A Question of Emotion

Kirn and Staples

A Question of Emotion

Kirn and Staples

A Question of Emotion
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 10 1998 3:09 PM

Kirn and Staples

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First, the anti-Mormon fable. I don't know what I was making fun of, only that it wasn't you, Brent, who've managed to stick to the point and be provocative and hold all our feet to the fire. My speech was a satire of tones I've noticed and notes I've heard struck in racial political dialogue, not the literal truth (the water fountain part, at least)--although I did weave in some real resentful emotion from my real experience as a young and lonesome Latter Day Saint. It was late when I was writing that stuff, quite late, and after 10 PM or so I always reserve the right to be incoherent. (Note: Because of time zone differences, I sense you're writing these entries at a reasonable, businesslike hour, and with a clearer head.)

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The Huck stuff was in answer to your question do I "feel" responsible for black suffering. A question of emotion. And I was playing it straight: I do. And Huck, I think, is one of the big reasons. (Was he based on a black boy Twain knew? I hope so. I love the theory and don't care if it's true.)

But do I "think" I'm responsible for black violence? No. My rational mind agrees with you. We make decisions. We weave at least every third thread of our own fates (or at least deserve to be treated as if we do; it's only respectful, I think). The notion that blacks are environmental automatons and whites willful super-beings is repulsive, and has always struck me as inaccurate. I see far more blacks than whites surmounting and outwitting their surroundings.

Certain hard-working educated black women I've met are the most pristinely middle-class beings I can imagine, which may be why so many of this description shine as local news anchors. That's not a slight, it's a compliment. If I had these ladies' optimism and drive I don't know where I'd be today.

As to Wideman's apparent survivor's guilt, his wallowing in tragedy and pain ... I see it, yes, but I figure it's what he needs to fill the blank pages before him. Whatever it takes. Some writers work out of mother love, some out of pride, some out of anger. To me, the question is: Is it Wideman's own guilt, his own depression, or is it borrowed, faked? Is it what he feels, or what he thinks he owes?

Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for the New York Times. Walter Kirn is the author of My Hard Bargain, a collection of stories, and She Needed Me, a novel. He lives in Montana. This week Staples and Kirn discuss John Edgar Wideman's Two Cities (Houghton Mifflin; 256 pages; $24).