Make the American novel great again
By GARRISON KEILLOR
The $54 billion bonus heading for the Pentagon is a beautiful thing and so far I haven’t heard a dogbark against it, even though we don’t appear to have $54 billion worth of new enemies and we’ve now come to admire former enemy Vladimir Putin and the idea of throwing billions at the Islamic State is like going after bedbugs with bazookas, so there it sits, a big lake of cash waiting for water skiers.
Base pay for a PFC these days is around $22K and, granted, it is not rocket science — aerospace engineers earn a hundred grand or more — but a Radio City Rockette earns about $1,500/week. Should we be paying more for precision tap-dancing than for the defense of our country? Meanwhile, apple pickers are hauling down $23K while orange pickers get $20K. I’d say our soldiers are due for a big raise. Those caissons don’t roll themselves, you know. The shores of Tripoli are an ever-present threat to our security. And the halls of Montezuma are out for revenge.
I just hope that my good friends in the Pentagon will stop and think about the value of the arts and literature to our national defense. Some of that money, perhaps $3 billion or $4 billion, would be well spent encouraging writers and artists to cast a warmer light on our uniformed services than what we’ve seen the past century or so when, aside from George M. Cohan’s Over There (1917) and Frank Loesser’s Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition (1942), the arts have been decidedly anti-war.
When was the last time a great poet wrote an ode to the importance of following orders? Eighteen fifty-four, that’s when. Tennyson wrote, Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, immortalizing Lord Cardigan’s botched mission in the Battle of Balaclava — The Charge of the Light Brigade. Tennyson was England’s poet laureate at the time and felt obliged to turn a military disaster into something heroic. No American poet laureate ever wrote anything similar and maybe that’s because they’re paid $35K per year. Make that $350K and give the laureate the rank of major general and a cap with a plume and see if the tune doesn’t change.
Our Nobel laureate Mr. Dylan could have written (but did not):
Well it ain’t no use to sit around the barracks
And ask why you must drill.
Or ask why we have to carry rifles:
They are to injure, maim and kill.
Get out of bed at the break of dawn,
Put your helmet and your uniform on,
You’re not a bishop, son, you’re just a pawn.
Don’t think twice, it’s all right.
It’s no wonder that wealthy New York real estate heirs shopped around for physicians to diagnose heel spurs to exempt them from the draft. For a century, nobody has written a great work of literature celebrating America’s military — Slaughterhouse-Five? Catch-22? The Naked and the Dead? The Things They Carried? I don’t think so. Nobody read For Whom the Bell Tolls and went down to the recruiting office to sign up.
It was not always thus. Look at what Homer did for the Greeks with his Iliad. It’s an action epic, one hero after another, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax — no introspective nonconformist in the ranks, wondering, Why are we brutalizing each other? Why can’t we sit down and talk through our differences? Because we are us and they are them and it’s one for all and all for one, so grab your spear and go puncture those Trojans, son.
What we need to make America great again is American literature about greatness. Look at Tolstoy. He could’ve just written Peace but he wrote War too, both of them, glorifying General Kutuzov, who engineered the defeat of Napoleon. Spending some of that $54 billion on the arts would be an excellent investment. If they need someone to write an epic poem, here I am, my pen is poised.
Media to the right of him,
Media to the left of him,
Loud was his battle cry,
The man with long red tie,
Onward he twittered.
Rising in early dawn,
Turning his smartphone on,
Texting he bravely fought,
Tweet after tweet he shot
With his red hat on,
Looking like George C. Scott
Playing George Patton.
It’s the story of a man who overcame his heel spur handicap by playing golf regularly and eventually took command in his bomber jacket and led the country to greatness. It’s going to be fantastic. I promise you.
Keillor is former host of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”