March 30, 2015
Guest: Kevin Kruse
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance and the phrase in God we trust on the back of dollar bills haven't been there as long as you might think. In the new book "One Nation Under God," my guest Kevin Kruse points out that those references to God were inserted in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration, the same decade that the National Prayer Breakfast was launched.
Kruse's new book investigates how the idea of America as a Christian nation was promoted in the 1930s and '40s when industrialists and business lobbies, chafing against the government regulations of the New Deal, recruited and funded conservative clergy to preach faith, freedom and free enterprise. He says this conflation of Christianity and capitalism moved to center stage in the '50s under Eisenhower's watch. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University and is the author of a previous book called "White Flight."
Kevin Kruse, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about the subject of how Americans started to perceive the country as a Christian nation?
KEVIN KRUSE: Well, I actually started out with a rather different project. Originally, it was going to be a study of grassroots religious conservatism in the '60s and '70s. And as I dug into that topic, looking at letters from ordinary Americans who were upset about school prayer or sex ed. classes and things like that that we normally think of as early moments in the motivation of the religious right, I kept coming across these invocations of one nation under God and in God we trust. These phrases were invoked again and again and again. And so I started to pull on that thread, and it led me back into the story.
GROSS: So the story is, as you tell it, about this alliance between business leaders and Christian leaders, dates back to the 1930s when business leaders were struggling on two fronts - the Depression and the New Deal. What were their problems with the New Deal?
KRUSE: Their problems with the New Deal were that they suddenly found themselves on the defensive. The New Deal had passed a large number of measures that were regulating business, in some ways, for the first time. It had empowered labor unions and given them a voice in the affairs of business. Corporate leaders resented both of these moves, and so they launched a massive campaign of public relations designed to sell the values of free enterprise. The problem was, was that their naked appeals to the merits of capitalism were largely dismissed by the public.
The most famous of these organizations was a group called the American Liberty League, and it was heavily financed by leaders at DuPont, General Motors and other corporations. The problem was, was that it seemed, like, very obvious corporate propaganda. As Jim Farley, the head of the Democratic Party at the time, said, they ought to call it the American Cellophane League because number one, it's a DuPont product and number two, you can see right through it.
So when they realized that making this direct case for free enterprise wasn't effective, they decided to find another way to do it. They decided to outsource the job. And they noted in their private correspondence, ministers were the most trusted men in America at the time, and so who better to make the case to the American people than ministers?
GROSS: And so they felt that ministers could say things in a more credible way than business leaders could about the importance of free enterprise and its connection to Christian ideals?
KRUSE: That's it exactly. They used these ministers to make the case that Christianity and capitalism were soul mates. This case had been made before, but in the context of the New Deal, it takes on a sharp new political meaning. And essentially, they argue that Christianity and capitalism are both systems in which individuals rise and fall according to their own merits. And so in Christianity, if you're good, you go to heaven. If you're bad, you go to hell. In capitalism, if you're good, you make a profit and you succeed. If you're bad, you fail.
The New Deal, they argue, violates this natural order. In fact, they argue that the New Deal and the regulatory state violates the Ten Commandments. It makes a false idol of the federal government and encourages Americans to worship it rather than the Almighty. It encourages Americans to covet what the wealthy have. It encourages them to steal from the wealthy in the forms of taxation. And most importantly, it bears false witness against the wealthy by telling lies about them. So they argue that the New Deal is not a manifestation of God's will, but rather a form of pagan sadism, and it is inherently sinful.
GROSS: Pagan statism.
KRUSE: That's right.
GROSS: So the first Christian leader who becomes big in what you describe as this alliance between big business and Christian leaders is The Rev. James Fifield. How did he become the first Christian leader to make this partnership with business leaders, with business lobbies in the 1930s?
KRUSE: Well, Fifield's a fascinating character. He takes over the pastorate at the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, an elite church, literally ministering to millionaires in his pews. It's got some of the town's most wealthy citizens. The mayor attends service there, Cecil B. DeMille. He tells these millionaires what they want to hear, which is that their worldly success is a sign of heavenly blessing. He has a very loose approach to the Bible. He says that reading the Bible should be like eating fish. We take out the bones to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value. Accordingly, he disregarded Christ many injunctions about the dangers of wealth and instead preached a philosophy that wedded capitalism to Christianity.
GROSS: One of the things that Rev. Fifield is responsible for is he's the founder of the Spiritual Mobilization. He founds that in 1935 to promote freedom under God and to, quote, "arouse the ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends toward pagan statism which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals." So tell us a little about the Spiritual Mobilization that he founded.
