Newspaper article International New York Times

When It Comes to Fiction about National Tragedy or Trauma, How Soon Is Too Soon?

Newspaper article International New York Times

When It Comes to Fiction about National Tragedy or Trauma, How Soon Is Too Soon?

Article excerpt

Although many people have strong feelings about historical tragedies, few have the ability to process them in a way that makes them intellectually or artistically meaningful.

Daniel Mendelsohn

In the age of the memoir, can anyone seriously doubt the link between trauma and literary production? From incest to obesity, addiction to bed-wetting, the raw material has never been more plentiful -- nor the cultural taboos against airing and sharing so few and so weak. The distance from suffering to publication has grown awfully short since A.D. 398, when St. Augustine, in his "Confessions," went public with a tale of some juvenile delinquency that had been tormenting his conscience for 30 years. (He had stolen some pears -- a crime that today wouldn't get him a callback from an agent.)

But what happens when the catastrophe isn't personal but national, even world-historical? Although many people have strong feelings about historical tragedies, few have the ability to process them in a way that makes them intellectually or artistically meaningful. "To write about the Titanic a poem worth printing," the editors of this paper warned readers in 1912, soon after the great ship went down -- and, more to the point, soon after the flood of published poems, songs and reminiscences began -- "requires that the author should have something more than paper, pencil and a strong feeling that the disaster was a terrible one."

Some writers, of course, do pull it off -- and quickly. Within weeks of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Walt Whitman had composed two poems on the tragedy -- "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" -- that have entered the canon. But even the best require more time. This is nowhere clearer than in the case of the event we are most likely to think of today when we hear the phrase "national catastrophe": the Sept. 11 attacks.

Perhaps because we've been macerating in memoir for the past three decades, what's most distinctive about the literary handling of 9/11 thus far is the intimate angle of approach. In the best- known and most lauded treatments, we are almost always in the aftermath, and our attention is fixed almost exclusively on the survivors and their (often highly symbolic) personal struggles. …

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