Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Why I keep teaching 9/11 literature

This morning I wondered as I walked to my office why the flag outside was half-staff, and it took a while before it hit me: Sept. 11. Of course. A day to remember.

Even my senior students are unlikely to have formed clear memories of that day, which explains the response I received when I told some English majors that I'm thinking about focusing next year's capstone class on 9/11 literature. "That would be great," she said, "because I really don't know a whole lot about it."

I remember walking into the department office and hearing the secretary say, "We're under attack!" Her husband had called to tell her about the planes hitting the towers, but I'd been teaching a class in total ignorance of the events. Soon you could see clusters of people gathering around every screen on campus, watching in grim silence as the towers fell. 

I don't remember much about the next day or the next or how we got through the week and the rest of the semester, but somehow we did because that's what we do. It would have been difficult to imagine at the time that the attacks would, in a few short years, inspire enough literature to fill a syllabus, from The Submission to Falling Man to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and even, yes, Amiri Baraka's incendiary poem "Somebody Blew Up America." And, later, "The Beard" by Amit Majmudar. And Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers. And, more subtly, Ian McEwen's novel Saturday, where the attacks fall into the deep background to spawn a web of fear. 

And now the attacks themselves have fallen into the deep background, predating my first-year students' earliest memories. I'm happy for them, in a way: they don't have to carry the pain of that horrible day throughout their lives. I envy their ability to look at the flag at half-staff and feel not a twinge of pain. Which is why, I think, it's time to teach a class that focuses entirely on literature responding to that horrific event: they need to know what forces helped form the world we see today and to feel its impact on the imaginative lives of writers.

Someday I'll be like Walt Whitman in "The Wound Dresser," an old poet responding to young people's demands for stories of war and glory, a poet who pours out painful memories "While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on, / So soon what is over is forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand." Resisting the urge to pretty up war and transform its horrors into abstract concepts, Whitman rips off the bandage and shows readers head wounds and amputations, rotting limbs and men too far gone to cry out in pain:
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
For Whitman, the wound still bleeds and cries out to be shared with those who never felt that pain, but it also sparks the flame of creativity, suggesting that poetry plays a role in both opening wounds and healing them. A poet can beat the drum that calls for war, but Whitman found a different role: "To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead." This, too, is what 9/11 literature can do: to witness, to watch, and somehow to soothe.


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