How Austerity Killed the Humanities

Not long ago, the Right fought viciously over the teaching of the humanities in American universities. Now conservatives are trying to eliminate them altogether.


Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, debates over the humanities were a major component of American political discourse. On the one side were conservative traditionalists who believed that all American college students should read the Western Canon—the greatest books of the Western mind since Aristotle—as a foundation for democratic living. On the other side were academic multiculturalists who believed that a humanities education should be more comprehensive and should thus include texts authored by minority, female, and non-western writers.

Those debates of the ‘80s and ‘90s were heated. Indeed, they were a major front in what came to be known as “culture wars” between merciless foes. Yet all sides in these culture wars believed a humanities education—history, literature, languages, philosophy—was inherently important in a democratic society. In short, the humanities were taken for granted. In our current age of austerity, this is no longer the case. Many Americans no longer think the humanities worthy of public support. This is especially true of conservatives, who in their quest to cut off state support to higher education have abandoned the humanities entirely.

Take the state of Wisconsin, for example. In early February, Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker drafted a draconian state budget that proposed to decrease the state’s contribution to the University of Wisconsin system by over $300 million over the next two years. Beyond simply slashing spending, Walker was also attempting to alter the language that has guided the core mission of the University of Wisconsin over the last 100 years or more, known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” Apparently Walker’s ideal university would no longer “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and would thus cease its “search for truth” and its efforts to “improve the human condition,” as his proposed language changes scrapped these ideas entirely; the governor’s scaled-back objective was for the university to merely “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

When a draft of Walker’s proposed revisions to the Wisconsin Idea surfaced, outraged Wisconsinites (including some conservatives) compelled the governor to backtrack. Yet Walker’s actions are consistent with recent trends in conservative politics. Republicans today are on the warpath against education—particularly against the humanities, those academic disciplines where the quaint pursuit of knowledge about “the human condition” persists.

In 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a law making it more expensive for students enrolled at Florida’s public universities to obtain degrees in the humanities. As Scott and his supporters argued, in austere times, they needed “to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy,” as Florida Republican and State Senate President Don Gaetz put it. In other words, a humanities degree, unlike a business degree, was a luxury good. Even President Obama joined this chorus when he half-joked recently that students with vocational training are bound to make more money than art history majors.

Such anti-intellectualism, a strong animus against the idea that learning about humanity is a worthy pursuit regardless of its lack of obvious labor market applicability, has deep roots in American history. President Theodore Roosevelt advised that “we of the United States must develop a system under which each individual citizen shall be trained so as to be effective individually as an economic unit, and fit to be organized with his fellows so that he and they can work in efficient fashion together.” Contemporary conservatives are thus merely following the crude utilitarian logic that has informed many politicians and educational reformers since the nation’s first common schools.

But it was not always thus. During the 1980s and 1990s, prominent conservatives like William Bennett, who served in the Reagan administration as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then as Secretary of Education, argued that every American should have an education grounded in the humanities. This surprising recent history is largely forgotten, and not only because most conservatives now dismiss the value of the humanities. It is forgotten because the arguments forwarded by Bennett and his ilk came in the context of the traumatic culture wars, when left and right angrily battled over radically different visions of a humanities education.

Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

As a leading conservative culture warrior, Bennett held a traditionalist vision of the humanities. He believed the Western canon—which he defined in the terms of Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience”—should be the philosophical bedrock of the nation’s higher education.

“Because our society is the product and we the inheritors of Western civilization,” Bennett matter-of-factly contended, “American students need an understanding of its origins and development, from its roots in antiquity to the present.”

Most academics in humanities disciplines like English and history, in contrast, took a more critical stance towards the Western canon. They believed it too Eurocentric and male-dominated to properly reflect modern American society and thus revised it by adding books authored by women and minorities. Toni Morrison was to sit alongside Shakespeare. As literary theorist Jane Tompkins told a reporter from The New York Times Magazine in 1988, the struggle to revise the canon was a battle “among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself.”

Many college students agreed with the canon revisionists. In 1986, Bill King, president of the Stanford University Black Student Union, formally complained to the Stanford academic senate that the university’s required Western Civilization reading list was racist. “The Western culture program as it is presently structured around a core list and an outdated philosophy of the West being Greece, Europe, and Euro-America is wrong, and worse,” he contended, “it hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.” Stanford students opposed to the Western Civilization curriculum marched and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” and the academic senate approved mild changes to the core reading list that they hoped would satisfy the understandable demands of their increasingly diverse student body.

