As I was writing this introduction, a series of fierce storms began hitting sections of south central Iowa. Several weeks ago, an Iowa town named Parkersburg was completely destroyed, and the media focused on the efforts of the townspeople to contain the disaster. The storms persisted throughout most of Iowa, with extreme winds and torrential rains in Iowa City, where I live and teach. The university was shut down for at least a week, and major parts of downtown were flooded. During breaks in the weather, people—students, residents of Iowa City—worked in huge groups to sandbag buildings and roadways on the university campus and in the city.
As always, it was the human dimension of the tragedy that interested me. Many years ago, I learned here in Iowa City the local meaning of the term "neighboring." It evolved out of the frontier tradition of the rural landscapes: If a neighboring farmer could not take care of his planting or his harvest, or could not manage heavy rain or snow on his own, it became tradition for people living nearby to step in and offer assistance. Soon the word was abstracted from agriculture and employed to describe absolutely any helpful human gestures. In places like Iowa City, such "neighboring" gestures are normative. Paul Engle, who created both the Writers' Workshop and the Iowa International Workshop, had this tradition in his blood. In one of his many books, he wrote about growing up in a small town outside of Cedar Rapids. In his youth, a family of Orthodox Jews moved into the town. Because their religion prevented them from working on the Sabbath, Paul did the work for them on that day; he became their " Sabbath Goy." I believe it was this experience with an "other" that encouraged him to create a national writing haven, and then an international writing haven in Iowa City.
It might be said that the variety of young writers in this issue of Ploughshares are "neighboring." If there is a common thread in the stories here, I think it must be the communal effort to gain perspective on the highly complex areas of our fuzzy and fragmented American reality. We seem to live our lives against a backdrop of emotional fragmentation and failure of purpose: the economy, the various wars in the Middle East, the decay of rights movements (civil rights, feminism, economic help for those in poverty, sexual choice in marriage). In recent months, the media has been almost obsessed in its explanation of the appeal of Barack Obama. He seems to move beyond being black, a certified political liberal or conservative. His appeal seems to be spiritual but not necessarily religious. And he has inspired the enthusiastic support of a tremendous number of Americans, not all of them black or young. Many years ago, one of my mentors, the critic and novelist Albert Murray, coined a term that has kept inspiring me for the past thirty years. When the civil rights movement began drifting towards separatism and Black Nationalism, Murray argued in one of his books, The Omni-Americans, that black Americans derive from a very long and very deep association with the racial and cultural traditions of this country. Murray argued that the exploration of these influences might enable black people to look beyond nationalism and to recognize, if not embrace, the traditions of other groups within the American cultural environment. The result of this "integration" would be a newer and culturally complex kind of American. Such reflexive embraces would make members of the group more receptive to the mores of other Americans.
In his appeal to the political as well as to the emotional quests of people from a great number of groups, Obama is clearly the Omni-American that Albert Murray had in mind. One source of his appeal is that he thinks and operates beyond race and class and sexual orientation—beyond all the social categories that function as substitutes for a transcendent American identity. I believe that a great many people can sense this spiritual transcendence in him, and can project onto him their own desires for transcendence. I have read recently that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is trying to reach out to young people through computers and digital games ("games for change"). She hopes to embrace the internet and interactive digital media as essential tools for preserving American democracy, for attempting to "neighbor" with young people who are devoted to the culture of the internet.
The tradition of helping others was apparent in the supermarkets these past few weeks. The parking lots were full, and people rolled two or three carts full of food and bottles of water to their cars. People had moved outside of their immediate emotional concerns and refocused on transcendent communal needs. Securing essentials for others, like the act of sandbagging, became an Omni-American ritual gesture. Once during this period, my doorbell rang and there was a student, a young woman, with whom I had worked in 2001. She and her husband had brought me twenty-four bottles of water in a plastic case.
I am sure this gesture was being replicated all over Iowa City, and indeed all over Iowa. It was essentially the human thing to do. Something beyond race, sexual identity, or economic status. It was simply "the done thing" in a vital tradition of highly civilized manners.
I do not agree with Joseph Brodsky, in M. G. Stephens's "Sunday Morning," that America has become a decadent country. It seems to me that real decadence involves strict attention to non-essential matters, not the quest for something better. Most of the stories here dramatize some aspects of that quest.