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Drone Hive Strange Posts

Holocaust Literature: A Bibliography

January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A lot has happened since then, most notably a winter storm that left millions of people in Texas, including my family and me, without electricity, heat, and water for more than 100 hours in sub-freezing temperatures. In the days running up to the storm, I had been grappling with how little attention I have given the Holocaust in my scholarship and teaching, and I was intending to gather some resources to post here—mostly for my own reference, but also for the benefit of others—when my plans were derailed by the utilities failure. I did, however, manage to re-read the few works of Holocaust Literature that I own, including both volumes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Elie Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy, which includes the novels Night, Dawn, and The Accident. These are important works, but they are also among the most widely read accounts of the Holocaust, second only to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and I’m a little embarrassed that these are the only works of Holocaust Literature that I’ve read.

I know there is a massive body of Holocaust Literature, including many published and unpublished survivors’ accounts. When I worked as an intern at Stockton University’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center, I saw full-time staff members help Holocaust survivors record their experiences living under European fascism, and I recall frequent discussions about the importance memoirs, novels, and other literary texts to the remembrance of the Holocaust. Stockton launched its Holocaust & Genocide Studies program just a few years before my internship, so I was also well aware that Holocaust Literature fit within a clearly delineated field of academic study. But my interests at the time were in creative writing, so I didn’t explore what the university had to offer by way of Holocaust Studies as much as I now wish that I had. Fortunately, there are some great online resources, including some good bibliographies of Holocaust Literature, that point the way toward further independent study.

Many of the works in the following bibliography are taken from bibliographies published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Women’s Archive, though I have also added a fair number of titles that I discovered through my own research. Additionally, I used WORLDCAT to correct and complete the citations. This bibliography is not comprehensive and only includes books available in English. It also excludes individual stories, poems, and articles, of which there are many. If there are book-length works missing from the list, please leave a note in the comments and I will add them. I will also expand the list as I become aware of additional titles.

Note: The following bibliography is under construction. New titles are added daily.

Holocaust Literature

Aarons, Victoria, and Phyllis Lassner, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Holocaust Literature and Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Aichinger, Ilse. Herod’s Children. 1960. Translated by Cornelia Schaeffer. New York: Atheneum, 1964.

Aizenberg, Edna. On the Edge of the Holocaust: The Shoah in Latin American Literature and Culture. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015.

Alexander, Edward. The Resonance of Dust: Essays on Holocaust Literature and Jewish Fate. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.

Apitz, Bruno. Naked Among Wolves. 1958. Translated by Edith Anderson. Berlin: Seven Seas Books, 1960.

Appelfeld, Aharon. Badenheim 1939. 1975. Translated by Dalya Bilu. Boston: D.R. Godine, 2009.

Appelfeld, Aharon. The Immortal Bartfuss. 1988. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Arieti, Silvano. The Parnas: A Scene from the Holocaust. 1979. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2000.

Becker, Jurek. Bronstein’s Children. 1986. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Becker, Jurek. Jacob the Liar. 1969. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

Begley, Louis. Wartime Lies. 1991. Ballantine Books, 2004.

Berger, Alan L., and Gloria L. Cronin, editors. Jewish American and Holocaust Literature: Representation in the Postmodern World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Bigsby, Christopher. Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Literature of the Holocaust. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. 1946. Translated by Barbara Vedder. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Bos, Pascale R. German-Jewish Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust: Grete Weil, Ruth Kluger, and the Politics of Address. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Brown, Jean C., Elaine C. Stephens, and Janet R. Rubin, eds. Images from the Holocaust: A Literary Anthology. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Publishing Group, 1997.

Bryks, Rachmil. A Cat in the Ghetto: Four Novelettes. 1952. Translated by S. Morris Engel. New York: Perseus Books, 2008.

Epstein, Leslie. King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.

Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Friedlander, Albert H., ed. Out of the Whirlwind: A Reader of Holocaust Literature. 1976. New York: UAHC Press, 1999.

Friedman, Saul S., ed. Holocaust Literature: A Handbook of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Fink, Ida. The Journey. 1990. Translated by Joanna Weschler and Francine Prose. London: Penguin, 1994.

Fink, Ida. A Scrap of Time and Other Stories. 1983. Translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Fink, Ida. Traces. 1996. Translated by Philip Boehm and Francine Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Friedman, Carl. Nightfather. 1991. Translated by Arnold Pomerans and Erica Pomerans. New York: Perseus Books, 2004.

Fuks, Ladislav. Mr. Theodore Mundstock. 1963. Translated by Iris Urwin. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969.

Gouri, Haim. The Chocolate Deal. 1964. Translated by Seymour Simckes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Grynberg, Henryk. Child of the Shadows. 1965. Translated by Celina Winiewska. London: Vellentine Mitchell, 1969.

Habe, Hans. The Mission. 1965. Translated by Michael Bullock. London: Panther Books, 1967.

Hersey, John. The Wall. 1950. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Hilsenrath, Edgar. Night. 1964. Translated by Michael Roloff. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

Hilsenrath, Edgar. The Nazi Who Lived as a Jew. 1971. Translated by Andrew White. New York: Manor Books, 1977.

Hungerford, Amy. The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Halperin, Irving. Messengers from the Dead: Literature of the Holocaust. London: Westminster Press, 1970.

