Tuesday, December 1, 2015

BAE 1996: Tests of Time by Eric LeMay

I am in the Reading Room of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, with its dark vaulted ceiling, elegantly carved buttresses, huge faux-candle chandeliers, faded tapestries, pictorial stained glass, and old portraits of shadowy figures gazing vacantly on the long wooden table where I sit. The dim glow from one of those small lamps spills a solitary pool of light in front of me. The room has the same romantic design that created the dinning hall at Hogwarts. It's no room in which to write like Shakespeare, but you could certainly compile your two-volume study on Shakespeare’s Anglo-Franco lexicographic variations in this fancy leather chair. I shouldn’t have worn sneakers.

Despite my distinctly non-scholastic clothes, the librarian has handed over a rare book from the vault: Essays written by Sir William Cornwallis the younger, Knight. Cornwallis was the first self-professed follower of Montaigne in England and, in many ways, he marks the start of the English essay. (Francis Bacon, to be sure, published the first book of Essayes in 1597, but his are decidedly impersonal essays, written against Montaigne's precedent. Cornwallis, in contrast, wants very much to sound like Montaigne, which is to say like himself.) Cornwallis's book was printed in London, "at the signe of the Hand and Plowgh in Fleet-street." The first part came out in 1600, the second in 1601. I'm reading "Of Essayes, & Bookes." I've read it a few times and think of it often. Its opening always trips me up:

I Holde neither Plutarches nor none of the auncient short manner of writings nor Montaigne’s nor such of this latter time to be rightly termed Essayes; for though they be short, yet they are strong and able to endure the sharpest tryall.   

A true essay, for Cornwallis, isn't strong. It isn't able to endure the trials that a reader might inflict on it, the questions a reader might ask of it. How should I live? What should I do? In Plutarch's and Montaigne's work, you'll find insight, moral instruction, even wisdom, but these are the very qualities that, according to Cornwallis, make their work something other than essays. Cornwallis sees the essay as something more like a moral process. Through writing and reading them, you can become better, but this is an undertaking that doesn't end on the page or in your life. It's a constant striving, an essaying.

I don't much agree with Cornwallis about what an essay is—I find essays that want to make me better tough to read—but I love his assertion about what an essay isn't. It isn't meant to last. It doesn't need to meet the expectations that, say, a poem faces, with its leap toward immortality, its demand to endure the test of time. An essay can be all right for right now. Good enough to pass the time, but time will, as time does, move on. To put it another way, imagine if you said to a poet, "Your sonnet is good enough for the moment." You wouldn't have a happy poet. As an essayist, however, I'm fine with inconsequence. "Hey,” says my friend Ghosh, “I read your essay." That, to me, is high praise. Out of all the things you could be reading, my essay held your attention for the time it took you to read it. Occasionally, when I'm feeling cheeky, I'll ask, "Did you finish it?" It's surprising how many people don't finish (my) essays. "I'm about halfway," says Ghosh. And weeks later: "Still about halfway."

These are some of the thoughts I bring to the Best American Essay series each year when it comes out. Is it a boon for an essayist to be included among the "best" of 1987 or 1996 or 2013? Or is that basically putting an expiration date on your essay? When I miss reading the collection for a given year, which I usually discover because the next year's collection comes out, I find myself feeling resentful about the previous year: I don't want to go back and read the old ones. I might as well read tweets from 2009 or eat a rotten peach. What's the point, for example, of reading the best essays from 1996 unless I have to write about them, scholarly-like, as being somehow indicative of 1996. You know, ponder the zeitgeist.

Here's one reason: in the Best American Essays of 1996, the very first essay that I ever published was included among the "Notable Essays of 1995, Selected by Robert Atwan." Oh, yes, twenty years ago I was notable, and it's hard to convey the thrill my younger self felt when I was included in a long list at the back of a book that I probably never read, so smitten was I with my own name: "Eric Charles LeMay 'A Biography of the Nameless: Jane and John Doe.' The Georgia Review, Fall." I do remember that I made my parents go and buy a copy, so they too could bask in my name. I didn’t feel the need to send them a copy of the essay itself. That seemed inconsequential in light of being noticed, notable, of note. Robert Atwan, I thought this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Of course, I was in my mid-twenties, an age when hope still seems possible. I was living just outside DC, in the largest apartment complex on the East Coast. This monstrosity of civic planning was made up of two- and three-story buildings clustered around a series of children’s playgrounds and parking lots. The Springhill Lake Apartments had its own post office, its own grocery store and recreation center, its own elementary school. It also had a small, brackish, manmade lake. (Hence the name.) To walk in any direction from Springhill Lake was to meet an impasse. To the north, Interstate 95, a carbon-churning artery into Washington DC. To the east, six overcrowded lanes of Route 201. To the south, the backside of Beltway Plaza, an ancient dying mall. And to the west, a scraggly thicket of trees abutting a dirty creek abutting the Greenbelt Metro line. It was a place that led to nowhere, and I lived there, in one of the 3,000 apartments that housed the Springhill Lake’s residents.

