Spellcheck, the Poem

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Sometime in the early 1990s, I took my son, then perhaps seven, to see a revival of The Charge at Feather River, a 3-D cowboy-and-Indian (-and-cavalry) film from 1953. Mine was a nostalgic journey. Would I still duck, I wondered, when that crude 3-D form did the one thing it was capable of — throw something at me? My initial 3-D foray, Fort Ti, also in 1953, had left me behind a seatback as the first flaming arrow, the one with my name burned into it, headed off-screen. Forty years later, when the arrows winged their way toward me, I still found myself flinching

As a movie, Charge turned out to be retro even for 1953: The Indians were especially evil and the plot was based on the oldest pop hook in the American cultural pantheon, the capture of white women by savages and their subsequent rescue. Still, I can’t deny that, sitting there in that dark movie theater, I found myself reliving some of the best moments of my childhood; for “war” on screen, with friends in park and countryside, or with toy soldiers on the floor, was the sunniest part of growing up for many boys of my generation (and generations before that). I had more or less forgotten about my son, perched beside me in silence, until he tugged on my sleeve. “Dad,” he said in a stage whisper that filled the theater, “I’m confused. I thought the Indians were the good guys.”

So there we were, just post-Gulf War I, way post-Star Wars and Rambo, post early versions of Dungeons and Dragons and the first video games, and I realized that the American story of my childhood was gone; the one that once sent chills up my spine when the cavalry bugle sounded or the Marine Hymn welled up as our soldiers advanced; the one that explained (without even seeming to) why they lost and we won, why they fell by their scores and we didn’t. An American victory culture had more or less evaporated.

Sometime in those same years, I sat down and wrote my book, The End of Victory Culture, about how that had happened; how an American tradition of triumphalism (and a war story intimately connected with it) — after the Bomb, the Great Red Scare, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and so much else — had finally collapsed. Whether we won actual wars or not, it was history. Finis. And the book soon seemed as superannuated as the former antiwar activist of the Vietnam era who wrote it.

How could I have guessed that, in 2000, we would elect a President and pals who had stayed way too long in those dark movie theaters; who had managed to avoid engagement with the Vietnam War on any side; who still gloried in the idea of an American war story and the triumphalism that went with it; who not only wanted to dominate the world militarily, but wanted to replay those scenes where the bugles blared and the bluecoats charged on a global stage? How could I have imagined that we would have a President whose dream was to dress up like G.I. Joe, appear in front of massed ranks of soldiers chanting “hoo-ah!,” and issue threats (“dead or alive”) out of old cowboy movies? How could I have imagined that, at least once a month, I would pick up my superannuated history of the Cold War, open it to a passage on withdrawal plans that weren’t meant to withdraw us from Vietnam, or Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of the presidency, or what growing up nuclear really meant, and simply crib it for some Tomgram (with the barest of alterations)? How could I have imagined that such ancient material would once again be as live as tomorrow? Yikes!

All this came back to me in part because quite a different book I wrote, about another world I once inhabited and also thought was going, going, gone, is now in paperback. I’m speaking of my novel, The Last Days of Publishing. I wrote it, too, because I believed something was over, something that should not be forgotten. When I began writing it just around the turn of the new millennium, I had been an editor in or at the edges of mainstream publishing for almost a quarter-century, and had found my faith not in writing or reading, but in publishing itself oozing away. It must sound counterintuitive — beginning a book based on my loss of faith in publishing and then trying to get it published — but there we are. Even more surprising, writing that book I had the best time of my life, in part because it proved so enjoyable to create an alter-ego editor with a very different editing style but with whom I could share thoughts about our strange craft.

Soon after I completed the novel, I was swept away by Tomdispatch and the publishing series I now co-edit, the American Empire Project, both of which, in some strange fashion, renewed my faith in the published word in every form (even the one that probably started me on my life of reading, the cereal box). By the time I began The Last Days of Publishing, I had lived through the triaging the publishing business had undergone — as almost all independent houses were gobbled up or wiped out, and then the larger publishing ensembles were engulfed by giant entertainment conglomerates trying ever more desperately to scale the global entertainment heavens product in hand.

The book itself is such a modest object (even if its goal — to break you into another universe — is immodest indeed); and because the effort that goes into breaking the code of any good book, of turning those squiggles of ink into worlds of being, is so desperately labor-intensive, the book sits relatively uncomfortably in today’s entertainment package, where the codes are generally already broken for you. So in a way I wrote my novel to break a code and the habits of a working lifetime; to rid myself of my world and, at the same time, memorialize it. But here too, the world I wrote about refused to go away — not just the small presses that spring to life with absurd and wonderful hopes all the time, but the majors — no longer freestanding “houses” — where “literary” life continues with all the downsizing fierceness of Bush’s America and Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Bait and Switch.

In case you hadn’t noticed, by the way, this is a pitch — and I swear to you, if you’re patient just a little longer, there will be a payoff. As those of you know who have been reading Tomdispatch for a while, it’s a freebie website (thanks in part to the wonderful support of the Nation Institute which houses the site and made me an Institute Fellow). So you never arrive to find one of those desperate pleas posted urging you to send in your money and save Tomdispatch, nor to my version of NPR’s Pledge Week. To tell the truth, I love the freeness of Tomdispatch — and I’ve been willing to go out as a book editor and do the necessary work to keep it so. That freeness seems like part of the essence of the site and I hope never to have to violate it. But when it comes to getting all of you to buy books, especially my books… well, that’s another matter. There I have no mercy.