Horowitz, Sara R. Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. House of Dolls. 1953. Translated by Moshe M. Kohn. London: Senate Publishing, 1997.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Atrocity. 1961. Translated by Moshe M. Kohn. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1963.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Star Eternal. 1966. Translated by Nina DeNur. London: W.H. Allen, 1972.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Sunrise Over Hell. 1977. Translated by Nina DeNur. London: Corgi Books, 1978.

Kaniuk, Yoram. Adam Resurrected. 1969. Translated by Seymour Simckes. New York: Grove Atlantic, 2008.

Katz, Steven T., and Alan Rosen, eds. Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2013.

Keneally, Thomas. Schindler’s List. 1982. New York: Washington Square Press/Atria, 2020.

Kertész, Imre. Fateless. 1975. Translated by Tim Wilkinson. New York: Vintage International, 2004.

Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. 1965. New York: Bantam Book, 1998.

Kosinski, Jerzy. Steps. 1968. New York: Grove Atlantic, 1999.

Kremer, S. Lillian. Witness Through the Imagination: Ozick, Elman, Cohen, Potok, Singer, Epstein, Bellow, Steiner, Wallant, Malamud: Jewish-American Holocaust Literature. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.

Kremer, S. Lillian, editor. Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Krimmer, Elisabeth. German Women’s Life Writing and the Holocaust: Complicity and Gender in the Second World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Kuznetsov, A. Anatoli. Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. 1967. Translated by David Floyd. New York: Farra, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Lang, Berel, editor. Writing and the Holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988.

Langer, Lawrence L. The Holocaust the and Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

Langer, Lawrence L. Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Langer, Lawrence L., editor. Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Leak, Andrew, and George Paizis, editors. The Holocaust and the Text: Speaking the Unspeakable. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Levi, Primo. If Not Now, When? 1982. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Levin, Meyer. Eva: A Novel of the Holocaust. 1959. New York: Behrman House, 1979.

Lewitt, Maria. Come Spring: An Autobiographical Novel. 1980. Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2002.

Lustig, Arnošt. Diamonds of the Night. 1958. Translated by Jeanne Nĕmcová. London: Quartet Books, 1989.

Lustig, Arnošt. A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova. 1964. Translated by Jeanne Nĕmcová. London: Quartet Books, 1990.

Lustig, Arnošt. Night and Hope. 1958. Translated by George Theiner. London: Quartet Books, 1989.

Lustig, Arnošt. Darkness Casts No Shadow. 1976. Translated by Jeanne Nĕmcová. London: Quartet Books, 1989.

Lustig, Arnošt. The Unloved: From the Diary of Perla S. 1979. Translated by Vera Kalina-Levine. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006.

McGlothlin, Erin. Second-Generation Holocaust Literature: Legacies of Survival and Perpetration. Camden House, 2006.

Minco, Marga. Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle. 1957. Translated by Roy Edwards. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Modiano, Patrick. Ring Roads. 1972. Translated by Caroline Hillier. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Modiano, Patrick. Night Rounds. 1969. Translated by Caroline Hillier. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Modiano, Patrick. La Place de l’Etoile. 1968. Translated by Caroline Hillier. London, Bloomsbury, 2016.

Morgan, Glyn. Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Patterson, David. The Shriek of Silence: A Phenomenology of the Holocaust Novel. University Press of Kentucky, 1992.

Patterson, David, Alan L. Berger, and Sarita Cargas, editors. Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature. Oryx Press, 2002.

Popescu, Diana, and Tanja Schult, eds. Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Raphael, Linda Schermer, and Marc Lee Raphael, editors. When Night Fell: An Anthology of Holocaust Short Stories. Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Riggs, Thomas, editor. Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature. St. James Press, 2002.

Rittner, Carol, and John K. Roth, eds. Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. New York: Paragon House, 1993.

Rochman, Hazel, and Darlene Z. McCampbell, eds. Bearing Witness: Stories of the Holocaust. New York: Orchard Books, 1995.

Rosen, Philip, and Nina Apfelbaum, editors. Bearing Witness: A Resource Guide to Literature, Poetry, Art, Music, and Videos by Holocaust Victims and Survivors. Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H. A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature. Indiana University Press, 1988.

Schiff, Hilda, ed. Holocaust Poetry. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.

Schlant, Ernestine. The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust. Routledge, 1999.

Schwarz, Daniel R. Imagining the Holocaust. St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Sherman, Joseph. Writers in Yiddish. Thomson Gale, 2007.

Sicher, Efraim, editor. Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz. University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Sicher, Efraim, editor. Holocaust Novelists. Gale, 2004.

Sicher, Efraim. The Holocaust Novel. Routledge, 2005.

Teichman, Milton, and Sharon Leder, editors. Truth and Lamentations: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust. University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Vice, Sue. Holocaust Fiction. Routledge, 2000.

Wilhelm, Thorsten. Holocaust Narratives: Trauma, Memory and Identity Across Generations. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Young, James E. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation. Indiana University Press, 1988.

Yudkin, Leon L., editor. Hebrew Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.

Yudkin, Leon L. Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust. Suger Press, 2003.

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Unemployed Fragments

Footbridge over creek, pond-formed dam.
No. The reverse---
turned inside out again.

