping to learn the "special discipline" referred to in the review.
I know that the reviewer disliked my account of trying to save a drowning woman. If I had not swam to sea to at least attempt to save her life, I might have better spent my time honing my craft and would not have written something so "self-conscious". I have to admit I had a very hard time avoiding feeling "self-conscious" while trying to breathe life back into the victim. Perhaps some day I will be able to rise above such maudlin emotions as pain and compassion to write a really good book of poetry.
In a further earnest effort to take Mr. Bowling's advice to heart, I went to book stores looking for his first poetry collection, Low Water Slack, which must be a fine success as you have noted that it "is now in its second printing." (Alas, my volume has sold only about 850 copies-presumably to people who adore Hallmark card verse. Modest numbers, I know. I doubt I can boast of a second printing on this one.) Unfortunately, I could not locate a copy of Mr. Bowling's book for my edification so I tried the library. "Low Water Slack," I told the librarian. "Did you try the home repairs section? It might be a plumbing book," she said, "or perhaps it is a medical book about urinary problems."
Sadly, it was nowhere to be had on any shelf in the library but I will look for it when in Toronto.
Once again I applaud Mr. Bowling's valiant efforts to improve my craft. I own up to being a slow learner, trapped in my own muddled galaxy as he astutely observes. I should get out more often. As the reviewer so aptly puts it, "Canada is such a large country filled with so many interesting places." This is a wise and profound observation that could only occur to someone who has not been "diffusing" himself as I have been by wasting my energies on so many different genres. Thanks again to your magazine for the helpful tips!
Porters Lake, N.S