*NEW* A Eulogy for Nigger and other essays by various authors

Reviewed by Victoria

nhe essays 2015The marvellous Notting Hill Editions, as well as publishing some of the most toothsome books available at present,  runs a biennial essay competition open to published or unpublished authors writing in English. The whole shortlist is then gathered together in a special edition once the competition is over. A Eulogy for Nigger – the winning essay (extract here)– and other essays packs the most rich and wonderful stew of ingredients into its small format. The six essays are amazingly broad in topic but all quite brilliant in execution. Essays were once a seemingly lost art form but now  – and again quite possibly thanks to NHE in the UK – they are clearly in no need of a eulogy if this collection is anything to go by.

‘A Eulogy for Nigger’ by David Bradley is a stunning piece of writing. Drawing on a small news item about a ceremony in 2007 in Detroit in which a ‘public burial for the N-word’ was celebrated, Bradley writes with some astonishment that ‘I hadn’t known Nigger was even sick.’ What follows is a masterful cultural history of a racial stereotype. ‘He was born in Virginia in the eighteenth century,’ the product of an alluring slave and a wealthy white overlord who would go on to be president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia proved a damning indictment of the African American and one that would live on unchecked in a segregated world. But Nigger, in David Bradley’s account, understood ‘he’d have to free himself’. This Nigger, liberated from official power, inherited the subversive kind instead. It’s a brilliant portrait of what has been won and lost with political correctness: ‘Take Nigger out of American history; all that’s left is indentured servitude… Take Nigger out of American literature; Huckleberry Finn is ‘What I Did on My Summer Vacation’ and Native Son is a bad crime novel’. Every line of this essay is quotable, and every image gives you pause for thought: ‘I imagined Nigger living in some southern college town under the name “Historically Black”.’

Jennifer Kabat’s ‘The Rainmaker’s Flood’ is a beautifully crafted meditation on a series of American attempts to make clouds produce more rain, undertaken at first because of severe drought, but only really put to use in the Vietnam war. The idea was to seed clouds with silver iodide, and the result was catastrophic floods – not quite the ‘silver lining’ that might have been hoped for. The original scientific experiment that took place in the Catskills in 1950 resulted in a court case in which ‘dozens of private citizens sued the city and Wallace Howell [the lead scientist] for more than a million dollars.’ The event was hushed up and the case dismissed on a technicality. But a brief outline of the plot of this essay doesn’t do it justice. It’s a charmingly interwined rope of connected ideas – snow, mud, rain, damage in its various forms, including war, the seductive beauty of science, the recalcitrant and yet unexpectedly fragile environment.

Josh Cohen’s essay was probably my personal favourite. ‘The Incurious Rabbit’ is an exploration of a desire that is common to humankind but especially prevalent today for a state of emptiness, even if – perhaps especially if – it is dead, mindless, unheeding. Drawing on his experiences in the consulting room and on Melville’s novel about the reluctant Bartelby, Cohen suggests that we live in a world in which ‘We are daily bombarded with an avalanche of data and stimulation, far exceeding our capacity to process or navigate it.’ The result is an ever-increasing isolation from our own specific desires, an exhausted aversion to the process of choosing and desiring, the longing, so strange as to be almost impossible to articulate, ‘to be allowed to choose nothing. So thoroughly internalized is the spirit of compulsory activity governing our culture that we cannot let ourselves hear or even imagine the wish to put a stop to it’. I completely agreed, and the essay spoke to an inchoate problem that I’d felt myself. All I know is that every email informing me I’m about to ‘miss out’ gets instantly binned, unread.

Johanna Moehring’s essay ‘Guts’ is a timely consideration of politics, power and violence. Has Europe gone soft, she wonders, after its years of abhorring violence, and will we have to accept bloodshed in the name of continued democracy? Suspended between America and Russia, both of whom have less queasiness about the use of violence in religious conflict and more determination to fight for what they think is right, will we in Europe have to face some uncomfortable decisions? This is a clever and subtle essay, refusing any obvious answers, but finding nuanced ways to express the problems.

Kate McLoughlin’s essay takes up the historical events that gave Europe its fatigue with violent conflict and makes a productive return to Paul Fussell’s book of literary criticism, The Great War and Modern Memory. This is a detailed and finely-sliced analysis of a book that has both identified the major myths to emerge from the First World War and done its part in establishing them. Stepping carefully through the rubble of commentary on its literary intentions, McLoughlin teases out various significant strands, declaring it a work that combines ‘protest literature, mythography, creation-as-criticim, life writing, “elegiac commentary”. It demonstrated and continues to demonstrate, that responses to literature and history can be epistemologically eclectic.’

And finally, Garry Cooper’s essay, ‘Hope at the Edge’ is a contemporary probing into the greatest existential question: how to face death, and the death of hope (which may amount to the same thing)? Cooper describes three hiking trips he took, the first of which nearly finished him off, the second was ruined by flashbacks of his previous near-death experience, and the third made uncomfortable and troubling by his ageing body and those pesky, insistent memories. What are we to do with the experiences that show us our real and undeniable limits? ‘The accepted psychological wisdom says that we gradually digest loss, chewing on whatever psychic antacids help us through the roughest parts – a belief in a god or the afterlife, meaningful activities, distraction, denial, addictions, amusements, an acceptance of death… Research indicates they’re all equally effective at eroding grief, but as slowly as water against a rock.’ This is a melancholy essay, infused with the spirit of the endgame, as Cooper believes we are heading towards the end of life on the planet as we know it, and whilst I think humans are more resilient and wily than that, I could not fault a word of this essay which is just so beautifully written.

An extraordinary collection, and a must for all essay lovers.

holly

Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

David Bradley, et al., A Eulogy for Nigger and other essays (Notting Hill Editions, October 2015). 978-1910749081, 160 pages, hardback.

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