Report From a College Classroom: After the Terror
“In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.”
-George Orwell, 1947
In his classic 1936 essay, “Shooting an Elephant,”—a frequently anthologized essay in freshman composition textbooks—George Orwell, an Imperial Indian policeman in service to His Majesty’s empire in 1920s Burma, is goaded by several thousand members of the Burmese populace into killing a testosterone-charged elephant that has been responsible for the death of a laborer.
Sighting the mammal in the crosshairs of his German rifle, Orwell pulls the trigger repeatedly, instigating the pachyderm’s protracted demise, an apt metaphor for his perception of a British empire in its own death throes. For years, my composition students, who might ordinarily have balked at the prospect of studying British colonial politics, are captivated by Orwell’s vivid imagery, anchored by precise detail:
In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down.
In the aftermath of the terrorist acts of September 11, this passage haunts me. How like the stricken beast in Orwell’s tale did we all seem, numbed by the fiery images of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon seared in our brains, images rendered indelible by their relentless television repetition and our compulsion to both watch them and recoil from them.
That week my students’ own works in progress—(what Orwell might have called “merely descriptive” scenes) based on clips from popular films like “Cast Away” and “A River Runs Through It”—seemed somehow shrunken, their significance paled by the real-life onslaught. How would experienced practitioners of creative nonfiction, we wondered, write about this cataclysm?
To find out, we read Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay, “The City and the Pillars” (Sept. 24, 2001). Since my students soon would be crafting essays based on their own immersions in fast-food joints and retirement homes, in libraries and bowling alleys, Gopnik becomes our newest role model, though we wish no such devastation upon ourselves. The author walks in his beloved city, immersing us in its usual rhythms, its new smells, its ashy smoke that lingers to “wreathe the empty streets.” Then Gopnik travels back in time, relying on Edgar Allan Poe’s quirky maritime fiction of 1838, “The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym,” for its awesome rendering of an Antarctic scene eerily similar to that of a scarred 21st-century Manhattan. Poe had written:
“The white ashy material fell now continually around us,” [Pym] records in his diary, “and in vast quantities. The range of vapor to the southward had arisen prodigiously in the horizon, and began to assume more distinctness of form. I can liken it to nothing but a limitless cataract, rolling silently into the sea from some immense and far-distant rampart in the heaven. The gigantic curtain ranged along the whole extent of the southern horizon. It emitted no sound.”
Gopnik then comments, “Poe, whose house around here was torn down not long ago, is a realist now.” Meanwhile, our nation’s literary pundits—like ringside referees—declare fiction dead, truth stranger.
But how to make sense of the incomprehensible without sacrificing the artistic? Orwell had figured out quite early in his all-too-brief career that this was nonfiction’s nobler mission. In his 1947 essay, “Why I Write,” he recalled his own youthful admiration for one of creative nonfiction’s chief building blocks: intimate detail. He took pleasure in composing with a “meticulous descriptive quality”—what he called “aesthetic enthusiasm.” Yet as he matured, he criticized his purple-prose phase. His disillusionment with imperialism, with the tumultuous 1930s—he mentions Hitler and the Spanish Civil War—shaped his sense of nonfiction’s broader motives: to seek an understanding of history, to affect political thinking in the world. Fusing the aesthetic with the historic and political, Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” endures as moral commentary for every age, a reminder of humankind’s persistent inhumanity.
In late September 2001, my students and their counterparts across the country are asking why the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened.
“Why did they do this to us?”
Hard question. But we are not a global politics class; I am no historian. I abandon, for a time, my careful array of sequential lessons that lead students from scene-writing exercises to dialogues, from immersions and fact-gathering to first drafts and polished manuscripts. Though we regularly examine model works (often “slicing” selections into blocks of type and rearranging them to appreciate their architecture), this extraordinary time seems to demand an extraordinary departure: We form circles and read aloud, seeking to ease the palpable, ever-present tension that resides below the surface of our days. Media commentators, with their shoot-from-the-hip speculations, do not wholly satisfy We agree some stories bolster us. Even victims’ obituaries in the New York Times, having undergone a stylistic metamorphosis, have become capsules of shattered joy.
For deeper insights, though, we must turn to creative nonfiction—to the best of the recent work we can find. Eventually, we will visit the world of a Palestinian martyr, Ahmed Abutayeh, and spend a week in Gaza. But first to Afghanistan. We sample William T. Vollmann’s lengthy article, “Across the Divide,” revived from the New Yorker archives (May 15, 2000) and posted online eight days after the terror:
Jalalabad, a city 40 miles west of the Khyber Pass, has a rural feel, with long strings of laden camels on the main streets and packed-earth dikes curving crazily through the wheat fields just outside town.
