Letter from America: Trump (Once Again); Goodbye 2016
By David Fedo
Like many other Americans, I watched on TV the presidential inauguration on January 20 in a state of disbelief and apprehension. Disbelief, because it is still hard to accept a charlatan like Donald Trump as our new president. After all, Hillary Clinton in the election received more than two million more votes than Trump, who now becomes the alleged "leader of the free world" but is clearly temperamentally and intellectually unfit for the job.
Trump is president only because he won more votes from the so-called "electors", an arcane system which divides up all of the designated electors and assigns them by numbers according to the population of the states. And then there is my apprehension, because Trump poses great risk to the United States as well as to our allies abroad. His arrogance is to be feared, and it stands at the centre of the ongoing fiasco of the alleged Russian computer hacking of the American election. Unsurprisingly, his inaugural speech was filled with empty promises.
Garrison Keillor, for decades the National Public Radio host of the popular programme 'A Prairie Home Companion', wrote in the November 9 Washington Post that Trump, "the candidate of cruelty and ignorance", achieved the presidency in spite of his "raw ego and proud illiteracy".
A brave Meryl Streep was right at the recent Golden Globe Awards Ceremony when, according to Matthew Gilbert in the January 9 Boston Globe, she deplored the election of Trump, who, among numerous other horrors, publicly mocked, during his election campaign, a physically disabled journalist. "She urged the press to hold him to account," wrote Gilbert, but, given Trump's erratic and intimidating behaviour, this will not be easy. Thus to millions, the inauguration was a very bleak and ominous affair.
I can only think of the poet William Butler Yeats' haunting final lines from 'The Second Coming':
Herman Melville's sprawling novel, Moby Dick, is probably the greatest single work of fiction by an American born into the 19th century. But for sustained fictional achievement over many decades, both Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) and Henry James, for very different reasons, are certainly the best overall novelists of that tumultuous century. Twain, born into poverty in 1835, and James, born into the upper middle class in 1843, both lived into the 20th century, but their principal works were produced in the earlier century. Both are principal subjects this year in my Book Group at the Medford Public Library in Massachusetts.
Twain is that rambunctious, half-serious and half-comic teller of all tales about those immortal boy tricksters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, along with an assortment of riffraff, dupes and other river folks, young and old, who happened to be found along the gigantic Mississippi River, which flows from the state of Minnesota in the north all the way south to Louisiana. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be read with great delight both by children and, with greater insight, by children who have grown up. Twain's extraordinary world of good and evil is accessible to all generations. His many other books, both fiction and non-fiction, reveal his wide-ranging interest in history and travel, including his takes on princes, King Arthur's court, and even Joan of Arc. His autobiographical Life on the Mississippi is a searching look into the heart of mid-19th century America, a heart that was sometimes as hard as stone. A posthumous publication of his short novel, The Mysterious Stranger, conveys Twain's growing pessimism about the state of the human race.
Henry James was born into privilege in New York City, but he spent nearly all of his adult life in Europe, mostly in England. One could not call him "rambunctious". His prose is serious, measured, with the lengthy sentences choked with clauses, and long paragraphs that can look almost daunting on the page. In his many novels, James – who, like Twain, was nothing if not prolific – seeks to explore the inner selves of his characters, often finding that these selves of Americans and Europeans are vastly different, and lead to conflicting and sometimes catastrophic results. This theme runs true from the relatively early novel, The American, to other marvellous books like The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. Reading James, like reading Proust, requires attention and patience. In The American, Christopher Newman, the successful businessman seeking a wife in Paris, is cruelly rebuked by the family of the woman he has come to love. It takes a long time for James to get to this point, but we come to know Newman inside and out, and James' shocking revelations of the aristocratic Bellegarde family are excruciatingly detailed as well. The message is clear: no American need apply.
Among those celebrated Americans who, in diverse and countless ways, showed us their faces, talents, hearts and minds, but to whom we said a regretful farewell in 2016, were the following (in no particular order):
Muhammad Ali, boxer and dissident, age 74; Harper Lee, novelist and recluse, 89; Morley Safer, TV journalist, 84; Edward Albee, dramatist, 88; Arnold Palmer, golfer, 87; Robert Vaughn, actor, 83; John Glenn, astronaut and politician, 95; Gene Wilder, actor, 83; Tom Hayden, political activist, 83; Prince, musician, 57; Alvin Toffler, writer and futurist, 87; Franz Wright, poet, 62; Nancy Reagan, actress and former First Lady, 94; Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court Justice, 79; Nate Thurmond, basketball player, 74; Gwen Ifill, newscaster, 61; Merle Haggard, musician, 79; Abe Vigoda, actor, 94; Patty Duke, actress, 69; Zsa Zsa Gabor, celebrity, 99; Fritz Weaver, actor, 90; Natalie Cole, singer, 65; Monte Irvin, baseball player, 96; Fred Thompson, former senator from Tennessee, 73; Bob Elliot, radio performer, 92; Pat Conroy, author, 70; Joe Garagiola, baseball player and announcer, 90; Melvin Laird, former defense secretary, 94; Julius La Rosa, singer, 86; Janet Reno, former US attorney general, 78; and Frank Sinatra Jr, sometime singer, 72. Late to this sad list are Carrie Fisher, actress and author, 60, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, actress, 84.
Respects should also be paid to all those largely unknown Americans who were victims of violence by terrorists and other criminals during what was a year steeped in our internal blood. And this mayhem continues into 2017, with the latest deadly shooting occurring at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, with five killed and six wounded by a lone gunman. Will it ever stop?
On a bleak and wintry January day in Boston, with the afternoon growing dark, I submit to readers of QLRS an untitled poem on winter light by the great poetess Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), who was writing in Amherst, Massachusetts:
QLRS Vol. 16 No. 1 Jan 2017