Wait to hear what can be heard.

An ice-cream truck roving distant neighborhood,
the tack tack tack of beak on bark, and then
sudden snort of a dog ("adda boy!") eating dust.
Late morning with the boy (the elder)
"Fifth and Seventieth" just read, he's digging
animal facts---what they eat
the size of their teeth.

Last day for freedom. Tomorrow knowledge.
Diamond painting the marvel
universe---table top & tools of the trade.

The boy (the younger) in panic:
"Oh no! they didn't give me enough bags!"

Window open breeze
flushing strong
incense through the room.
Impossible not to see (these streets
sleeping rough under Congress w/ neon
crowd out for weekend run and I
a saunter) the bright sigh of earth---
Mid-morning speech
sleeping bats, dreaming of flight and insect
feast--- drainage from street to Colorado.

in the darkness

A squeal.
A squeak.
Hours left to sleep---
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Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades” and its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

But “Plague” is not a poem about what ails the human body, for the poet’s attention is drawn to a mass of caterpillars as they crawl through this abundance of medicinal herbs, their jaws hard at work consuming lambs-ears, red root, and jewelweed. Driven by hunger and eating everything in sight, the caterpillars occupy a menacing place in the poem, yet the care with which Partridge observes their eating renders them beautiful:

Two pinks caught my eye. I bent down.
Caterpillars were going to town
on a faltering stem, bodies slung
underneath like sloths'. The feet clung;
the heads chewed. Four gnashed a meal
under a spray of Solomon's seal
whose white drops quivered. Paired prongs,
the front legs worked like icemen's tongs
curving to stab. Rear-guard pylons,
flat-soled, gray, dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
blue-and-red pustules edged with black. (ll. 13-24)

How are we meant to feel about these creatures as they consume a landscape full of life-giving herbs? One way to read the caterpillars is as the very plague the title references, a plague with the potential to destroy the plants altogether. Partridge makes this point clear when, at the poem’s conclusion, she anticipates their metamorphosis into fully-developed butterflies who will “alight on fewer, finer legs / and discharge an arsenal of eggs” (ll. 49-50). The implication is that this spray of eggs—figured here as “an arsenal”—will spell ruin for the herbs that are catalogued throughout the poem. They will multiply the number of larva, which will in turn eat their fill until the landscape is left barren. And yet, for all the potential destruction the eggs represent, the caterpillars are doing exactly what they evolved to do. They consume the herbs, and in so doing, they transform themselves into butterflies. There is great mystery and beauty in this process, and the fact that the garden itself is an integral part of the metamorphosis serves to complicate the disgust one may feel toward the poem’s “plague.”

The extent of Partridge’s ambivalence toward the caterpillars is thrown into relief by “Phoenixville Farm,” the poem that follows directly after “Plague” in Fielder’s Choice. Partridge uses “Phoenixville Farm” to align her sympathies with one side of a starkly-drawn contrast between the artificiality of the subdivision where she grew up and the more rustic, natural setting of her friend Anne’s farm. Her sympathies are clearly with the farm over and against the controlled, disciplined, and supremely boring subdivision where “the change of seasons was marked by switching off / or on the central AC’s monotone thrum” (ll. 17-18). The farm provides her with access to a much more diverse and exciting environment, where the presence of foxes, hornets, spiders, bats, raccoons, and other critters stir within her a desire to escape the constraints of suburban life. When her parents come to pick her up after a sleepover at Anne’s farm, Partridge imagines herself undergoing the very sort of metamorphosis that threatens the medicinal herbs in “Plague”:

Some day, some day---we'd each spin sleeping bags,
doze for six weeks, thrust, gnaw, unkink striped wings,
try out our newborn feelers, lurch to Anne's farm,
bathe in dust puddles, lay eggs, and worship weeds. (ll. 50-53)

This closing metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the metamorphosis described in “Plague.” Not only does Partridge figure her escape from the suburbs as a transition from larva to pupa to imago, but one of the central acts she will commit after emerging from her chrysalis is to follow the example of the butterflies in “Plague” and deposit her eggs among the weeds. Her desire for liberation is very much tied up in questions of seasonality, transformation, renewal, and reproduction, all of which are given a positive gloss within the context of the poem. Yet read alongside “Plague,” the metaphor that concludes “Phoenixville Farm” unsettles any easy interpretation of the “arsenal of eggs” that the former poem’s butterflies will discharge throughout the herbs. If the caterpillars are symbols of destruction in “Plague,” they represent the potential for freedom in “Phoenixville Farm,” and it is in the contradiction between the way these two poems represent metamorphosis that the horizon of Partridge’s knowledge appears.

The plants and animals that demand so much attention in “Plague” and “Phoenixville Farm” may be named and described, their life cycles and practical uses understood, but the larger questions of interdependence, metamorphosis, liberation, death, and beauty are left unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable. And perhaps this is the point of Partridge’s hyper-realistic poetics. By training her eye on the fine details of her surroundings, and then expressing those details with clinical precision, Partridge exhausts the mundane and positions her readers before the ineffable. It’s almost as if every meticulous description—every act of naming—moves us one step closer to what can never be ultimately known. And it is the stubborn presence of the unknown that makes her poems worth returning to. Like the bird that cries, “Name me,” at the conclusion of “Everglades,” Partridge invites us to name the unknown in her poems, knowing full well that no mastery and no knowledge will ever empower us to do so with finality. Yet the attempt yields its rewards, training our attention as it does on those qualities of being that transcend certainty and give rise to what must always be rediscovered anew.

