Abraham Lincoln is No Longer The Great Emancipator?

Some no longer view Abraham Lincoln as The Great Emancipator, because they’ve read some quotes, and learned some facts about the man that suggest the man he was a bit more equivocal about ending slavery than originally believed. Yet, anyone that has read a book on Lincoln, perused his letters, or listened to documentarians speak on him, know that ending slavery was one of the primary drivers of his life.

As a kid, Abraham Lincoln used to watch slaves parade past his backyard, and he wrote of the inhumanity he saw in their treatment.

“That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio (River), or any other slave-border.”

The great Abraham Lincoln
The Great Abraham Lincoln

The fact that we now learn that Lincoln exhibited some restraint in his beliefs on slavery has many of us believing that he was not as adamant about ending slavery as we all believed.

“You know I dislike slavery. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet.”{1}

“Why would he keep quiet?” we ask. “Why would he bite his lip? He was the President of the United States. He could’ve used his bully pulpit to bring about more immediate change, and if he felt more passionate about the topic he would’ve.” First of all, a review of the history of America in the 1860’s reveals that the states weren’t exactly a united front in this regard. Second, he viewed The Constitution, and its limits on his power, with more reverence than modern presidents do today, and he also, as described below, wanted to persuade the nation to his point of view. The best way to change minds on a substantial subject, so that the change survives in a manner an executive order might not, is to methodically persuade the public, so they call upon their state legislators, congressman, mayors, governors, et al. to change the way they vote. An executive order will work in the short term, but if the voters disagree, they can just vote in another president to nullify the prior executive order.    

There was also an event that occurred six weeks after Abraham Lincoln became as president. This event is historically called The Civil War in which half of the country disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s personal opinions on slavery. Between his election and his first day in office those who presumably assumed Lincoln would abolish slavery left the Union. The reason that Lincoln used restraint, and bit his lip, and kept quiet is that he wanted to try to do whatever he could to preserve this Union that we call the United States today, and in doing so he believed slavery would eventually end.

Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. He claimed in an 1858 speech at Chicago to hate it “as much as any Abolitionist.”{2}

Yet Lincoln was no abolitionist. He wanted slavery to end, but that was never his first priority. Here’s how he explained his position in an 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor:

“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Lincoln, in essence, was torn between ending the bondage of the institution of slavery and abiding by the Constitution, and saving the nation. With the latter, we repeat, eventually bringing about the end of the horrible institution. 

“Lincoln said during the Civil War that he had always seen slavery as unjust. He said he couldn’t remember when he didn’t think that way,” explains historian Eric Foner. “The problem arises with the next question: What do you do with slavery, given that it’s unjust? Lincoln took a very long time to try to figure out exactly what steps ought to be taken.”

In a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, Abraham Lincoln responded to the editor’s charge that Lincoln’s administration lacked direction and resolve. 

“If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them,” wrote Lincoln. “If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

Prior to taking office, Lincoln switched from the political party called The Whigs to the Republican Party, and this move was based on the fact that that Whig party sought a softer stance on slavery so as to win elections in an otherwise volatile nation with volatile passions on both sides of the fence. Lincoln chose to align himself with those people in the Republican Party, who weren’t afraid to lose elections based on the fact that they had a volatile passion for ending slavery. Based on this fact, it should not enter the discussion that Lincoln did not lead the North’s fight in The Civil War against the South, and continue to fight against overwhelming forces, for the sole purpose of ending slavery.

We can continue to list Lincoln quotes, and we can find some that reveal his thoughts on the African-American. The latter do not paint him in a favorable light historically. We can argue over the merits and demerits of his character in this light, but what we cannot do is place ourselves in Lincoln’s time period, and in his time period some Southern states decided to secede from the Union after Lincoln’s election and the Civil War broke out six weeks after he assumed office. At the very least, we could say that the South’s actions, should suggest to all parties involved what Abraham Lincoln represented to those who elected him to office. 

Another complaint specifies that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not call for an immediate end to all slavery in the South, but only to those who had already escaped the South. Again, we must say he was focused on preserving the Union of the North and the South, and he didn’t want to further the anger the South felt in losing the Civil War by bringing an abrupt end to slavery, but he believed that the individualistic nature of the country would bring about the eventuality of freedom of all men. And again, The South saw this eventuality as well, or they wouldn’t have seceded in the first place. In other words, Lincoln saw it as his duty to preserve the nation first and foremost, and put his personal views on matters such as slavery on the back burner, until the former was achieved.