A sensationalist media made Stanford’s revisions seem like a proxy for the death of the West. Newsweek titled a story on the topic “Say Goodbye Socrates.” University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal editor in 1989—two years after his book, The Closing of the American Mind, made a rigorous if eccentric case for a classic humanities education rooted in the Western canon—in which he argued the Stanford revisions were a travesty: “This total surrender to the present and abandonment of the quest for standards with which to judge it are the very definition of the closing of the American mind, and I could not hope for more stunning confirmation of my thesis.”

Bloom believed that a humanities education should provide students with “four years of freedom,” which he described as “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Liberals and leftists might have been sympathetic to such an argument had Bloom not dismissed texts authored by women, minorities, and non-westerners as lacking merit compared to the great books authored by those like Socrates who composed the Western canon.

In retrospect, these culture wars over the humanities are rather remarkable artifacts of a history that feels increasingly distant. Whether Stanford University ought to assign John Locke or the anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a debate that played out on The Wall Street Journal editorial page in 1988, would be nonsensical in today’s neoliberal climate marked by budget cuts and other austerity measures. Now Locke and Fanon find themselves for the first time on the same side—and it’s looking more and more like the losing one. On the winning side? Well, to take but one example, Winning, General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s breezy management book, which is widely read in American business schools. Sadly, even the almighty Western canon, revised or not, seems feeble up against Winning and the cult of business. Conservative defenders of the humanities are voices in the wilderness. The philistines are on the march.

The culture wars over the humanities that dominated discussion of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s had enduring historical significance. Shouting matches about academia reverberated beyond the ivory tower to lay bare a crisis of national faith. Was America a good nation? Could the nation be good—could its people be free—without foundations? Were such foundations best provided by a classic liberal education in the humanities, which Matthew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said”? Was the “best” philosophy and literature synonymous with the canon of Western Civilization? Or was the Western canon racist and sexist? Was the “best” even a valid category for thinking about texts? Debates over these abstract questions rocked the nation’s institutions of higher education, demonstrating that the culture wars did not boil down to any one specific issue or even a set of issues. Rather, the culture wars often hinged on a more epistemological question about national identity: How should Americans think?

But in our current age of austerity, Americans are not asked to think about such questions at all. Neoliberalism is fine with revised canons—with a more inclusive, multicultural vision of the humanities. But neoliberalism is not fine with public money supporting something so seemingly useless. American conservatives have abandoned their traditionalist defense of the Western canon in favor of no canon at all.


Andrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University and author, most recently, of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.

The Small Fires: reflections on the Baltimore uprising

By Steven Leyva On May 14, 2015

Post image for The Small Fires: reflections on the Baltimore uprisingFollowing the city’s uprising against oppressive poverty and racism, Baltimore poet Steven Leyva reflects on the experience in a heartfelt lyrical essay.

I remember every time I’ve been pulled over by the police. The litany of reasons reads like a child’s primer: tail light, move-over law, a suspicious swerve, no turn on red, should have turned, failure to control speed, failure to yield, failure to yield, failure…

Watching Freddie Gray’s arrest on an endless news media loop I am confronted by how he does not yield, but runs. Could I enact such agency? I’ve never had to, relying instead on my professional dress, my quick code-switch to non-threating “proper” speech—I teach composition and basic rhetoric to undergraduates—or just neutral silence. And after taking my license, and reading my name, taking my registration, and reading my name, the officer still asks, “Is this your car?”

Freddie did not have the comfort of a car. The questions of ownership are directed at his body. Failure to yield.

I remember watching a kid no older than fourteen throw one of the first rocks at the police line surrounding Mondawmin Mall and thinking, “Kids got an arm.” It didn’t register as violence somehow, and I am unsure why. He’ll probably never play baseball.

I remember driving down North Avenue, the panoply of boarded and vacant homes slipping in and out of the passenger side window frame like some desolate slideshow, and wondering if a riot is the last radical art left to the poor.

What if citizens approached a protest the way a viewer approaches abstract art, with a sense of openness about how the experience might change the viewer? Would the first rhetorical move made be one of honest curiosity instead of judgement? One of my grad school teachers, Kendra Kopelke, reminded me after a poetry reading that “art doesn’t need our judgement, it needs our attention”.