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Unemployed Fragments

Feelings of exhaustion
passed person to person

ears clogged and Advil PM
a condition
only lying prone can fix
New vision --- a hawk
still, asleep in the tree

a truck idles nearby

no movement, no hawk
my eye - it misunderstands the shape it sees

And then a dove, as if from mist . . .
Gnats amuck in my keyboard
seeking refuge, a place to nest

in this tangle of silicone & light
A cardinal, confident in the brown of its feathers
leaps from mirror to mirror

A moment, a fraction ---
and then up and out and back
The water black at dawn, a diadem:
stars die in the light.

The chirp of the frog. The hiss of the owl.

Open your mouth.
Take in a breath --- and out
of all things gold.
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It’s Best to Die in a Warm Bed

You have to ask yourself, what’s the point of killing? What’s at stake?

They sat behind mirrored glass, watching pedestrians scuttle by through faded brush-stroke letters. They sat, legs crossed, drinking a strong blend.

Ask yourself, how will your life change?


Or death. Consider how your death will change.

He flipped a cigarette onto his lip and struck his lighter. It was tarnished brass, descended from a grandfather killed in war. He refilled it every month. Wiped it clean, but never polished. He touched the end of the cigarette to the bouncing flame.

Aren’t you planning your death yet?


Sure you are. Think. Smoke curled around his swollen, dimpled nose. Everything you’re about is gearing up for the end. You wanna lay peaceful and warm when you die. Maybe nibble at a little soup. You know that. There’s nothing romantic about getting shot down.

Nobody is going to shoot me down. I don’t even own a gun.

You don’t need a gun to be shot down. Think for a minute.

Well, the other said, leaning into his coffee. He slurped. Nobody is going to shoot me. And I’m not planning my death yet.

There’s no glory in dying bloody. You know that. It’s best to die in a warm bed. Somewhere familiar. Somewhere private. You don’t want strangers watching.

They sat a moment and peered out at the street. People rushed along, their faces blurred by rain. The storm had been rolling in for days, in off the ocean.

He was hungry, but it wasn’t time. He would wait until dark, and then he would gorge himself. Cantonese noodles, pepperoni calzones, fish and chips, steaming meats from sidewalk vendors, meatball subs, corned beef and sour kraut on rye, mixed plates from the international buffet, olives and cheese and wine, hotdogs and hamburgers, lamb skewers, spinach pie, curried chicken, California rolls, jerked pork, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, Korean barbecue, double fudge brownies and ice cream, a couple of Romeo y Julieta’s and a bottle of Colt 45.

But now, with the storm draped across the afternoon, it was unfiltered cigarettes and strong coffee.

He nudged the other and grinned. I know what you’re thinking. When I was young, before things were so good, I used to ride the rails with a man who killed.

I’m not going to kill. I don’t even own a gun.

You don’t need a gun. You know that. He beat them. He choked them dead.

The other crossed his arms and stared out at the rain.

He would sneak up on them and beat them so they couldn’t get up. I remember it so well. And then he’d choke them.

I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve got nothing to do with that.

Yes you do. Because like you, he wasn’t planning either.

Nobody plans for death. It just gets you.

Not so. We’re all planning. It’s just that some people like you don’t know what they’re planning for.

He took a final drag on his cigarette and dropped it into his coffee. Ain’t that something? He’d choke them dead.

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The Streets

The streets of Buenos Aires
run through my heart.
Not the greedy streets,
troubled by crowds and bustling drudgery,
but the indolent streets of the outer quarters,
nearly invisible now, as always, 
in the half-light of the gloaming,
and those even further out,
beyond the trees,
where only austere little houses dare venture,
overwhelmed by endless distances,
lost in the immense expanse
of sky and plains.
They offer a promise to the loner
for a thousand lonely souls live within them,
unique before the divine and in time
precious beyond question.
To the West, the North and the South
they unfold---another possible homeland---the streets:
may their colors fly
within the verses that I write.

Translated from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges
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Power and the Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate

Yesterday afternoon, Harper’s Magazine published an online letter, signed by 150 prominent journalists, novelists, academics, and other public intellectuals, condemning what they call “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” This comes less than a month after Matt Taibbi published an essay detailing how a number of editors, journalists, and academics have lost their jobs or been censured for sharing controversial views in recent months, even when those views were not necessarily their own. The Harper’s letter makes oblique reference to almost all of the examples Taibbi cites, including the resignation of James Bennet as editor of the New York Times editorial page after being criticized for publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) that advocates for deploying the U.S. military against its own citizens; The Intercept‘s censuring of Lee Fang for tweeting an interview with an African American man who accused the media of only expressing outrage when Black people are killed by White people, but not when they are killed by other Black people; and Civis Analytics’ firing of David Shore, a progressive data analyst who tweeted a peer-reviewed article by Omar Wasow showing the electoral benefits to Democrats of peaceful rather than violent protests. The letter is careful to applaud the mass movement for racial and social justice that has gained so much momentum in recent weeks, but its raison d’être is to criticize what its signatories perceive to be an ascendant illiberalism in American culture, with special attention to illiberalism on the progressive Left.