KRUSE: Spiritual Mobilization is his effort to recruit other ministers to the cause. So he is serving, in many ways, as a front man for a number of corporate leaders. His main sponsor is Sun Oil president J. Howard Pew, but Alfred Sloan of General Motors, the heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers; they all heavily fund this organization.
But what Fifield sets out to do is to recruit other ministers to his cause. And within the span of just a decade's time, he has about 17,000 so-called minister representatives who belong to the organization who are literally preaching sermons on its Christian-libertarian message to their congregations who are competing in sermon contests for cash prizes. And they are doing all they can in their local communities to spread this message that the New Deal is essentially evil. It's a manifestation of creeping socialism that is rotting away the country from within, and instead, they need to rally around business leaders and make common cause with them to defend what they call the American way of life.
GROSS: In 1940, Rev. Fifield addresses the lobby group the National Association of Manufacturers at their big annual convention. What's the importance of his appearance there?
KRUSE: Well, the National Association of Manufacturers had been trying throughout the 1930s to push back against the New Deal, and it had largely failed. It had made very little headway. And so the new president of the National Association of Manufacturers in 1940 gives an address. It's one he'd actually given before to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and it rouses them.
But he gives this major address. It's promoted ahead of time by The Wall Street Journal. It's carried live on two different radio stations. And in this address, he urges businessmen to use religion in the public relations war against the New Deal 'cause he says, economic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism. The only antidote is a revival of American patriotism and religious faith. He says, we must give more attention to the spiritual concept that underlies our American way of life.
So Fifield is someone who's ready to make this case. He'd already been making it for several years locally in Los Angeles, and here he finds a national audience that is so ready to hear him, that, according to one journalist, the applause for this speech that he gave at the Waldorf Astoria - the applause could be heard in Hoboken.
GROSS: So what do you consider Rev. Fifield's greatest contributions to the alliance between business and Christian leaders and to the furthering of the image of America as a Christian nation?
KRUSE: He helps refine the message considerably. He comes up with a phrase that reduces this Christian-libertarian ideology down to a catchy slogan, and that slogan is freedom under God, as opposed to the slavery of the state. And he popularizes this - again, using the generous funding of his corporate backers, he popularized this through a weekly radio program that soon appears on over 800 stations nationwide, through a monthly magazine that popularizes the writings of libertarian and conservative authors and most importantly I think, through a massive Fourth of July ceremony in 1951, a ceremony organized by Cecil B. DeMille, featuring James Stewart as the master of ceremonies, and carried live coast-to-coast over national radio. And in that ceremony, as in the magazine and the weekly radio show, he promotes this message that freedom under God is an essential value, that Americans need to cast off the slavery of the state and instead embrace a rugged individualism.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Kruse. We're talking about his new book "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Kruse. He's professor of history at Princeton University. We're talking about his new book "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America." The history that he's trying to trace is how an alliance between business leaders and Christian leaders that date back to the late '30s and the 1940s creates this image of America as being a Christian nation and leads to mottos like one nation under God.
So one of the key Christian leaders in your book is Rev. Abraham Vereide. So before he became a national figure and before he became allied with major business leaders, what was he known for?
KRUSE: He was known for bringing together political leaders and businessmen at the local level. He started a series of prayer breakfasts in the mid-1930s in an effort to help businessmen weather the storm of labor unrest that was rocking cities like San Francisco and Seattle. And so he brings together local political elites with leading businessmen in these prayer breakfasts where they can try to find common cause and work out a way ahead.
GROSS: So he started prayer breakfasts locally in Seattle, but then he comes to Washington and starts weekly prayer meetings. He persuades the House and the Senate to have weekly prayer meetings. Tell us about how he managed to be so persuasive in Washington, in Congress.
KRUSE: Well, in a way his effort to bring political leaders and business leaders together at the local level, it's a process in which both sides benefit. Business leaders like him more the more political context he has. Political leaders like him more the more business context he had. And this spreads his influence across the country. He starts setting up meetings in places like New York where IBM's Thomas Watson and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, even Rev. Norman Vincent Peale seek out audiences with him. And by 1942, his crusade brings him to Washington, D.C., where he very quickly convinces members of the House and the Senate to set up their own weekly prayer breakfast. And these are prayer breakfasts not just for members Congress, but also for prominent businessmen. The heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, other business leaders often sit in on them. And so in this seemingly wholesome setting, business and political elites come together to find common cause.