I remember a full ten minutes when my face will not unscrew itself from a grimace as a CNN Anchor attempts to act omniscient about race relations. He iscorrected cogently, with a question, “Are you suggesting broken windows are worse than broken spines?”

I remember a week where everyone’s pronouns are out of control. “They” becomes a rhetorical Leviathan. A student asks, “Why are they burning their own stores?” and I ask “Who is the they?” and he can’t look me in the face.

I remember rubbing my son’s cowlick down with one hand and attempting to sling my daughter’s hair into a ponytail with the other while the sound of dual helicopters—the real one outside our home and the one broadcast on WBAL—form an odd echo chamber. This is a moment when I must explain to both my children that though Momma is not black, they are.

I remember wishing I could unfriend anyone who quoted David Simon.

I remember one of my students saying that the mayor always looks like she’s about to fall asleep.

I remember the poet Jack Gilbert writing “Love is one of many great fires” as I watch a five-alarm blaze char what looks like a whole city block.

Earlier, that same afternoon, someone I thought I knew responded to the looting by posting on Facebook, “Don’t we use Napalm anymore?”

I remember the Orioles playing for an empty ballpark and thinking what a metaphor for “trickle down” economics.

I remember the gentle reminder that I am at my most arrogant when I attempt to tell an oppressed person the appropriate ways to respond to oppression.

I remember falling in love with Marylin Mosby for the fierce look she gave to a reporter who asked her the same question she’d just answered. I remember that she did not stutter when she read the charges for each officer.

I remember, I remember that remembering can be a radical act of healing.

Steven Leyva is a poet, teacher, and freelance writer living in Baltimore. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He is the  author of the chapbook, Low Parish, and editor of Little Patuxent Review.

Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation

Exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library

By Fred Mazelis
13 March 2015

At the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, January 23 through June 7, 2015

With the approach of the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, followed less than a week later by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, attention is once again focused on the US Civil War, and on the president who led the military and political struggle that ended with the abolition of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln

A small but informative exhibition at New York City’s Morgan Library and Museum makes use of portions of Lincoln’s correspondence, speeches and notes to illuminate the life of its subject, which has already been treated in some 15,000 books as well as about 200 film and television productions, including most recently Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2013).

Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation, on view through June 7, was organized by the Morgan Library and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which has amassed some 60,000 documents held at the New York Historical Society. About two-thirds of the 80 letters and other original items in the current show, most of them in Lincoln’s hand, were loaned by the Institute, with most of the remaining documents coming from the Morgan itself.

It is fascinating to see this material up close, and to read the remarkably clear handwriting of Lincoln himself in many of his letters, military orders and other documents. The Civil War comes alive and the democratic and revolutionary content of Lincoln’s words is vividly displayed.

The exhibition is divided into nine somewhat overlapping sections, each dealing with a period of Lincoln’s life or career. These include, among others, “Lincoln the Reader,” “the Politician,” “the Emancipator,” “Commander-in-Chief,” “Lincoln in the Eyes of the World” and “A Man For All Time.”

Lincoln’s passion for reading and knowledge, from an early age, is illustrated with references to the King James version of the Bible, Blackstone’s Commentaries, dealing with the development of English law, and especially the works of Shakespeare, much of which Lincoln knew by heart. One of the volumes of Shakespeare owned by the future president is opened to Macbeth, which Lincoln knew best of all of the plays.

This reading was crucial in shaping Lincoln’s thought and language as he embarked on a political career that would bring him to the White House at the most crucial moment in 19th century American history. The language and style of his letters and speeches were marked by an extraordinary combination of the simple and even homespun with elevated and elegant prose, which inspired his readers and listeners.

Lincoln had no love for the grandiloquent and flowery oratory for which US senator and statesman Daniel Webster and others were noted. He strove for cogency, without a trace of demagogy or oversimplification of the issues and principles involved. He connected with his listeners, and never talked down to them. The clarity and simplicity is illustrated in the relative brevity of his speeches, most famously the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address.

As is well known, Lincoln proceeded extremely cautiously on the question of abolition. However, he made no attempt to hide his hatred of slavery and this finds expression in the exhibition in a speech fragment from 1858, in which he praises the British abolitionists William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, Lincoln threw himself into the details of military strategy in addition to dealing with the political crisis. He mixed easily with Northern troops and there was nothing that smacked of militarism or ceremony in his actions in office, something that was shown effectively in Spielberg’s film. The reverence for Lincoln among the troops is illustrated by a letter from John Jones of the Illinois Infantry, who wrote, in response to the news of the Emancipation Proclamation: “The name of Abraham Lincoln will be handed down to posterity as one of the great benefactors of this country, not surpassed by the immortal Washington himself.”

