As literary landmarks go, it’s not quite Emerson greeting Whitman at the start of a great career. But this humble advert may herald the first American science-fiction novel. Although one might point to the crushingly dull “A Flight to the Moon,” from 1813, that text is more of a philosophical dialogue than a story, and what little story it has proves to be just a dream. “Symzonia; Voyage of Discovery” is boldly and unambiguously sci-fi. The book takes a deeply weird quasi-scientific theory and runs with it—or, more accurately, sails with it, all the way to Antarctica.
That final uncertainty made “Stuart Little” a pioneering children’s book. White’s departure from the predictable and tendentious moralism that prevailed in earlier children’s stories made “Stuart Little” an instant classic. The ambiguity of the novel begins with its opening lines. “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son was born,” White wrote, “the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.”
White was being precise. Stuart is not a mouse. He just looks like one. In fact, in later editions of the book, White replaced the word “born” with “arrived,” which clouds Stuart’s origins even further.
White supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, every other phobia—the roots of inequality have so invaded the core of society that the very notion of a single solution, let alone a superhero to provide it, is not just a fantasy, it’s an affront to reality. And yet we are overrun by superheroes. They are predominantly white men, though some superheroes of colour have recently emerged; more persistently celebrated, however, seem to be the women, most of them white, as though female-led superhero films are the last bastion of feminism. And with the December release of Wonder Woman 1984, it’s impossible for me not to think of Supergirl, which was released in 1984, two stories with identical time periods made thirty years apart. It’s impossible not to think about how much has changed and how much hasn’t. Women still don’t own superheroes, of course, but are superheroes even worthy of them?
“It’s the moral boundaries,” Buxbaum says. “It’s the kids at the center of power. I’m ultimately fascinated by: How complicit are we? Every decision I make on behalf of my kid, which happens every day — how complicit am I in this system?”
But my memories of Iran are of joy despite difficulty; of beautiful, provocative art created in spite of censorship, like Abbas Kiarostami’s poetic films and rapper Hichkas’s subversive music; and of kind strangers in grim situations. I think of boisterous nights next to Isfahan’s Zayanderud, a giant river that bisects the city. Today, the river is largely dried up after years of drought and government mismanagement, but in my memories, it’s as lively as ever, with people scattered on both banks in the evenings, laughing and playing music. If I was worried about anything, it was the heat, which often left me passed out in cramped taxis, and the stress of dealing with a large extended family full of histories and drama that I barely understood. I was mostly just excited to see a place that had loomed large in my fantasies for so long. Yet my friends’ reactions weighed on me more than I realized. As my departure date grew closer, I felt increasingly apprehensive.
No one has been a more incisive observer of the terms Americans use, and the transfers of power they allow, than David Bromwich. A Sterling Professor of English at Yale, Bromwich has for the past four decades been calling our attention both to the ways words shape the concrete features of our society, hardening sentiments into the institutions and norms that govern our lives, and to the role that each of us plays in that process, taking those institutions and norms and, in the act of speaking as such, translating them back into sentiments that we, through the affect-rich act of inflection, can defend, attack, and reform. In Writing Politics: An Anthology, Bromwich has collected nearly 30 essays (the earliest written in 1721, the latest in 1964) that he offers as examples of democratic speech at its turbulent best.
Maybe because the greats are gone.
Ella and Billie, even that grown girl of mine