Dogs and the Tug of Life

DogsTug1bThe chances of me ever owning a dog are slim to none, though not having one is one of my wife’s constant complaints.  “Everyone has a dog but me!”  She’s fond of the exaggeration, saying it in half—but only half—jest. I think it’s less of an exaggeration that if we did have one it would probably be me doing most of the dog walking, dog scooping, dog grooming, dog feeding.  Still, if anything would ever convince me to get a dog it would be something like Edward Hoagland’s essay “Dogs and the Tug of Life,” one of my all-time favorites, so much so that it’s worth quoting the entire first paragraph, a paragraph I read over and over, regularly, to remind me of what great prose is: rhythmic, deeply insightful, filled with an almost alchemical combination of empathy, pathos, and a realism bordering on cynicism.

“It used to be that you could tell just about how poor a family was by how many dogs they had. If they had one, they were probably doing all right. It was only American to keep a dog to represent the family’s interests in the intrigues of the back alley; not to have a dog at all would be like not acknowledging one’s poor relations. Two dogs meant that the couple were dog lovers, with growing children, but still might be members of the middle class. But if a citizen kept three, you could begin to suspect he didn’t own much else. Four or five irrefutably marked the household as poor folk, whose yard was also full of broken cars cannibalized for parts. The father worked not much, fancied himself a hunter; the mother’s teeth were black. An old bachelor living in a shack might possibly have more, but you knew that if one of them, chasing a moth, didn’t upset his oil lamp some night and burn him up, he’d fetch up in the poorhouse soon, with the dogs shot. Nobody got poor feeding a bunch of dogs, needless to say, because the more dogs a man had, the less he fed them. Foraging as a pack, they led an existence of their own, but served as evidence that life was awfully lonesome for him and getting out of hand. If a dog really becomes a man’s best friend his situation is desperate.”

DogsTug2It’s the ambiguity in that last pronoun—”his”—that fuels this essay.  Does the “his” refer to the man…or the dog?  Turns out it’s both, but especially the latter.  Before we get to that rather sad conclusion, however, we’re treated to typical Hoagland delights: loads of interesting facts and connections served up as casual strolls through fascinating neighborhoods, or deep woods marked with small, weird, sudden clearances.  “‘Dog’ is ‘God’ spelled backward—one might say, way backwards.”  The sentence seems to come out of nowhere, almost as a breather between stats of how many dogs and deer the U.S. holds, sketches of how wolf behavior always haunts dogs, and those famous Hoagland metaphors.  He refers to a dog having “an epistolary anal gland,” a phrase that’s made me delight in watching a dog as he sniffs along, reading ground smells like a neighborhood message board.  Stool, when sniffed, Hoagland informs us, “conveys how well the animal has been eating—in effect, its income bracket—although most dog foods are sorrily monotonous compared to the hundreds of tastes a wolf encounters, perhaps dozens within the carcass of a single moose.”

The range of those tastes is one thing dogs gave up when they became domesticated, but we both—humans and dogs—lost even more.  “In order to really enjoy a dog,” says Hoagland, “one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semihuman. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.”  But that’s not the direction it’s going. Increasingly, everywhere we look there’s just more human, less nature.  We see this even in the “progress” of the animals we create.  Brer Rabbit, for example, is more rabbit-like than, say, the Bugs Bunny who follows; and the creatures, “the animals,” of Sesame Street or Broadway have lost almost all connection to real animals.  “The basic switch,” Hoagland writes, “has already been accomplished—from the ancient juxtaposition of people, animals, and dreams blending the two, to people and monsters that grow solely out of people by way of dreams.”

“Which leaves us in the suburbs, with dogs as a last link.”

I’ve said, in articles on three other Hoagland essays (“A Low Water Man,” “The Courage of Turtles,” and “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain”) that he’s obsessed with the theme of connection and disconnection.  “Dogs and the Tug of Life” ends with four sentences conveying, briefly, another ominous history of connection becoming a disconnect: “The first reason people kept a dog was to acquire an ally on the hunt, a friend at night. Then it was to maintain an avenue to animality, as our own nearness began to recede. But as we lose our awareness of all animals, dogs are becoming a bridge to nowhere. We can only pity their fate.”

  This article is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay.

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Fenton Johnson Inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

FJohnson-Induction2On September 14, 2017, I was asked to be one of the speakers at a ceremony inducting Fenton Johnson into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.  Also on the program—co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and held at its wonderful John-Ronan-designed headquarters in Chicago—were literary historian Alexander W. Jacobs, poet Vida Cross, and legendary poet-publisher-professor Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press and an architect of the Black Arts Movement.  Professor Michele Jolivette, Fenton Johnson’s great grand niece, accepted the CLHoF statue from the Hall’s founder and executive director, novelist Don Evans.  Ms. Cross and youth from the Rebirth Poetry Ensemble performed some of Fenton Johnson’s poetry.  The following are the gist of my remarks and some afterthoughts as well, which expand upon a previous post, “Fenton Johnson: Request Denied.”  Since Johnson did his most famous work in the early 1900′s, and people would probably not be immediately familiar with his work, Don Evans ask me to give a sense of why this poet needed to be honored today.


When I think of Fenton Johnson, I think of a poet who played the game so well…until he didn’t.