Lincoln’s could also be absolutely single-minded and even ruthless in the prosecution of the war against secession. Some of the documents in the Morgan exhibition express the ruthless logic of the bloody war—the “irrepressible conflict”—and how it put all of the political protagonists to the test. Lincoln met this revolutionary test, and that is above all why he remains, perhaps alongside Jefferson, the greatest of American presidents.

One example of Lincoln’s leadership, and the shifts in his thinking and actions as the war progressed, can be found in his March 1863 letter to Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson, the same individual who became vice president after Lincoln’s reelection about 18 months later. “The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed force for restoring the union,” Lincoln wrote. “The bare sight of 50,000 armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once.” These words revealed a growing understanding of the revolutionary character of the struggle, which constituted the greatest expropriation of private property until the Russian Revolution more than half a century later.

Another illustration in the Morgan Library exhibition is General Order No. 252. In response to attacks by Confederate forces on freed slaves, Lincoln ordered, “For every black soldier killed by Confederates, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor.”

Among the other documents on display are a printed copy of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865, only weeks before he died, and a signed copy of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, and first adopted by the Senate in 1864.

In the section of the exhibition on “Lincoln in the Eyes of the World,” emphasis is correctly given to the relationship between the fight to end chattel slavery and the ideals of the Enlightenment. The relationship between the Civil War and the American and French Revolutions of the past century was widely understood at the time. Just as important, the anti-slavery struggle was inseparably bound up with struggles of the working class, above all in Englandof the Victorian era. The abolition of slavery had a worldwide impact, and the murder of Lincoln met with an outpouring of grief not only in the US but around the world.

Among the interesting items here is an autograph manuscript of Frederick Douglass in 1880 in which the most famous escaped slave, the eloquent orator and abolitionist, paid tribute to Lincoln as “one of the noblest wisest and best men I ever knew.” Also on display is an autograph copy of Walt Whitman’s famous “O Captain! My Captain!” the 1865 poem inspired by Lincoln’s death. And noted as well is the famous tribute paid by Karl Marx to Lincoln as “the single-minded son of the working class.”

Also presented are the words of two subsequent US presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and later Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose speech at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938 is displayed.

The appearance of Bill Clinton in a short video presentation that forms part of the exhibition only demonstrates the gulf between the leaders of American capitalism today and the president who helped lay the basis for the rapid economic and social development of the United States when capitalism still had a progressive role to play.

Clinton emphasizes Lincoln’s determination to “bind up the nation’s wounds” after the Civil War—true enough, but this entirely leaves out the revolutionary character of the period. He also speaks of Lincoln as representing “equality of opportunity—the right to rise.”

The representatives of the financial oligarchy in the US today cannot possibly explain the role of Lincoln and of the Civil War. In this regard, the role of Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, the founders of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, should be noted. Both are wealthy Wall Street figures and right-wing Republicans, associated with such reactionary outfits as the Club for Growth. Their passion for American history is bound up with notions of “American exceptionalism.” For them the Civil War is to be celebrated as the triumph of capitalism, the supposed summit of human civilization. Clinton of course associates himself with this view.

The documents in this exhibit speak for themselves. They show that Lincoln led a revolutionary struggle to destroy an outmoded social order. This is why Marx, the founder of scientific socialism, enthusiastically welcomed this Second American Revolution, and lauded Lincoln for his resolve and leadership. Lincoln stood in the tradition of his revolutionary forebears, including Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. The struggle for equality in the 19th century, with which the name of Lincoln will forever be associated, resonates in the struggle against outmoded capitalism today.


The beloved fantasy author died at age 66 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease

Terry Pratchett (Credit: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Prolific fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett has passed away at the age of 66, after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. He continued to write throughout his illness, completing the 40th “Discworld” book last spring, which he did through the help of dictation and speech recognition software. He has often spoken publicly about his illness and became a staunch advocate for assisted death after his diagnosis (according to a source at the Telegraph, he died of natural causes).

