Tag Archive: Scott Stern

  1. An “Onion” That Brings Tears of Laughter

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    Few historical figures are as sexy to modern academics as the legendary abolitionist John Brown. Brown, who looked and talked like a biblical prophet, who claimed to commune with God and who brutally murdered many, who attempted to foment a slave uprising in Virginia and ended up swinging from a hangman’s noose, who did more than almost any other person to spark the Civil War, was a complex and heroic and tragic and endlessly fascinating figure. Some historians consider him a shining beacon of compassion, others a monomaniacal lunatic.

    Nor is Brown new to American fiction. Authors ranging from Herman Melville to Marilynne Robinson have taken a crack at Brown. But few have done so with the humor or the perceptiveness of James McBride in his latest novel, “The Good Lord Bird.”

    McBride, a journalist and acclaimed jazz saxophonist, is best known for his 1995 memoir, “The Color of Water,” which describes the relationship between himself, the other members of his poor, black and biracial family, and his white, Jewish mother. “The Good Lord Bird” is likewise informed by knowledge of racial passing, interracial social dynamics and a deep understanding of the past. It is obviously inspired by Southern classics, such as “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Yet it also has an awareness of history that is all its own.

    “The Good Lord Bird” tells the story of Henry Shackleford — a funny, lazy, 10-year-old slave when the book begins. Henry’s father is giving haircuts in a hole-in-the-wall saloon in frontier Kansas, when a talkative Irish stranger gets a little too fanatical with his evangelism. The Shacklefords’ owner bursts in, the Irish stranger drops his accent and he reveals himself to be the notorious outlaw John Brown. A gunfight breaks out. Henry’s father is killed, and Brown whisks Henry out of the saloon and off to freedom.

    Because of Henry’s curly hair and delicate features, Brown mistakes him for a girl — Henrietta. Brown hands the understandably thunderstruck Henry a gnarly, old onion, which Henry quickly devours, hoping to make a good impression. Brown tells young Henrietta that the onion had actually been his good-luck charm — having resided in his pocket for more than a year. Now that it was inside of Henry, he would be Brown’s new good luck charm. Henry, or Henrietta, becomes “Little Onion,” or, more casually, just “Onion.”

    Brown kindly provides Onion with a new dress and bonnet, and Brown’s ragtag army of followers — including several of his 21 children — quickly adopt Onion as a mascot and beloved compatriot. Onion is decidedly less comfortable with Brown’s crew and often considers returning to the familiarity of slavery. Yet “she” remains.

    Onion remains with Brown’s band until the eve of the infamous Pottawatomie Massacre, in which Brown’s men murder five pro-slavers in a single night, resulting in months of retaliatory raids. Onion gets separated from the men and ends up in a Kansas saloon and whorehouse. For two years, Onion just sweeps the floors and gets drunk a lot; the madam starts implying, however, that she — Onion — might soon have to start earning her keep.

    Onion is rescued by one of Brown’s sons and rejoins the “Old Man.” She travels with Brown to Boston and Philadelphia, attending an abolitionist rally where “everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.” Eventually, they rejoin Brown’s band and begin to make their way deep into slave country, toward death and immortality.

    “The Good Lord Bird” is impressively accurate in many ways: the idioms of the characters, the realities of slavery and so many of the small details of Brown’s crusade. Yet McBride is willing to ignore reality for the sake of hilarity. At one point, Onion meets a bumbling and egotistical Frederick Douglass, who tries hard to sleep with her and ends up passing out, drunk. Earlier, confronted by a group of pro-slavery vigilantes, Onion evades capture by crying and saying, “I just don’t know where I belongs, being a tragic mulatto and all.”

    Remarkably, though, so many of the hilarious details are accurate: Brown tries to team up with Harriet Tubman, whom he calls “General Tubman”; Brown often halts his army’s progress to loudly commune with God; Brown’s men eventually hold hostage a pompous nephew of George Washington.

