New Essay/Interview for the Daily Beast: James Lee Burke Talks About His Fiction, History, and the American Dream

In my new essay for the Daily Beast, I profiled James Lee Burke, one of America’s greatest living writers. His new book – Wayfaring Stranger – is an epic work of historical fiction, sweeping across the 20th century to tell the story of Bonnie and Clyde, the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of commercial oil industry, and the emergence of Hollywood.

It is also Burke’s best book, and one of the best book of modern American fiction.

In my conversation with Burke, we discussed the personal origins of the book, American history and politics, and why he is sadness over the “death of traditional America” is not naïve or nostalgic.

Read it at the Daily Beast.

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New Essay at Truthout – “America: What Happened?”

One of the reasons many formerly rational and moral liberals are so emotionally and intellectually invested in the advancement of President Obama, despite his war crimes, incompetence, and violations of constitutional law, is that the alternative is too frightening. It is too terrifying to admit that American civilization is in a state of collapse, and that there is no hope for recovery. The empire is crashing, the economy is hemorrhaging, the political system is eroding, and the culture is in a state of irreversible decay. President Obama is yet another technocratic corporate and Pentagon toady without the principles, integrity, or decency to serve the public interest and common good. Conditions may slightly worsen or slightly improve if he doesn’t win reelection, but it doesn’t really matter. As James McMurtry sang, “We can’t make it here anymore.”  All available evidence supports this bleak, but realistic evaluation of the American future, but acknowledging it calls into question the entire progressive project. So, why do it? Why not keep the illusion alive? The truth is always right. America and Americans are better off if we all recognize the reality of failure. The most powerful civilizations have always declined, and now it is our turn.

Very few people have the courage to state the obvious. Cultural historian Morris Berman is one of the lonely few – shouting into the dark, motivated only by his love for the truth. Berman is a brilliant thinker, thorough researcher, and wonderful writer. His trilogy of books on American decline is the subject of my new essay at Truthout - “America: What Happened? A Sneak Preview of the ‘Other’ Twilight Saga”. It is difficult to imagine a future in which historians do not dust off Berman’s books and conclude, “These explain what happened.” While everyone else was onanistically engaging in self-deception and fantasies of revolution, future historians will say, Berman had the intelligence, bravery, and values necessary to call it as he saw it and call it accurately.

Our lifestyle of endless hustling and rabid consumption, our cannibalistic individualism and narcissism, and our xenophobic and militaristic posture towards the rest of the world – all supported by both major political parties and the majority of the American people – has dug us a grave out of which we cannot climb.

My essay began as a review, but as a few readers have pointed out to me in emails, it turns into a manifesto for an alternative tradition and for detachment from the absurdity of the American political system as it is.

I have to take a moment to applaud and thank the Truthout staff for their courage. Several other “liberal” publications rejected the article for ideological reasons. One editor dismissed Berman as “sounding like a crank,” after admitting he had never read any of the books. Another editor asked me to rewrite the second half so that I would refute Berman’s argument and actually claim that America will come back better than ever. A third editor told me that I had no “historical awareness,” that Berman is nuts for claiming that his life in Mexico is happy – a good life in Mexico is nearly impossible, she argued, because of the drug cartels – and told me that the Occupy Movement, which no longer even seems to exist, is going to turn everything around. The Truthout staff deserves much respect for publishing the essay.

“America: What Happened?” is for starry-eyed realists who make the distinction between “hope” and “optimism” that Christopher Lasch elevated and defended. Optimism is a foolish belief in progress. Hope is the spiritual belief that even through collapse – even through cultural death – human goodness – a love and justice ethic – can occasionally emerge to make a difference.

Readers interested in Berman’s trilogy (Twilight of American CultureDark Ages America, Why America Failed) should also pick up his recent essay collection, A Question of Values. Regardless of where readers start, an investment in Berman is time and energy well spent. It will pay off in the forms of intellectual growth and clarity, and the improvement of life that results from the enlargement of the mind. It is certainly much better than being part of the delusional crowd clinging on to a weed growing out of the rock, believing it will hold and keep you from falling off the cliff.

I am happy and proud to be one of the few writers helping Berman get his tough, smart, and important message into the public mind.