Disasters Both Outside and Within

I’ve recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters (after watching the author spar with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report), a book I found profoundly moving–a reaction I hadn’t expected, but probably could have predicted.

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The book is a series of transcribed radio broadcasts (with a few exceptions), as the events are unfolding, of crucial blows to the American psyche: the assassination of President Kennedy, then his brother Robert, John Lennon’s murder, the Challenger disaster, the Columbine massacre, the World Trade Center attacks and the death of Michael Jackson. Virtually anyone reading this book will have experienced living through at least some of these events, if not all (I was in seventh grade when Kennedy was killed).

So the book is a You Are There account of some of the main body blows of recent American history, but it also creates an alternate personal history of the reader, too, if he or she is old enough.

The first chapter, of the Kennedy assassination, begins with radio patter of an almost child-like American innocence, a care-free world managed by helpful advertised products: Armour Star turkeys (“government inspected and graded to give your family a very special treat this Thanksgiving”), Falstaff beer (“no deposit, no return cans in handy packs of six”), and the Robert Hall department store (“robes and pajama sets are priced from only $3.97”). In between, songs by the Chiffons (“I Have a Boyfriend”) and Tommy Rowe’s “Hey Everybody” keep the tone light.

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But slowly, breaking news about shots being fired at a Kennedy motorcade in Dallas eventually overwhelm the radio station’s normal proceedings, and this news grows ever alarming: Kennedy has been shot at, Kennedy has been hit, Kennedy’s wounds are minor, Kennedy’s wounds are grave, Kennedy is dead. Though of course I knew what was coming since I lived through this national trauma, I found myself wishing certain reports were indeed true, that Kennedy’s wounds were minor, manageable, and because of this need to deny what could not be denied (an impulse that surprised me as I read), the transcribed radio report created an almost unbearable tension.

Perhaps I felt this way because the Kennedy assassination revealed to me the wider world of adult tragedy, the shocks that often come without warning. And in some ways, the willful innocence of the country’s popular culture was lost that day as well.

When the on-the-scene radio report of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s assassination kicks in, there’s an odd emotional quality to the reporting, a sort of Can this really be happening again? tone that seems to imply that history’s lesson hasn’t completely been learned. Less than three years after the death of his older brother, this death almost hits harder, because it illustrates that the first assassination wasn’t an anomaly, but another step in a horrific future business-as-usual (Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been assassinated months earlier).

And the litany of disasters follows: John Lennon’s murder appears to cap off any last remaining promise of the Sixties, and the Challenger explosion crumples the country’s assumptions of technological superiority.

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The chapter on Columbine is perhaps the most powerful: a transcription of a teacher’s 911 call as the killing unfolds at the high school, and it captures a chilling, head-shaking sense of helplessness and disbelief at such carnage in such an unlikely (then) setting.

After the grim on-the-scene news reports of the World Trade Center attacks (attacks that also tore down America’s willful belief in our safety and invulnerability), we come to the rather jaded reports of Michael Jackson’s death. We have become so inured to tragedy that the commentators can argue about whether Jackson was really the King of Pop or not.

Goldsmith’s book of transcribed tragedies would be a difficult read if it weren’t also a compelling secret history of the country, and of the reader. As individuals, we have all had to absorb terrible news and events in our lives, and these radio reports of disasters “as they happened” captures the emotional shock and disbelief, the hopeless bargaining with reality to return to normality that we undergo when our personal or family lives go kablooie.

So, if all of this book is transcribed reporting, then how does Goldsmith get to be the “author”? I’m reminded of the work of Studs Terkel, whose transcribed interviews in such books as Working and Hard Times are masterpieces of revelation: voices we haven’t heard, only brought together through Terkel’s efforts, and shaped into an overarching narrative. Or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, a reclamation of late 19th century and early 20th century court documents that reveal stories of despair and violence lost to history (see my post on Reznikoff’s book “To Remain a Witness”).

Goldsmith, I think, has done a similar service, taking the disasters that now loom like horrible monuments in our history and bringing back to them the “shock of the new.” It’s not perfect: Goldsmith says he couldn’t, for example, find a contemporaneous report of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death that captured the developing despair of the news. But this still remains one of the best history books I’ve ever read, voices from the past, under great stress, that recapture the immediacy of the present, and that laid bare, by example, the raw emotion of some of my own life’s (much smaller) disasters.

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August 10th, 2013 by admin

To Remain a Witness

I recently read, via a recommendation from the marvelous website The Dish, an essay by Amber Forcey titled “There Are No “Good Old Days.” Forcey laments the very notion that the past is preferable to our current sorry state of affairs in the present. She focuses her argument on the popular television series “Downtown Abbey.” Even when episodes refer to the horrors of the early 20th century, she says,

“the Titanic sinking, a World War, the Spanish flu – seem to serve mostly as fodder for the characters’ personal dramas, not as an honest depiction of the problems of this time. However, a careful reading of any history textbook – or solid work of 20th century British literature – will reveal that this was time and place of great upheaval, one plagued with war, disease, and its own versions of “crimes against humanity,” not to mention the debasing treatment of women and minorities throughout most of the western world. We dream nostalgically about this time as we watch; but, if we are truly aware of the evils and trouble of these decades, given the option, none of us would chose to revert back to such a time.”

