The saintly and sainted Cesar Chavez was no saint. That’s the obvious conclusion of a new biography and a review-essay in the New Yorker, which reach the same point in different ways.
The magazine showed up in the mailbox the same day the book showed up on the recent acquisitions shelf at Lauinger Library, which meant I could go through them together – and could reach my own provisional conclusion, which is this. Saint or no saint, Chavez was above all a poverello, or poor man in the Catholic manner: that is, he considered poverty at once a virtue to be sought after and a social condition to be eased or done away with – a state of being to be met with love and justice alike.
The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is vivid, artfully proportioned, and full of surprises for the reader (I am one) who knows Chavez’s story mainly in outline and as iconography. Chavez did important work in Coachella, known then as the southernmost growing part of California. He was scheduled to stand behind Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, but he never reached the stage. He didn’t come out against the Vietnam War until the fall of 1968. He relied on Roger Mahony (now emeritus archbishop of Los Angeles) as a liaison with the Catholic hierarchy in California. He was profiled in the New Yorker by Peter Matthiessen (a two-parter called “Organizer”).
Most surprising is the main point of the book’s thickly detailed middle: that more than anything else, Chavez – poor man, Catholic, Hispanic, Californian, radical – was one more countercultural figure of the sixties, who at once defined the decade and was defined by it:
Berkeley radicals, Protestant ministers, college dropouts, earnest do-gooders, and monolingual farmworkers began to coalesce into the quasi-union, quasi-movement Chavez envisioned. By the time the harvest season wound down in late fall, a community had formed in Delano. Irate farmworkers’ wives blamed coeds for corrupting their husbands. Disheveled hippies played into the stereotype that growers used to stir up antiunion feeling. Illegal drugs, officially banned in the union, were readily available.
But for the most part, the melding of cultures and values in the tiny farming town was a heady mixed that raised spirits and propelled la causa forward.
In the New Yorker, staff writer Nathan Heller takes the imminent release of a new movie about Chavez to conclude that the organizer was an American hero, as prone to abuse as the tag may be. He does so by setting Chavez’s early heroism against his later suspiciousness, even paranoia – and by leaving Chavez’s foundational Catholicism out of the argument till the end.
This act of omission made me suspicious: Chavez without Catholicism? But with it the New Yorker (this is what the magazine does best) gets the sense of Chavez in the present more or less right. Twenty years after his death in 1993, Chavez is recognized more as a great Californian and an Hispanic-Latino-Mexican American than as anything else. His exploits are little known to the Catholics of the East. Progressive people today are more focused on how food is processed and prepared than on how it is harvested; chickens are shown greater solicitude than chicken-house workers. And Chavez’s mystical attention to poverty (through fasts, the shunning of wealth and possessions, etc.) is strange enough even among Catholics that Pope Francis can be countercultural just by calling the poor blessed.
Richard Rodriguez – who praised the new biography in a blurb on the back of the jacket – understands Chavez, and Chavez’s paradoxes, better than anybody else. His remarkable essay “Saint Cesar of Delano” (in Darling) concludes with his sharp, prismatic piece of commentary:
In 1997 American painter Robert Lentz, a Franciscan brother, painted an icon, Cesar Chavez de California. Chavez is depicted with a golden halo. He holds in his hand a scrolled broadsheet of the U.S. Constitution. He wears a pink sweatshirt bearing the U.F.W. insignia.
That same year executives at the advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day came up with a campaign for Apple computers that featured images of some famous dead – John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Frank Sinatra – alongside a grammar-crunching motto: Think different.
I remember sitting in bad traffic on the San Diego freeway one day and looking up to see a photograph of Cesar Chavez on a billboard. His eyes were downcast. He balanced a rake and a shovel on his right shoulder. In the upper-left-hand corner of the billboard was the corporate logo of a bitten apple.
I was reading the newspaper in the back of the taxi when the driver pointed out the cherry blossoms. “There they are, professor – take a look! That is what the tourists are here for!” And there they were – cherry trees blossoming along the Potomac, outside the Jefferson Memorial, outside the buildings of the Smithsonian on the Mall.
