New Essay at Salon: Revisiting Walt Whitman’s, “Democratic Vistas”

In my new essay for Salon, I revisit the master’s work, paying particular attention to the 1871 essay, “Democratic Vistas.” Whitman’s exploration of the struggle of democracy, the beauty and necessity of diversity, equality for women, the gullibility of the populace, and the essentiality of creating a culture of democracy, with the fine arts at the center, applies to America in 2016 with stunning prescience.

My essay includes references to Whitman’s true masterpiece, the epic poem, Leaves of Grass, but most of the focus is on the underrated “Democratic Vistas,” because it is there that Whitman directly confronts all of the triumphs and traumas of the American experiment in self-governance. His wisdom shows no signs of age. My essay begins:

The most wise and visionary analysis of American culture, and the presidential race, in 2016 comes from 1871. In the profound and prescient essay, “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman addressed a nation struggling to unify after civil war, and in the turbulence of its democratic struggle, continuing to fail to extend its promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to all of its people. Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s masterpiece, exercised as inspiration the beauty and brutality of any attempt to turn E Pluribus Unum into reality. The ongoing altercation to amplify what Whitman, in his poetry, called “the password primeval” and “the sign of democracy” has defined the presidential campaign in ways that would surprise even the sharpest of observers. Whitman believed that the sign of democracy included the voices of slaves, prostitutes, deformed persons, the diseased and despairing, and anyone else whose body gives off the human scent – “an aroma finer than prayer.”

Read the rest at Salon.

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New at Salon: Interview with Nathan Rabin on Donald Trump and The Insane Clown Posse

George Carlin once explained that when “you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show, and when you are born in America, you get a front row seat.”

Nathan Rabin, former head writer at the Onion A/V Club, cultural critic and author of “The Big Rewind,” has decided to test the veracity of Carlin’s theory with his new ebook, “7 Days in Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of the Juggalos, and The Summer Everything Went Insane.” Rabin is also able to offer insight into who the real freaks are: Are they fans of the socially stigmatized rap group, Insane Clown Posse, whom the FBI has labeled a dangerous organization and public threat, or Republican Trump supporters? At the risk of spoiling the fun, I’ll mention that the maniacs are not the ones wearing circus makeup.

In his equally amusing, fascinating and moving new book, Rabin chronicles his week in Ohio, attending both the annual Gathering of the Juggalos and the Republican National Convention. As if that were not enough to provide fodder for entertainment and journalism, Rabin spent the seven days with his long-lost brother, allowing him to further reflect on broken families, fractured relationships and the painful consequences of disconnection.

Rabin writes with his characteristic wit, but he also maintains an empathy that is staggering in its profundity and potency. As clichéd as it might seem, when I read Rabin’s account and analysis of Republicans, who frightened him, and Juggalos, who inspired him, mixed together with his own traumatic family history, I experienced the full range of emotional response — rage, laughter, tears.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rabin over email.

Read the exchange at Salon.

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New Essay at Salon: Barack Obama Reclaimed Patriotism for The Left

In my newest essay for Salon, I examine how Barack Obama, making brilliant use of his own life as metaphor, confiscated patriotism from the reactionary right wing, and claimed it as property of liberalism. As central to the American spirit and story, Obama emphasized diversity, and the enlargement of opportunity and liberty. He injected Whitman’s poetry into politics, making it clear that America is full of contradiction, and that it contains multitudes.

Read the essay at Salon.

I will explore Obama’s transformation of patriotism from conservative vice to liberal virtue, among many other topics, in my upcoming book, Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing).

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New Book – Barack Obama: Invisible Man

I’m excited to announce that Eyewear Publishing, based in London, will publish my newest book in December, Barack Obama: Invisible Man.

In my forthcoming book, I will analyze and interpret the presidency of Barack Obama by comparing him to the unnamed narrator of the Ralph Ellison novel, Invisible Man. It is my contention that, although the American people elected him twice, the country was unprepared for the reality of a black president. His victory was traumatic for much of the American public, and the country is yet to deal with the full implications of a black man in a White House.