Another myth perpetuated against Republicans of the day in general, and Abraham Lincoln in particular, was that Republicans wanted slaves counted as 3/5ths a person in the Three Fifths Compromise. This charge is levied to counterpoint everything Republicans of the day did to free the slaves. The counterpoint suggests that if Republicans wanted to free the slaves, they wanted to do so in a manner that left African-American slaves as partial human beings forever more. First of all, Lincoln and the Republicans of the era, did not enact this compromise. This compromise was achieved during the 1787 Philadelphia convention, seventy-four years before Lincoln took office. Second, the compromise was reached with the long-term goal of lessening the power of the pro-slavery Democrats in the South in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College. If the Northern Republicans lost this compromise, and the slaves were counted as full people, the Southern Democrats would’ve have had overwhelming representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Gouverner Morris also believed that counting slaves as full people might further encourage slave trade by the Southern states to increase their representation on Congress. Some could say that the Three Fifths Compromise was a cynical ploy by the Northern states to level the playing field of representation, but it could also be said that if they had not achieved victory in this cynical ploy, slavery would not have been ended as early as it did.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was an immediate abolitionist. To attribute a modern adage to Frederick Douglass’ motivations, he wanted slavery to end yesterday. As a result, Douglass despised President Abraham Lincoln in the beginning. As a former slave, Douglass considered Lincoln approach to ending slavery too methodical. He said slavery, “Was simply evil, an offense against God and all decency.” 

Frederick Douglass’ feelings about Abraham Lincoln did not waver in the beginning, as he declared Lincoln’s refusal to mount a full and furious campaign against human bondage was “nothing less than craven capitulation to the slave states for the sake of trying to hold them in the Union.” These early Douglass writings, and the many others linked to in the page below, likely propel the modern characterizations Lincoln’s actions as something less than a warrior in this fight, and many of Lincoln’s letters, interviews, and statements admittedly suggest that he was not the single-minded warrior Douglass was. Yet, that is only half of the story. 

The other half occurred 12 years after the assassination of Lincoln, at the unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, D. C. on April 14, 1876, Douglass gave a speech that writer Ronald E Franklin characterizes as, “celebrating Lincoln as the perfect, God-appointed man for a task that, had the abolition of slavery been his first priority, he could not have accomplished.”

“[Lincoln’s] great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.”

My more modern translation: If Lincoln wasn’t able to save the Union, slavery in the North and South of this land may have continued unimpeded. Lincoln had to do what he did to keep his approval ratings up, so that he had a mandate from the people to encourage lawmakers to follow suit. If he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, his approval ratings would’ve allowed lawmakers to avoid Lincoln’s attempts to set the agenda for this country, and they would’ve felt free to continue to ignore abolitionists. 

Douglass continued: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined…

“Taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”

Writer Ronald E Franklin concludes a piece he wrote Why Frederick Douglas Despised, then Loved Abraham Lincoln writing:

“In the end, the impatient firebrand who would settle for nothing less than “abolition now!” realized that had Abraham Lincoln been the anti-slavery zealot activists wanted him to be, he would have failed in his mission. Frederick Douglass came to value the wisdom, skill, and necessary caution that allowed Abraham Lincoln to deftly navigate through extremely turbulent political waters to both save the Union and end slavery.

“Like Frederick Douglass, I believe no other man of that time, or perhaps of any time, could have done better.”

Imagine for a second if Lincoln ceded to Douglass’ request that he use a heavy hand in a manner that history now requires. Imagine, as I wrote, how many powerful people he would’ve lost. Slavery, we can only guess would’ve eventually imploded, but slaves and the African-American community in general, might have viewed Abraham Lincoln as their last, best hope. Violence and mayhem would’ve surely followed and perhaps a second Civil War pitting African-Americans, freemen and slaves, against The South. The incidents and conflict are unimaginable, and they were avoided by the strategies and persuasions put forth by Republicans, the Lincoln administration, and Abraham Lincoln. So quibble with the mindset and the attitudes of the era, but recognize in the end what these people accomplished.  

If you do extensive research on Lincoln, and his views on slavery, you will find some letters and statements made by Lincoln that suggest he wasn’t as hard-lined on slavery as others, and that he sought to save the Union above all else. You will find that Lincoln wanted to compensate slave owners for their loss of product (slaves), and you may find that Lincoln treated African-Americans as pawn pieces in legislation, commands to his generals, and in personal letters to friends, but you will also find an overarching theme that suggests that Lincoln thought that preservation of the Union meant that the abolition of slavery would eventually occur under the weight of the individualism banner of the Constitution, and the will of the people in the United States of the day.

