What Comes After Idealism?


First Person


“Class of ’36, I guess we did something wrong.”

This is what my grandmother wrote to her Barnard College classmates fifty years after they had all graduated. My grandmother was charismatic and uncompromising, equally critical of capitalism and sentimentality. In her life as a Westchester housewife and radical leftist, she’d planned protests, played tennis, and published mystery novels. When her children were grown, she moved to Manhattan, waking every morning at five to walk briskly around Central Park (she was mugged only a few times). She spent the rest of the day writing and tending the ivy she’d planted to beautify the trees along her block. Every Saturday, she organized against U.S. atrocities in Central America.

Days before she died in 1992, while attached to an IV, a blood transfusion, and oxygen, she dictated the final paragraph of her eighteenth book to my mother. The book was, she explained, the first in a new series she planned to write. At her memorial a week later, held in a classroom at Barnard College, her five children yelled and laughed and interrupted one another. She’d taught them to rebel against society’s mawkish ceremonies, like memorial services, as well as its unjust institutions. Her children all inherited her radical politics, and they raised us, her twelve grandchildren, in the same mode. You can be anything, they joked, as long as it’s a public defender. Interpreting this broadly, we complied. 

A month after the memorial, I received in the mail a thick spiral-bound book of my grandmother’s unpublished writing, compiled by my aunt. While most of the pages are filled with witty poems that my grandmother composed for celebrations, there is also a photocopy from her fiftieth-reunion book, one of those alumni books to which you’re invited to send in a list of your degrees and progeny along with a brief life update. But my grandmother didn’t send an update. She sent a condemnation in five sentences. “Anyone our age has to stand abashed at the state of the world,” she begins. “For thirty or so years after we graduated, we felt, we may have been entitled to feel, vaguely self-congratulatory: if we preoccupied ourselves with such matters at all, we could assign to our efforts a small but perceptible effect; things were getting better. That comfortable illusion no longer seems to me possible. Put a finger anyplace on the globe today, and there is warfare, harassment, piles of dreadful weapons, appalling gaps between rich and poor.” She finishes with her biting summation, the first-person plural opening its arms to include every alum: “Class of ’36, I guess we did something wrong.”

That despair in her words? I know it well. As a family of atheist Jews, our only god was cynicism. I’d been told my whole life: Work hard to change the world, but guess what? Despite your efforts, the world will grow increasingly fucked.

Her words remind me, more than anything, of a picture book I read as a child, whose title I can now no longer recall. I’ve searched for it on the Internet to no avail. It was about an old, witchy woman who tried to rid the world of nighttime. With her broom, she swept frantically at the sky all night, resting victoriously when morning broke, only to be devastated when darkness fell again. I was horrified by the book’s metaphoric implications. It was my earliest introduction to futility.

As I became an adult, I tried, peripatetically and desultorily, to keep my grandmother’s admonitions in mind. I attended protests and planned boycotts, but they were always clearly the wrong protests and boycotts because all around me, night continued to fall; things got worse. I grew angry, rolled my eyes at bumper stickers, at articles preaching to the choir, at everyone’s insufficient efforts.

Out of that rage, I began to write a novel. I moved to Manhattan, not far from my grandmother’s block, where the ivy no longer grew. I wanted to write about being my grandmother’s granddaughter, about inheriting an idealism laced with disillusionment. I wanted to explain how it felt to grow up with a feverish love for Woody Guthrie’s anti-fascism and Cesar Chavez’s hunger strikes, for linking arms at a protest and singing “We Shall Overcome”—and then how it felt for that love to be tarnished, as if we stood under dark clouds that spelled out the words DOOM and NOT GOING TO HELP.

The book began out of rage and, I’ll admit, hubris—a youthful idealism. I remember a professor telling me that no novel could be written in less than two years. I nodded and inwardly disagreed, confident that I’d finish in a year, eighteen months tops, after which I’d finally go to school to become, in the narrowest sense, a public defender. In fact, it took me fifteen years to finish that book. I wrote other things during that decade and a half. I taught classes, raised babies. But still, intermittently for fifteen years, I worked on draft after draft, each one somehow wrong.

A strange thing happened to me during this time of failure. I’d begun the book furious about the end of idealism, but as the years passed, I began to understand that when idealism ends, well, that’s when things get interesting. After all, you don’t need to simply desist when disillusioned. No, you can show up for work anyway, not with earnestness or sentimentality (my grandmother would shudder at that) but with a buoyant sense of the absurd. It’s absurd to write another draft of a book that isn’t working. It’s absurd to protest war after war after war. It’s absurd to call our congressional representatives each morning to register our horror at yet another inhumane action of the Trump administration. But there’s beauty in this absurdity—and plenty of humor too.

For years, as I kept my grandmother’s five sentences in mind, I was angry at myself and everyone else for not figuring out a way to do something unequivocally right. Now I’m keeping her actions in my mind instead. I’m beginning to understand what it means to live with an idealism conjoined with despair, with cynicism. It means you work despite futility. You go to a protest, shout alongside strangers, and come home to read the terrible news. You plot out your new series of mystery novels while dying in a hospital bed. It’s easy, I see now, to write five lines of condemnation. We do it on Twitter every day. It’s harder to live absurdly, as my grandmother did, to drag the folding table down to Greenwich Village to collect signatures on petitions that will most certainly not remove U.S. death squads from El Salvador, to water the ivy even though one day it, too, will die. We fail and fail. We stand abashed. We are doing something wrong. But look how beautiful we are, as we keep sweeping the darkness back each night, to allow one more day to arrive.


Heather Abel’s debut novel, The Optimistic Decade, which is about idealism and disillusionment, is out now from Algonquin.