The right wing distorted Obama into a monster, judging him according to a paranoia standard, while much of the left, operating under the belief that his policies would have the same revolutionary impact as his symbolic victory, distorted him into a messiah, judging him according to a purity standard. Few Americans were able to clearly see Obama as Obama – a man of flesh, substance, and bone, rather than a symbol, and a president capable of greatness, but also, like any president, full of flaws. Through their respective manipulations of Obama’s image and leadership, both the hard left and hard right rendered him invisible.

Both political polarities also set him up for failure, but in spite of unprecedented political and cultural opposition, Obama can claim an impressive record of accomplishment on his presidential resume. He must also face accountability for his failures. My book will explore the highs and lows of his administration.

I will also examine the cultural legacy of Obama. More elegant, calm, and rational than much of American discourse, he attempted to elevate public conversation, but for a variety of reasons, could not succeed.

Eyewear will publish the book in the Spring, shortly after Obama’s departure from the Oval Office. Check back here for updates on the book, and in the meantime, continue to look for my essays on politics and culture at Salon.

I will also have more dates for my Words and Music: American Troubadours series soon. American Troubadours gives a live and interactive tour, featuring the brilliant musical accompaniment of singer/songwriter Kev Wright, of the American songwriting tradition,  with a particular focus on the songs of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and John Mellencamp.

Stay tuned for more updates. 2016 will end, and 2017 will begin, with excitement.

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Review of Everybody’s Fool – The New Novel from Richard Russo

Anyone who doubts that literature still presents the finest exploration of humanity and the “greatest opportunity for moral inquiry,” to use a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, need only begin with Richard Russo’s new novel, Everybody’s Fool.

In my newest essay for Salon, I review and evaluate the magnificent new novel from Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool.

Russo is one of America’s greatest living writers. With humor and pathos, he is able to oscillate between comedy and tragedy, to reveal the recesses of race and class, and offer profound insight into the complexity of human psychology.

While his newest novel is not among his best work – The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, and Straight Man – it is a remarkable achievement guaranteed to entertain and enlighten anyone who takes the journey inside of its pages.

Read my analysis here.

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Jim Harrison, R.I.P.

The stillness of this earth
which we pass through
with the precise speed of our dreams
– Jim Harrison, Returning to Earth, 1977

When I announced to my mother the sad news of Jim Harrison’s death, she said, “He was your buddy.”

At first I found the comment odd. Although he was my favorite living writer, I had never met the man. My mother was not confused. She understood exactly what she was implying, and after a few moments of introspection, I was able to reach into the darkness of my own mind, and grasp onto the small piece of truth in my own experience as a person dedicated to reading and making sentences.

A good friend and former teacher of mine, Roger, recommended I read Harrison’s breakout collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall, when I was in college. Before I could make good on his wise advice, he called me; “Don’t buy the Harrison book. I just went to Borders and bought it for you.”

When I saw him a few weeks later, I did not realize that when he placed the book in my hand, he was not merely passing on a literary gift of excellence. My old friend was introducing me to a new friend.

Jim Harrison once said that he read more for “strength than pleasure.” With Harrison’s own novels and poetry, I found an abundance of both, and his hard-boiled beauty was much like an endless supply of life affirming water to continually help fill the reservoir of my spirit.

I read and reread many of his books, always seemingly able to alchemize his poetry and story into a centering force in my life. His words, as a writer but more importantly as a man, helped me get my bearings, and reminded me of what truly has value in a world too often eager to evaluate everything according to a commercial criterion. If there is one glimpse into reality a reader can consistently get from Harrison it is that life is for enjoyment, pleasure, love, and artistry. Any person who still registers a pulse must aggressively tackle all of the opportunities of life with gusto.

The cruel teacher of trauma inculcated this wisdom in Harrison. His father and sister died in a car wreck when he was in his late teens, and it was in the fog of his grief that he saw his own life clearly. He thought that if two people could be taken out of the world so arbitrarily, there was no point in not doing what you wanted to do. He did what he wanted for decades, making an invaluable contribution to American literature.

