Baron Wormser has written a fascinating book about the 20th century. "Lessons of the Slow Explosion: Eleven Modern Lives" (Tupelo Press, 2018) is a commentary on our modern society expressed in descriptions of eleven individuals who lived through and influenced the second half of the 1900s, a "time of tremendous human invention, the true coming of mass society worldwide" but also a time lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation, a time of "the unnerving, headline feeling of everything giddily speeding up and everything ending."
Wormser tells the stories of George Harrison, Miles Davis, Anita O'Day, Willem De Kooning, Richard Yates, Audrey Hepburn, George F. Kennan, Hannah Arendt, James Jesus Angleton, Philip Berrigan and Rosa Parks — three musicians, a painter, a novelist, a movie actress, a diplomat, an intellectual philosopher, a CIA counter-espionage expert and two people who used civil disobedience to protest against segregation and nuclear war. His choice of individuals and his biographical methodology are both interesting and highly idiosyncratic.
Most people, if asked to choose Americans who exemplified or influenced modernity in the latter half of the 20th century, would not have selected these eleven or perhaps any of them. If they were to have chosen an actress, they might have named Marilyn Monroe or Joan Crawford; if a painter, perhaps Jackson Pollack or Andy Warhol; if a novelist, perhaps Hemingway, Bellow, Mailer, or Roth; if a musician, perhaps Elvis Presley or Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong; and if a diplomat, perhaps Henry Kissinger. But while Wormser chose individuals who were not the most famous or perhaps even the most influential, what they shared was the "anima that is always floating around in the human ethos" leaving an "imprint that is more than the sum of circumstances." Wormser chose these eleven because they expressed individualism and creativity and were modern in ways that were "convincing, individual, and profound"— because they combined imagination, perseverance, and connected conscience to spirit.
The author uses an unconventional biographical technique. Shunning the modern biographer's apparent compulsion to include every detail of the life that they have studied for years and sometimes decades (e.g. Cherwin's new biography of Ulysses S. Grant runs nearly 1,000 pages!), Wormser chose instead to craft small jewels describing the inner lives of these eleven people. Running 10-18 pages, the biographies have no conventional life data (no birth or death dates here!). In one case, Wormser entirely abandons the third person voice to address Richard Yates in the second person as "you." His goal is not to provide us with biographical information, but to inspire, warn, and awaken us.
A resident of Montpelier who has written fifteen books from novels to memoir and also served as the poet laureate of Maine, Wormser is clearly concerned about where America is heading. As he writes, "it is ironic that freedom leads to triviality, the focus on self-satisfaction, the lack of any sustaining ideals." He worries that a materialistic and anti-intellectual America is moving away from a society founded on idealistic principles and moving towards degradation, lack of consolation, and Arendt's "banality of evil." Hence the inclusion of Parks, Arendt, Berrigan, and Kennan — individuals who stood outside the social norms, took a stand, and refused to conform or bring their conscience into line with society's expectations no matter how long these understandings had been in place and how accepted they were by the majority. As he writes, "conscience made a human being into a human being."
Davis, Harrison, O'Day, de Kooning, Hepburn, and perhaps most of all, Richard Yates, represent Wormser's best hopes for the redeeming value of art. In describing Richard Yates, a writer little known before the movie Revolutionary Road was adapted from his novel, Wormser writes that "inevitably every emotional exchange will be entangled in the fine print of misunderstanding .Words on the page could heal what seemed to you to be the inherent failures of our living with one another." Updike, Bellow and Roth may have written the best-known descriptions of late 20th century suburban angst and ennui, but Yates is more raw, more immediate, more powerful, and less hopeful.
There is a thread that ties these eleven individuals together. They may not all be household words, but these eleven people share the characteristics that give Wormser hope for America's future as we move more deeply into the 21st century — imagination, conscience, internal spirit, initiative, courage, and the longing for a life's work that has meaning.
Arendt had a front row seat for the initial stages of the Nazi's perversion of 1930s Germany and Parks was told to give up her front row seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus so that a white person could sit down. Neither complied. Both drew upon a reservoir of courage, conscience, and moral fortitude that Wormser believes is potentially present in each of us. His unorthodox biographies of unorthodox individuals provide models for each of us as we live in these fraught times.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His column will be on hiatus until July 19. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.