You may also find writings that suggest that Lincoln believed white men to be superior to black men, and that he wasn’t an advocate for black voting rights, or blacks abilities to sit on juries, and that Lincoln believed that the freed black men should be forced out of America to colonize a different colony based on the fact that blacks and whites could not live in harmony in those post-Civil War United States. This has been listed by historians as controversial, based on a limited amount of personal writings in Lincoln’s second term as president. Regardless the finer points found in Lincoln’s positions, the theme remains that Lincoln did not think that a civil union could be maintained with the worm of slavery eating away at her core.

Abraham Lincoln was a politician, a president, and a man who dealt with some of the most combustible forces any president has. He had Constitutional limits on his power, and an overwhelming desire to save the union we now call The United States of America. As such, there were moments in his presidency when he had to capitulate to opponents and soften the blow of the The Civil victory over The South to welcome them back to the union without the harsh feelings that might have led to something like a Civil War II, or some other horrible inevitability. 

When we look at the actions of Lincoln, and the Republicans of the day, we do so from the vantage point of hindsight.  We know that the North won The Civil War, and we wonder why Lincoln didn’t pursue the spoils of victory more. We think that if Lincoln was the crusader against slavery that history tells us he was, he would’ve gone hard line with the South, but again Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union, and he believed that welcoming the South back into the Union was more conducive to maintaining the Union long-term than forcing them to immediately comply 100% to the North’s ways. We believe Lincoln should’ve backhanded the South at the conclusion of the Civil War for committing such a sin against humanity, but we do so without realizing the rage the South had at the conclusion of the Civil War. We don’t celebrate Lincoln’s restraint and patience in this regard, based on our own rage over the horrors that occurred in our beloved country. We live in an immediate satisfaction society that lists those who might slightly disagree with our current views on race and our current ways of dealing with matters as haters, but those of us who criticize the manner in which Lincoln achieved victory over the South, preserved the Union, and abolished the institution of slavery haven’t achieved 1/100th of what Lincoln did over the course of four years. It took a very steady hand, and a man who was willing to patiently accept the fact that he couldn’t exert his own opinion and will on a people immediately to accomplish what he did. As Ronald E Franklin writes of Lincoln, “No other man of that time, or perhaps of any time, could have done better.” If Lincoln was too firm, or too weak, in regards to his actions to save the union, follow the Constitution, and eventually end slavery, there would’ve been grave ramifications to his actions. To those who want more immediate statements from Lincoln about race, and a firmer hand in regards to the abhorrent institution that was slavery, the question that we should ask ourselves how many countries have they saved?

Consider the Lobster: A Review

This book starts out the way most brilliant, pop psychology books do from an angle you may have never considered before. Since this book is a collection of divergent essays, it should be reviewed chapter by chapter and essay by essay. The first essay “Big Red Son” involves comedic talk of the porn industry. To be fair to the author, David Foster Wallace, this essay was first written in 1998, and some may conclude it unfair to declare it dated, but I didn’t read this until 2012, so I am forced to say that this material has been mined for all its worth at the time of my reading. (See Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff.) The second chapter “Some Remarks on Kafka’s funniness…” whets the appetite. The general idea behind this chapter “that humor is not very sophisticated today” has been mined by those of us obsessed with pop culture, but Wallace does get some points for listing the specific problems with the current sense of humor that doesn’t understand the sophisticated and subtle humor of author Franz Kafka. He says: “Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary US amusement.” This launches the Wallace into a detailed list of complaints about contemporary humor brought to the homes of TV watchers.

David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace

“Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement. There’s no recursive wordplay or verbal stunt-pilotry, little in the way of wisecracks or mordant lampoon. There is no body-function humor, nor sexual entendre, nor stylized attempts to rebel by offending convention. No slapstick with banana peels or rogue adenoids. There are none of the ba-bing ba-bang reversals of modern sitcoms; nor are there precocious children or profane grandparents or cynically insurgent coworkers. Perhaps most alien of all, Kafka’s authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but they are always absurd and scary and sad all at once.”

The point that Wallace attempts to make is that his students don’t understand Kafka’s absurdist wit, because they are more accustomed to being spoon-fed their entertainment. They’re not used to having to think through something as complex as Kafka’s central joke:

“That the horrific struggle to establish a human self-results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”

The chapter is worth reading not for its “When I was a kid, we had to walk ten miles to school” style of complaining about the youth of the day, but the illustrative manner in which Wallace complains about humor in general. A complaint this author laments may not be generational.