It was fitting that I should see them en route to the final events of Faith, Culture, and the Common Good, the event convened by Georgetown with the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Archdiocese of Washington. Fitting because the cherry trees in the capital are what can he called “common goods” or the “commons” – goods, belonging to no one, pleasing to all, that are there for us to enjoy in the capital. And fitting because the cherry trees, while nature in the literal sense, suggest the status of culture in a society such as ours – an idea that blossomed in mind as the day went on.
The events were two conversations at the Library of Congress, moderated by E.J. Dionne. By the time I reached the Library’s Jefferson Building, Reps. Wolf and Moran, both of Virginia, were well into a discussion of the erosion of the idea of public service in Washington and the powerful affirmation of service heard lately from Pope Francis. Then, in a conversation about religion in the media, Krista Tippett made one incisive point after another, showing why she is so cherished a conversationalist: smart, tough, open-minded, and frankly optimistic. Just as there has never been a program quite like On Being, there has never been a set of circumstances quite like ours – so there is no point pining for past times.
I especially liked Krista’s distinction between common good and common ground, which goes something like this. In religious matters, our society is now so diverse that it isn’t sensible to strive for common ground or to expect it as a starting point. Rather we should strive for the common good from our distinctly different points of departure, relishing our differences. Hearing this, I thought: this is what the United States has to bring to the “courtyard,” such as it is. Our long religious diversity, and our long sense of the common good, can be a model for nations only now seeing religious diversity emerge.
Outside, there were the cherry blossoms. I think they are such an attraction in Washington because they are so striking a contrast to the edifices and monuments. The old buildings of official Washington are vast, stone, classical, permanent, frank embodiments of certain Greco-Roman ideas about civilization. The cherry trees are small, light, suggestive of Asia, vulnerable, impermanent, blossoming for a couple of weeks and then subsiding for another year.
Culture is like that: large edifices and institutions doing their thing year-round, year in and year out, so that some beautiful flowers may bloom.
The common good: the expression must have been uttered threescore and ten times in the sessions of the Courtyard of the Gentiles event at Georgetown yesterday: a panel discussion about the common good and politics and one about the common good and the arts, each followed by a pair of informal sessions in tents outside Healy Hall under the clear blue sky. But the effect was the opposite of repetitive; it led us to think – led me to think, at any rate – of the hidden dimensions of this term that is itself common.
The thrust of the politics session was that the sense of the common good is imperiled in Washington, a state of things that makes it all the more vital for non-state actors to affirm the existence of the common good and to urge, inspire, and organize people to strive for it together.
That’s obvious (or should be obvious). But what came clear to me for the first time – especially through the remarks of of the Cal-Berkeley sociocultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood – is the relationship between our idea of the common good and the state of the common goods in our society: schools, infrastructure, parks and public spaces, and other goods called “the commons” (nature, air and water, and so on). The relationship cuts two ways: as our sense of the common good diminishes, our common goods are privatized or allowed to atrophy; and as our involvement with those common goods diminishes in consequence, our sense of the common good is weakened further – because it is through shared experiences in schools, parks, public spaces and the like that the idea of the common good is cultivated.
The arts session was more confident about the common good, I am happy to say. Robert Pinsky gave a robust account of poetry as a common good still cherished in our society, claims about the end of literacy to the contrary. Alice McDermott explained that the distinct but uncluttered Catholic language of her work is the way her characters express their sense of the common good – an approach that finds a parallel in the work of Ayana Mathis, whose dozen protagonists in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie are bound together by family ties and common experience in the Pentecostal church. And Alan Lightman, schooled in hardheaded scientific justification, gave an account of the truths of art as truths that we recognize individually and personally – with the implication that what we call classics are works whose truths register not just individually and personally but in communities or across a society.
The effect of the day was to suggest that open discussion of ideas in forums such as the Courtyard event – which was free and open to the public and was attended by several hundred people – is itself a common good to be cherished rather than taken for granted.
The United States today is a segregated place – segregated by class – and is at risk of becoming a caste society where the most important factor for young people is the social standing of their parents.
That’s the grim conclusion with which Robert Putnam opened the Courtyard of the Gentiles event at the Kennedy Center. Putnam, known for Bowling Alone (about the thinning of American social life) and American Grace (about the perdurance of religious belief in America) is at work on a book – part social science and part documentary storytelling – about young people in America, who can be broken down into “haves” and “have-nots” based on class more than at any time in our history.
