Barbara Kingsolver: Resolve To Never Recant

Student, student, keep mouth shut and brain spry
Your best friend Dick Merriwell’s employed by the F.B.I.

“Little Ballad for Americans – 1954″ by Edwin Rolfe, as quoted by Walter Kalaidjian

Who used to lie with his love

In the glade, far from the battlesector,

Now lies embraced by a lie-detector

And can not, dare not, move.

“Collected 259″ by Edwin Rolfe, as quoted by Walter Kalaidjian

In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, the rather apolitical Harrison Shepherd finds himself summoned by the Dies Committee, the House on Un-American Activities Committee.  Before McCarthyism became the way of the land, Time described the committee’s actions:

But the Committee’s cumulative findings suggested that Chairman Dies’s perpetually scandalized method of listening to everybody, hauling in back-fence radical gossip, old shoes, scandals, guesses and wild charges, was perhaps the best method of building up the picture of the elusive world of U. S. Communism.

“National Affairs: No Dies,”  Time, October 23,1939

During the San Miguel Writers Conference, Kingsolver revealed how closely she related to the persecution of intellectuals during the McCarthy era.  She said the hatemail Shepherd received in the novel was based – sometimes word for word – on actual letters she received after attempting to write soothing words to help heal the nation after 9/11.

An example of her ”inflammatory” work follows:

And because my wise husband put a hand on my arm and said, “You can’t let hateful people steal the flag from us.”  He didn’t mean terrorists, he meant Americans. Like the man in a city near us who went on a rampage crying “I’m an American” as he shot at foreign-born neighbors, killing a gentle Sikh man in a turban and terrifying every brown-skinned person I know….

It’s a fact of our culture that the loudest mouths get the most airplay, and the loudmouths are saying now that in times of crisis it is treasonous to question our leaders…. 

It occurs to me that my patriotic duty is to recapture my flag from the men now waving it in the name of jingoism and censorship.

And Our Flag Was Still There,” Barbara Kingsolver, San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 2001

This column in the San Francisco Chronicle helped Kingsolver merit ranking No. 73 on Bernard Goldberg’s list of 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America – trailing the late Senator Ted Kennedy, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Former President Jimmy Carter, Dan Rather and former Vice President Al Gore – and attracted the attention of venom-spewing “patriots” whose threats made her fear for the safety of her family.

Bill Moyers, who ranked above her at 34 on Goldberg’s list, interviewed Kingsolver in 2002.  Kingsolver said:

…a lot of us have found ourselves asking, how do we get through this without becoming embittered, without becoming intolerant and angry and hostile. In short, without becoming what we hate most. I think that if we become as intolerant and angry and violent as those who have attacked us we’ve lost everything.

Barbara Kingsolver, Interviewed by Bill Moyers, May 24, 2002

And, a preview of the role Harrison Shepherd would play in The Lacuna:

What a writer can do, what a fiction writer or a poet or an essay writer can do is re-engage people with their own humanity. Fiction and essays can create empathy for the theoretical stranger.  

When you—I think this is particularly true of fiction. When you pick up a novel from the bed side table, you put down your own life at the same time and you become another person for the duration.

And so you live that person’s life and you understand in a way that you don’t learn from reading a newspaper what it’s like to live a life that’s completely different from yours. And when you put that book down, you’re changed. You have…you have something more expansive in your heart than you began with.

Barbara Kingsolver, Interviewed by Bill Moyers, May 24, 2002 

2 thoughts on “Barbara Kingsolver: Resolve To Never Recant”

  1. The Lacuna has been named one of five finalists for the prestigious 2010 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction ( The award is valued by authors as it is “juried by writers for writers, free of commercial concerns.” Judge Al Young said, “We managed to come up with five lingering beauties that freshly express the complex ways Americans believe and behave.” The top award will be announced May 8 in Washington D.C.


  2. What a great post! I’m so glad you found this Barbara Kingsolver review. I’d forgotten how much I wanted to read it. Keep up the blogging– it helps keep my homesickness at bay.


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