The fourth chapter may be the selling point for this book. In it, Wallace describes a war that has been occurring in the English language for a couple generations now. Wallace calls it a Usage War. The Usage War describes how one side, the more traditional side, AKA the prescriptive side, pleads for a return to traditional English. He talks of the other side, the more modern side that describes itself as a more scientific study of the language, updating our usage on a more inclusive plane. The latter, called the descriptive side, calls for more political correctness in its language. It calls for a more comprehensive list of words and usage that incorporates styles of language such as Ebonics and words that are more commonly used, such as “irregardless”. Previous to this reading, I heard that tired phrase “everything is political”, but I had no idea that that phrase could be extended to dictionaries. The author’s reporting on this subject is excellent. It is informative without being biased, and it is subjective with enough objectivity to present both viewpoints in a manner that allows you to decide which side is more conducive to progress in our language.

Wallace is not as unbiased in his John McCain chapter however. He makes sure, in the opening portions of an article –that was paid for by the unabashedly liberal periodical Rolling Stone— that his colleagues know that he is not a political animal (i.e. he is stridently liberal). He lets them know he voted for Bill Bradley. Other than the requisite need a writer of a Rolling Stone article feels to display their liberal bona fides, it’s not clear why Wallace would include his opinion in a piece that purports to cover an election campaign. If I were granted the honor of being paid to cover a Nancy Pelosi campaign, for example, I would not begin this piece with a couple of paragraphs describing how I feel about her politics, but such is the state of journalism in America today…particularly in the halls of the unabashedly liberal Rolling Stone.

To have such an article begin with a political screed that is different than mine, would normally turn me off, but I’ve grown used to it. (I know, I know, there is no bias.) The real turn off occurs after the reader wades through the partisan name-calling, to the languid dissertation on the minutiae involved on a campaign bus. If you’re ever aching to know what goes on in a political campaign, I mean really aching to know, this is the chapter for you. I would say that most are curious about the machinations that occur behind the scenes, but I would say that most of those same people would have their curiosity tested by Wallace’s treatment here. He says that the editors at Rolling Stone edited the piece. He says that he always wanted to provide his loyal readers a director’s cut. After reading through the first twenty pages of this chapter, I was mentally screaming for that editor to step in and assist me through the piece. It’s not that it’s poor writing, nor that it’s entirely without merit, but you REALLY have to be one who aching to know the inner workings of a campaign. You have to want to know bathroom difficulties —such as keeping a bathroom door closed on a tour bus— you have to want to know what reporters eat, why they eat it, and when. You have to want your minutiae wrapped in minutiae, until your eyes bleed with detail. It’s a cardinal rule of mine to never skip passages. I live with the notion that I can learn something from just about everything an author I deem worthy writes, and I deem Wallace to be a quality writer with an adept and varying intellect, but I had to break my cardinal rule with this chapter. It was too painful a slog.

As for the chapter on Tracy Austin, Wallace laments the fact that championship level athletes aren’t capable of achieving a degree of articulation that he wants when he purchases one of their autobiographies. Tracy Austin, for those who don’t know, was a championship level tennis player. Wallace purchased her autobiography hoping that, as an adult long since removed from the game of tennis, Austin would be able to elucidate the heart of a champion. He hoped that Austin would be able to describe for us what went through her mind at the moment when she achieved the pinnacle of her career, and he wanted to know what she thought about the accident that led to her premature retirement. He wasn’t just disappointed, he writes, in the manner that he is disappointed with sideline interviews that are loaded with “we give it 110%, one game at a time, and we rise and fall as a team” style clichés. He sums up his disappointment with the following:

“It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must (out of necessity) be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”