    Reviewer Hector Tobar joined so many of his colleagues when he likened “The Good Lord Bird” to “Huckleberry Finn.” Both novels feature endless humor and wisdom from the mouths of cheeky children. But to Tobar, “The Good Lord Bird” lacks the “humanity” of Huck Finn. I think this is ungenerous. Satire can be more powerful than elegy; fiction can zqbe more informative than hardcore history.

    Little Onion, the cross-dressing, spit-shined narrator, is unafraid to see the evil and pettiness around her — in everyone from slaveholders to slaves themselves. Brown emerges a hero, but no one emerges unflawed. This is not a gilded portrait; it is reality. Irreverence, in the end, is a touching tribute to the icons of the past.

  2. The Short and Powerful Biography of Robert Peace

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    A lot of books declare themselves to be “the [insert adjective] life of [insert name].” “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (which I reviewed a few weeks ago). Now, there is one more: “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” by Jeff Hobbs ’02.

    These titles are simultaneously great and awful. They are so neat, so concise. They enthrall us, suggesting that we will quickly learn the totality of a life. They also imply that the story will touch on death. Yet for these same reasons, such titles are overly simplistic, even reductive. They boil a life down to a bumper sticker. They rob the books’ subjects of their glorious human inconsistencies.

    Such a characterization fits “Robert Peace” very well. It is, in some ways, a profound and meaningful book, an easy read, a memorable story. It is also, in subtler ways, a problematic book. But we’ll get to that later.

    “The Short and Tragic Life” tells the story of Robert DeShaun Peace ’02. Rob, as he was known (he also went by Shawn), was born in Newark to Jackie, a nurse, and Skeet, a hustler and drug-dealer. Jackie is hard working; Skeet is brilliant. Jackie buys her son encyclopedias and takes classes at night so she can send him to private school; Skeet teaches his son to fight and is convicted of a brutal double-murder before Rob turns ten.

    So, the single child of a single mother, Rob grows up in East Orange, a neighborhood near Newark that Hobbs depicts as a crime-riddled, drug-ridden, gang-infested ghetto. As author Anand Girharadas described East Orange in a New York Times book review, “There are places in America where life is so cheap and fate so brutal that, if they belonged to another country, America might bomb that country to ‘liberate’ them.”

    Even coming from such a household in such a community, Rob shone bright. He was at least as brilliant as his father. He thrived in a difficult prep school and scored in the 99th percentile on his SATs, even as he held down a part-time job, became a varsity water polo player, tutored his friends, supported his mother, worked (unsuccessfully) to free his father, and casually dealt drugs. Rob got into Yale and Johns Hopkins, but was set on attending Montclair State University until he obtained the unlikely financial support of a wealthy backer, an alumnus of his prep school. Jackie, overworked as always, missed the deadline to mail Rob’s security deposit for Johns Hopkins by a single day. Reluctantly, then, Rob set his sights on Yale.

    As a Pierson freshman living in L-Dub (“Lanman-Wright Hall,” Hobbs always calls it in the book), Peace met Hobbs, a wealthy white kid from the ’burbs. At this point in the story, Hobbs becomes a character. Because of the author’s firsthand knowledge of Rob’s time at college, the Yale years are the most complete in the book. Rob continues to shine academically, majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, achieving excellent grades, and working in a cancer research lab.

    Yet Rob also realizes that he could make easy money by dealing weed to hapless, wealthy Yalies. Soon, he is bringing pounds of the stuff from Newark to Yale every year. Eventually, he is caught by the Pierson authorities, yet he gets off with a warning. Rob graduates with honors, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money, and with no concrete plan for the future.

    After Yale, Rob fulfills a long-held dream of spending several months in Brazil, walking the beautiful beaches and meeting the beautiful people, practicing his Portuguese far from the streets of East Orange. When he returns, however, Rob remains directionless. An untrustworthy family friend has stolen Rob’s drug money. Rob takes a job teaching science at his old prep school, and every year he talks about applying to do graduate work in biology. Yet Rob returns to drug dealing, as well. He starts carrying a gun, sleeping in his car or in friends’ homes, wearing a Kevlar vest. Eventually he trusts the wrong person. The book’s title implies what happens next, on a cold basement floor one night in 2011.

