Today’s title and theme reflect the English-language titles of my translations of María Rosa Lojo’s most recent novel and of the Arte Público Press’s newly published bilingual edition of Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s poetic response to Walt Whitman. The Whitman book is available here: https://artepublicopress.com/product/todos-somos-whitman-we-are-all-whitman/.
Luis’s book, from the Spanish title Todos somos Whitman, becomes in my version We Are All Whitman; while María Rosa’s, Todos éramos hijos, becomes All of Us Were Children (instead of, as might have been expected, We Were All Children). Why? Because the parallel being sought here is not to Ambroggio’s book but to Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons, which is a central motif that runs through María Rosa’s novel; which, in its Spanish title (Todos eran mis hijos, or, They Were All / All of Them Were My Sons, more closely parallels her own novel’s.
True, either English version would have included Miller’s word All, but it seemed to me that placing it at the beginning would echo that antecedent more effectively. Such are some of the seemingly trivial concerns that the literary translator faces on a daily basis. The translator of more technical texts—from the legal or medical professions, for instance—might not stop to ponder such fine points. Which is why they tend to work faster than we do.
Like Whitman, in any case, Ambroggio writes about universal themes such as identity, love, and life; death, nature, and physical pleasure. But he does so from a distinctly Latin American perspective. Which is only logical, considering the degree to which Whitman has long been venerated by the people and poets of our Spanish-speaking neighbors.
Indeed, while Whitman’s subject is the people of this American nation in particular, his is an expansive and inclusive view of humanity. Drawing as he does on the experience and energy of all the people of this immigrant country, he writes of them in all their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. The “Myself” of Whitman’s title is really a plurality, then, all the people embraced within the poet’s charismatic verse. It is not the merely egocentric musings of a single man, though he does speak like one of immense self-confidence; nor does it exclude the people of other lands—from which our various selves have originated, and who might also fall under his spell; as we, potentially, under the spell of José Martí or Pablo Neruda.
Ambroggio’s Hispanic or Latin American perspective is of particular value today for the light it sheds on what otherwise has long been our rancorous and often fact-free national “debate” on immigration: as in these United States, now again in Europe as we seek to contain the seemingly unending flow of refugees from a Middle Eastern inferno that our nations are at least in part responsible for creating.
Ambroggio illuminates the subject by attaching a more humane and human face to the voice of the immigrant Other, who contributes to our nations’ health in ways all too easy to ignore. He addresses this issue directly, in a passage that opens with one of Whitman’s most famous lines:
I am large, I contain multitudes.
They will not manage to deny me or ignore me or declare me undocumented:
I am written in you, in all,
as all are in me,
in clay and in the breeze’s gentle sky,
in the delightful meaning of your body.
My personal epiphany on this subject came when I was about twelve years old and my Vacation Bible School leaders took us to visit a migrant labor camp somewhere in south-central Indiana. The insight may not have approached the sophistication of my present understanding, but it was real and powerful and has been with me for all these forty-some years.
It was my impression, as I looked around at the poverty the migrant families lived in, and as I ran with the children to play by a nearby creek, that they were people just like me; so, why did they have so little and I so much? And I understood immediately that it was not because I, or my parents, or anyone else, was in any moral sense better than they. That something, which has haunted me forever after, was wrong in the world.
Those people who are so eager to run them off or keep them out should try to imagine how we would feel if we were in their situation and they, ours. But it is a difficult concept to get a hold on, I gather, and the best those of us who get it can do is probably to just keep keepin’ on in the struggle for basic rights for all human creatures; knowing that, if we can’t ever reach that utopian place of universally shared bliss, at least we can create—and fight to maintain—a little more of it for our fellow beings.
In All of Us Were Children, María Rosa writes of what were troubled times in Argentina: from 1971, as political and social chaos reigned and Juan Perón was maneuvering his way back from exile to the presidency, to 1975 or ’76 as the generals’ dictatorship began to rain an unprecedented level of violence (a “dirty war”) on its populace. Unlike other treatments of the subject, we are allowed to see all of this from the perspective of an idealistic group of young students in their transition from their final year at a rigorous Catholic high school into university studies and other activities.
Arthur Miller comes into the picture because of this group’s performance, at the end of that academic year, of All My Sons. The priest and the young woman who chose that play, both of them teachers, did so because it spoke to their own national situation from the safe distance of space and time. It was an opportunity to address important issues like integrity and responsibility, as well as the far-reaching and unanticipated consequences of war and of the race to get to and keep one’s place at the top in a capitalistic society.
At center of the tale Miller weaves is Joe Keller, a successful businessman and provider, with one son at home and the older one, before his plane had vanished, flying missions over Hitler’s Europe. The crisis comes because of a faulty batch of airplane parts that he allows to be superficially fixed and shipped off to the European campaign. Everything comes to a head when we learn that his son—whose body was never found and, so, the mother continues to await him—deliberately crashed his plane, committing suicide; at shame over what his father had done and which had caused the deaths of other young men, and for which Joe Keller had sent his partner in business away to prison, for his own unacknowledged betrayal of all those sons.
And what is “so terrible” about Joe Keller’s personal tragedy, the one teacher comments to her female students at the end of a day’s discussion, is that he “is not a conspirator, a spy, or even a monster. Aside from that, until then he has been an admired citizen. Someone who has made himself with hard work, audacity, and a bit of luck. A model that everyone wanted to imitate. The conclusion, then, is that any other man like him could act that way under similar circumstances, perhaps because the evil is not just within himself, but in the society he lives in. A society whose greatest values are success, power, money, and which for that reason generates people who fail. Like the defective parts.”
We have all heard that banal truism that says capitalism is the worst of economic systems, except for all the other ones. But that is at best a diversion, one that lulls the most comfortably situated of us into complacency and discourages the rest of us from embracing the truly radical change—whether we come to it in four to eight years or over decades—that might actually make radical progress at lifting all boats. And at ceasing to discard people like defective parts, then blaming and shaming them for their misfortune.
It seems clear to me, in any case, that if we do not begin to shake the old ideological myth that exalts selfish and homogenous individualism over the common effort of an engaged and diverse citizenry—a citizenry at once tolerant of religious and cultural difference, but also fiercely determined to engage each other in informed inquiry rather than the ideological free-for-all that we have come to call political debate—until then, if I may wax colloquial, we scarcely have a snowball’s chance in hell of resolving the array of urgent problems that confront us.
There does, indeed, need to be something on the order of a revolution in all of our public discourse. If the present political season has not already been enough to convince us of this, I despair of knowing what will. Being an essentially Quixotic spirit, though, despite the melancholic streak that almost continually wrestles me toward darkest despair, I will continue as best I can to cultivate hope.
And if, as that good knight says, we are children of the things (good or ill) that we do, then why shouldn’t our extravagant and impossible dreaming bear some good fruit? We needn’t create Utopia in order to create a significantly better and more humane society. That the United States is not Denmark does not mean that we cannot (like Denmark) find a way to feed and house all our people, make their children’s education free or radically more affordable, and provide for their medical needs.
And just maybe, as long as we’re dreaming big, become a superpower in the arts of diplomacy instead of destruction, peacemaking instead of perpetual war, and environmental sanity instead of apocalyptic madness.
If we cannot produce any substantive progress in these vitally existential areas, then what good is our much-touted American exceptionaism and ingenuity?
It is, as the Seventies’ rock group used to sing, “dust in the wind.”