GROSS: What was his role in creating the National Prayer Breakfasts in Washington?
KRUSE: Well, the National Prayer Breakfast is born out of these House and Senate prayer breakfasts. After Eisenhower's election, the Senate prayer breakfast invites him to attend and they very quickly find that once word has gotten out that the president's coming, many more people wanted to come. They already had a fairly significant membership, about a quarter of the Senate, but suddenly hundreds from the Senate, the House and all across the government are clamoring for a spot. And they realize they don't have room, so one of the senators contacts Conrad Hilton, who had once told him that he would help him out on any Christian cause he had, and he tells Hilton that he wants to have a breakfast in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., for about 500 guests and that Hilton should pick up the bill. Hilton readily agrees, and so the first National Prayer Breakfast happens in February 1953. Originally Eisenhower believes it's going to be a one-time appearance for him, but he loves it so much that he comes back time and time again. It establishes the idea that this is really the presidential prayer breakfast.
GROSS: And that's kind of how it's become known. And every president since then has attended, right?
KRUSE: That's absolutely right. It's become a time-honored tradition, and the president is often judged upon the message he gives there.
GROSS: So during the era that you're writing about, you know, the '30s, the '40s, the '50s, the Cold War - well, particularly in the late '40s and the '50s - the Cold War is getting really cold.
GROSS: Or it's heating up, depending on how you want to look at it.
GROSS: And of course one of the things in opposition in the Cold War is the Soviet Union's staunch stand against religion and America becoming increasingly Christian in its image. So how much do you think the Cold War plays into this alliance that you're writing about between Christian leaders and business?
KRUSE: The Cold War certainly plays a role here. Traditionally historians have argued that it played the only role. According to the conventional narrative, the Soviet Union discovered the bomb and the United States rediscovered God. In order to push back against the atheistic communism of the Soviet Union, Americans re-embraced a religious identity. And that plays a small role here, but what I argue in the book is that there's actually a longer arc and that that Cold War consensus actually helps to paper over a couple decades of internal political struggles in the United States. If you look at the architects of this language that leads us to one nation under God and in God we trust, in their public speeches and their private correspondence, the state power that they're worried most about is not the Soviet regime in Moscow, but rather The New Deal and Fair Deal administrations in Washington, D.C.
GROSS: Another key figure in your book is Rev. Billy Graham, who kind of enters Washington politics with Dwight Eisenhower during Eisenhower's presidential campaign. How did they get together?
KRUSE: Graham and Eisenhower both essentially have the same wealthy patron, an oil man from Texas named Sid Richardson, who it's estimated is actually the wealthiest man in America in the 1950s. He takes both of them under his wing and does a great deal to advance their individual careers but also to put them in dialogue with one another.
GROSS: And Graham went on to become one of the most well-known evangelicals in the United States, but he wasn't very well-known yet at this time, was he?
KRUSE: Graham emerges on the national scene fairly quickly in late 1949. He's an incredibly talented preacher, but he's very young. He's about 30 years old when he starts, but he catches the eye of some very important people. He catches the eye of this oilman Sid Richardson, who starts to fund him. But he also catches the eye of a number of prominent conservative figures in the media. William Randolph Hearst constructs all of his papers to, quote, "Puff Graham." Henry Luce meets with him and deeply appreciates his message, and soon stories are appearing in Time and Life and Newsweek as well. And so he quickly rises to a level of national prominence that Americans hadn't seen in decades.
GROSS: So what do you think Billy Graham helped promote within politics during the Eisenhower administration when he was very, you know, very close to the president?
KRUSE: Well, Billy Graham helps promote this message of Christian libertarianism, and he does so even before Eisenhower takes power. Throughout the early 1950s, he was highly critical of labor unions and highly sympathetic of corporate needs. He tells a rally in 1952 that the Garden of Eden will be a paradise with no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes and no disease. He says the type of revival I'm calling for calls for an employee to put in a full eight hours of work. He said a good Christian would never join a union to unfairly take advantage of his employer. At the same time, Graham's hostility to organized labor was matched by his dislike of government involvement in the economy, which he invariably condemned as socialism. He warned that government restrictions in the realm of free enterprise threatened freedom of opportunity. He'd become such a passionate defender of unfettered free enterprise that a London columnist eventually starts calling him the big business evangelist.
