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Monday, April 29, 2013

April 29, 2013: Communism in America: “The Palace-Burner”

[As we celebrate another May Day, hopefully with no bombings, a series on some AmericanStudies connections to the legacy of Herr Marx. Add your takes on these topics or any connections you’d make for a weekend post that shares the wealth!]
On the masterpiece of a poem that destroys easy “us vs. them” narratives.
I made the case for my favorite American poet, Sarah Piatt, in one of my first posts, and did so in large part through her best poem, “The Palace-Burner.” There are a lot of factors that make “Palace-Burner” one of the great American poems, but at the top of the list for me would be Piatt’s incredibly sophisticated representation—through the lens of a mother and young son discussing a newspaper picture of a female rebel from the 1871 Paris Commune—of what I called in this post three crucial and interconnected levels to empathy: “connecting to seemingly distant others, working to understand those to whom we’re close, and examining our own identities through those lenses.”
This wasn’t necessarily the case in the 1870s (although given the immense popularity of Horatio Alger novels in the period, maybe it was), but over the century and a half since I would say that there have been few world communities with which Americans have had, collectively, a more difficult time empathizing than communists. Of course there are significant exceptions, both in terms of time periods during which that philosophy has seemed more appealing (such as the Depression, about which more in Wednesday’s post) and in terms of American communities who have been sufficiently disenfranchised from our dominant national narratives to see the wisdom of such alternatives (such as African Americans in the mid-20th century, on whom likewise more on Wednesday). But when it comes to those dominant narratives, communism has been one of the most consistent “them’s” to our constructed “us” for a long while.
There would be various possible ways to complicate and revise that kind of “us vs. them” narrative, including highlighting the many originating and influential forms and moments of American socialism and communism. But Piatt takes another, and to my mind particularly compelling, tack: creating in her poetic speaker a woman who seems thoroughly removed from not only communism but political conversations in general (especially in the “separate spheres” mentality that continued to reign for most middle-class American families in the period); and then giving that speaker the opportunity to consider whether and how she and a foreign communist woman might have anything in common. She doesn’t come to any easy or comfortable answers—empathy is neither of those things in any case—but she asks the questions, and that seems to me to an impressive model for all of us.
April Recap tomorrow, and this series resumes on Wednesday,
PS. What do you think? Texts about communism you’d highlight?

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