In 1930 William Empson published his classic work of literary criticism Seven Types of Ambiguity. Over the years since its publication no one has improved on it or made a contribution to Empson’s special area of interest, until now.
Thanks to Joshua Glenn of the Boston Globe we learn today that John Kerry has discovered an eighth type of ambiguity in the agitprop poetry of Langston Hughes from which Kerry drew his campaign slogan: “John Kerry, literary critic.” Glenn writes:
Since mid-May, when John Kerry adopted as his campaign’s central slogan Langston Hughes’s ringing phrase “Let America be America again,” would-be literary critics among the chattering classes have quarreled about the line’s true significance.
On June 1, David M. Halbfinger of The New York Times commented that Hughes’s 1938 poem of that title “contrasts a dim view of America’s reality with the age-old ideal of its shining potential,” while Slate.com columnist Timothy Noah, citing such lines as “America never was America to me,” urged Kerry to drop the poem before Republicans used it as proof of the candidate’s pessimism.
Too late! In the June 2 issue of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. argued that because Hughes was a communist, his poem’s vision of a redeemed America was “not an America that history had known and chronicled [but] the land of Marx and Lenin and Stalin.”
Now, Kerry himself weighs in on the matter in his introduction to “Let America Be America Again,” a slim, elegant collection of nine Hughes poems rushed into print this month by Vintage Books.
As befitting a man who declared in his acceptance speech that some things just aren’t all that simple, Kerry sees complexities in the book’s title poem. “While it is the litany of the great promise of opportunity that has drawn so many of the world’s disaffected to our shores,” he writes, “the poem is also a call to make that promise real for all Americans — especially for the descendents of slaves.”
Lapsing into Kerryspeak, the senator goes on to recount that he was “not unmindful of this duality of meanings” when his campaign adopted Hughes’s phrase. Although Kerry appears to have abandoned that phrase for the time being, his DNC speech’s pessimistic-optimistic refrain did have a certain Hughes-esque double edge: “America can do better.”
It occurs to me that Kerry’s regular invocation of his service in Vietnam is susceptible to the same “duality of meanings” he discovers in Hughes’s poetry, as are Kerry’s pronouncements on the Iraq war and the war on terrorism. Kerry’s venture in literary criticism may have provided us the key to understanding Kerry himself.