Like them, I occasionally got lost. I would come back at night, my headlights catching fragments of the same beige building, reproduced endlessly. Was this my parking lot? My place? Where’s that dead tree? And like them, I felt no sense of ownership or obligation toward my apartment. A light fixture would break or a small-caliber bullet would nick the patio door, and I wouldn’t see any reason to alert maintenance. What was the point? It was disposable architecture, for disposable people, like me. Today, two decades later, when I drive down the highway, past any of those apartments that builders stack behind exit ramps and wedge next to the Park-and-Rides, I still can’t shake the thought: I’d lived here, I’d been home by now.

Living in such a shit hole, it's not hard to see retrospectively why I'd feel so dazzled to catch Robert Atwan's gaze and show up, however nominally, in a book that appeared in a bookstore. (In 1996, there were bookstores.) Nor is it any surprise that a young, would-be writer would find "the Nameless" a beguiling subject. I, too, was nameless, but hoping to make my name. My essay, which is a cultural and personal history of Jane and John Doe, explores the significance we attach to names, a significance which becomes all the more apparent when we suddenly become anonymous. We are all, potentially, a Jane or John Doe. Just go out for a jog without your wallet and smartphone and get hit by a car.

The essay is pretty good. I say that with the critical distance that twenty years brings. Its quality belongs, mostly, to the editorial intervention of Stanley W. Lindberg, who mailed back my submission to The Georgia Review (there was also mail) slathered in red ink. His note said something like "It's a great idea, but…" I remember being taken aback at first, then taking every suggestion he made, which made the essay. It was good. It was notable. But would it stand the test of time? Was it strong and would it endure the sharpest trial?

Even before I knew I’d be writing this piece, I had the chance to ask myself those questions because I revised the essay for a new collection that came out in 2014, roughly twenty years after I first wrote it. Updating it was fairly easy. Some of the anecdotes were dated, but they still had the staying power that narrative creates. Fact dates, story survives. I decided that one way to show the essay’s continuing relevance was to replace the section breaks, once marked by asterisks, with newspaper headlines that blazoned the significance of Jane and John Done. Between sections about the history of these two figures , I inserted headlines, some of which were published well after 1995:

- Toronto Star, September 19, 1997

- San Francisco Chronicle, August 18, 2005

- New York Times, September 14, 2007

- Fox News, October 29, 2009

- Chicago Tribune, January 8, 2009

Only now, marshaling these examples, do I see that most of these headlines have to do with violence against unidentified women. When I was collecting them, I was intent on showing the continuing, post-1995 relevancy of the Does. (The oldest headline in the essay also features Jane Doe: "PUGILISTIC "JANE DOE"[:] SHE "KNOCKS OUT" A FEMALE LAWYER AND IS ARRESTED - Morning Oregonian, July 30, 1893.") I wanted to see if my essay could endure beyond its moment. Would I be able to revise it so that readers born after 1995 found it relevant? I managed it, I think, but only because much of the original material—the historical research, for example, and the legal precedents in which the Does figured—was dated even then. There was little in the essay that marked it as being particularly characteristic of 1995.

This sense of timeliness and timelessness became a touchstone as I reread the Best American Essays 1996. I found that the essays in the collection which focused on the events of that moment, though finely, even brilliantly written, felt dated. Why read Darryl Pinckney's account of the Million Man March in Washington on October 16, 1995, except as an historical document? I’m not arguing that we live in anything like a "post-racial America." I’m stressing that time moves on. Certainly Pinckney, were he to write an essay today about that now-historical march, would frame it in light of the last twenty years of America's continuing racial—and racist—history.

Compare that event to Jane Brox’s essay on "Influenza 1918" or Gordon Grice's essay on the black widow spider. Brox reckons with the distant past and Grice with a creature whose behaviors predate the historical record. These essays could show up in the Best American Essays 2016, and no reader would know they're twenty years old.

