WE ARE NOT ALONE: Shared Human Experiences Connecting a Divided World

We Are Not Alone (1937) by James Hilton

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          Fear of the Other, nativism, a militarized nation on the warpath against a cagey enemy, a crackdown on civil liberties, a culture of surveillance: it’s an old formula that makes for the easy persecution of immigrants and refugees. It was in this political climate in England, so similar to the one we now face in the United States in 2017, that James Hilton published We Are Not Alone in 1937, a novel about a small town British doctor and his relationship with a poor German immigrant, set against the backdrop of a xenophobic town that rushes to judgment to determine their guilt when a terrible accident occurs. The plot revolves around Dr. David Newcombe, a quiet family man in a small British town leading up to World War I, who treats a suicidal German immigrant dancer named Leni. After forming a bond with her — perhaps romantic — Newcombe hires her as the family governess. As the war jitters intensify, Newcombe’s wife dies mysteriously, and the town immediately condemns Leni without any evidence. The witch hunt soon turns dangerous for both Leni and Newcombe.

Although his name is not as well known as it was seventy years ago — and even then he suffered from the dreaded “middlebrow” label — Hilton was one of the great British novelists of the 20th century. While Virginia Woolf’s genius and stylistic innovations strike my intellectual fancy and E.M Forster’s search for human connectivity appeals to my personal struggle with empathy and identity, only Hilton’s storytelling can hold me entranced, as if drifting in the rapture of an hallucination. He is a Storyteller of the type that Walter Benjamin claimed the modern world had all-but-lost: one who transcends the trauma of an isolated, mechanized post-WWI society to celebrate communal memory.

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Jane Bryan and Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1939)

          At a time when artists were expressing the impossibility of communication (“They walk incommunicado,” as American poet William Carlos Williams laments in Paterson), Hilton succeeds in imparting the shared experiences of simple human contact. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster writes in Howards End. And Hilton does so, not by avoiding modernity or escaping the present through pure nostalgia, but instead by seeking those pockets of universal humanity that unite us with each other and with our natural world. After seeing a boy with a fatal infection (and in light of the upcoming Great War) Newcombe muses on the power of renewal inherent in human connection with our surroundings, and with each other. The lack of empathetic communion leading up to both World Wars– which is a personal struggle for myself on a daily basis, not to mention for a large segment of Americans — is for Hilton an existential question.


It was a lovely night, warm from earth; and he felt, as he always did when he had seen recent death, a mystic communion with all things living and dead, as well as a perception of their own communion; so that, through such a prism of consciousness, he could sense life in a dead stone and death in a living tree.

— James Hilton


His characters might be alienated, lost, doomed to fate, or even facing certain death, but Hilton’s message is clear: we are not alone. It is not a pat, saccharine declaration meant to provide easy comfort (although his fiction most certainly offered solace for weary readers between the wars). Instead, his message is one that resonates as the purest form of storytelling: the expression of shared experiences that lead us to greater wisdom in times of trouble. Hilton does not flee from the Storyteller’s responsibility nor claim that such communication is impossible. He meets the challenge head-on and finds the images to convey truth where speech might otherwise fail: “He had never found it possible to put everything he meant into speech; indeed, he had sometimes felt that words offered merely surface exactness that was both an illusion and a danger.” In the words of Benjamin, Hilton offers not the cold immediacy of information and fact, but the connectivity of wisdom through shared experience.

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James Hilton

          We Are Not Alone, like the best of Hilton’s fiction, constructs memory as a landscape that we yearn to traverse, even as we see it fading from our senses. It bridges the divisions of modern man, revealing the distances that separate us to be spaces where we might one day connect, if only we have the courage to reach out to each other. As Hilton concludes, “Their worlds were different, their ages were different, their lives and language were different; yet all those differences became themselves absurd when measured against the flash of recognition that sprang between them at every nearness.” Hilton stands out from his contemporaries because he strove to express our “every nearness” in his fiction during an era when literature was defined by alienation, isolation, and separation. That his words continue to ring true is a testament to his success as a Storyteller in a new century bereft of communal memory.

