By Norman Boucher / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
Like most writers and editors, I tend to think a lot about language. Lately, I have been falling asleep thinking about language, thanks to Kathleen Norris's thoughtful book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Norris, a poet who moved in 1974 from New York City to her ancestral home in South Dakota, underwent a conversion back to Christianity in the 1980s after two decades of rejecting religion. One of the greatest obstacles to her return, she writes, was Christian language, with its vocabulary of sin and repentance and heresy and salvation. Such terms conjured up for Norris childhood memories of repression, of a religious hostility to a child's way of seeing. Before she could again call herself a Christian, Norris needed to rebuild her religious vocabulary, to see these worn-out words freshly. Amazing Grace is the report of that effort.

I admire the task Norris set for herself, because the content of our beliefs is inseparable from the manner of their expression. Tired language frames tired ideas, and clotted sentences are a symptom of confusion, of a stream of thought in need of oxygen. Often language is notable for what it does not say. When I used to teach writing in the late 1970s, I began talking about language by using excerpts from press briefings of the Vietnam War. These are remarkable for their reliance on the passive voice, a form that allows description of a deed without naming its doer. When a military spokesman said that a village was pacified, I would ask my students, what was being done and who was doing it?

Verb forms such as the passive voice are intended to restrain the imagination, to give the mind as little concrete imagery as possible. As all writers know, words can be powerful signposts for a reader's imagination. Rich in denotation and connotation, they point the reader down paths he or she would not normally travel. The strongest pieces of writing, in my view, lead readers to a precipice where the familiar ends and their own imaginations, now properly oriented, can soar on alone. So it's particularly sad, I think, when polemicized usage wears the interesting edges off a word and dulls its meaning, thereby narrowing its range of associations.

On college campuses, diversity is such a word. It has, unfortunately, become code for an ideal racial and ethnic mix, so that to describe a campus as diverse these days usually means that it is a place where all such groups are adequately represented. Please don't misunderstand: I don't mean to disparage the noble goal of correcting the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities. Only good can come from creating a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic society. The influence that Latin music has been having on jazz lately is evidence that multi-culturalism does not dilute one culture with another, as its critics claim, but results in the kind of new and interesting combinations that keep things like music fresh and inviting. True diversity includes, but should not be restricted to, matters of race and ethnicity.

I was reminded of this when I attended two campus events a week apart in April. The first was a two-day memorial tribute to novelist and Professor Emeritus of English John Hawkes, who died last year. The tribute attracted a remarkable group of fiction writers and critics, including such Brown colleagues as Professor of Modern Culture and Media Robert Scholes, Adjunct Profes-sor of English Robert Coover, Professor Emeritus of English Edwin Honig, and Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein. Also present were such post-modernist literary giants as William Gass and John Barth. Hawkes himself was there on film, a wiry man full of wit and irony, much of it directed at himself. For two days, the group marvelled at Hawkes's exuberant verbal brilliance and his encouraging rigor as a teacher.

Jeffrey Greene, a professor at San Francisco State and a former Hawkes student, repeated his old teacher's startling credo that "the real enemies of the novel are plot, character, setting, and theme." Another speaker described Hawkes's work as steeped in the conviction that "humans live in a land of universal nightmare," a turn of phrase that seemed a particularly sharp use of language, combining as it does the isolation of nightmare with the community implied in "universal."

Greene also recalled Hawkes the teacher, describing him as "remarkably severe by contemporary standards - and remarkably generous." To students who wanted to throw out all the rules and let anarchy reign in the mistaken belief they were paying homage to him, Hawkes emphasized balance. "Distrust the rules," Greene remembered him saying, "but with respect for literary traditions." And William Gass said of Hawkes at one point: "How could he be so innocent, since his prose knew everything?"

It would be difficult to imagine a writer more different from Hawkes than Tim O'Brien, who spoke at the Salomon Center auditorium a week later. Where Hawkes, on film at least, spoke with irony and a kind of highbrow wit, O'Brien, the author of the novel Going After Cacciato and the superb stories collected in The Things They Carried, oozed sincerity and an affecting emotional rawness. There is no post-modernist scaffolding holding up O'Brien's work; his scaffolding is more traditional, as befits a fiction writer for whom plot, character, setting, and theme are everything. The world Hawkes created in his fiction has its own internal logic, and the worlds in such novels as Travesty and Innocence in Extremis are landscapes of the imagination. O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran, remains preoccupied with the war, with the moral choices it presented day after day. He described the plot of Going After Cacciato as "the story of walking away from the war and walking to Paris. I didn't do that. I could have done that. More importantly, I should have done it." The read-ing public has never quite known what to do with Hawkes's fictions, which can be intimidating, while O'Brien's books, though serious, have all the appeal of best-sellers.

Like Hawkes, O'Brien conveyed an innocence, but of a very different kind. He described growing up in Worthington, Minnesota, which he called "the turkey capital of the world." Every September 15, he said, was Turkey Day, when farmers would round up all their turkeys, dump them at the Esso station, and herd them up Main Street before cheering townspeople. "Worthington is a town that congratulates itself for its ignorance of the world," O'Brien said, "a town that got us into Vietnam."

As thrilling as each of these two literary events was on its own, each was enriched by the other. Through a happy accident, they took place close enough in time to allow one to stand as a critique of the other. O'Brien's work, if Hawkes had bothered to read it, was precisely the kind of fiction he rejected, and O'Brien, I'm sure, has little use for Hawkes's novels. I cannot imagine a conversation occurring between novelists as different as these; such a thing would either be hopelessly dull or endlessly fascinating.

Yet taken together, Hawkes and O'Brien present an intellectual and aesthetic diversity that is both confusing and bracing. To be diverse, after all, is to diverge, to go away from each other. But the word also implies a hidden unity, a commonality that binds and holds together. I wish every student of fiction could have attended the Hawkes memorial and the O'Brien lecture. They would have experienced the possibility that true diversity finally offers, the kind of multifaceted possibility that every university should embrace.

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May / June 1999