Review: America: A History in Verse by Edward Sanders


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.

Interestingly, Jameson and other key theorists of post-modernism claim that America has no sense of history. While they see this as an intrinsic feature of the new post-modern artistic and mass media culture, Ed Sanders in his paradigm-shaking America: a History in Verse, The Twentieth Century suggests that this amnesiac state can be explained as due to the utter silence imposed on historical records over the last 50 years by a collusion of government and corporate leadership.

The first five volumes of America, the ones covering the 20th century, are now available on a CD that contains them on PDFs. The first three volumes can be found in book form from Black Sparrow.

Let me try to substantiate what I’ve said about Sanders’ view of history by making particular reference to Volume 3, 1962-1970. Here, picking up on much recent scholarship of the period, Sanders explores the massive campaign carried out by the FBI, the NSA and various intelligence agencies to discredit and destroy the Civil Rights movement, the New Left, the Panthers and other groups, both radical and reformist. Remember this did not simply amount to infiltrating and spying on these groups, but intervening so as to attempt to destroy activists’ families (as when the FBI anonymously sent a tape of one of King’s sexcapades to this wife), sow dissent (as when an intelligence agency sent concocted threatening letters, with forged signatures, from one black group to another), and harass supporters of progressive causes with punitive tax audits (as the IRS did with anyone who contributed to the radical Ramparts magazine). All this is chillingly documented by Sanders, as are the massacres that took down the two Kennedys, Malcolm X, King and other luminaries, none of which have been satisfactorily investigated, though there are clear hints that either the U.S. government’s or the military’s hands were some way involved in each.

All the while, the vampirish war in Southeast Asia magnified, pulling in more and more countries as the U.S. widened the bombing into Laos and Cambodia, while in Vietnam proper the U.S. carried out horrendous programs, such as, in Operation Phoenix, using targeted assassins to eliminate labor leaders and dissidents, as well as carrying out the mass destruction of crops, and the relocation of entire villages into semi-concentration camps. For, as Breyten Breytenbach writes about modern politics, “Hell doesn’t exist. It comes into being, each moment it is created relentlessly.”

Meanwhile, the complicity of the press in covering up these activities almost beggars description. As Sanders writes of the bombing of northeastern Laos form1964 to 1969 when,

During those years over 25,000 attack sorties were flown against
the Plain of Jars
As the years went past
organized village life was impossible …
so the villagers moved deeper into the forests
They farmed at night
and lived in trenches, holes or caves
The multi-layer robotic bombing
was done in absolute secrecy
No American newspaper wrote about it

All this silence allowed great impunity to the American ruling caste, so that they felt free to lie and manipulate while suffering no consequences. Take, for example, the derailing of the Paris talks over peace in Vietnam. “Kissinger again came to Paris to the Talks // pretending he was pro Humphrey. // He picked up inside information that Johnson // was going to call a bombing halt by October 15.” Kissinger leaked this to the right-wing press, which raised a hullaballoo, causing Johnson to cancel the plan. It’s not that Kissinger cared about the peace talks, but that he knew a halt would help Humphrey’s run for president against Nixon, who Kissinger backed. So, Sanders concludes, “& if it wasn’t treason // it was a kind of mass murder // -- all for a few years of power.”

So far, I’ve only touched on one side of the book’s contents. Obviously, the ’60s was filled with countermining. While the FBI and other intelligence agencies, the war machine and U.S. leaders were burrowing resolutely toward hell, it was as if they were passed, digging the other way, by those in the many social movements who were battling against injustice, segregation, racism, the immolation of Vietnam and spreading economic inequity. In this positive space, “a thrilling flow // of events, ideas, currents, strands & vistas,” one sights Sanders himself on occasion, as when, he notes how, “The bard Allen Ginsberg lived just down the street // & with him we founded the Committee to Legalize Marijuana.”

This story of the counterculture, too, demands and here receives a vigorous unrolling. Sanders explores both high points of the massed struggle, such as the battles in Birmingham and Selma, which are given magnificent retellings, and, as sidebars, stories of individual courage (now often forgotten episodes) including Justice William Douglas’s willingness to publish in an officially off-limits publication.

[right wingers] shrilly complained that Douglas had allowed
The avant-garde literary magazine Evergreen Review
To print a section from his book

I think everything said so far would have the progressive reader nodding sympathetically, thinking, “It sounds like a well-written prose history,” but that would be overlooking that the whole project is in verse.

Being poetry gives America a special energy, an ability to shoot forward at times, catching the rapid, explosive force of events (as in the description of the fight for free speech at UC Berkeley), at other times moving more deliberately (as when going over some of the revolutionary principles set forward in the Black Panthers program). There are also moments when the poet lets go with unchained, lyric exuberance in which the eloquence of the people’s voices finds a searching echo in the lines of the scholar-bard. Both history and writing are elevated in the process.

— Jim Feast