The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
In READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN, Azar Nafisi introduced the world to her Iranian students, who risked their stability and very lives to read classic literature with her. In her newest collection of essays, THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION, she now asserts that even though it is not repressed, reading of fiction in America is endangered. She answers the question “Don’t you think in a democracy there is no urgent need for literature and books?” with a resounding NO.
After choosing THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, BABBITT and THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, Nafisi examines the particular qualities each novel brings to American culture. Each section begins with biographical comments about the writers and how they came to write, and she also explains her own fascination with the novel tracing the place, time and other people in her life who prompted her investigations. Then, by selecting passages and characteristics that exemplify the central points, she completes the close reading and analysis; the structure is consistent and helpful.
Virginia Woolf’s comparison of fiction to “a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners” is one of the premises upon which Nafisi bases her work. She shows in all three novels that writers may allow the delicate filaments of web light and change while still anchoring them to realistic settings and events. This is imagination.
Huck Finn came directly from Samuel Clemens’ Missouri childhood; his Pap and the villagers lived the bigotry of a nation upended by slavery. He also was the epitome of American heroes at their best: wary of being “oversivilized,” they carve out their own path and look to their heart for what is right and just.
Nafisi’s childhood friend Farah, an Iranian whose husband was executed during the Revolution of the 1980s, serves as her sounding board when she begins envisioning this book. She and Farah discussed the open and inclusive America of today, while comparing Iran’s rigid structure and conformity to the rigidity of HUCK FINN’s world. Nafisi shifts the focus to morality and Jim’s essential goodness that she, Farah and her Islamist students understand. At the end of the essay, Nafisi decides that what drew Farah to Huck so fervently was that they were both vagrants --- not of their own choosing, but as citizens who had to leave one world to live in another, more bearable one.
"Azar Nafisi’s passion for literature, deep-seated and richly supported with intelligent references, gives proof that lives may be ordered and better understood through reading."
Huck may be the ultimate outsider in American literature, but Nafisi points out that he is also the ultimate insider: Hemingway famously said that all American literature comes from HUCK FINN. Nafisi revisits the theme of progeny and who begats whom in each section.
In the second section, Nafisi reports that her first reading of Sinclair Lewis’ BABBITT occurred during her college days, and she felt it was a fun critique of America. However, when she applied for citizenship here, she looked again at the 19th-century Babbitt and sees enormous similarities between him and American citizens today. Truth be told, our iPhones, iPads and Kindles are sophisticated descendants of Babbitt’s “up-to-date alarm clock gracing his sleeping porch.” She believes that the gadgets have changed, but the mentality that packages and purchases them is fundamentally the same.
In one of several side discussions connected to education, literature and American life, she suggests that the Common Core State Standards instituted in 45 states does not turn out “fully formed and informed citizens, but [rather creates] employable, college-worthy test takers capable of passing multiple-choice math and English tests.” The Babbitt-like mentality producing these tests leaves no time for imaginative thinking or energy for reading of fiction. Nafisi ties these facts into her narrative about her developing a republic of imagination.
Nafisi refers to Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Steve Jobs as inspiration for great deeds, for reasons to think and create, for reminders of what it means to be human. In the conclusion, she compares Babbitt’s failures with Huck’s triumphs. However, in spite of the fact that Huck and Babbitt come to the end without clear futures, they each have quietly mastered themselves.
In the final novel, Carson McCullers’ THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, Nafisi explores isolation and individualism through the central character, a deaf man named John Singer. He and the other four characters --- who are at once both tragic and comic --- search for “expression and spiritual integration with something greater than themselves.” Nafisi compares the loneliness of groups of young people who sit very close together, each one busy texting to the paintings of Picasso and Edward Hopper showing people sitting or standing, within touching distance, and yet appearing to be lonelier than if they were by themselves. The characters in McCullers’ novel are also too wrapped up in their own obsessions to see one another, yet they rely on Singer, a deaf man, to understand them and to nod and sympathize.
McCullers also examines the effects of violence and racial injustice in the South, and she describes disturbing scenes of abuse and failure. Nafisi asks if a particular form of anguish that erupts in unexpected and unpredictable ways as shown by McCullers’ characters is uniquely American. Perhaps the flip side of the American Dream? She concludes that though the South has become more prosperous since 1940, “the urge to articulate, to connect, to belong, still remains.” The creative urge will not change as long as the beating of the human heart remains the same.
The Epilogue pays tribute to James Baldwin, his generous spirit and self-awareness, and his writing. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world,” he says, “but then you read.” Books connect us with the very things that torment us, and we learn how to be brave, to be resilient, to weep. Nafisi goes so far as to suggest that we shut ourselves off by marrying technology and burying ourselves in self-help videos and illusions of control. Once again she alerts us to insidious assaults on reading.
Azar Nafisi’s passion for literature, deep-seated and richly supported with intelligent references, gives proof that lives may be ordered and better understood through reading. She believes Americans are thirsty for good books. Perhaps, for some readers, her construction of a republic of imagination is a matter of carrying coals to Newcastle. But for the rest of us, more heat, more light, more coal --- all good.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on October 31, 2014