In June, 1978, the day after Alexander Solzhenitsyn, gave the Harvard Class Day speech, people stood on street corners up and down Mass. Ave. in Harvard Square, talking about the speech, many of them outraged. How dare he tell off the West and insult his hosts! How dare he be a rude guest? And at Harvard! He had criticized the United States for its loss of "civil courage"; he said, "political and intellectual bureaucrats"--there were plenty in the audience--showed signs of "depression, passivity and perplexity." Mediocrity had triumphed; the West was "in a state of spiritual exhaustion, " America in a "TV stupor," spineless, materialistic, led by a press hungry for sensational stories.
Had Harvard ever heard anything like this? Their motto is Veritas, truth. It's inscribed on the faculty club door, my friend Patricia pointed out. "They think they own it," she said. Solzhenitsyn told them that truth had eluded them; their believing they had the truth was an illusion.
He could speak out because he had nothing to lose, you might say. But he had plenty to lose. His reputation, speaking fees, etc. Look what happened to Michelle Obama when in February, 2008, she said, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." Judging from the public's reaction you'd think she had committed an act of treason.
To shift the subject slightly: why don't MFA students speak out? Do any of them talk back to their instructors, reject their editorial comments, protect a vulnerable member of the seminar? Maybe not: their careers are at stake. I did speak up in graduate school--not an MFA program. The references from my professors are still on file. One of them said I was "bright but not judicious." Those reference would not get me a job.
I wish I had more courage and confidence. When Flannery O' Connor turned in a novel for which she had signed a contract, and the editor gave her suggestions she believed were not in the spirit 0f her work, she walked out, broke the contract. Luckily I have an editor who understands my work. I respect her because she doesn't pull her punches; she speaks up. In one go-round, she blue-penciled a description of a dream: "Creepy!"
So this morning, I'll ask for courage to shoot off my mouth. What's to lose?