The Inaugural List: Literary Fiction for the Trump Era

Introduction

          When I find myself stressed, needing direction, or searching for answers, I always turn to books. Especially fiction. Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of reading the past few weeks in preparation for the coming Trump administration, mainly finding solace in Weimar-era fiction. It’s unfortunate that these novels of loss and alienation feel so relevant as we enter 2017. We always plan for the future to be hopeful, but the next four years in the United States (perhaps even the next decade) are likely to be unstable, unpredictable, and even oppressive. And so I’ve turned to fiction to help me cope with that reality and to help me understand how and why a culture that appeared to be moving towards openness and inclusivity is shifting dramatically back towards nativism — a very real threat our nation confronts as we begin 2017 — and what the consequences of such a transformation might be for the republic and its people. The reality we must accept is that the United States has always been nativist, despite being a nation of immigrants, and that the battles we will fight in the coming years are the same ones that were fought by progressives throughout history, both in the United States and abroad.

          This is the first lesson that fiction teaches us: Trumpism is nothing new. It’s just an updated spin on an old tale.

          Trump practices a brand of authoritarianism that is more Know-Nothingism than fascism, but the two are parallel ideologies, even if they have their roots in different cultures, countries, and eras. I think that’s why I have gravitated towards so many novels written by German, Austrian, and Jewish writers in the years between the wars. The writers on this list grappled with the same issues that we are facing in the United States on the verge of Trump’s inauguration: rigid and deep divides of class, culture, and political viewpoint; a decade of expanding social freedoms and cultural progress met with heavy resistance by the right; the growing sentiment of nativism, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and prejudice that blossomed in the far right and threatens to consume not only the nation, but the world; a volatile economy that only further divides the wealthy from the working class; and now that Trump is elected, the prospect of an extreme emphasis on military might, capitalism unchecked by governmental regulation, and an authoritarian figurehead whose heated rhetoric has created a cult of personality for whom the consolidation of power is a desired end. As our institutional safeguards continue to fail us, we see ourselves in much the same situation as many of these writers in the early 1930s. In short, with the election of Trump, we have made a bargain with an American Mephisto.

          This is the social and political context framing the United States as we enter 2017, and it is the basis for this blog, which uses literature (with a strong emphasis on fiction) as a lens through which we examine this social and political dynamic. What lessons can literature teach us?  As Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans (the only nonfiction work on this initial list), the human desire to read and discuss fiction is a way for us to understand the present and encounter the past by not merely memorizing a record of events, but by absorbing the personal stories of people who lived through those events: “History only recounts, with some inaccuracy, what they did. The fiction tells, or tries to tell, why they did it and what they felt and were like when they did it.”

          In the spirit of Steinbeck’s words, and with the conviction that fiction can provide insight, knowledge, and communal self-reflection for a populace, I have created this blog, which I plan to keep in the longterm as I read more fiction (especially written and published by Americans during this turbulent period) that addresses the “whys” of our inevitable national transformation under Trump. I may sometimes profile works of nonfiction or poetry, but I will try to stick mainly to fiction, for the reason listed above. These blog entries are meant to highlight books that tell us something about ourselves, from which we might learn, draw strength, or heed the warnings of past voices — they might be historical or contemporary voices, but each one is worth reading in the Trump era. My blog entries will be my reflections on why these voices speak to me personally, but they will also pertain to issues that impact us all. 

          I share this blog with my friends, and anyone else who might be reading these words, who enjoy fiction and who might also need a cathartic release through encountering somewhat relatable experiences expressed by these writers. I hope this blog might also encourage others to read these works or to write their own reflections on books that impact their worldview or change their perspective.

          To begin the blog, I will profile one novel per day leading up to Inauguration Day, beginning tomorrow with Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. After the inauguration, I plan to update this blog about once per week as I read current American fiction or world classics (with occasional works of nonfiction) that speak to American life in the Trump era.


The Inaugural List

 

1) Mephisto (1936) by Klaus Mann

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2) The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musil

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3) Transit (1944) by Anna Seghers

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4) The Graveyard (1958) by Marek Hlasko

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5) Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1958) by Heinrich Böll

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6) The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

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7) We Are Not Alone (1937) by James Hilton

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8) The Harbor (1915) by Ernest Poole

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9) All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

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10) Man of Straw (The Loyal Subject) (1918) by Heinrich Mann

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11) Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin

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12) Chess (1941) by Stephan Zweig

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13) It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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14) Life Goes On (1934) by Hans Keilson

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15) Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut

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16) Generals Die in Bed (1930) Charles Yale Harrison

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17) Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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18) After Midnight (1937) by Irmgard Keun

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19) They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy

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20) America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck (nonfiction)

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