GROSS: President Eisenhower instituted the first opening prayers at a Cabinet meeting. That catches on in other departments - the State Department, the Pentagon which started their meetings - correct me if I'm wrong here - with opening prayers. Was that at Billy Graham's suggestion?
KRUSE: The practice of prayer at Cabinet meetings is actually a suggestion initiated by the secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, who's one of the leaders of the Mormon Church. Benson asked Eisenhower if he can give a prayer at one of the early Cabinet meetings, and it quickly catches on. Eisenhower polls his Cabinet, and they're all universally in favor of this, so it quickly becomes a regular practice. That said, it wasn't an easy habit for Eisenhower himself to remember sometimes. After one Cabinet meeting, his secretary recalled Eisenhower slapped his forehead and said, Jesus Christ, we forgot the prayer.
GROSS: So what do you see Billy Graham's biggest role in the 1950s as being in terms this alliance between Christian leaders, politicians and business leaders?
KRUSE: His role is pivotal in the 1950s. He holds the first religious services on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. He holds regular revivals in the D.C. Armory in which congressmen are literally serving as the ushers. So he brings together religion and politics with a force that no one had seen before, and he helps fuse piety and patriotism like no other religious leader had before him.
GROSS: My guest is Kevin Kruse, author of the new book "One Nation Under God." After a break, we'll talk about how the phrase one nation under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and the phrase in God we trust started being printed on paper money in the 1950s. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kevin Kruse, author of the new book "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America." It investigates how the idea of America as a Christian nation was promoted in the 1930s and '40s when industrialists and business lobbies chafing against the government regulations of the New Deal recruited and funded conservative clergy to preach faith, freedom and free enterprise. He says this conflation of Christianity and capitalism moved to center stage in the '50s under Eisenhower's watch. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University.
In trying to trace how America started to perceive itself as a Christian nation in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, you write about how in God we trust was added to the postage stamp in 1954. How did that come to be?
KRUSE: So the phrase in God we trust comes from an often forgotten stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner. It goes, then conquer we must, when our cause it is just. And this be our motto - in God is our trust. And that stanza was largely forgotten until the Civil War when that phrase, in God we trust, is plucked out of that line and placed on coins. And it's done so at the urging of religious leaders who believe that the Civil War has come as a result of America's original sin of not officially being founded as a Christian nation. And they ask the secretary of treasury to correct that, and he does so by placing it on coins.
And the phrase appears on coins intermittently over the next 50 or 60 years. Theodore Roosevelt tries to have it removed. He believes it's close to sacrilege, but the public outcry prevents him from doing so. But during this moment of the Eisenhower years, the phrase flourishes. And it does so first when it's placed on a stamp in 1954. In 1955, Congress decides to add it to not just coins but to paper money. And in 1956, they moved to make it the country's first official national motto.
GROSS: So did that move pass to make it the official motto?
KRUSE: Yes, it did, in 1956.
GROSS: And then the words, under God, were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. How did that come to be?
KRUSE: Well, much like in God we trust, the origins of one nation under God come from the Civil War, specifically in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But the phrase again is largely forgotten until it's plucked out of obscurity during this moment in the 1950s, and it's added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Originally, the Pledge of Allegiance was quite secular. In fact, its author, Francis Bellamy, was something that would've been considered an oxymoron in the 1950s - he's a Christian socialist. He's a Baptist minister. But like many Baptists of that era, he believes firmly in the separation of church and state, so he made no mention of God in the original pledge.
But in the early 1950s, as this new religious revival is sweeping the country and taking on new political tones, the phrase, one nation under God, seizes the national imagination. And it starts with a proposal by the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic labor organization, to add the phrase, under God, to the Pledge of Allegiance. Their initial campaign doesn't go anywhere, but once Eisenhower's own pastor endorses it in a sermon he gives with Eisenhower sitting before him, it catches fire.
GROSS: Who was Eisenhower's pastor? Was that Billy Graham?
KRUSE: No, his personal pastor was a man named Rev. George Docherty. He's a Scotsman. And he says that as an immigrant, he can listen to the Pledge of Allegiance in a way in which ordinary Americans who've heard it their entire lives cannot. And he said as he listens to it, as his second-grade son comes home and recites it to him, he's struck by the fact that it could've been the Pledge of Allegiance to any country. In fact, he says, I could've even heard little Muscovites saying it to their hammer and sickle flag because it lacks the one thing that makes America unique. And that, he argues, is the belief that America is one nation under God.