Free expression has been on my mind lately, in part because I have been reading about the Free Speech Movement, but also because I am active on Twitter and have seen first-hand how some users attempt to advance rigid orthodoxies around questions of politics and culture. I sometimes agree with those orthodoxies, but not always, and I often don’t care one way or the other, so online ideologues don’t really bother me that much. They can say whatever they want. I am, however, sometimes discomfited by the self-righteous, bullying tone some people use against others for expressing views with which they disagree. Just yesterday, within moments of the Harper’s letter hitting social media, progressives on Twitter were out in force condemning Noam Chomsky for signing it, often in terms that mocked his advanced age, as if ageism isn’t itself a form of bigotry, while ignoring his decades-long commitment to free speech, including free speech for those with whom he most vociferously disagrees. It is all too easy to point to these attacks on Chomsky as evidence for one of the letter’s central premises, which is that a creeping dogmatism now pervades public discourse, and that too many people are poised to shame anyone who fails to conform to a particular brand of progressive moralism. I am not enamored of the letter, for reasons outlined below, but I do sympathize with its central claim that dogmatism, orthodoxy, and ideological purity pose a threat to freedom of thought and expression. This is true, whether it occurs on the Right or the Left, and those who value free speech would be wise to root out censorious, illiberal tendencies wherever they appear.

That being said, I have a few issues with the way the Harper’s letter is framed. The first has to do with how it elides the differences between various forms of censorship and social pressure. For example, in its concluding paragraph, the letter states: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” This strikes me as both needlessly reductive and inaccurate, in large part because it draws a false equivalency between repressive governments and intolerant societies, while also exaggerating the extent to which intolerance holds sway in American society. The overt illiberalism that exists in many countries today, backed by force of law and state-sanctioned violence, is in no way equivalent to the sorts of discursive struggles that we see playing out on social media, in university classrooms, and in the popular press. I agree that repressive governments hurt the powerless and corrupt democracy, but what is happening on platforms such as Twitter is, in many ways, the opposite of that. Thanks to advances in digital media, and especially social media, a much greater number of people are able to express themselves in far-reaching, public ways than ever before. The vast majority of these people do not hold positions of institutional power, and many of them belong to groups that have long been denied both power and equality within American society. That people who have traditionally had little access to public platforms are now able to express themselves does not constitute a harm to the powerless, nor is it evidence that democratic participation is in decline. This is true even when those people are intolerant or promote conformity. What it does constitute, however, is a shift in power away from those institutions that have long controlled public discourse and toward a public that is clamoring to talk back and finally has the tools to do so.

This brings me to my second point. The fact that people who have long been excluded from public discourse are now able to publish their views and thus gain greater social influence seems to have made media outlets (but also many other entities) much more sensitive to public opinion. This sensitivity is often motivated by economic concerns, as most publications cannot afford to alienate their subscribers, let alone lose advertisers. As a result, “institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments” against those who invite unwanted controversy. Or so the letter says, though I think this conclusion is too broadly drawn. The examples detailed in Taibbi’s essay, all of which are alluded to in the Harper’s letter as instances of panicked damage control, very well may constitute injustices to the people whose livelihoods were affected, but it is important to remember that every publication has its own standards, norms, and culture, and to extrapolate a general conclusion about freedom of thought and expression from, say, Bennet’s resignation at the New York Times is a mistake. There are many publications that could have published Cotton’s op-ed without internal or public controversy. Indeed, there are publications that would have been celebrated for doing so, though not necessarily by readers of the New York Times. Ideological differences abound in the American press, and the actions of a single publication do not necessarily represent a general trend in the culture industry. It is also worth noting that there were extenuating circumstances that influenced Bennet’s decision to resign. For example, he apparently chose to run the piece without reading it, which sounds like extraordinarily hasty and careless editing. One result of this breakdown in editing procedures is that Bennet lost the confidence of his colleagues. I mention this only to say that the context of Bennet’s resignation is not just public backlash, but also the unique institutional culture and standards of the New York Times. I support Bennet’s right to free thought and expression, just as I support the New York Times‘ right to choose its editors and set its own standards. But I also support the public’s right to criticize the New York Times in whatever terms it wants. Just because such criticism may lead to a resignation or a firing or censure does not necessarily mean that the criticism, or even the process, was illiberal. We need to attend to multiple contexts and specific circumstances to make that determination.

Finally, the timing of this letter strikes me as problematic. As I mentioned earlier, the Harper’s letter comes less than a month after Taibbi’s essay on the same topic, which was—to be fair—written in response to a recent surge in incidents involving speech-related issues. But it is important to remember that most of these incidents touched on issues of race and racism, and they occurred in the context of a mass struggle against racism. The Harper’s letter is thus implicitly about the proper way to wage that struggle, and its message on this count is clear: Assuming an overly aggressive posture against illiberal bigotry is itself illiberal. What I find problematic about this is that it is being said at a time when powerful forces in this country are trying to convince the public that anti-racists are actually racists, that anti-fascists are actually fascists, that radical anarchists are erasing history, that educators are teaching young people to hate their own country, and that the free press in an enemy of the people. Lest we forget, just days before the Harper’s letter appeared online, the president of the United States delivered a major speech attacking so-called cancel culture and blaming social unrest on “years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism and other cultural institutions.” Like the movement for racial justice, this is also one of the letter’s contexts, and it is within this particular context that its argument against illiberalism—an argument that is aimed directly at those who are speaking out most forcefully against bigotry and social injustice—strikes me as a troubling concession to the current administration’s view that the real threat to democracy is to be found not only on the progressive Left, but even among the ranks of the mainstream liberal establishment.