With Vollmann as our guide, we travel on “bomb-cratered” roads through the snowy streets of Kabul; to villages, homes and secret apartments, where the Koran is caressed, where tea is served, where stories of unspeakable brutality emerge, where women find someone who will listen. We meet a cross section of Afghan society—even members of the Taliban; many of the people are starving, widowed, orphaned, the long-suffering victims of terrors that dwarf our own national grief.
Several days later, after our reading circles have moved to other manuscripts, other realms, U.S. bombs strike many Afghan targets, among them Jalalabad, the place where our reading journey began. The moment is unprecedented for all of us. My students wonder about the survival of the people we met. They wonder how many others have read Vollmann’s story. They wonder at the efficacy of political prose, wonder what Orwell would say. And they wonder at the irony—that words carried us there first, before our bombs came.
The Princeton Anthology of Writing: Favorite Pieces by the Ferris/ McGraw Writers at Princeton University
John McPhee, Carol Rigolot, eds. Princeton Univ. Press, 2001, 376 pp
Here are some facts about a 10-year-old boy in Chicago:
Of all the men in his family’s life, Nicholas is perhaps the most dutiful. When the television picture goes out again, when the three-year-old scratches the four-year-old, when their mother, Angela, needs ground beef from the store or the bathroom cleaned or can’t find her switch to whip him or the other children, it is Nicholas’s name that rings out to fix whatever is wrong He is nanny, referee, housekeeper, handyman. Some nights he is up past midnight, mopping the floors, putting the children to bed and washing their clothes in the bathtub.
And here is what life was like before the attack at Columbine High School:
High school is a haunted house in April, when seniors act up because they know the end is near. Even those who hate it sometimes cling to the devil they know. And for the kids who love it, the goodbyes are hard to think about. Two weeks ago, Sara Martin was chosen to be a graduation speaker for Columbine High, and she was struggling. She wanted to write about all the people she loved, in the choir and the Bible club and even the ones who turn left out of the right-hand lane in the parking lot.
Nicholas and Sara are characters. They are characters found and described by the New York Times’ Isabel Wilkerson and Time s Nancy Gibbs, respectively—and they appear alongside each other and alongside dozens of other characters in “The Princeton Anthology of Writing,” edited by Carol Rigolot and John McPhee. McPhee, besides writing for the New Yorker, is the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton. Rigolot is on the Council of the Humanities at the school. And for some 25 years, McPhee has taught nonfiction writing to handpicked undergraduates. This anthology is a collection of writing by working journalists who have come to Princeton for a semester to tell students their thoughts about writing.
You don’t have to read deeply between the lines of this book to realize that a central message in many of those Princeton classrooms, no matter who was taking attendance, was this: Facts rule. Further explained, facts are the basis on which nonfiction writers succeed or fail, on which a story rises to art or falls to mere gossip. The picture of the facts—how they are arranged, stacked up, spread out, aligned, segregated, whatever—is crucial. But so too is the collection of the facts, the reporting, the hanging out, the being there for the right moment that closes a story or opens it or moves it in a direction that causes someone lying on a couch and reading to suddenly sit up. It’s a 10-year-old boy being a father, a nanny, an uncle all at once; a high school senior trying to plan a small part of her life right before it is changed forever.
For some perspective on how far such factual writing has come, one need only listen to the facts McPhee imparts in this introduction:
When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, one of my favorite professors was Willard Thorp. In the English Department, we did not study contemporary journalistic prose. In the conversation, nonfiction was not yet a term, let alone a literary term. Its synonyms were tainted by the fish they had wrapped. Even as late as 1973, a Harvard anthology purporting to represent all the important writing done in the United States since the Second World War did not include a single nonfiction example. As this book splendidly attests, factual writing has found its place in the regard of the academy, to the great pleasure of all of us who are represented here.
The following fact should come as no surprise:
Hundreds, if not thousands, of the students who sat in McPhee’s and the guest teachers’ classrooms have become professional writers. More than a handful have won Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest honor, its Academy Award. The anthology’s table of contents presents quite a faculty: Jonathan Schell, Roger Mudd, Victor Navasky, David Remnick, Alice Steinbach, Nat Hentoff—and dozens of others whose names aren’t as well-recognized but who are nonetheless talented.
But names alone do not make a teacher. Many young writers who have enrolled in graduate programs based solely on their faculty rosters have been disappointed. Most writers have probably heard a story or two on the matter. Perhaps one or two of the teachers represented in this Princeton anthology disappointed a young writer, as well, but in reading this book, it occurred to me that the cliché. Those who can’t, teach probably wouldn’t be a fair summary for the book.
There is a lot to learn from this anthology.
Michael Rosenwald lives in Cambridge, Mass., and works as a reporter for the Boston Globe.
Rose Toubes teaches composition and journalism at Des Moines Area Community College, where she served as the student-newspaper adviser for over a decade. Prior to her teaching career, Toubes worked as a business journalist for an Iowa-based subsidiary of the Hearst Corporation. She holds a master’s degree in mass communications from Drake University in Des Moines.