GROSS: So the premise of your book is that Christian leaders and business leaders unite to equate Christianity with free-market principles, but you say that President Eisenhower, although he was very close to Billy Graham, kind of uncoupled those two things. So he brought the idea of, you know, one nation under God into the White House, but at the same time that he adhered to the principles of the New Deal. So that's kind of an argument against your thesis 'cause at this point, you know, the leader of the country isn't following the agenda that you're describing.
KRUSE: Right and so the corporate influence is really only present in the early part of the story. And the rest of it is a tale of unintended consequences. The movement that they had started - this idea that America is formally and officially a Christian nation - lives on beyond them. Eisenhower embraces that part of it, and so the corporate agenda that had backed it quickly falls away. And instead, you have the unintended consequences of Americans starting to think that their country was officially a religious nation.
GROSS: Much of your book is about the 1930s, '40s and '50s, but you do cover periods after that. And in talking about President Reagan, you credit him with being the first president to end all or most of his speeches with God bless America. I didn't realize that started with him. Had presidents not done that before that?
KRUSE: President Reagan is the innovator here when it comes to the use of God bless America. A study by communication scholars David Domke and Kevin Coe show that previously only one president had used that phrase to close a speech out, and it's an inauspicious occasion. It's President Nixon in 1973 trying to talk his way out of the Watergate Scandal. But Reagan quickly makes it a fixture of all of his speeches so much so that we can't imagine a president ending a speech without some variation on God bless America.
GROSS: So your book is called "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America." And the premise of your book is starting in the 1930s, some Christian leaders aligned with business leaders, and the Christian leaders help promote the business leaders' agenda of free markets. This was during the early period of the New Deal. And Christian leaders preach that free-market principles are very compatible with Christian ideals and that Christians should not worship a pagan state - a state that was trying to control things such as through the New Deal. So how do you see that alliance that you trace back to the 1930s, between Christian leaders and business leaders, playing out today?
KRUSE: Well, it continues on into the present day in two real ways - one, the alliance of both religious conservatives and business conservatives still adheres around that central principle of opposition to interference from the state. They rally around Reagan's motto of getting the government off our backs, and in a lot of ways many of them have stayed together up to the present.
But the larger theme here of this fusion of piety and patriotism has continued onto the present day. You only have to look at the last two presidencies to see this. President George W. Bush, a man of apparently sincere faith, brought that into the White House. He did so with a phrase he called compassionate conservatism. Some conservatives thought it was an empty marketing gimmick. As Republican speechwriter David Frum put it - love conservative but hate arguing about abortions? Try our new compassionate conservatism - great ideological taste, now with less controversy.
But he backed those words with deeds, both with a faith-based initiative and with a general tone that welcomed large numbers of faiths into the American family. We saw this after 9/11 when President Bush was the first president ever to make a visit to an Islamic house of worship in which he made it very clear that he considered Muslims part of this religious nation. We see this again with President Obama in a speech that launched him to fame in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. He invoked a great deal of this religious language. He said what makes this country work was a belief based on lessons in the Bible - I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper. So this fusion of faith and freedom, of piety and patriotism, is very much alive and well.
GROSS: If you see the phrases one nation under God and in God we trust as having validated that religion and politics should be fused together, what direction do you think that has led America in?
KRUSE: In the original context in Eisenhower's era, those phrases were welcoming, and I think they've often been that. I think they've brought Americans together. We saw this when George W. Bush became the first president to speak at a mosque. He welcomed Muslims in as part of that family.
In other hands, though, I think it's been quite divisive. I talk about in the book how Richard Nixon used this language not to bring Americans together but to drive them apart. He holds regular church services right there in the White House to promote the values of the silent majority. He gets Billy Graham to hold massive rallies, one at the Lincoln Memorial, in order to basically sell the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia.
So it depends on the way in which it's used. If it's used to bring Americans together, I think, in a genuine spirit, I think it works well. But I think if it's used to advance a partisan agenda, I think it quickly becomes polarizing.
GROSS: What surprised you most in researching your book?
KRUSE: Well, I think what surprised me most was I went at this with an assumption that religious leaders would all be lined up on one side in favor of this public religion. And what I found was that in many cases they led the opposition to it.