So why did Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Todd Gitlin, Zephyr Teachout, and other notable progressives sign the letter? I have been giving this some careful thought, and while I don’t have an answer I’m completely comfortable with, two major reasons do come to mind. The most obvious reason is that the letter offers a clear defense of open dialogue over and against what it calls “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism,” and Chomsky, Atwood, Gitlin, Teachout, and others want to make their support for free expression known. I give all of the letter’s signatories the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their belief in this principle. And yet there is something else at work in the letter, something that lurks within its paternalistic tone, within the very grammar in which it is written. Consider this: The letter assumes the first-person plural point of view, which is explicitly contrasted with “the radical right,” but also—oddly enough—with “the public” and “the state.” I’m not sure what to make of this, except to say that the letter is clearly written by and addressed to the elites within the culture industry, while at the same time attempting to chasten the general public for its intolerant excesses. The letter’s collective yet exclusive first-person plural goes a long way toward explaining why its signatories feel compelled to speak out about this issue in this particular way. It seems to me that, to a significant degree, they do not consider themselves to be part of the public. On the contrary, they consider themselves to be thought-leaders and taste-makers, and they would like to be free to shape public opinion without actually having to be accountable to the public. In other words, the Harper’s letter is bound up in defending the freedom and prestige of a privileged class of intellectuals against raucous counter-speech on social media and university campuses, all while ignoring the state-sanctioned violence that all too many Americans have experienced while exercising their 1st Amendment rights in recent weeks.

None of this is to discount the potential chilling effect that public shaming and professional retribution may have on writers, artists, educators, and others who work in the culture industry, nor is it to chide the letter writers for publishing the letter. As I stated earlier, my sympathies are with the letter’s sentiments insofar as they challenge censorious, illiberal tendencies wherever they may be found. However, I also recognize that there are norms governing social behavior, including standards of acceptable speech, and that those norms are always being contested. What was socially acceptable fifty years ago may not pass muster today. As Percy Shelley wrote: “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but mutability.” Speech is, in many regards, much freer now than it was fifty years ago, and where there are strong social pressures against certain types of speech, they often exist to ensure greater justice and equality within the social contract. We should recognize that these social pressures are categorically different than the sort of repressive censorship that led, say, the San Francisco police to arrest Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, just as they are categorically different from the sort of social control and enforced conformity that led J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to ruin the careers of so many people in the entertainment, education, and government sectors. We have come a long way since the repressive 1950s. To suggest that the current discursive struggle is akin to Cold War blacklists, or even that it constitutes an emerging social crisis—as the Harper’s letter so clearly does—strikes me as an unfortunate and misleading exaggeration. If the letter’s signatories are sincere in their call for more “exposure, argument, and persuasion” as opposed to “public shaming and ostracism,” then they can begin by rejecting false equivalencies, embracing nuance and context, and being much more honest about the power dynamics that are so often at play in debates over free speech.

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Hot Damn! Vietnam!

Here is something that offended LBJ: The Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) insisted on using his image—presented upside down—on its promotional materials in the days leading up to their attempted march on the Oakland Army Terminal in 1965. These materials clearly intended to mock Johnson by displaying his portrait in a topsy-turvy manner, but what may be less obvious is that turning the president upside down can also be understood as casting a hex on him. The practice of symbolically turning someone upside down as part of a curse can be traced at least as far back as late-antiquity. For example, Christopher A. Faraone and Amina Cropp have shown evidence of Romans using an incantation against their enemies that included an inscription meaning, “turn upside-down!” Similar language is evident in the fourth-century curse that states, in part, “turn him, turn him upside-down!” In this way, VDC activists engaged in the sort of satirical practice outlined in Robert C. Elliott’s foundational study The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art and exemplified most hilariously in Ishmael Reed’s “D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful,” which is anthologized in the aptly titled 19 Necromancers from Now, and Philip Roth’s Our Gang, two texts that satirically hex Richard Nixon.

The story of how the VDC came to deploy this particular strategy is interesting, especially insofar as it reveals something about the influence of postwar American writers on the symbols that the Anti-War Movement adopted during the mid- to late-Sixties. It is also very funny. Here is what happened . . .

Over a two-day period in May of 1965, the VDC hosted one of the nation’s first and largest teach-ins at the University of California, Berkeley. The event was organized by Jerry Rubin, Barbara Gullahorn, and Stephen Smale, and it featured a range of speakers and entertainers, including Norman Mailer, I. F. Stone, Benjamin Spock, Mario Savio, Robert Moses, Dick Gregory, Paul Krassner, Kenneth Rexroth, Phil Ochs, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Attendance at the event is estimated to have ranged between ten and thirty thousand people, depending on which source you consult, but the one thing that is certain is that the gathering ultimately proved to be a defining moment in the Vietnam-era Anti-War Movement.