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Forcey then does a nice turn by writing about the short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. “The irony of the tale,” Forcey writes, “is that a good man is hard to find, not because of the times, but because there are no good men – then or now – except for One.” Though the murderous Misfit might disagree with that last point, since he faults Jesus for the irrevocable mistake of raising the dead: “He thrown everything off balance.” The only logical alternative to following a religious path, according to the Misfit, is simple, dedicated mayhem: “No pleasure but in meanness.”

The mention of O’Connor’s iconic short story reminded me of another–though much less well-known—classic of American literature written about the same time, the poet Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.

Reznikoff was trained as a lawyer (though he only practiced briefly), and the source of the poems is actual trial testimony (from the years 1885-1915) that he’d discovered while working on court records. Unable to turn away from the stories of suffering he’d encountered, Reznikoff instead turned the essence of those testimonies into poems, short verse narratives that, example by example, increasingly haunt the reader. Testimony is a harrowing book that can’t be put down. Here’s a taste of its mayhem and tragedy and unexpected trouble:

It was nearly daylight when she gave birth to the child,
lying on the quilt
he had doubled up for her.
He put the child on his left arm
and took it out of the room,
and she could hear the splashing of water.
When he came back she asked him where the child was.
He replied: “Out there—in the water.”

He punched up the fire
and returned with an armload of wood
and the child,
and put the dead child into the fire.
She said, “O John, don’t!”
He did not reply
but turned to her and smiled.


The child was about eight years old.
For some misconduct or other,
his father stripped him naked, threw him on the floor,
and beat him with a piece of rubber pipe,
crying “Die, God damn you!”
He tried to dash the child against the brick surface of the chimney,
and flung the child again heavily on the floor
and stamped on him.


Arnold heard the blowing of the whistle:
the train was coming.
The only light was that of a small lamp
behind the shutters of the station,
and it gave at best
a weak light on the platform.
The night was dark and cloudy.
In trying to pass from the platform to the ground
where passengers boarded the train,
he could not see the steps that led from the platform:
and fell.


One of them saw the smoke rising
when they went for dinner;
the wind had been blowing
strongly from the west
but had increased greatly in force
when they reached the fire.

The fire had crossed the ditch:
there had been a dry spell
and there was no water in the ditch—
or neighborhood.
They had only shovels
to keep the fire from spreading;
and the soil was peat,
covered with moss and grass,
all dry and highly flammable.


He was committed to prison in default of bail
and sent down in the van
with two other prisoners,
one drunk and spewing. In the prison,
he received two narrow blankets and a tin dish;
no knife or fork. Slept on the floor.
The room was filthy.
The stool had no cover;
the men made water in it at night,
and it ran over.


He entered the store with barley sacks upon his feet
and a barley sack over his head—
holes cut in front through which to look—
and carried a shotgun with
both barrels loaded with birdshot.
But the barley sack upon one of his feet
caught on something at the end of the counter;
the mask became displaced so that he could not see,
and the gun was jerked from his hand.

Even a cursory reading of these spare, intense poems will cure any sentimentalist from nostalgia for an idealized past. Which is perhaps why this masterpiece—a masterpiece of poetry but also of nonfiction, since all these stories are “true,” the words lifted from court documents and arranged into “found” poems—is so little known, because its lessons are so unwanted. But masterpiece it is, and Paul Auster comes close to capturing its essential power:

“To find a comparable approach to the real, one would have to go back to the great prose writers of the turn of the century. As in Chekov or in early Joyce, the desire is to allow events to speak for themselves, to choose the exact detail that will say everything and thereby allow as much as possible to remain unsaid. This kind of restraint paradoxically requires an openness of spirit that is available to very few: an ability to accept the given, to remain a witness of human behavior and not succumb to the temptation of becoming a judge.”

Michael Heller chimes in: “It is as much craft as content which produces the effect. The reader is made to feel the flow of event go by, to participate only as a witness. There are no imperial gestures in the language, barely an attempt to explain, let alone interpret.”


Testimony was originally published as the 500-page Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915–Recitative. It is long out of print, as is the much shorter version, Testimony: The United States 1885-1890–Recitative, published by New Directions, which is the version I am familiar with. This strange amalgam of poetry and nonfiction, historical record and carefully controlled yawp of empathy for forgotten lives deserves a literary resurrection.

Paul Auster and Michael Heller quotes are from On Testimony.

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March 10th, 2013 by admin