Pratchett has written more than 70 books over his long career, including 41 books in the popular Discworld series, and has sold over 85-million books worldwide. He is the second most widely-read writer in the UK — and was, for a long time, the first, before being unseated by J.K. Rowling. He has many other accomplishments to his name, including the Carnegie Medal for his Discworld kids book “The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents”, as well as the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and a Knighthood, not to mention enriching the lives of millions of readers across the globe.

Pratchett’s death was announced via a series of tweets from his Twitter account, describing an encounter with Pratchett and “Death,” who was a character in the Discworld novels.

“The world has lost one of its brightest, sharpest minds,” read a statement from Larry Finlay at Pratchett’s publishing company Transworld. “In over 70 books, Terry enriched the planet like few before him. As all who read him know, Discworld was his vehicle to satirize this world: He did so brilliantly, with great skill, enormous humour and constant invention. Terry faced his Alzheimer’s disease (an ‘embuggerance’, as he called it) publicly and bravely. Over the last few years, it was his writing that sustained him. His legacy will endure for decades to come.”

Anna Silman is Salon’s deputy entertainment editor. Follow her on Twitter:@annaesilman.

Philip Levine (1928–2015): A poet of working class life and struggle

By Dorota Niemitz and Matthew Brennan
5 March 2015

The poet Philip Levine died on February 14, at the age of 87, in Fresno, California. Levine’s poetry is often associated with depictions of industrial working class life and struggle, particularly in and around Detroit.

Born in Detroit in 1928 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Levine himself was a factory worker for more than a decade, beginning at the age of 14. Among the factory and industrial jobs he held in the Detroit area were ones at the Cadillac Engine, Chevrolet Gear and Axle, and Wyandotte Chemical factories.

Phillip Levine, September 2006, photo by David Shankbone

In his early teens Levine was initially inspired by poetry after reading Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem Arms and the Boy. He later enrolled in the English department at Wayne State University, and became interested in Keats, Whitman, Hardy, William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. He noted the connection between his work life and his growing artistic aspirations in an interview with Studs Terkel. “I was working in factories and also trying to write. I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of this world here; it doesn’t exist.’ And it didn’t. You couldn’t find it. And I sort of took a vow to myself … I was going to write the poetry of these people.”

In 1953 Levine enrolled in the University of Iowa Writing program, studying under the poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He considered Berryman his “one great mentor” in poetry, and speaks movingly of him in his autobiography The Bread of Time. Pursuing an academic career, he eventually became a professor of literature at Fresno State University in 1958, a position he held until he retired in 1992.

Levine’s published body of poetry spans from 1961 (On The Edge) to 2009 (News of the World). Some of his more well-known books of poetry include Not This Pig (1963), They Feed They Lion (1974), The Names of the Lost (1976),A Walk With Tom Jefferson (1988), and The Simple Truth (1995). He won a Pulitzer Prize for this last work. Capping a long list of literary awards received over his lifetime, he was named the Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.

Levine’s poetry and poetic style, at its best, captured the complexity and beauty behind the harsh exterior of social life for working people. Often his poems depicted daily urban American life through both chaotic and mundane images—the factories, smog and soil, the smell of bread, eggs and butter, grease and sweat, fevered children, snowstorms, cluttered diesel truck cabins, an assembly press malfunction, a winter-beaten garden, or a mother’s work clothes. He could tell a genuinely moving story and evoke honest imagery without sliding into sentimentality.

Back-breaking work, dreams, drudgery and love could find sudden, unexpected intersection in his poems. Take for instance, parts of “What Work Is,” or “Of Love and Other Disasters:”

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work isif you’re
old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.
The sad refusal to give in to
rain, the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German (…)

– from “What Work Is”

The punch press operator from up north
met the assembler from West Virginia
in a bar near the stadium
how the grease ate so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her, and she put her hand,
palm up, on the bar and pointed
with her cigarette at the deep lines
the work had carved. “The lifeline,”
he said, “which one is that?” “None,”
she said (…)”

from “Of Love and Other Disasters”

Levine’s appeal was also due in part to the accessibility and directness of his free-verse poems, which relied on familiar, accurate, and authentic language –all the more impressive in an era (the 1960s through early 1990s) when postmodernism and its impenetrable jargon began to find significant influence in literature and art.

Memory, nostalgia, grief and anger were central, for better and worse, to Levine’s narrative approach. Most often his characters live in all three spaces of time across a poem. People and places that no longer exist are brought back to life in the present, and their dreams are projected onto the future, or up against the lack of a discernible future.