This spoke pointedly to the theme of the event – Faith, Culture, and the Common Good – for as Pope Francis has stressed to great effect, it is the daily work of people of religious belief to affirm that a common good still exists: that we are members of one another, who are called to care for others, even and especially those usually typed strangers, and to see all of us as bound together in a common human family.
With the Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, a native of Milan, in the front row, Putnam made some light remarks in Italian before beginning his hourlong talk, which blended data with vivid recollections of his boyhood in Port Clinton, Ohio, on Lake Erie – a town not unlike the Shillington, Pennsylvania, of John Updike’s boyhood. Then, Port Clinton was a town without an obvious sense of class; now, it is a town strictly divided between the wealthy people who live on the lake and the poor people who live inland.
What divided Port Clinton – and America as a whole? As Putnam set it out, class in America is now defined especially by education, with people with college degrees living one kind of life and those without living another. Segregated into two groups residentially, in the workplace, in marriage and social life, we have a “shriveled sense of `we’” that is then the root cause of a broad swath of social problems: unemployment, crime, shattered families, and the like.
What should be done about it? That’s a question for the coming days – but the answer must begin with the communal recognition that “their kids are our kids,” which Putnam delivered in front of a slide showing the smiling pope, who might have said the same thing.
In the Catholic milieu, such as it is, it’s not too often you get to do something distinctly new, and as a rule I think most of us are all right with that: we like working variations on themes developed by our great precedessors, pursuing lines of “creative fidelity” and so forth.
But the event taking place at Georgetown and environs the rest of this week is something distinctly new – and that is what makes it exciting.
What it’s called, formally, is the Courtyard of the Gentiles – after a space in Jerusalem, described in the Acts of the Apostles, where open religious discussion took place. What it is, less formally, is a dialogue about religious belief, initiated by Pope Benedict and carried forward by Pope Francis, that includes members of the different faith traditions and also people of no religion at all.
This latter part is what’s new. Since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has had formal dialogue with a whole range of other Christian congregations, with Jews and Judaism, with Islam variously expressed, and so on. But only in the past few years — through Courtyard events in a dozen cities – have people of no formal religious belief been regarded as partners in dialogue.
And just in time – because the dialogue that is playing out in the streets and classrooms and broadcast studios in America is between belief and unbelief, between the notion of religious traditions as rich and sustaining and the notion of religious traditions as stifling and noxious. It’s not dialogue at all.
This week, the Courtyard comes to Washington – organized jointly by Georgetown, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and its dynamic president, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. The event carries the (very American) title “Faith, Culture, and the Common Good.” Robert Putnam of Harvard – author of Bowling Alone and American Grace – will give the keynote address. Taleb Kweli of Brooklyn will headline an event organized around “Hip-Hop and the Spirit” at the Kennedy Center. Cokie Roberts will lead a discussion about politics, E.J. Dionne an exchange among members of Congress and a discussion of religion and the media. I’ll moderate a discussion on religious questions with literary writers: the poet Robert Pinsky, the novelists Alice McDermott and Ayana Mathis, and MIT’s Alan Lightman, who is expert in physics and literature alike.
Flannery O’Connor’s voice will be heard, too – through a standout dramatic presentation of her great story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” given by Karin Coonrod’s acclaimed troupe La Compagnia de’Colombari.
Dialogue is the official word for what this conference is about. But I am betting that what we hear is more like a conversation with many voices.
A few months ago I characterized Pope Francis as essentially a conversationalist: engaged one-to-one with his conversation partner, eager to listen, willing to follow a line of thought where it goes, open to making it up fresh each time rather than sticking to prepared remarks.
So in our conversations the “Francis Factor” will be in the house, too.
I’ll post pieces about the event here through to the weekend.
Robert Giroux — renowned editor with Harcourt Brace and then with Farrar, Straus and Giroux — was born a hundred years ago: April 8, 1914. Giroux edited Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and other books, all of Bernard Malamud’s fiction, much of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s, Walker Percy’s novels subsequent to The Moviegoer, and a long shelf of postwar poetry, including the books of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.
I had the privilege of knowing him, working with him, taking his comments on my first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (in which he played a key role), and speaking at the memorial service held at Columbia University after his death in 2008. Those remarks have not been published digitally, so I am publishing them in full here.
In the photograph, Giroux is at the center, Isaac Singer to the right.
