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Corn: Where are the Twains and Tolstoys of today?

POSTED: April 23, 2010 1:00 a.m.

With the erratic undulations of our current political and economic upheaval, it is only natural that our hunger for an explanation of events should increase.

Unfortunately, today's public thinkers and writers mostly fail to meet this obligation. Their shortfall is certainly not due to a lack of activity, for publications bulge at the seams with the busy scribbling of thoughtful people. Yet a comparison with the generation of a century ago reveals a collective production today which is fragmented, insecure and often shamelessly commercial.

Exactly 100 years ago this week, America lost its favorite man of letters. Mark Twain's fiction is well known the world over, but his commentary on American life often is forgotten. Apart from his humorous ridicule, he seriously opposed American imperialism abroad, despised the ruthlessness of the new joint-stock corporations and consistently argued against the brutal racism of the day.

So where are voices like Twain's today? Clearly he was a literary genius, but great talent and ability are born to every generation.

To illustrate the difference between writers of the two eras, a direct comparison is useful. Chris Hedges was a foreign war correspondent for the New York Times for two decades, and since his break with his longtime employer, he has quickly amassed a body of journalistic commentary on American life.

Even the briefest exposure to Hedges writing reveals a mind of unquestioned ability, depth and range. His style is lucid, direct and relentless in its attack. He has written several books, his "Empire of Illusion" being the most ambitious.

In "Empire" Hedges resorts to analysis in his diatribe, taking on one at a time the cult of celebrity, Evangelical Christians, the consumer economy, illiteracy and elitism. His insights are penetrating and resonant, but ultimately the effort is unfulfilling and repulsive to the reader. Hedges description of the pornography industry alone was enough to make me physically ill. Though his research is impeccable and his integrity not in doubt, the artless recitation of all that is detestable in life leaves the reader with only disgust and revulsion.

Is life really so terrible today? Was it so much better 50 years ago? In the end, Hedges argues in favor of almost nothing. Having spent his energy on assault, he has nothing positive to propose. Throughout his writings, he champions the independence and integrity of the intellectual, yet forgets his duty, as defined by Barzun, to help us understand and endure life better.

To contrast Hedges with the generation of thinkers that closed out the 19th century, one can look to a writer no less critical, but one whose mental and artistic powers represent Western Civilization at its productive apex. Leo Tolstoy, became world famous in his own lifetime for his novels and his ideas are still remarkably influential today.

In Tolstoy's masterpiece "War and Peace," he takes in the whole of society with one massive sweep. He understands everything, and in the intuitive manner natural to the highest form of intelligence. His living portrayal of family life, power politics, military campaigns, class structure and national struggle effortlessly immerses the reader.

With his impressive historical understanding, Tolstoy narrates Napoleon's Russian campaign and shows the development of the armies, battles and the campaign itself as the result of countless individual decisions and the myriad forces at work on the conflict. The truth brought to light is the complex nature of life, which dismisses the comfort that comes by attributing one cause to every outcome.

It is a work highly critical of the class system, and many other aspects of society, yet the social reality conveyed by the depth of the characters and their vivid experiences during the war gives the book the feeling of real life. What's more, the author clearly has a positive agenda, for many poignant chapters of the book linger on the joys of domestic life and the simple beauty of country pursuits like music and hunting.

Where are such giants as Tolstoy and Twain today? Talent we have; however, several factors have sapped the influence of the current generation. Many fall prey to greed. Men like Thomas Freidman, Christopher Hitchens and Robert Kaplan have given themselves totally to moneymaking, selling the latest idea fad and thus surrendering their integrity.

Others like Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky indulge in the vanity of moral superiority and alienate everyone with endless raillery. Specialization shrinks the stature of many others. David Brooks is only heard on conservative political topics, Michael Lewis on high finance. This niche marketing tactic has no place in the realm of ideas, and while it may increase the expert's profile in one area, it damages his greater authority.

What we have left are few trustworthy independent voices. What fills the gap is a cacophony of industry propaganda, personal promotion, partisan squabbling and celebrity gossip. Many public thinkers have claimed to be the victim of outside forces, from a censoring corporate media to an uncaring public, but the truth is probably that they are rejected because they have discredited themselves.

For no matter what the circumstances or constraints put on a mind like Tolstoy's or Twain's, it always commands attention.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears on alternate Friday and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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