Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 7 No. 1 | Spring 1985

DD'9 transcendent fiction—the great American Novel a la Dreiser, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway—took it on the chin as far as the dynamic ‘60s themes of social transformation were concerned. American novelists were apparently overwhelmed as much as anyone else by the abrupt changes wrought by events suddenly bunching up the way they did in the late ‘60s when the assassinations of national heroes made for a cruel collective vulnerability to the mythic powers of violence, whether it came from political conventions, rock concerts, the homes of pregnant movie stars or from faraway My Lai. With the novel impotent, the fictional voice of the 70s and so far the ‘80s has been claimed by the short story, a form in which pointed small takes printed in dozens of different magazines recapitulate the novelistically unassailable whole. What was impossible for fiction—addressing the whole—apparently isn't for non-fiction. The big transcendent books about the animating ideas of the past two decades, the cathartic books that release long-forgotten energies, the ones that have no fear of ‘getting it wrong’ about the recent past and the near future, the ones that contain multitudes—these books are all non-fiction: first-person accounts, histories, and biographies. Since Capote and Mailer, non-fiction has been the only serious way to write about modern violence. Now, first-person non-fiction is becoming the only satisfactory way to write seriously at all. The Vietnam war novel, the one most recommended by Vietnam vets, turns out to be not a novel at all, but the best-selling non-fiction Chickenhawk (1983, Viking), the story of army helicopter pilot Robert Mason’s war experiences flying troops in and out of enemy territory. Mason's low- key journalistic account, capped by a shocking one-paragraph summary of what happened to him after the war, carries all the weight of the largest of novelis- tic themes—loss of innocence, despair, then a kind of salvation—mostly because the author’s actual point of view (a helicopter pilot’s) is coincidentally central to the whole Vietnam experience: It was long believed by American military strategists that the helicopter, with its capacities for gymnastic rapid transport of small groups of ground fighters, was the key to winning a guerrilla war in the Asian jungle. The strategists were wrong, of course, and accordingly, the gradual loss of certainty and purpose becomes the thread of Mason's story in Chickenhawk. The realization that Mason, so defeated and stumbling at the end of his story, salvaged himself—by writing his book—is thrilling, a thrill possible only because the book cannot be dismissed as fiction. Also big, transcendent, and original is David Bain’s first-person history of the American colonial blood pact with the Philippines, Sitting in Darkness (1984, Houghton-Mifflin), fortuitously published now, just as that very pact threatens to explode.^ain’s book turns big as it turns original: The author, leaping into his own story, pits himself against historical truth by traveling to the Philippines, ultimately making his own peculiar ‘colonial’ pact. Starting out fairly traditionally, Bain fully and sympathetically writes himself into the shoes of Kansan Frederick Funston, an extremely short, pugnacious sort who, along with peers-like journalist William Allen White, came of age in the 1890s yearning to create a new world out of so much raw mater yearning, in other words, for the expansion of the American sphere. Bain re-creates what were, after all, the at-the-time-exciting beginnings of the American imperialist impulse which drew American troops outside the western hemisphere for the first in this century's series of Asian wars, the last of which made a conscientious objector out of author Bain. His first book, Aftershocks (1978, soon to be re-issued by Houghton- Mifflin), was the first and still the best account of violence attributed to post-Viet- nam delayed-stress syndrome. It was in 1896 when the Philippine guerrilla war against Spain coincided with America’s need for new markets to make American intervention on the side of the Philippines seem like historical necessity. Spain lost fast and the United States won title to Manila Bay. Frederick Funston, by then a Colonel in the U.S. Army, led his unruly Kansas regulars in the American claim on the Philippines—as he put it, “to sit on and hold down the little brown brother for a few months” until American influence could be established. UnfortuRECAPTURING REAL EXPERIENCE THE RISE OF NON-FICTION By Penny Allen Illustration by Stephen Leflar SINCE CAPOTE AND MAILER, NON-FICTION HAS BEEN THE ONLY SERIOUS WAY TO WRITEABOUT MODERN VIOLENCE. NOW, FIRST-PERSON NON-FICTION IS BECOMING THE ONLY SATISFACTORY WAY TO WRITE SERIOUSLYAT ALL nately, records indicate that once in the Philippines, nearly all the Americans, both troops and officers and not just the Kansans, persisted in calling all Filipinos “niggers” to their faces. Resulting Filipino resentment exploded in what became a full- fledged insurrection against the American presence. The cocky Fred Funston, by then a General, got the plum assignment: Capture Filipino