I gave up the prediction business back in November 2016 after Donald Trump was elected. Still, in late September 2020, as the Review editorial staff began putting together the Spring 2021 issue, I asked several writers to file short observations on this stretch of days between November and January with very little guidance beyond this: tell me what you’re seeing, thinking, and feeling as the election unfolds, and then as power was either retained or peacefully transferred. I conceived this section dead certain that given the country’s political, social, and economically roiled state (with the coronavirus acting as an accelerant on all three), this period between administrations—whether it was the continuation of Trump’s or the advent of Biden’s—would be tumultuous.
I hereby report that I remain out of the prediction business, because I had not foreseen just how unstable, violent, macabre, tragic, shocking, and sad a period this would be. But I was also not prepared for what would emerge from the unique vantages provided herein: how these authors illuminate fractures that long predate this election, shine a path toward our possible renewal, reveal ordinary joys that help us survive such a uniquely challenging moment, and warn of history repeating itself. Who then am I to say this period is concluding when it appears that we are only in the middle of a molting, or an upheaval, or a revolution, or a rebirth? Or none of these.
The Sewanee Review is a literary magazine. That its works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are sometimes political or, by dint of their subject matter, politically illuminating or even incendiary, is incidental. Its contents should never be solely a reflection of the editors’ views. But a literary magazine has a vital role during fraught times, not because its writers’ politics align with the editors’ but because writing should always be judged by the degree to which it newly mints our existence, and as a result, is revealed as both beautiful and true. Writing that is deemed thus is agreed upon as speaking, even as it emerges from the peculiarities of one individual, to what is universal in our experience, and thereby has the possibility of being reread, or shared, or taught, and—in that ever-changing set of works we deem canonical—contemplated for generations. In this agreement there lies not only what we call our culture but also the potential for solidarity.
Solidarity. It is hard not to utter that word without sounding wistful. Is that longing a source of grief, or the next generation’s rallying cry, or nostalgia for a condition that never existed, or a source of battleborn wisdom for all Americans? The entire question is open.