Every week, the editors of The Paris Review lift the paywall on a selection of interviews, stories, poems, and more from the magazine’s archive. You can have these unlocked pieces delivered straight to your inbox every Sunday by signing up for the Redux newsletter.
This week, we bring you John Irving’s 1986 Writers at Work interview, where he advises American writers on how to be political in the face of lying presidents; the artist Olav Westphalen’s portfolio “Greetings from America,” which explores our country’s clichéd myths; and Robert Bly’s “Five American Poems.”
John Irving, The Art of Fiction No. 93
Issue no. 100 (Summer–Fall 1986)
Maybe I should stop using the word “political” and just claim that social observation is a writer’s business; just to observe the society truthfully is, of course, being “political.” I think New Englanders and Southerners have this in common, in their social observations, as writers: we recognize that America is a class society. People who differ from one another or draw lines between each other on matters of “taste” are a part of the class society, just as surely as wealth and power are parts of it. These are more than manners, in a society; these things politicize us. By demonstrating how Americans discriminate we are also being political, as writers. And as long as we have presidents who lie to us … we’ll be political just by using language clearly.
Greetings from America
By Olav Westphalen
Issue no. 172 (Winter 2004)
Gruesse aus Amerika was meant to be a personal love letter to America. But that proved to be too general and too sweet an idea to work for me. As time went on it had less and less to do with a realistic or journalistic view of America and more to do with myths, with clichéd notions of what America stands for, what it could have stood for. Take Pocahontas’s Baptism [above], which I photographed from the pages of Klaus Theweleit’s book on the founding of America (Pocahontas in Wonderland, Shakespeare on Tour) … Pocahontas’s story is evidence that there was a brief time window during which America was imagined (at least by some Europeans) as a place of productive cohabitation and miscegenation. The image of Pocahontas’s baptism articulates both, the dream of a different story, and its forceful defeat.
Five American Poems
By Robert Bly
Issue no. 27 (Winter–Spring 1962)
If we are truly free and live in a free country,
When shall I be without this heaviness of mind?
When shall I have peace? Peace this way and peace that way?
I have already looked beneath the street
And there I saw the bitter waters going down,
The ancient worms eating up the sky …
If you like what you read, get a year of The Paris Review—four new issues, plus instant access to everything we’ve ever published. Order now and you’ll get a copy of our new book, The Writer’s Chapbook, for only ten dollars more.