In March 2010, as Eula Biss threaded her way through applause onto a stage at the New School in Manhattan, I sat next to the book critic for the Seattle Times. We watched Biss accept a National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism for “Notes From No Man’s Land.”
“I will never see telephone poles the same way,” Mary Ann Gwinn said, sotto voce. I nodded my assent, reminded of how economically Biss had transformed that mundane object into something sinister.
Now Graywolf Press has reissued Biss’ penetrating essay collection — a wise and welcome decision. In a moment when geography seems to have a stranglehold on political sensibilities, “Notes From No Man’s Land” delivers nuanced regional dispatches from New York, California and the Midwest. And for both editions, a telephone pole stands sentinel on the cover.
“Time and Distance Overcome,” the introductory piece, takes its title from an early advertisement for the telephone. (Americans have a long history of embracing tech as salvation — see Jill Lepore’s marvelous new book “These Truths.”)
Rutherford B. Hayes called the installation of a White House phone “one of the greatest events since creation.” But other citizens angrily chopped down telephone poles as intrusions. In Oshkosh, Wis., the mayor ordered the police chief and fire department to dismantle them.
In other spots – Belleville, Ill.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Purcell, Okla.; Springfield, Ohio – the new structures were adopted for lynching. Mobs and murderers lynched black men from telephone poles in all but four states.
“The poles, of course, were not to blame,” Biss writes. “It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places.”
A reader of Biss — or Isabel Wilkerson or Ibram X. Kendi — is better equipped to ponder news of violence against black bodies, less likely to respond with an incredulous “this is not our country.” Looking back less than a decade, some of Biss’ words can seem prescient.
In the title essay, Biss describes her mixed-race cousin traveling in South Africa and passing for white. She “was not prepared … to be reminded at every possible opportunity, that she was not safe and that she must be afraid,” Biss reports. “And she was not prepared for how seductive that fear would become, how omnipresent it would be, so she spent most of her time there in taxis, and in hotels and in ‘safe‘ places where she was surrounded by white people. When she returned home she told me, ‘I realized this is what white people do to each other — they cultivate each other’s fear. It’s very violent.’ ”
Rereading that passage puts one in mind now of Steve Bannon, and the title Bob Woodward gave for his book on the current president.
Biss — best known for her excellent 2014 book “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” which explores the mythic, scientific and cultural soup around vaccinations — is a 41-year-old professor at Northwestern University.
A child of a poet and a doctor, young Eula grew up in rural upstate New York. Both parents seem to undergird her clear eye, crisp wording and unpretentious sentences. “No Man’s Land” samples remarks from neighbors and husband, sprinkled with a bit of Herman Melville, Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison. But mostly, Biss is worth quoting.
Perhaps the best essay is “Back to Buxton.” It centers on a place that “is now just a stack of bricks and a small flock of gravestones in a farmer’s field, but was once an unincorporated mining camp of five thousand, an integrated town with a majority-black population in the mostly white state of Iowa during the Jim Crow era.”
Buxton’s 20 years of flourishing — before the mine gave out — is an astonishing reckoning with a recovered history, worth the price of the book. (The chapter is excerpted online at Lithub.)
Other entries — and Biss’ serious jones for Joan Didion’s versions of California and New York — are less successful, although her unvarnished frankness on the loneliness of New York City remains a standout of its ilk.
In a vulnerable spot, a Manhattan plumber lends Biss a hand, giving rise to “my sickening realization that Sal was helping me because I was white. He made me aware of this face with a barrage of racial slurs that I failed to respond to with anything but silence. Silence because I needed his help and I suddenly understood the contract.”
White women, as a demographic cohort, tipped the election to Donald Trump. Biss is an unusual one for having spent decades pondering her whiteness, a preoccupation she doesn’t like to attribute to her multiracial family. Families, inspected across time and marriages, are ipso facto multiracial.
When a youthful Biss first moved to San Diego, the apartment she could afford was 10 blocks from the bus stop but nestled among four liquor stores. She took work as a reporter with the African American newspaper, the San Diego Voice and Viewpoint. She reported on a riveting custody case, but quit before it resolved. In the notes, she states she won’t be contacting her protagonist, a grandmother, “for the sole purpose of satisfying my curiosity, or yours.”
Biss probably made the right choice in leaving journalism.
And yet this is a writer whose unorthodox approach awakens fresh delight. There is nothing of the scold in her; her insights are startling and sly, even if we long to argue some of her points.
“Only something that continues to hurt stays in the memory,” Frederick Nietzsche wrote in his book “On the Genealogy of Morality.” Biss seems to want our national pain to hurt more productively.
Perhaps “Notes From No Man’s Land” will be a lasting contribution to the cause.
Karen R. Long is the manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, part of the Cleveland Foundation.
Graywolf Press: 256 pp., $16 paper