    Hobbs is a sometimes-gifted writer, telling Rob’s story with verve and a wealth of descriptive detail. His book is a powerful one. For the most part, he describes a community about which he knows nothing with sensitivity and tact. Yet Hobbs also, inevitably, misses a lot. Many readers will notice, for instance, that there are virtually no female characters in this book beyond Rob’s mother and a variety of interchangeable girlfriends and hook-up partners.

    More troublingly, we must remember Hobbs’s self-interest in telling this story. He is, in a sense, capitalizing on his friend’s death. Though Hobbs’s first novel, “The Tourists,” was a bestseller, he reveals in “The Short and Tragic Life” that it did not make him fabulously wealthy, that his second novel failed to find a publisher, that his third novel stalled, and that he was forced to take a job copy-editing self-published books to keep his young family financially afloat. Then “The Short and Tragic Life” shot to the top of the best-seller lists; Hobbs is a star.

    Still, even as these concerns remain relevant, they do not detract from the stark power of “The Short and Tragic Life.” It is a book without an ultimate message of uplift or one of cynicism. It’s actually striking—this could have been a book about race and the Ivy League, or poverty and the Ivy League, or our messed up drug laws, or any number of major issues. But it isn’t. Hobbs wrote a biography of his friend. The simplicity is almost noble. And this means that Rob’s life is compelling enough, in and of itself, to attract the wide audience that this book has garnered.

    In the end, “The Short and Tragic Life” is a solid biography of Robert Peace, a product of and outlier from his community, a gifted, kind-hearted, complicated man who led an extraordinary and all-too ordinary life.

  3. Open Letter to the Opinion “Societies Offend Me”

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    Dear Mr. Scott Stern,

    We haven’t met, you and I, but I think that you and I speak the same language of writing our opinions down for the Yale Daily News. My favorite thing about writing opinions is saying what one thinks, and it seems the same with you. A true part of any morning is to feel the breeze and morning drinks, while I sit and crack open a paper to read about our daily ideas that we share among these very pages! But to whom would these writings be for, if one didn’t speak his mind? Even if that means a disagreement among close friends as us.

    This opinion is why I felt moved to take to the pages once again, to share what I believe to be the important issues. It’s this: You, in a recent one, had one about all the differences of societies — where they come from, where they are, who sits in them and what they did to make you so mad at them. I understand you’re upset. Let’s face facts: It’s hard and challenging for some people of different ideas to cope with things that so many other people cope with at the same time. So, Mr. Scott, let me help you try to understand why one might think a different position of secret societies, because if you keep being so mad about them, you might never get into one!

    Let me disclose a bit myself: I’ve gotten many envelopes on my door from all the societies: Bins, Taps, Caps, Cans, Hat, Tomb, Bazillus, Snakes, Secret One and one or two I can’t even begin to name! Each one had the writing on it, to me, of my name, in the big pens you speak of. I, for one, was glad it had both my names because that means they truly knew it. You should not have thrown yours away, Mr. Scott — you need it!

    I felt so anxious when I looked at the envelopes. Indeed, as you say, they were stuck with a sticky seal. Should I open them? If I did, I would truly know that which was inside them. Would there be words there? If there were, then I would have to read them all to know just what it was that they said. We all know that words can be destroying, humiliating, pretentious and big. Would these words be those?

    I read it, regardless of my cares, and it was just a simple thing: to meet us at a time in a place with a thing. Is that really too much for one to do? Is that really the “dramatic” task you claim it to be? I myself am asked things of this sort all the time in daily life. Everything is at a place! Everything is at times. And often, you bring a thing. You always have to be there at a time, even if it’s just grandma’s birthday, or at a friend’s house. Are you truly saying that to ask us to be there at a minute like any other is a judgment?

