Thursday, June 26, 2014

The American Scholar



A magazine I’ve fallen in love with recently is The American Scholar, currently edited by Robert Wilson.  The title comes from an essay/speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the magazine aspires to the Emersonian ideals of “independent thinking, self-knowledge, and a commitment to the affairs of the world as well as to books, history, and science.”  Published quarterly since 1932, (Summer, 2014 is on newsstands now), The American Scholar is the literary magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

What drew me in was the article in the Spring number written by James McWilliams entitled, “Loving Animals to Death.”  He takes us through the hypocrisies and hysterics in the Food Movement, “a loosely organized but powerful coalition of progressive interests” that aims “to localize, downsize, and decentralize the North American food system in order to usher consumers ‘beyond the barcode’ and into a world of wholesome whole food.”  Specifically, what does “free range,” “organic,” or “humanely killed” mean?  McWilliams writes, “It seems not only reasonable but essential to ask:  How can a movement claim to care so deeply about farm animals that it wants to restructure all of animal agriculture to ensure their happiness but, at the same time, turn those same animals into an $11 appetizer plate of fried pig head?  What moral principle could possible accommodate such a whiplash-inducing shift in practice?”  The bottom line:  is there any humane way to kill and eat animals?  McWilliams would say no, and those who argue otherwise are guilty of hypocrisy.  The entire issue is fraught with complications, and McWilliams argues that “what the Food Movement should envision—is a radical shift in agricultural practice initiated by a radical shift in what consumers agree not to eat.  This transition would primarily favor far more diversified systems of production focused on growing plants for people to consume (right now, 75 percent of the world’s calories in food production comes from corn, rice, wheat, and soy, and the bulk of all corn and soy goes to livestock).”

A second article in the same issue, “What Killed My Sister?” by Priscilla Long focuses on the disturbing questions about mental illness in our society, most specifically schizophrenia.  In her search for the reasons for her sister’s death, Long questions the causes of the disease, its treatments, and its growing impact on Americans who live with it, deal with family members who suffer from it, or who encounter people on the street who walk around each day without treatment to ameliorate their symptoms.  It is a fascinating article that explains the nuances of the illness and sheds light on some of the stories we have seen in the news in the last few years, many of them tragic, regarding those who are touched by the disease.  Long’s personal story and the case of her sister Susanne add a poignant and deeply-felt intensity to the need for better understanding and treatment of this horrific disease.  In the end, she offers a ray of hope:  “Recovery from schizophrenia is possible,” she writes.  “Living a meaningful life with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is possible.  This is the message I wish to leave.  I only wish Susanne could have heard it.”

An essay on loneliness by Edward Hoagland, a reflection on old age and dying by Doris Grumbach, and fiction by Jerome Charyn round out the issue.  There are book reviews, poetry, and an end feature called Back Talk which explores word meanings and origins in the form of a contest.  The Spring issue’s focus was on euphemisms.  Readers were asked to suggest some euphemisms for “eating heart-hostile food,” “living with one’s parents after college,” “putting on weight in middle age,” and “gossiping.”

An added bonus with subscription is full access to the magazine’s website.  This includes the archives plus The Daily Scholar and several blogs.  A beautiful piece by Simon Winchester entitled “Keep Wonder Alive” was the highlight of my Thursday morning reading.  In the essay, Winchester cites the best advice he was given about writing from James Morris, writer and adventurer.  Morris tells Winchester “If you ever do become a writer...you will visit many places, encounter many strangers, experience countless things.  Through it all, however, keep true to one single mantra:  never, ever lose your sense of wonder.”  The words came at a time when Winchester was working as a geologist in a “lonely corner of East Africa,” feeling “by no means a success at [his] work, performing tasks quite evidently not [his] calling.”

In the archive I found a series of essays posted by my favorite literary essayist, Michael Dirda, entitled The Complete Browsings.  Although Dirda no longer writes the column, his work here is timeless, fun and insightful.  Dirda, of course, wrote and edited The Washington Post book coverage for many years.

What I like about the magazine is that the writers and editors inspire thinking and conversation among readers.  Questions don’t necessarily have clear answers, but the act of asking on the part of the writer makes the reader rethink his or her beliefs, such as in the piece about food.  I will use the articles about the food issues and schizophrenia in my writing in the sciences course in a few weeks, mainly because readers are not only informed about an issue, but are left to apply what they have learned to their lives.  At the end of the day, I want my students to embrace those Emersonian ideals.  Emerson was a man who demanded much of his readers, a collaboration even between writer and reader that would lead to epiphanies and with greater thought, to resolutions of timeless conflicts, internal and external.  The American Scholar continues the tradition, and for that reason, I highly recommend subscribing.

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