The Last Days of Publishing is just out in paperback. It offers you an intimate look at a world I lived in for almost 30 years. Unfortunately, it’s a novel without gun battles, invasions, crashing airplanes, dead bodies, or exploding bombs; but there are some great (publishing) meals in it. There’s also one small desk fire, a tad of sex, and a raw, multigenerational struggle for one editor’s soul and pencil. If you want a thumbnail sketch of the book, check out novelist Herb Gold’s review in the Los Angeles Times. (“A satisfyingly virulent, comical, absurd, deeply grieving true portrait of how things work today in the sleek factories of conglomerate book producers. . . . [A] skillful novel of manners — of very bad manners…”) Or read the interview I did with myself about why I wrote such a novel. Then consider clicking here and going to the University of Massachusetts Press website to order a copy for yourself (or, if you already ordered the book in hardcover long ago, for that friend of yours who likes fiction).

If fiction isn’t your thing, then consider picking up a copy of The End of Victory Culture. That way, as you read future Tomgrams, you’ll know exactly which passages I’m cribbing from my own past writings. (My favorite comment on the book, by the way, came from Studs Terkel: “America Victorious has been our country’s postulate since its birth. Tom Engelhardt, with a burning clarity, recounts the end of this fantasy, from the split atom to Vietnam. It begins at our dawn’s early light and ends with the twilight’s last gleaming. It is as powerful as a Joe Louis jab to the solar plexus.”) To buy it, click here to arrive (again) at the UMass Press website — or, of course, you can wander into your local independent bookstore and demand that they get you copies of both.

If you happen to belong to a book group, consider choosing one of my books for an upcoming meeting. Admittedly, neither has an author interview at the back or any of those silly questions that publishers now stick in books for reading groups assumedly too numb to think up questions of their own; nor is there a reader’s circle “guide” to accompany either volume, but think of Tomdispatch, which you’ve been reading anyway, as that guide. You already know me better than I know myself! And when you’ve read my books, you’ll know them better than I ever could. So I urge you to support Tomdispatch by spreading not just The Word, but my words. Pick one or more copies of the paperback of The Last Days of Publishing or The End of Victory Culture, and make me deliriously happy.

Congratulations! You’ve managed to last through my pitch. You’ve undoubtedly already clicked to the website and put in your order. Now, here’s the modest payoff. No umbrellas or tote bags or T-shirts with the elegant Tomdispatch logo on them, I’m afraid — though my wife and daughter made me a pretty spiffy Tomdispatch T-shirt: On the front, the drawing my mother, a theatrical caricaturist for New York newspapers and magazines from the late 1920s into the 1950s, did as my birth announcement (tot Tom in my father’s Army Air Force hat saluting in diapers), with the words “Established in 1944,” and TomDispatch.com on the back!) All I can offer here, however, is a “poem.”

With all the writing I do, I regularly call on my computer’s Spellcheck program. Over the years I’ve been charmed and amused by its range of responses to words it found puzzling. I was always telling myself: You should write that one down, though I never did. After a while, I began to bond with “my” Spellcheck (undoubtedly the computer version of Stockholm Syndrome). It seemed to me that I was witnessing, as in so many sci-fi novels, the growth of something like rudimentary Artificial Intelligence. Its suggestions resonated in strange ways and I came to find its affinity for the language oddly poetic. I hesitate even to use that word. Except for a few months during my freshman year in college, when I wrote moony poetry (so poor it would have flunked out of any collection of terrible verse), I’ve never claimed I had a poetic bone in my body. Still, awhile back I started writing down some of Spellcheck’s responses and I offer a small selection of them now in the form of a poem (of sorts).

Spellcheck, the Poem (with Commentary)

For Ahdab, the oil field in Iraq, it suggests Ahab. (Think: whale oil)

For Bertolt (as in Brecht), it suggests beetroot or betroth, betel or petrol. (Like Tomdispatch, it has oil on the brain.)

For blog, it suggests bog. (Who can’t identify?)

For Hagel, Chuck, Republican Senator from Nebraska, it suggests Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, philosopher from Stuttgart, or haggle, the mercantile philosophy. (It has wit.)

For Hormuz (Straits of), Hormel (frankfurter of).

For IEDs, Ides. (It sometimes takes a grim turn.)

For imperium, emporium. (It knows its global politics…)

For Kornblut, New York Times reporter Anne E., hornpout, the Eastern freshwater catfish. (…but doesn’t shy away from whimsy…)

For Maktoum, a clan in Dubai, it suggests factotums or atoms. (…nor steer clear of foreign shores…)

For Pax Americana, Pox Americana or Plax Americana. (…nor strong opinions.)

For plangently, plan gently. (It can even soften a lament…)

For Solnit, Rebecca, the optimist, it suggests sunlit or sonnet. (… or brighten a day.)

For spinmeisters, spymasters. (It’s well acquainted with the Bush administration…)

For Zinni (Ret. Centcom Commander Anthony, who has spoken out against Bush’s Iraq War), Zinnia, the flower. (…and ready to reward sanity when it blooms in stony soil.)

A Credit-Where-Credit’s-Due Final Note: Special thanks go to Clark Dougan, my own book editor at the University of Massachusetts Press, who not only breathed new life into one of my books and helped give birth to another, but has regularly turned me into a thief. From our conversations and his emails, I often steal his canny thoughts about our world for Tomgrams; a deep bow to Bruce Wilcox, who directs the Press in that wonderful publishing tradition where your mission matters and you know just what it is; and finally, a salute to Louise Fili — I know of no designer who has better caught the essence of a book in a cover than she did in her award-winning one for The Last Days of Publishing.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.

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