imagesCAY91IXCIn other words, we are able to express these ideas based on the fact that we concentrate on the arena of the mind, and their concentration lies in physical prowess. We, non-athlete types, think about the things they do, we fantasize about them, and they do them. We think about how glorious it would be to sink a championship winning basket over Bryon Russell, Michael Jordan just does it. We think about, and write about, that incredibly perfect and physically impossible baseline shot of a Tracy Austin, Tracy just does it. We see the replays of their exploits endlessly repeated on Sportscenter, and we hear almost as many different analyses of them. We then think about these plays from all these varied angles that are provided, and we project ourselves onto that platform. We don’t think about all the rigorous hours a Michael Jordan spent in gyms preparing for that moment, we simply think about that moment, and what it would mean to us to have conquered such a moment. So, when one of these athletes steps away from that stage to offer us a few words about that moment and those few words center around the “I just did it” meme we are profoundly disappointed. To paraphrase Yoda, “They don’t think, they do, or they do not.” They use the force granted to them though spending a greater percentage of their lives in gyms, on tennis courts, and in weight rooms. They concentrate on muscle memory to prevent the mind from interfering with their eventual completion of the act. If we, non-athlete types, were in a similar situation, we would think about the significance of the history of the game, the profundity of the moment, how this moment may affect the rest of our lives, how many people are watching us, if Bryon is a better athlete than we are, and if he will block our shot, what the fellas are going to say about this play after the game, and we become so immersed in the enormity of the moment that we probably think too much to make the shot. The point is that they’ve made that shot so many times, in so many different ways and games, that they simply rely on muscle memory to make the championship shot. They may think about that shot, as long as it takes them to project it, but once they step on the court, they go on auto-pilot and complete the mission. They would love to give Hemingway-esque descriptions of their game, that satisfied us all, and lands them in a weekly spot on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, but for all the reasons described here they are simply not capable of it.

I used to wonder what announcers were talking about when they said, “He’s too young to understand what this means.” This kid, as you call him, has been playing this game his whole life, and he’s lived the life of the championship level athlete, which means sacrificing the norms of daily life that his peers knew, and he’s done all that for “this” moment. What do you mean he doesn’t know what it means? It dawned on me, after a couple struggles with it, that “this kid” doesn’t know what this moment would mean to that announcer … or those of us at home watching. In that post-game interview, then, we’re looking for something, some little nugget that we can identify with. When we get phrases from the cliché vault, we’re so disappointed that they didn’t put more effort into identifying with our sense of their glory. We’re frustrated that they couldn’t reach us on our level. Yet, as Wallace states, it is the essence of a championship level athlete to be “blind and dumb” during the moments that define them, and we all know this to one degree or another. We’ve all seen these championship level athletes being interviewed about their individual moments thousands of times, so why do we continue to be so frustrated with them, and does this continued sense of frustration begin to say more about them or us?

How to Succeed in Writing III: Are you Intelligent Enough to Write a Novel?

I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” –Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the (poor fiction) in the wastebasket.”

The key to writing great fiction is streamlining your story. Cut the fat! Some of the greatest authors of all time have admitted that the best additions they made to their novel were the parts they deleted. Somewhere along the line, in their writing career, they achieved objectivity. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at the idea that not all of their words were golden. Somewhere along the line, they realized that some of their words, sentences, paragraphs, and even some of their chapters were quite simply self-indulgent, wastebasket material. These self-indulgent portions, or the “ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” of any novel are usually found in the asides.

There are asides, and then there are asides. Some asides are what we enjoy in a novel. Some provide setting, pace, and drama. Some also build suspense by taking us away from the train barreling down on the main character to form a cliff hanger. Some fortify the characteristics of a character, and kill a novel. Most asides are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. As anyone who has read a novel can attest, most novels could be written in forty pages, but that’s a short story, and short stories don’t sell as well as novels. They don’t sell as well, because readers want involvement. Readers don’t fall in love with snapshot stories. They want a world. They not only want to know the humans that they are reading about, they want to be involved with them. They want to see them breathe, they want to hear them talk to an employee at a Kwik Shop, and they want to feel the steps these characters take from place to place. They want to know these people, so when something happens to them, they can care about them. They want to know the minutiae of the human they’re reading about, but they don’t want to get so caught up in the minutiae that they’re taken off pace, and they don’t want to read a self-absorbed writer who thinks it’s all about them. Cut the fat! Get to the point already!

“I’ve met a number of intelligent people throughout my life, and I’ve met a number of people I consider brilliant. I’ve met very few that were able to combine the two.” –Unknown.

One such aside involved the author trying to prove how intelligent they are. The desire to be perceived as intelligent is a strong, driving force in all of us. How many stupid and overly analytical things do we say in one day to try to get one person to think that we’re not a total idiot? This desire to prove intelligence is right up there with the drive to be perceived as beautiful and likeable. It’s right up there with the desire to be seen as strong, athletic, independent, and mechanically inclined. We spend our whole lives trying to impress people. Even those who say that they don’t care what others think are trying to impress us with the fact that they don’t care.