Mailer’s speech—which he punctuated with the refrain, “Hot damn! Vietnam!”—was an irreverent attack on the president and his advisors. It was full of derision and mockery, but it also included a stark warning:

Listen, Lyndon Johnson, you’ve gone too far this time. You are a bully with an Air Force, and since you will not call off your Air Force, there are young people who will persecute you back. It is a little thing, but it will hound you into nightmares and endless corridors of night without sleep. It will hound you. For listen, this is only one of the thousand things they will do. They will go on marches and they will make demonstrations, and they will begin a war of public protest against you which will never cease. It will go on and on and it will get stronger and stronger.

Prophetic as Mailer may have been, his remarks were, up to this point, relatively mundane. Threatening marches and demonstrations was hardly a novel proposition, after all. But as Mailer’s speech develops, it takes an altogether more creative, zany, and downright funny turn:

But listen to just one of the thousand things that they could do. Just listen to this little thing, which is one. These young people are, I think, going to print up little picture of you, Lyndon Johnson, the size of post-cards, the size of stamps. And some of them will glue these pictures to walls and posters and telephone booths and bill-boards. I don’t advise it. I would tell these students not to do it to you, but they will. They will find places to put these pictures. They will want to paste your picture, Lyndon Johnson, on a post-card and send it to you. Some will send it to your advisors. Some will send these pictures to men and women in other schools. These pictures will be sent everywhere. These pictures will be pasted up everywhere—upside down! Silently, without a word, Lyndon Johnson, that photograph of you is going to start appearing everywhere. Your head will speak out, even to the peasant in Asia. It will say that not all Americans are unaware of your monstrous vanity, overweening piety and doubtful motive. It will tell them that we trust our President so little and think so little of him that we send his picture everywhere upside down. Vietnam! Hot Damn! You, Lyndon Johnson will see those pictures up everywhere—upside down. Four inches high and forty feet high. You, Lyndon Baines Johnson, are going to be coming up for air, everywhere, upside down. Everywhere, upside down! Upside down!

Tongue-in-cheek disclaimers about not advising students to engage in this sort of tactic aside, Mailer was clearly planting a subversive idea in his audience’s mind. He was showing the tens of thousands of young people at Berkeley that day how to use a form of symbolic violence to degrade and humiliate a national leader who was rapidly losing credibility among the American Left.

The young activists listened, and they would not disappoint.

Over the coming weeks, the VDC produced and distributed flyers, buttons, and other materials that prominently featured LBJ’s topsy-turvy face. The button pictured below is one such item. It is a striking example of how the Anti-War Movement appropriated LBJ’s image and presented it in a visually arresting manner to mock and discredit his authority as president and commander in chief. But it is also evidence of the direct influence Mailer had on the movement. Not only does the button turn LBJ upside down, as Mailer had warned that activists would do, but it incorporates his famous refrain—“Hot Damn Viet Namn!” The button is, in this regard, an iconic symbol of the relationship between Mailer and the radical activist base of the Anti-War Movement. Perhaps only Allen Ginsberg had a more direct influence on the Sixties protest movement.

But what is perhaps most remarkable about this satirical hexing is that news of the tactic made its way to the Oval Office. In his excellent history of the radical student movement in Berkeley, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Seth Rosenfeld recounts how the FBI attempted to interrupt the VDC’s distribution of LBJ’s upside down portrait. This involved federal agents harassing the small business owner who had agreed to produce thousands of buttons like the one pictured above. Rosenfeld writes, “The buttons were of particular interest, according to an agent’s report, because ‘President Johnson has now become aware that his picture has been displayed in VDC demonstrations in an upside down manner. He is provoked about this'” (273). Amazingly, Mailer and the VDC had succeeded in vexing, if not hexing, the president.

There can be little question that irritating LBJ, even to the point of causing him to suffer “endless corridors of night without sleep,” was one desired aim of symbolically turning him upside down. Another would be to materially damage his reputation. There is ample evidence of Vietnam-era satirists—literary and extra-literary alike—targeting political figures, including sitting presidents, with vicious representations that often approached the legal definitions of slander and libel. The aim of these satirists was to make fun of powerful men and thus galvanizing energy against them, but they also sought to damage their targets with symbolic violence. By using ironic, derogatory language and visual representations to symbolically damage their enemies, postwar American satirists drew on the deep connection between satire and ritual magic to affect social change. They vexed and they hexed, and in so doing they helped develop radical sentiment against the war.

Mailer is a problematic figure in all sorts of ways, but I admire the principled stand he took against the Vietnam War. He was a steadfast anti-war activist and a leader among writers in organizing resistance to the reckless foreign policy that led to this most unpopular war. Mailer is also responsible for two books that masterfully capture the mentality of America during the Vietnam War. The first is his extraordinary journalistic account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, for which he was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The second is his satirical novel Why Are We in Vietnam?, which captures something of the insanity of the war without even mentioning it until the last page of the book. Both are excellent and remain powerful reads even today.