The most substantial change I confronted in updating my essay had to do with the technology of DNA identification. When I was writing in 1995, DNA was a relatively unknown means of identifying individuals. I had to explain it, along with the protocols that the US government was planning to undertake in using it to identify soldiers who were killed in action. In the two decades that followed, CSI and other crime dramas, as well as the nightly news, would make the information about DNA identification familiar to every American. As a result, I merely had to explain the way in which the US military service is currently using the technology. I cut 352 words to 158, emphasizing that "that no member of the armed forces will ever again have to be classified as a John or Jane Doe again."
This information is crucial to my essay, not only because it's fascinating in its own right—we are now at a point in human history in which we will always be able to tell who we are, so long as we've archived our DNA—but also because it sets up my essay's big finish, once again in Washington, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here it is. The savvy reader will catch the signs of my updating it:

From the marble steps rising above the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you can see the Pentagon, stark and imposing, the scars of 9/11 no longer visible. Beyond it, the Potomac and, off in the distance, the Jefferson Memorial blend into the urban landscape of downtown Washington. Low-flying planes often pass, descending toward the nearby international airport. In late autumn only the call of a few lingering crows can be heard behind the whispers of the tourists and the clicking of the guard’s heels.

Twenty-four hours each day, 365 days each year, a single soldier in full-dress uniform marches before the tomb. Twenty-one steps across the front of the monument before turning, clicking his heels twice, placing his bayoneted rifle on his opposite shoulder, then twenty-one steps back. A changing of the guard takes place every hour, the present guard standing eye-to-eye with his replacement and saying, “Orders: remain as directed.” The replacement responds in an equally stentorian voice: “Order acknowledged.” The guards wear no insignia of ranks, so as not to outrank an unknown soldier. Tourists may watch this ceremony during all hours that Arlington National Cemetery is open to the public.

At night, two giant floodlights shine down on the guard at his post. His view must change then, becoming one of the illuminated city reflected on the river water, a continuous spread of lights stretching up to the darkness of the graveyards. On the white surface of the tomb, the reflection of the floodlights must obscure the tomb’s inscription, making the monument as unidentifiable as the soldiers it represents. What, I wonder, does a guard think while marching his twenty-one steps in the middle of that darkness surrounded by so many lights? And what, if anything, is he protecting in the anonymity of those predawn hours?

Not bad, right? And you haven't had the experience of all the intertwining facts, episodes, and meditations leading up to the this moment of closure, where, classically, the essay opens up, asking questions that become all the more resonant for having delved so deeply into the unnamed, the anonymous, Jane and John Doe, everyone and no one.

I came back to Washington not only to read Cornwallis essay in its first printing, to re-experience an essay that, somehow, has survived for over 400 years, but also because I wanted to return to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I'd pictured that moment countless times in the last twenty years. I can remember the guards, the view, the dingy light of late November. So I did. Earlier today, I walked down the mall, past the Washington Memorial, past the Lincoln Memorial, across the Arlington Memorial Bridge and over the Potomac River, its gray water furling and unfurling in the autumn wind, until I reached the Tomb, right as the clock struck the hour and the guards changed places.

Big mistake. The ceremony I'd seen so many years ago, one that, through the logic of association, I'd linked to my sense of self as a writer, had become a tourist destination. No, that's not quite right. I would have been fine if all of those tourists who'd shown up, me included, had come to witness the ceremonial changing of the guard that I'd seen. That would have seemed right and fitting. What I saw instead was that the ceremony itself had been changed to accommodate tourists. I'm not going to go into it, because it involves marching-band members and middle schoolers and a lot of pageantry, but the upshot is that a military ceremony had become a military show, one that invited kids to participate in pretend solemnity. I didn't like it.

And then, later that day, I was in the Folger Shakespeare Library, reading Cornwallis. And I realized that my experience today at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was simply another essay that need to be written, not for the ages, but for this time, our time. Here, as our history unfolds, is what we Americans make of our nameless dead. We brutalizes our Jane Does, protecting only their names from the violence we inflict upon them, while at the same time we Disneyfy those service men and women "known," as the inscription of the Tomb says, "but to God." It's an essay that's ready to be written. I'm just not the one to write it.


Eric LeMay's latest collection is In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Experiments.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this. And as for, "It's an essay that's ready to be written. I'm just not the one to write it.", I'm not so sure...I'd say, why not try?