Are there enough great short stories to make a pro-life anthology?
Perhaps, but the failure of contemporary art to join the fight against abortion is one of the saddest facts about the modern American scene. It was predictable, of course. One of the central intellectual problems of twentieth-century art was the need to assert that advancement in art matched advancement in politics. It was an article of faith: The pieces must fit together; the artistic avant-garde ought to reinforce—and be, in turn, reinforced by—the political avant-garde.
In truth, the match wasn’t very good, as the American communists implicitly admitted when, for instance, they raised folk music above jazz as the true art of the proletariat. But people still believed it, and the assertion of art’s good politics reached its peak in the 1950s—when America’s intellectual elites seemed all to hold the unity of high modernism and high liberalism. And this, despite the fact that the literary founders of modernism were hardly liberals: not Yeats, not Pound, not Eliot, not Lawrence, not even Joyce.
Subsequent decades solved the 1950s version of the problem by narrowing the terms to identify not liberal but radical art with radical politics—a turn made easier by the gradual translation of leftism from an economic theory (which it still primarily was in 1955) to a sexual theory (which it had primarily become by 1985). Along the way, however, art took a beating, for there are things certain art forms want to do by their very nature, which become impossible for them to do when confined by the vision of the artist as radical sexual liberal.
So, for instance, poetry has suffered by its inability to consider abortion. As I’ve written here before , forget for a moment the rights and wrongs of the issue and consider baby slaughter just for its poetic purposes. What more could you want for a ballad? Moral urgency, death, blood, the fruits of sex, outrage, the possibility of political consequence, etc. The old infanticide broadside “The Greenwood Side” and all the other versions of “The Cruel Mother” ballads: They’re like anthems for our time.
The young Robert Lowell was often accused of becoming a Catholic because it gave him so many deep things to write about and a received set of images to play with. Why aren’t poets flocking to the pro-life banner for much the same reason? The answer, of course, is that they can’t—not while holding the flawed connection of art to politics.
Genre fiction is another obvious casualty. The horror story seems a natural for anti-abortion themes, but, generally, it has shied away in horror. High adult fiction, too, has consistently refused the topic, for precisely the same reason.
I have trouble thinking of enough stories to construct a good anthology. G. Tracy Mehan recently pointed to “Hills Like White Elephants,” a story in Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 collection Men Without Women . That’s an interesting choice; I had forgotten the abortion subtext that runs through the characters’ strangely stilted dialogue.But what else could go in such a book? In Adventures in Two Worlds , A.J. Cronin’s lightly fictionalized autobiography, there’s a disturbing chapter—quite possibly Cronin’s best piece of writing—that tells the story of a doctor who is gradually drawn into complicity with a woman’s illegal abortion. In Robert Stone’s first collection of stories, Bear and His Daughter , there’s a more complicated story called “Miserere,” that at least sees the usefulness of abortion for fiction.
Maybe genre fiction. Philip K. Dick is universally acknowledged as the most influential science-fiction writer of the last fifty years, and back in 1974 he wrote an angry story attacking Roe v. Wade called ” The Pre-Persons .” Eve Tushnet points to Tanith Lee’s 2001 fantasy story “The Abortionist’s Horse.” The year before, the horror writer F. Paul Wilson published “Buckets,” in an anthology called October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween .
What else could make such an anthology? Perhaps simply assembling a good collection would remind artists of what their art demands.