revolutionary leader, General Emilio Aguinaldo. At just that point in his story historian Bain suddenly leverages Sitting in Darkness out of the past and into the present and future. Furiously, he travels to the Philippines, dragging along his brother and several friends. Together, they follow in the General’s 80-year-old tracks as Funston leads a ragtag bunch of soldiers on a death-defying trek up the treacherous northern Philippine coastline to capture the young Aguinaldo, thereby snuffing the revolution and reducing the Philippines to a colony once again, this time ours. Bain tells this story first through Funston in 1901, then through his own party's trials in 1982, then back to Funston, then to Aguinaldo, then back to 1982, around and around and around. The effect is exciting and suspenseful, a triangulation on a moment in history. Funston’s trip up the coast is full of adventure and mishap, philosophically purposeful, unquestioning and anticipatory. By contrast, Aguinaldo's voice is stationary, speaking from his remote northern outpost where he runs the revolution by embarking couriers to his far-flung guerrilla forces, all the while unaware of the forces closing in on him. Adding his own harrowing coastal trek to the historical stew, Bain amazingly puts his own former-Boston- University Vietnam-era-conscientious- objector self on the line. The unexpected happens: Tormented, exhausted, starving, and then abandoned by their Filipino guides, Bain and his friends illuminate all kinds of political contraditions. By then, of course, Sitting in Darkness is no longer just history. It has become a dialectical way of looking at the very process of history, transcending the usual linear boun- dares of “objective” history-writing through dynamic first-person reportage. A novel would have allowed the comfort of literary distancing. Bain’s book permits no such disbelief about America’s imperialist impulse. Elinor Langer’s first-person biography Josephine Herbst ^1984, Little, Brown, cloth; Warner Books, paper) isn't just a biography about ’30s writer Josie Herbst, either. It’s also about author Langer, herself an intellectual who, in the '60s, wrote about politics for the prestigious weekly Science, who became an editor of Ramparts and who, by 1973, when she discovered the decanonized and forgotten Herbst, was in retreat from the radical movement, wondering what had become of it. After stumbling upon Herbst's novels, Langer set out, naively at first, even reluctantly, then later passionately and with much wisdom, to save not only Josie Herbst but also renew the increasingly tenuous thread of American critical thinking. She accomplished this latter feat by, like David Bain, abandoning the tradition of objectivity. It is also enormous—original, entertaining, and best of all popular. Nominated for an American Book Award and a Book Critics' Circle Award, both for biography, Herbst nevertheless reads like a big, intense novel, with the brilliantly inventive and maddening Josie as the vivid main character who embodies the rising influence in the 20s and '30s of a radical critique of American society and then the loss of that influence when World War II suddenly changes all the directional road markers. Josie is there in all the scenes of great social and political potential—pre-Nazi Berlin, pre-revolutionary Cuba, the Spanish Civil War with Hemingway. And she is writing, both journalism and novels, all the while arguing as if the whole world depended on it, the sort of woman who always knows how to draw the richness from life. The way the story's told, with personal and political as a single force, Herbst absolutely resonates with the re- born-in-the-'60s vision of the individual in society (not in spite of it, as in this decade so far). As Langer tells it, when the tide turns against Josie, it is Josie’s doing as well as society’s. Piling increasing psychological demands on her husband and lovers (mostly female), Josie finds herself very much alone, isolated on her Pennsylvania farm, diminished in her own self-esteem just when passing time has robbed her of her literary voice and her audience. Ideas important to so many in the '30s gradually became unimportant in the public’s mind and then, with McCarthyism, genuinely undesirable. But Josie can’t process change, she can't transcend fast enough, so the creative juices slow, like molasses in January, for years. At the nadir in 1954, Josephine Herbst wrote the only book of hers to survive her, New Green World, a biography of pre-revolutionary Pennsylvania farmer John Bartram and his family living in a New World full of potential. Josie had somehow found a way to reconnect with her radical spirit, to restore American radicalism to an honorable position, and, later in her life, to come close, had she only lived a little longer, to writing a masterpiece—her own story. Elinor Langer's biography of Herbst polishes up that tarnished honor once again, and it happens primarily because Langer is there, bringing her own radical sensibility with her, arguing with Josie about all her choices, arguing, just like Josie, as if the whole, world depended on it. Langer’s sym-,. pathies for Herbst ebb and flow and even occasionally dry up altogether, such as Clinton St. Quarterly 29