Like a true friend, Harrison challenged and comforted me, and in a bastardization of what Mikhail Bahktin called, “the dialogic of the novel,” I developed an internal discussion with Harrison, often drawing on that discussion in moments of tragedy and triumph, pain and pleasure, joy and confusion.

In 2010, following the publication of my first book, Working On a Dream, my mother invited me over to my parents’ home to celebrate. We toasted my marginal literary success with a glass of wine from an expensive French bottle that my mother bought because she read that it was Jim Harrison’s favorite.

My book was a hybrid of musical criticism and political commentary about Bruce Springsteen. It was vastly different from anything Harrison ever wrote, and not nearly as good, but with its publication I felt that I, at a minimum, acquired a ticket of entry onto the great ship of my imagination. Jim Harrison was one of my heroes in the captain’s quarters, and I was somewhere deep in the bowels, but I found great pride in the fact that I made it on board.

Harrison was my buddy, but a buddy of a different sort. I never met him, but he seemed like a man of madness. He ate madly, fucked madly, drank madly, wrote madly, but most of all, loved madly. He loved his family, his wife, his friends, his animals, and the natural world.

I can love a little fuller and a little deeper for having read his books.

I wrote about Jim Harrison’s series of novellas about an indelible and lovable character, Brown Dog, for the Daily Beast – “The Legend of Brown Dog: A Great American Hero Gets His Due.”

In an unlikely coincidence, my latest essay, published by Salon just a few days before Harrison’s death, is a review of his newest book – “Want To Reject American Puritanism, Workaholism, and Toxic Obsession with Stuff? Read Jim Harrison’s Books.”

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Mellencamp: American Troubadour is Now Available!

My new book, Mellencamp: American Troubadour, is now officially available from the University Press of Kentucky, and all book retailers.

Salon recently ran an excerpt, and it is already receiving high praise.

Part biography, part cultural and sociological commentary—with a touch of hagiography/fan nonfiction thrown in—Mellencamp is almost a new genre. Masciotra’s observations, contributions, and asides are apt and diverse. Both Mellencamp’s work and the man himself are deeper than they appear, and this book really shores this up. — Susan Compo, author of Warren Oates: A Wild Life

David Masciotra writes with the precision and integrity and humanity of a great journalist, one whose word you can trust. He knows his subject, and his prose and reporting are always informed by the lights of compassion and decency. — James Lee Burke, author of Wayfaring Stranger

For almost 40 years, John Mellencamp has been forging a path through the thickets of the music industry, meditating on the connections between rock, soul, folk and funk. In the process, he’s established himself as a major artist whose work is sometimes obscured by the shadows of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. In this detailed, loving book, David Masciotra shines the light of his critical intelligence on the connections between Mellencamp’s life, his music, and the commitment to a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. — Craig Werner, author of Up Around the Bend: An Oral History of Creedence Clearwater Revival

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New Essay for The Daily Beast on Noam Chomsky

In a new essay for the Daily Beast, I use the release of a new retrospective of Chomsky’s work as an opportunity to appraise his intellectual contributions and political activism. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Chomsky as a public intellectual, and his importance in my own development. The few criticisms I have of his analysis fall under the sizable shadow of his brilliance and bravery.

Read the essay here.

Major Announcement: New Book on Metallica’s The Black Album Coming from Bloomsbury Publishers

Bloomsbury Publishers recently announced that they will publish my book on Metallica’s self-titled record, more commonly known as The Black Album, as part of its much celebrated and acclaimed 33 1/3 series.

For the book, I have already interviewed the principal players in the making of the album, including current members of Metallica – James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett, former bassist Jason Newsted, and Metallica’s former producer, Bob Rock.

The book is a must read for Metallica, metal, and hard rock fans, as I will give up close and personal details, received personally from the band, into the making of The Black Album, and I will examine the importance of Metallica’s music, along with the philosophical depth it possesses.

For more information read the official announcement at the 33 1/3 page.

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