His best poems often emphasize tension between visual motifs—such as everyday objects, people or well-known places—and the non-visual elements they evoke in the sounds or feelings of a place or time. In “Those Were The Days” he writes about young boys imagining a hearty breakfast served on silver plates on a sunny day, before being dragged back into reality by their mother, without the food, putting on their galoshes and heading off to school in freezing November rain.

In “Salt and Oil” the elements of the poem’s title become opposing symbols for capturing the “unwritten biography of your city … There is no/ photograph, no mystery/ only Salt and Oil/ in the daily round of the world,/ three young men in dirty work clothes/ on their way under a halo/ of torn clouds and famished city birds./ There is smoke and grease, there is/ the wrist’s exhaustion, there is laughter,/ there is the letter seized in the clock.”

His compassion and humane treatment of his subjects are Levine’s strongest qualities, with his sympathies almost always clearly directed toward the exploited, overworked and weary people of his poems. In the haunting “Detroit, Tomorrow” for instance, Levine describes a mother who contemplates “how she’ll go back to work today” after her only child has been killed (“You and I will see her just before four/ alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box/ of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee, a navel orange secured under her arm …”).

Or in “Among Children,” from a classroom of 4th grade schoolchildren in Flint, Michigan, he considers their fathers working in spark plug factories or water plants, their mothers waiting in old coats, and worries what the future brings (“You can see already how their backs have thickened, how their small hands, soiled by pig iron, leap and stutter even in dreams”).

One could easily list a dozen other poems evoking very human qualities in Levine’s poetry.

However, while his ability to movingly render the lives of “everyday people” and the grinding nature of work is admirable, those of his poems that move onto political and historical terrain point to some of Levine’s weaknesses. Here a tendency toward pessimism and resignation emerges most clearly.

Some of his most well-known poems—“They Feed They Lion” and “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” about racial tensions and the 1967 Detroit Riots, or “Francisco, I’ll Bring You Red Carnations” about events in the Spanish Civil War—are among his least effective.

Some of this can be explained in Levine’s world outlook. Throughout most of his life he identified himself as an anarchist. He dedicates numerous poems and essays to vignettes and to anarchist figures of the Spanish Civil War—a struggle he considered the most important of the 20th century. Many of these are captured in The Names of the Lost and in a chapter of his autobiography (“The Holy Cities”).

The themes of the more “political poems”—heroic individualism, defiance in the face of long odds, idealist notions of a better world—are generally passive and even demoralized. They lack a conception of the material and social basis of the revolutionary struggle. The poem “To Cipriano, In The Wind” is an apt illustration. Cipriano is the name of the Italian dry cleaner who inspired Levine’s turn toward anarchism as a youth. The poem is a discouraged longing for that particular idealism as it fades away in old age. Another poem, “The Communist Party,” about a CP meeting in Detroit in the late 1940s, illustrates a certain lack of seriousness with which he approached questions of history.

“Were we simply idealists?
What I’m certain of is something essential
was missing from our lives, and it wasn’t
in that sad little clubhouse for college kids,
it wasn’t in the vague talk, the awful words
that spun their own monotonous music:
“proletariat,” “bourgeoisie ,” “Trotskyist.

There is an underlying element of retreat and defeat—of an individual “screaming in the wind”—in many of Levine’s poems, even in some of the warmer compositions. In a Paris Review interview towards the end of his life he stated as much, despite his hatred of imperialist oppression. “Those who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested in maintaining an empire,” he said, “subjugating other people, enslaving them if need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others. I’m not doing a thing about it. I’m not a man of action; it finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do?”

Large historical issues of the 20th century—the significance of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent betrayals of Stalinism, the global crisis of capitalism, the transformation of the trade unions into adjuncts of big business and the capitalist state, the dead-end of nationalism—would be difficult to navigate for even the sharpest of artists. Levine’s anarchism left him virtually powerless to bring these issues to life in his poetry.

His focus on the details of life in and around working class neighborhoods led one cultural critic to dub Levine the “large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” This description is somewhat misleading, however. It is indisputable that over the course of a lifetime Levine captured the episodes, dreams, daily routines, tragedies, disputes and complex interactions of working class lives in moving fashion. But his overall outlook is often shrouded by the view that life will never get any better. He is less of a fighter and optimist than Whitman, but Levine was no less sympathetic to his subjects than that poetic giant who preceded him by more than a century. He should be read and remembered for trying to give voice to the largely “voiceless” in industrial America.