In my first era of writing, I wrote a lot of these self-indulgent asides that contributed little to the story. I was a new student to the world of politics, and I was anxious to prove to the world that I was one smart cookie. I also wanted to show that half of the world that disagreed with my politics how wrong they were. So, I put my main character through an incident, and he came out of it enlightened by a political philosophy that agreed with mine. In various other pieces, I wanted to inform the world of all of this great underground music I was experiencing. My thought process at the time was: “Hey, if Stephen King can get away with telling us about tired rockers that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Why can’t I tell a few readers about a group they’ve never heard before?” Copy the masters right? I wanted the world to know both sides of my brain in the same artistic piece. After taking a step back, I reread the novel, and I achieved enough objectivity to realize that it was all a big ball of mess.

If I was going to clean this mess up and start writing decent stories, I was going to have to divide my desires up. I was going to have to cut the fat. I was going to have to discipline myself to the creed that should be recited nightly by all aspiring storytellers: Story is sacred. I was going to have to learn to channel my desire to be perceived as smart into political and philosophical blogs. I was going to have to channel my desires to have people listen to my “discovered” music into Amazon.com reviews, and my stories, my novels, and my short stories would be left pure, untarnished stories with no agendas. By dividing these desires up, I would be able to proselytize on the role of the Puggle in our society today, and the absolute beauty of Mr. Bungle’s music, without damaging my stories or boring the readers of my stories. I learned the principle the esteemed rock band Offspring tried to teach the world when they sang: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”

There’s one writer, he-who-must-not-be-named, who never learned this principle. This author presumably got tired of being viewed as nothing more than a storyteller. This author knew he was intelligent, and all of his friends and family knew he was intelligent, but the world didn’t know. The world only knew that he was a gifted storyteller, and they proved this by purchasing his books by the millions, but they didn’t know that he was so much more. This author achieved as much in the industry, if not more, as any other writer alive or dead (It’s Not King!), but he remained unsatisfied with that status. He needed the world to know that he wasn’t just a master of fiction. He needed the world to know he was as intelligent as he was brilliant, and he wrote the book that he hoped would prove it. It resulted in him ticking off 50% of his audience. 50% of his audience disagreed with him, and his politics, and they (we!) vowed to never read another one of his novels again. This is the risk you run when you seek to be perceived as intelligent and brilliant in the same work.

thomas-mannBut politics makes for such great filler, and to quote the great Thomas Mann: “Everything is political.” Well, there’s politics, and then there’s politics. If you’re one of those who doesn’t know the difference, and you don’t think your politics is politics, you should probably be writing something political. If you’re one of those who wants to write politics into your novel simply because it makes for such great filler, however, then you should try to avoid the self-indulgent conceit that ticks off that half of the population that disagrees with your politics. You’ll anger some with this, you’ll bore others, and the rest of us won’t care that you think it’s vital that your main character expresses something in some way that validates your way of thinking. We will just think it’s boring proselytizing from an insecure writer who needs validation from their peers. Stick to the story, we will scream, as we skip those passages or put your book down to never read anything you’ve ever written again.

You will need to be somewhat intelligent though. You’ll need enough to know your punctuation and grammar rules, you will need to know when and where to make paragraph breaks, and you will need to know how to edit your story for pace, but these aspects of storytelling can be learned.

“I am not adept at using punctuation and/or grammar in general…” A caller to a radio show once informed author Clive Barker. She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog. “Are you a clever story teller?” Clive asked her. “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?” The woman said yes to all of the above. “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I strongly encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn the art of storytelling. This ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Be brilliant first, in other words, and if you can achieve brilliance, you can learn the rest. You can gain the intelligence necessary to get a thumbs up from a publisher, an agent, and eventually a reader, but you cannot learn brilliance. You cannot gain artistic creativity, and it’s hard enough to prove artistic brilliance. Why would you want to further burden yourself by going overboard in trying to also prove intelligence, and thus be everything to all people?

Let the people see how brilliant you are first! Gain a following. Once you have achieved that pied piper Wildeplateau, you can then attend to the self-indulgent effort of proving your intelligence. I don’t understand why that is so important to those who achieve artistic brilliance, but if I could understand their mindset better, I would probably be one of them. The preferred method of achieving all of your goals is to ‘keep ‘em separated’, but there are always going to be some who need to prove their intelligence and brilliance in the same Great American Novel. Those people are going to say Stephen King is a much better example to follow to the best-seller list than I am, and he achieved his plateau with a little bit of this and a little bit of that sprinkled in his prose. The question you have to ask yourself is, is he the rule or the exception to the rule? If Stephen King’s model is your preferred model, and these political and music parts are so germane, so golden, and so uniquely special to your story, keep them in. As Oscar Wilde once said, “You might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.”