I mean that he did well what the white world allowed black poets to do.  It allowed dialect verse, for example, so Fenton Johnson wrote some of the finest dialect verse ever written with pieces like “Fiddlah Ike” and “Questions,” the latter of which I included in my book Black Writing from Chicago.  “Whaih’s de sunlight, Mammy Lou?” it begins, and runs to the sentimental conclusion that the questioner is Mammy Lou’s “wahm sunlight, and his “love’s de moon o’ night.”  Black poet’s were also allowed to write sentimental verse not in dialect, but properly formal.  So Fenton Johnson wrote that, too, as well as poems related to the “Sorrow Songs,” poems of grieving, religious deliverance, Battle-Hymn-of-the-Republic triumphalism.  With “The Vision of Lazarus,” “The New Day,” and “Children of the Sun”—which begins “We are the children of the sun / Rising sun! / Weaving Southern destiny, / Waiting for the mighty hour / When our Shiloh shall appear / With the flaming sword of right”—he also wrote some of the best poems in that genre.  For this skill alone, he deserves induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Don Evans and I congratulating Michele Jolivette, the Poetry Foundation's magnificent library behind us.

Don Evans and I congratulating Michele Jolivette, the Poetry Foundation’s magnificent library behind us.

But even more so he deserves this honor because he went far beyond what was allowed.  He played the game so well…until he didn’t.  To go beyond what was allowed, black poets from the spirituals, through the blues and beyond practiced a lot of signifying, so that the surfaces of their works comforted the gate keepers of decorum, the watchers of what was allowed, but also fooled them, conveying meanings only those in the know would understand.  “Steal Away to Jesus” meant, on the surface, getting away to be alone with Jesus—and it meant this sincerely—but it could also signify when the Underground Railroad was coming though so a slave could get on and “steal away” to freedom up North.  I’ve tried to catch the signifying undertones of Fenton Johnson’s poetry, but have had a hard time hearing them.  When he broke from the game, he broke from it spectacularly with poems like “The Scarlett Woman” and “The Daily Grind” and, most of all, “Tired,” perhaps his most famous poem, which begins: “I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.”  It addressed M’Lissy Jane, saying, “Throw the children in the river; civilization has given us too many.  It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.”

Such powerfully direct expressions of despair took America by surprise.  In his seminal anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson says that Fenton Johnson’s startling effect on American poetry, “…was in some degree due to the fact that [his poetry expressed] an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced.  Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.”  At least,  sounded it so directly, so openly, so harshly.  Arna Bontemps said Johnson had succumbed “to a more rugged influence.”

FJohnsonI have tried, as I said, to hear a stronger signifying undertone to Johnson’s poetry.  How much could he really have meant to “Throw the children in the river,” for example?  Is this the same kind of bravura blues singers partook in when they sang, “I’m gonna lay my head down on the railroad track… / When the train comes, I’m gonna snatch it back”?  Perhaps. But the blues song finally cops to that false threat, and the music pulses with so much life that we question the threat from the beginning.  So while Johnson might not really have meant what he said about the children, and while I try to hear some redeeming “humor” in the name The Last Chance Saloon—where M’Lissy, and the Scarlett Woman, and the poems’ speakers drown their sorrows—there’s nothing pulsing with as much life as the blues, nothing that winks at the threats, thus guiding us clearly to a signifying intent.

In poems like “The Banjo Player” and even “Prelude,” the first poem in his famous 1916 volume Visions of the Dusk, there are strong hints that he knows he’ll get tired of playing the poetry game, that dialect verse and humble peasant stuff was something to break from.  When he finally did, he did it in such clear, spectacular fashion, seeding so much of the strong directness in black poetry and culture that would follow.  It’s for both his skill at playing the game and his spectacular denial of that game that he deserves our notice tonight and every time we think of great poetry.

  Go to a list of Black Writers written about on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.


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St. Charles Hospital Wins Driehaus Award

StChs-Driehaus1One of a series of articles I wrote during Rick Guzman’s Aurora mayoral run reported on the key leadership role he played in rehabbing the old St. Charles Hospital, rescuing the crumbling building and re-purposing it as much needed senior housing for the city.  (Read that article: “A Sleeping Beauty to Stabilize a Neighborhood.”)

Now news has come that the St. Charles Hospital rehab has won the prestigious Richard H. Driehaus Award.  The citation on the Landmarks Illinois website reads:

“Aurora St. Charles Senior Living is the recipient of the 2017 Landmarks Illinois Richard Driehaus Preservation Award for Rehabilitation. Located at 400 E. New York St. in Aurora, the project transformed the former St. Charles Hospital, a six-story Art Deco building, into a 60-unit senior housing complex. The building served as a hospital and nursing home beginning in the 1970s and closed in 2010. It then sat vacant for six years before being redeveloped as the state’s first affordable housing project to use the River Edge Redevelopment Zone Historic Tax Credit, a program in Illinois that offers development incentives in Aurora, East St. Louis, Elgin, Peoria and Rockford. The rehabilitation project included cleaning and repairing the original Art Deco-style brick, limestone and terra cotta exterior and restoring and converting the original chapel and balcony to a community room for the building’s residents. An incredible example of public and private cooperation, this iconic building can now continue to serve the residents of Aurora.”

StChs-Driehaus2Since 1994, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Awards have recognized the people who have gone through extraordinary efforts to save, restore, rehabilitate and reuse historic places in Illinois. The Foundation supports the preservation and enhancement of the built and natural environments, and encourages quality architecture, landscape design, and organizations that provide opportunities for working poor people.

A successful investment advisor, Richard H. Driehaus made his first public philanthropic gesture in 1983, when he established the Driehaus Foundation. In 1992, with the establishment of a board and the hiring of an executive director, giving became more formal and focused, particularly on preservation, and partially in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

 Go to the main page on this site for Emmanuel House.  This organization—founded by Rick and Desiree Guzman as a living memorial to Rick’s youngest brother, Bryan Emmanuel—also works to provide opportunities for the working poor, helping lift them from poverty through home ownership, education, volunteerism, and equitable development.  In 2016 Emmanuel House was named one of “The Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

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