So I talk in the book about the congressional hearings over a constitutional prayer amendment in the mid-1960s. After the Supreme Court strikes down state-sanctioned programs of school prayer, there's a movement in Congress to pass a constitutional amendment, and it's an incredibly popular one. It seems like it's going to surely pass. In the 1963-1964 term, the term in which Congress is debating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it receives more mail on this issue of school prayer than any other. The public is strongly in favor of it. But religious leaders enter the debate and they push back against it. And the reason they do so is they say that they resent a watered-down public faith - what they call a one-size-fits-all faith, what I call a lowest-common-denomination religion. And they lead the charge against this. And they find that politicians, they say, may believe that any prayer is a prayer, but these individual religious leaders - Protestants, Catholics and Jews alike - all hold that they're members of their own particular faith because they believe in the details that animate that faith, and they don't want them bleached out. They don't want them watered down.
And so they lead the charge against this campaign for school prayer. They believe that the state has intruded on their grounds of religious instruction and the state has begun to meddle in their affairs. And so I was very surprised to see how forcefully and effectively they pushed back against that campaign.
GROSS: Kevin Kruse, thank you so much for talking with us.
KRUSE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Kevin Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University and author of the new book "One Nation Under God." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of short essays about poetry and poets by Clive James. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. To usher in April, Poetry Month, our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, reviews a new collection of essays by poet and critic Clive James. James calls poetry the thing that almost nobody can do.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Clive James's most anthologized poem is commonly known by its first two lines: (reading) the book of my enemy has been remaindered. And I am pleased. Those lines tell the uninitiated almost all they need to know about the pleasures to be found in reading James, chief among them his wit and his appreciation of the underlying absurdity of so much literary effort, including his own. What those famous lines don't reveal about James is his erudition - lightly worn, but very much on display, in his latest book of criticism called "Poetry Notebook."
In his introduction, James says that for him poetry has been the occupation of a lifetime. It's a lifetime that's drawing to a close. James was diagnosed a few years ago with leukemia, and the short book is shot through with an awareness that the poems he's talking about will outlast him. Or, as James more elegantly puts it, (reading) there is a grief in all poetry. Poetry holds itself together, and eventually we ourselves do not.
"Poetry Notebook" is a rousing compendium of short essays about poetry and poets that James has published over the years. Never one to hesitate about issuing a provocative verdict, James pays homage to poets like Yeats, Auden, Frost and Richard Wilbur, whom he considers immortals, and rips into others whose work he deems overpraised. Thus, no less an eminence than John Milton is condemned for being a showoff and clogging his verse with learned references that render large swaths of "Paradise Lost" unreadable. James also clearly possesses an encyclopedic recall for other poets' barbed criticisms. So part of the pleasure of reading "Poetry Notebook" is learning - or perhaps being reminded - that Philip Larkin once said that the influence of Yeats could be all pervasive, getting into everything like the smell of garlic.
One word of caution - James holds fast to his identity as a formalist, someone who would at bottom generally agree with Robert Frost's celebrated dismissal of formless poetry as playing tennis without a net. So don't expect any celebrations of the likes of rap or spoken-word poetry in these pages. Furthermore, James only manages the briefest of nervous nods to those exotic creatures on the margins - female poets, like Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt and Sylvia Plath. Reading "Poetry Notebook" is like stepping into a popular college seminar circa 1979. You'll learn a lot and be vastly entertained, but be aware that multiculturalism hasn't made much of a dent on James's written-in-stone syllabus. What you will find in "Poetry Notebook" are charged, idiosyncratic readings of the classics, as well as more recent works by albeit male poets you may not have heard of but will want to dig into, like James's fellow Australian Stephen Edgar and the late American poet Michael Donaghy.
As amusing as his dyspeptic quips always are, James's intellect shines brightest in his role as enthusiast, taking us through works that he loves. Here, for instance, is a brief, brief poem about World War II by Greenwich Village poet Samuel Menashe, who died in 2011. It's called "Beachhead." (Reading) The tide ebbs from a helmet. Wet sand embeds. That's the whole poem, James comments, and there's a whole war in it. He also says about Menashe that his full force is no noisier than a bug hitting your windscreen, except it comes right through the glass. The same might be said of James's own critical writing here. Intensity of language is the crucial ingredient for James, the thing that separates poetry from pros, that distinguishes a glom of words from something that breathes. His own intensity of language in this collection, and throughout so much of his life's writing, has validated James's critical authority to pass judgment on the work of others. You may not agree with James's selections in "Poetry Notebook" or some of his opinions, but I defy anyone not to be moved by these essays in which a great critic reflects on the works that have shaped him, even as, James says, he prepares himself to head off to the empty regions.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Poetry Notebook" by Clive James. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, is going to review a newly released batch of live recordings that saxophonist Art Pepper made shortly before his death. That's after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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