The last time I saw him fully alert and aware, he and I listened to a tape-recording of Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” aloud for a university audience. He sat in an armchair and I got the tape running in the old hi-fi system he had brought from the apartment in Jersey City to the assisted-living place near Asbury Park. “The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida,” O’Connor began, in a thin voice with a thick southern accent. The recording, nearly fifty years old, was not so good. Neither was his hearing. He was ninety-four, after all. I pulled the chipboard speakers off the shelves, set them on the arms of the chair, bracketing him like giant headphones, and we listened to the long-dead author tell the tale of the Grandmother’s encounter with the Misfit at the side of the road. “She sounds so young,” he said, and no wonder. Ten years older than she was, he had outlived her by forty years.
Like many people who worked with him, I called him “Mister Giroux.” To the literary world, he was Robert Giroux, the greatest living editor. in the publishing world, the legend of Robert Giroux was in general circulation. He had been a confidant of T.S. Eliot’s while in his early thirties, stocking the poet’s luggage with books in New York for the sea voyage back to England. He had turned down On the Road because Jack Kerouac – an acquaintance since college - would not slice the scroll into pages. He had been forced to turn down The Catcher in the Rye because the higher-ups in the textbook department thought Holden Caulfield would be bad for business. When he left that company – Harcourt, Brace - an all-star team of authors followed him; and at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (“the house with which I have since been associated,” as he put it) those authors, and some others, formed the canon of postwar literature, and poetry, especially: Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell, Berryman; O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Walker Percy; Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. Without a single, career-defining bestseller, and in uneasy partnership with the publisher Roger Straus, he was the editor who remained an editor, never transcending close attention to authors and texts – apparently never wanting to do so.
By the time I met him, he was mostly retired. He would come into the old office on Union Square once a week or so – pallid, balding, hunched over a cane, boxy in a jacket and slacks that had probably fit him awkwardly always, but wholly alive in his eyes, which roved and darted behind the big square glasses he wore. We would have lunch together, and he would tell those stories – and some others. There was the one about the day he and Robert Fitzgerald, the poet and translator then living in Italy, went to the very last session of the Second Vatican Council at St. Peter’s Basilica (fighting some nuns for space) and went the same evening to hear Maria Callas sing in the Rome Opera, where they sat behind an Italian family who cried at the action, father, mother, children, bambino, all, as if it was television. There was the one about the day he went to see Robert Lowell at Harvard, climbing the stairs to an aerie from which emerged Lowell in a cloud of cigarette smoke – trailed by his friend Frank Bidart, who had sat stoically in the smoke-filled room for ours out of devotion to the great poet. The stories came forth, perfectly shaped and then stored in the editor’s mind, a living argument for editing as an act of cultural memory – a way to stay sharp as you get old.
He was so effortlessly entertaining that it was easy to forget he was not retired, he was still working: he didn’t retire any more than he stopped reading – reading with pleasure, but critically, with great expectations and a keen sense of who the writer was and what he or she was trying to do.
He seemed to read every biography of Thomas Merton or Flannery O’Connor inflicted on him. He reread Shakespeare, keeping up with the scholarship too – and once, at the age of ninety-two, tapping out a letter to the Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and faxing it to London to dispute a point made in a review essay about Shakespeare.
He put together One Art – eight hundred of Bishop’s letters, chosen from nearly four thousand – and then helped Lloyd Schwartz with the Library of America edition of Bishop’s complete works. And had a hand in the posthumous Bishop book Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-box, too. One day I was with him in New Jersey. He was clearly glad to have a visitor. Then the mail came. A manila envelope: the long-awaited typescript of Bishop’s uncollected poems. He tore the envelope open, examined its contents, and then practically showed me the door, such was his eagerness to edit the work of that especially cherished writer.
At a service twenty years ago he remembered Walker Percy as “a great American.” I think of Robert Giroux that way, as a great American.
He was great in his achievements and in his sense of the work to which the writer should aspire. I never heard him justify lesser work or speak of writers or editors matter-of-factly as people doing their jobs. Literature was a calling and nothing but great work was any good at all.