You can hear Mailer’s speech on the 1966 Folkways Records recording of the teach-in, Berkeley Teach-In: Vietnam, which is available for streaming here. In addition to Mailer, the recording includes speeches by Robert Scheer, Paul Krassner, Benjamin Spock, I. F. Stone, Mario Savio, Dick Gregory, and others. It’s a wonderful bit of history that gives voice to the event that inspired a hex on LBJ. Hot damn!

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Unemployed Fragments

How to explain the nothing feeling
of early morning drive to school?

Still dark in the sky
the boy takes a stand on Hawking's particle (the elder)
and how all black holes are doomed to evaporate.

The other one -- the younger -- silent throughout
the arrival . . .
Old Argos
dying on a heap of dung
your nose once aflame for prey

Odysseus has returned at last
after twenty years away
Allen took a trip down South
hoping for shamans/ god-death visions
and the expansion of his mind

But found instead... an anteater
nosing the wall, its enclosure
---Santiago Zoo
two woodpeckers and a hawk
six turtles lazing in the sun

tacos and tap water from the market we passed along the way

I see transparent minnows
swimming against the current
and a lost pencil -- (how here?) --
babbling down the rocks . . .

Minnows don't care
woodpeckers and hawk don't care
turtles at rest in the sun---

both boys off for more
tacos down Copperfield Trail.
cold morning/ central Texas
snow now melting
a likelihood of summer
by end of day
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Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives

Two weeks to the day since police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an African American man, in the streets of Minneapolis, and after massive nation-wide protests, rioting, hideously aggressive police tactics, and the deployment of the National Guard in more than twenty states, protests against police brutality and in defense of Black lives continue across America and around the world. Here in Austin, Texas, protesters have been in the streets since late May, targeting the Capitol building, the Austin Police Department HQ, and the highly-trafficked Interstate Highway 35, which cuts directly through the center of the city. There has been violence, most notably by police who have critically injured several people,1 yet there has also been a tremendous display of nonviolent outrage against the over-policing of Black communities and the white supremacy that justifies this system.

The largest protest occurred Sunday afternoon, when the Austin Justice Coalition held a nonviolent march from Huston-Tillotson University, Austin’s only HBCU, to the Austin State Capitol, which is currently occupied by the Texas Army National Guard. Billed as the Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives, this Black centered yet multiracial event drew thousands to the streets to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of systemic racism, especially as it operates in the criminal justice system. I was humbled to march with them, and I came away from the protest deeply moved by what I saw and heard there.

The first thing I should note is that the sheer size of the protest was astonishing. It is difficult to estimate how many people were in attendance, but on two occasions I climbed up small embankments along the side of the road, and I was unable to see the end of the crowd as it stretched both before and behind me. I know crowd sizes can be deceiving when so many people are gathered in such close proximity, and being in the middle of a mass of people makes estimating its size all the more difficult, but my impression was that many thousands were in the streets. After so many days of protests, a crowd of this size is impressive and suggests that this movement has real staying power. I was also encouraged by the demographic makeup of the protest. There were a large number of African American Austinites in attendance, and they took the lead in speaking and marching to the Capitol, but the crowd was very diverse, both in terms of race/ethnicity and age. It was heartening to see such a diverse cross section of the Austin community come together to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of racist police practices.

I should also note that the crowd’s mood was both solemn and positive, odd as that mix may seem. The solemnity came from listening to members of the African American community speak about the pain of living in a racist society, but also from hearing them call on white people to do the hard work of dismantling racism within their own hearts, as well as within the larger culture. It was also difficult to listen to Brenda Ramos, mother of Mike Ramos, who was Black and Latinx, speak about her unarmed son being shot to death by the Austin police.2 Yet despite these heavier moments, people seemed energized and positive—sharing water and snacks, distributing masks and hand sanitizer, playing drums and chanting together—and there was a palpable sense of solidarity as we marched to the Capitol.

But what touched me most deeply about the day’s events were the comments delivered by Chas Moore, founder of Austin Justice Coalition, at Huston-Tillotson University before the march officially began. He spoke directly to Black people, affirming their value and reminding them that they are not the problem. But he also spoke directly to white people such as myself, challenging us to look deep within our hearts and ask: What are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve racial justice in America? Are we willing to be honest with ourselves and recognize that we are the ones who have built and maintained a system of white supremacy that benefits us while causing so much harm to our neighbors? Do we have the courage to fight from within ourselves and our communities to dismantle this system, even if that means relinquishing power? These are challenging questions that penetrate directly to the root of the problem, questions that carry with them the clear moral imperative to act against racial injustice.

Moore is right when he says that marching for racial justice means very little if we are unwilling to first transform ourselves and then fight for practical measures that will lead to true equality. Better than marching is demanding just redistributive measures, even if those measures come at your own expense. Better than chanting slogans is supporting affordable housing, even if doing so depresses your own property value. Better than posting a black square to Instagram is sending your children to public schools, even if you have the means to pay tuition at a fancy private school. And perhaps those of us with PhDs who are struggling with the current academic job market should be getting certified to teach in the public schools rather than looking to private academies as an alternative to colleges and universities. I wish I felt more confident that a majority of white Americans have the courage and love of justice to do these things—and much, much more—but listening to Moore call for such courage was deeply stirring nonetheless.

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