Reading Salmagundi is like sitting in a graduate school seminar in the humanities or a panel at the 92nd Street Y. Confidence, and sophistication, big names, and the requisite originality ooze through the page. Fortunately, it never quite tips into snobbishness, and following the writers’ trains of thought was for me a demanding but enjoyable exercise. Depending on your background, though and I use the word “background” broadly to mean cultural, ethnic, class, academic, professional, or simply experience or preference as a reader—it may be hard to miss the milieu in which Salmagundi situates itself: among the cerebral, among those who do not have to or who do not worry about money, those who have already carved out a place for themselves in the world, the arrived.
I felt it most acutely in Daniel Harris’s “Blue Rock,” an allegory about a drug that induces highs when used in tandem with reading material. For once, people abandon Candy Crush in favor of literature. But use of the drug is concentrated among the poor, with “worrisome social consequences”:
The poor and uneducated, who were either unemployed or endured the mind-numbing routines of minimum-wage jobs as dish washers and garbage men, were suddenly vastly over-qualified and began to question, not only the vapidity of their responsibilities, but the appalling inequities of the workplace.
In this passage and elsewhere, the story attempts to subvert the relationship between reading and education on one hand and race and class on the other: poor black people now read, and the middle class does not. But the language reveals an assumption from a particular perspective: minimum-wage jobs are mind-numbing and vapid, and these words don’t seem to invite a satirical reading. Although the pronoun “I” never appears, the storyteller looms large.
“Privilege” has become a dirty word in many circles, and so I hesitate to use it even in a more neutral sense, without judgment; yet the word stayed with me with every story, essay, poem, and interview. Russell Banks’s “Big Dog” opens with an artist receiving the news that he’d just won a MacArthur, and later we learn that the half-million-dollar award equaled (only) five years’ salary at his college teaching job. His partner was a weaver, and the story takes place at dinner party attended by a landscape photographer who supported his novelist husband. Martin Jay’s “Mementoes Post-Mori: Thoughts on the Collector’s Mania” explores the psychology of the collector of objects. Various theorists with European-sounding names make their appearances, of which I only recognized Walter Benjamin. But even so, the essay is clear, thoughtful, and entertaining.
It is in the poems that I come a little closer to the raw. “She had a bleeding vagina but no bosom / and a man’s voice that barked, ‘Shut the fuck up.’” So begins Henri Cole’s “The Lonely Domain.” The violence softens beautifully at the end:
The kitchen smelled like a pine forest,
everyday thoughts that are my world
returned to me, sunlight was white
with misty distances, and I lived.
Resentment seems to weigh on Catherine Pond’s “Tauromaquia”: “You think that having been raised on violence / that I will respond / to violence.” The images of bullfighting intertwine with a troubled relationship. The poem seethes with a tension whose eruption is imminent, and it is the more powerful because the eruption itself is not shown. It ends this way: “This animal / is not for you, not for you / this dagger taken lying down.”
My favorite is Daniel Swift’s “Letter From London,” a piece of reportage on the English Defense League (EDL). I like it for its poetry and clear-sightedness, but most of all for its ability to articulate ambiguity. The EDL “are a rough and popular nationalist movement, famous for their vocal opposition to what they see as the spread of Islamic law across England.” Predictably, those in Swift’s social and professional circles are “taken aback” when he tells them he’s been to an EDL march. But Swift refuses to be predictable, and opts instead for fairness, honesty, and fantastic turns of phrase. He compares the public speaking skills of EDL’s leader to those of Mark Antony, believes that Occupy Wall Street thirsts for media attention as much as the EDL, and criticizes the Guardian’s coverage of the EDL marches as well as the faulty logic of the beliefs of some EDL members. The essay shows a writer stepping out of his own world to be curious and understanding about those of others; perhaps that is why I like it best.