He was American in his contempt for phonies – a running theme in our lunches. I would mention a writer he would have known. “Oh, what a phony,” Giroux would say, as if there were nothing more to say on the matter. I once asked him why his generation seemed so preoccupied by authenticity and phoniness. I was thinking of Salinger, and also Kerouac, whose first novel he published, and Salinger, whose first novel, The Town and the City, he had published before standing aside from On the Road. He had no real reply. But I recently heard a story he told about his father, a silk merchant who left the business when the introduction of acrylics meant there was no longer any art involved in distinguishing the real thing from the phony.
He was American in his simple confidence that the work itself, gently aided by the publisher, would make its way in the world. Merton characterized him as “surprisingly placid” among the overwound students on the Columbia literary magazines, and so it was among the poets and other strange creatures of postwar literature in this country – and so it was among publishers, some anxious, others flamboyant. For his memorial service, we searched for pictures of him and could hardly find any, such was his ability to put his smarts and calm in the service of others.
About his work in Shakespeare, he wrote: “I am happy with my status as an amateur, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as `a lover’ who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who cultivates it professionally.”
A good editor is hard to find, and it is tempting to see a parallel between his death, three years ago, and the death of a certain kind of publishing – that of lovers happy with their amateur status. But in truth, his kind of publishing was rare in his own age, and so was he.
“A single gunman walked into the monastery, entered the garden and shot him in the head.”
Word went out in Syria, and, before long, in Rome, where it reached the Jesuit priest who is a spokesman for Pope Francis, who is himself a Jesuit:
So ended the life of Frans – Francis – van der Lugt, SJ, a Dutch Jesuit who had lived in Syria since the mid-1960s, and who stayed there in the Old City of the rebel-held town of Homs as it was besieged by forces in support of the ruling strongman, Bashar al-Assad,
What did it mean for him to stay put? It meant that he kept on living, and partly living, in the expression from Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
Members of the press don’t know who shot him. Maybe the murderer is a supporter of Assad. Maybe the murderer is a rebel vexed by the Jesuit’s view that the rebels should lay down their arms.
Frans van der Lugt is a martyr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, SJ, went missing last July after going to meet Islamic militants in Raqqa – and he is still missing.
When I was a student at a Jesuit university (Fordham, circa 1985) students, lay professors, and Jesuits rose up as one in lamentation for the Jesuit martyrs in Central America. May the death of Father Frans prompt us to rise up once more — and recognize martyrdom as martyrdom.
This Thursday the Community of Sant’Egidio, in an annual service, will seek the intercession of the martyrs.
Father Frans van der Lugt, pray for us.
Most novelists pray (so to speak) for a review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review – pray for a comprehending, wise, praise-stuffed review like the one Akhil Sharma’s new novel, Family Life, got over the weekend. But it turns out that Sharma, struggling to finish the novel – a novel with prayer at its center – prayed it over the finish line.
Not by praying for the novel, though. Seven years in, with no end in sight, Sharma found that a long drive with a friend left him soothed: “My friend’s kindness kept drawing my attention, the way a piece of glass at the bottom of a stream can keep you blinking in sunlight and pull your eye.”
Sharma faced that soothing kindness outward:
A day or two after his visit, I got up from the sofa and walked down to the Hudson River, which I live not far from. I sat on a bench by the river and rested. I stared across it to the tall apartment buildings in New Jersey. Thinking of how people were living out their lives in those buildings comforted me somehow. I looked at the gray rushing water and its movement, the fact that it was coming from someplace and going someplace else also consoled me. It was then that I realized that I needed somehow to always be outside myself. My mind had become uninhabitable.
So what did he do?
I began to pray for the people who were passing by. I prayed for the nanny pushing a stroller. I prayed for the young woman jogging by in spandex. I prayed for the little boy pedaling his bicycle. I prayed that each of them got the same things that I wanted for myself: that they have good health, peace of mind, financial security. By focusing on others and their needs, my own problems seemed less unique and, somehow, less pressing.
After this, when I would sit at my desk, trying to write, and despair welled up, I knew what to do. I prayed. Not for myself, or for the ability to write, but for others, whether dead or alive, known to me or not: William Faulkner as much as the crazy old lady in the grocery store.
At the heart of the novel is a tragic accident akin to one that struck Sharma’s own family. It is terrible to ponder, much less to try to summarize. So I’m not going to try. The entire piece is essential, as a pendant to the rave review – a reminder of how much suffering runs beneath the lives of the people we know, or think we know.