    But here, Mr. Scott, is what we disagree about the most. When I give and receive an AutoBio, it will be a moment to enjoy, not to hate like you! I will be there with my closest pals and buddies, the ones who just want to know me for my personality! If it were everyone in the audience, like at Yale as you suggest, then what about he who gets nervous? He who runs and screams away? Or he, even, who pees? Are you forgetting him, Mr. Scott? Isn’t this just the scary thing that you claim to hate?

    You claim that a society might make us into the sort of friends you might not want. But who are you to say what are the sort of friends you want and what you don’t want? In my opinion, each of us could be a friend if we were in a big society together. And isn’t that what society truly is? If I had a friend, he would be in the society with me, not out of it like you who hates them. We and you are all in the Yale world, so big and special. This place, where we got in for a letter too, is already a society filled with all of us. Come on and be in it, the water is great! Even though you are swimming with all of us too, you might not even know it.

  4. Let’s Try Believing in People: Reading Privilege at Yale

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    Look around you at Yale any day of the week. Who do you see? People? Humans? Souls? The oppressive environment of Yale makes our personalities see each other like assignments, pages to be read and talked about in a classroom “seminar” setting. But what does this mean? How can we truly feel this way about peers whom we are supposed to love and touch their souls?

    Yale is a microcosm of the human world of societies. According to the National Studies, some of us can’t even look people in the eyes without seeing them as an objectification. What place is this? What does this say about us as people? We need to work on our skills of really connecting without thinking about social constructs like stereotypes and society. If you really think about your role in the community, you might grow to learn how common values like truth and sharing contribute to a meaningful discourse about campus life — just like when we were children.

    If you think about it, children are the only ones who can really appreciate one-to-one behavior between humans, as one. When a child looks at a book, he can’t read it, but he knows what it means. We as Yale students in the community of Yale really need to remember to know what things mean. We as Yale students, all in all, reach a point in each of our lives where we bear responsibility for ourselves and others in the noble endeavor of our lives. Can we trust ourselves as creators of the new generation of society to pave the way of true knowledge?

    Take the instance of iPhones, for example. When we look at a screen, it automatically means we cannot look at a face. When we read a “text” we automatically cannot “read” our friends. As we have become more and more a society that values material culture and the values that it discharges over a culture that values people and animals as they are and should be, are we not becoming what the famous Hemingway once called the Lost Generation? And after all, are we not just, like Hemingway, animals too?

    What the administration doesn’t understand is that students need room not only to learn and create but also to grow as people and believe. Yale is not a factory; it is a farm. Our professors should be concerned not with molding our plastic minds but nurturing the eggs of our souls. The administration should not be concerned with what method is most “efficient” or “productive” but rather with feeding us the freshest grains and oats.

    Another aspect that plays into the role of campus in society and vice versa is this overwhelming obsession with the culture of the hookup culture on campus. If we cannot make meaningful connections with each other, but like the proverbial preying mantis only eat our mates after making love, so to speak, we will fall into a deep pit of moral decay and failing as a society. Hook-up culture is only beneficial to those for whom hooking up benefits, and the rest of students who may not be comfortable with those social norms are put on the sidelines like the proverbial basketball players.

    This is not to say that we cannot know one another merely by the processes of looking and seeing; but, rather, to delve into one another in a new way that eliminates stereotypes completely. Preconceived notions can only be understood as a reflection of our deep-seated discomfort with hierarchies and the pressures they emit on each of us as Yale students. And that is why no one person can be held accountable for the actions and beliefs of our collective inner demons, but rather all of us, as a society, must take action to counteract the tide of isolation and make everyone feel at home. Think about that Peter Salovey!

    So the next time you’re walking on Cross Campus, or sitting in your class in a “seminar,” look around you. The world might be more complex than you ever give it credit for. All these people are more than interesting books; if you only took the time to read them, they might be interesting people. Maybe the really important reading isn’t on the syllabus at all. Maybe, for once, the Yale community can come together to realize that truth is more than just how much you “know,” it’s how much you are.

