Article by Howard Wolf
Part of Conversas do Bairro on 17 February 2017 at the Museu Condes de Castro Guimarães with special speakers Mario Avelar and Salvato Teles de Mendezes, and the author Howard Wolf
John F. Kennedy inaugurated no greater legacy for my generation than the possibility of harmonious cooperation between nations. The Peace Corps, an enduring American institution, a legacy of his all too brief administration, defines this achievement both in symbolic and concrete terms.
And when he declared at the Rathaus Schoenberg (June 26, 1963), “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he demonstrated to the world that the leader of one nation could identity deeply with the fate of another nation in the spirit of the United Nations. Yes, he was standing up to the Soviet empire as a matter of power politics; but, in doing so, he embodied, paradoxically, the spirit of Goethe and Thomas Mann and the German enlightenment.
The great American playwright, Thornton Wilder said of Goethe in a lecture he delivered in 1949 as an act of post-war reconciliation: “When Goethe spoke of world literature… he seems to have meant literature of all times and languages…in so far as it can be felt to illustrate the concept so dear to him of the unity of all mankind” (American Characteristic And Other Essays, 137).
Writing from a chosen exile in America during the Nazi period, Thomas Mann addressed a letter to the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Bonn, which faculty had rescinded his Honorary Doctorate: “In the Word is involved the unity of humanity, the wholeness of the human problem….This true totality is equated with humanity itself, and anyone…is making a criminal attack upon humanity when he undertakes to ‘totalize’ a segment of human life – by which I mean politics, I mean the state” (The World’s Great Letters, ed. M. Lincoln Schuster, 518).
It is not incidental that JFK was interested in writing and writers. (It would be interesting to know if he had read the work of America’s greatest Portuguese American writer, John Dos Passos). As a young Harvard graduate, secretary, in effect, to his father, Ambassador to the Court of St. James on the eve of WWII, he wrote Why England Slept (1940); and during his presidency, he invited, among other cultural figures, Norman Mailer, a Harvard contemporary, and Pablo Casals, an exile from Franco’s Spain, to the White House.
Although he never met Ernest Hemingway (I did, by the way), he admired his “courage” and acknowledges his influence in Profiles in Courage. Respecting this influence, Hemingway’s widow, Mary, donated his papers to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Boston).
His literary spirit speaks through his speeches (most famously, his inauguration speech) in which he called upon his fellow citizens to think of their country in generous and selfless terms and in Profiles in Courage; and, I am proud to say as a graduate of Amherst College – whose motto is, by the way, Terras Irradient – that JFK had the literary taste and wisdom to invite America’s greatest poet, Robert Frost, heir to Emily Dickinson as the “voice of Amherst,” to read a poem, “Once By the Pacific,” at his inauguration.
[It may not be inaccurate to say that most of America’s most impressive presidents have been good writers as well:
Jefferson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR (letters to Churchill), JFK, Barak Obama. I doubt that the current president will join this list, even if “tweets” become an established genre in the world of belles letters.]
My generation, the “silent generation,” the 1950’s, had been silenced (and self-censored itself) in various ways by the Eisenhower-Nixon years, to say nothing of the dark years of the McCarthy witch-hunt, a period of suppression and repression that the poet Robert Lowell captured in his semi-autobiographical volume, Life Studies. When JFK was elected in 1960, we felt that he knew that we were “out there” in the Republic; that we had been waiting for an opportunity to express ourselves.
His commitment to a “New Frontier” in America and “on the moon” awakened us from an intellectual slumber and reminded us that the better version of America always had been an exploration and expansion of the individual and the land(if sometimes in violent terns – the “conquest” of Native Americans) — De Crevecour’s Letters of an American Farmer (1780-1790), Lincoln’s “new nation,” and Emerson’s essays.
His assassination cast a pall over our lives, of course, but we were left with an obligation and imperative, as writers and teachers, to reach out to others – at home and around the world. George Orwell says in “Why I Write” (A Collection of Essays): “The Spanish War and other events of 1936-7 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been…against totalitarianism…).
No Orwell, nonetheless, much that I have written since that dark day of November 22, 1963, when I sensed an eerie silence on the quadrangle of The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) where I was a graduate student, has been, indirectly, an homage of sorts to JFK.