  5. Holmes' Great Dissent

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    Oliver Wendell Holmes is known today for many things: his decades of service on the Supreme Court, his discerning analogies (fire in a crowded theater, anyone?), his magnificent mustache (rivaling that of the almighty Salovey). But his greatest legacy transcends these popular images, found instead in his trailblazing defense of free speech.

    He wasn’t always such a civil libertarian. In fact, for the first 78 years of his remarkable life, Holmes was of a decidedly authoritarian bent. He trusted the government and granted it broad powers in a way that, today, would seem absurd. Could a policeman be fired for merely expressing his political views? Yup. Could the government imprison someone for expressing these political beliefs? Yeah, probably. Was there a right to public expression of controversial opinions, beliefs, or profanity? Nope. Could the government suppress the writings of someone trying to criticize it? Absolutely.

    So what happened? Well, Holmes changed his mind. As law professor Thomas Healy describes in “The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind — and Changed the History of Free Speech in America,” a series of chance meetings and the relentless arguing of his friends convinced Holmes that he had been wrong. So in 1919, in Abrams v. United States, Holmes wrote a dissenting opinion that changed the course of American (and perhaps world) history.

    Before Holmes’s dissent in Abrams, which would soon be adopted by a majority of the Court and become firmly ingrained in the American ethos, the right to free speech was narrow, failing to include the right to dissent that we as Americans pride today. In 1915, Holmes himself wrote a unanimous decision that upheld the conviction of a newspaper owner who wrote in support of nude swimming in areas far from the public view — scandalous stuff.

    Then, in 1918, a young Russian-American anarchist named Jacob Abrams, along with four others, tossed leaflets criticizing America’s involvement in World War I from the roof of a New York office building. Abrams was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 20 years in prison for bringing the government into “contempt, scorn, contumely, and disrepute” and for attempting to hinder the war effort.

    Meanwhile, Holmes was on his way to his New England summer home when he happened upon a young New York judge with the delightful and erudite name of Learned Hand. Hand, nervously, confronted Holmes about the Abrams case (and a few others) and raised the idea that the defendants’ speech might be covered by the First Amendment. Holmes quickly dismissed Hand and returned to his seat.

    But, according to Healy, that chance encounter spurred Holmes to begin talking to many of his friends about Hand’s then radical idea that controversial speech should be protected. These friends pushed back against Holmes’s conception of free speech, and urged him to consider it from the perspective of the minority. A year of lobbying and cajoling eventually paid off when Holmes published his dissent in Abrams.

    The friends who changed Holmes’s mind were all bright young men nearly 50 years Holmes’s junior. The childless Holmes maintained intimate friendships — almost erotic in their closeness — with several of the brightest young intellectuals of the day, including radical Harvard professors Felix Frankfurter (later on the Supreme Court) and Harold Laski, Rhode Island brahman Zechariah Chafee, and Hand (who would later become one of the most prominent lower court judges in American history).

    Healy goes to great pains to reconstruct the correspondence and meetings between Holmes and these men, and to trace Holmes’s cautious evolution. Holmes was neither a radical nor an ideologue, and his shift on free speech was tentative. Yet by the time Abrams v. United States was handed down, Holmes was ready to write the now immortal words: speeches and writings cannot be restricted or denied “unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

    There are, to be sure, flaws with “The Great Dissent,” Healy’s first book. There seems to be an exultant sense of inevitability with Holmes’s decisions, when, in fact, things could have gone the other way. The United States has the broadest definition of free speech in the developed world — few other countries would include wearing Nazi paraphernalia in public schools or burning the nation’s flag as protected speech. By ignoring the chance that history could have gone the other way, Healy ignores the fragility of rights we now take for granted.

    Constitutional protections should never be dismissed as inevitable, and it is terrifying that the most controversial decisions of the day will often be decided by a single aging man in a silly robe. From Oliver Wendell Holmes to Anthony Kennedy, the lesson of “The Great Dissent” seems to hold up. The arc of history is a delicate thing. It so often comes down to chance, folly, and one person’s whim.