Monday, May 23, 2011

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom"--the Liberal as Crank and Tolstoy

May 23, 2011, 9:42 am
Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom celebrates the middle class liberal as environmentalist crank in a novel that is a bad imitation of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

In his novel Franzen did write some very good parts about his heroine Patty's college years in the 1970s and has created a memorable character in punk rock musician Richard Katz. The middle section were quite good focusing on the triangle of Walter Berglund, his wife Patty, and his best friend Richard; these sections follow the trio from college to mid-life crises in their 40s showing how two best male friends always compete for decades including competing for the same woman Patty. This reader always looked forward to Katz's reappearance for his honesty. As Katz disappeared at p. 381 the rest of the novel was tedious.

At one point Patty, trying to get into bed with Richard, is reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Franzen thinks his novel in some way is the big realist novel--562 pp.--like Tolstoy's big novel. Patty when 1st reading the novel gets "mired in a military section" but as she continues, she reads where 16-year old Natasha Rostov falls in love with Prince Andrei and now Patty even read's the "military stuff." After reading this, she sleepwalks her way into Richard Katz's bed—War and Peace as aphrodisiac! War and Peace as simpleminded romance! Patty even calls her husband Pierre, the hero of War and Peace.

The military stuff is to me the best parts of War and Peace. Tolstoy had been a soldier in the Crimean war and knew war, describes how the French invasion of Russia bring liberty, equality, and fraternity through their bayonets. The war chapters show how French reach Moscow, how the Russians fled, how the French looted Moscow. Shades of Baghdad! Actually, the Iraq War comes up in Freedom as Walter’s son goes Republican, works for right-wing think tanks, and rakes in a small fortune selling defective truck parts to the U.S. army in Iraq.

At the end of Tolstoy's novel, the once bumbling Pierre has been a prisoner of war of the French, had a spiritual awakening where he learns from a poor Russian peasant, gotten his freedom, and is plotting with his aristocratic friends for the Decembrist Revolution, the 1st great revolution to bring a democracy to Russia—it failed, of course. Pierre has become a citizen or would-be citizen of a democracy he hopes to create.

In contrast, Franzen's freedom is not creating a democracy but freedom from delusions or from adolescent neurosis. The modern Pierre or Walter has gotten a job in Washington D.C. working for a Texas billionaire to make a bird preserve which involved making deals with coal companies so they could do mountaintop removal. The novel seemed to be at this point an interesting satire of Big Green—liberal honchos who wind up doing more harm than good through political dealing. At novel's end Walter is free of his delusions that he can collude with coal companies to save birds—one version of freedom for Franzen. Walter’s son is free of his delusion of making millions by selling defective truck parts to the U.S. army.

Both Walter and Patty are portrayed as having miserable adolescences and having miserable parents, but by novel’s end Patty reconciles with her dying father, forgives her mother, and is free in this paean to banal Freudianism. At novel’s end free Patty is able to heal all the family feuds, help sell her grandfather’s estate, and get $75,000. Franzen’s main characters at the end come up smiling roses—free at last of neurosis or delusions about making the quick buck yet they are still in the cash.

At the novel’s end Walter is back at his mother's place on Nameless Lake hating his working class neighbor who loves her cat which eats birds. Walter and Patty take their most drastic action actions against these working louts: in chapter 1 Patty slashes the tires of a working class neighbor for cutting down the trees in his backyard to build a den and in the novel's end Walter kidnaps the bird-eating cat. It seems a crime in Franzenland to love one's cat or to build a den in one’s backyard. Tolstoy, in contrast, was obsessed with bringing equality to Russia and renounced his priviledges as an aristocrat.

Walter’s great crusade besides birds is for zero population growth and the novel is full of his tedious rants that too many poor people having too many babies destroy the environment. So Walter goes to war not against coal companies but against poor for having babies. In many ways Walter resembles the coal companies in attacking the poor. While the coal companies are simply greedy, Walter has a neurotic view of Nature as pristine and pure hopefully unsullied by anything as messy as humans, particularly poor humans. While Walter rants against the poor, Tolstoy celebrates what Pierre learns as a prisoner of war from another poor prisoner.

Unlike Patty, Walter never seems to heal his adolescent neurosis, and at novel’s end Walter has never forgiven his older brother Mitch for adolescent torments now goes to see Mitch who is jobless and homeless. Walter decides not to offer Mitch the vacant family house because Walter and his girlfriend—both well-heeled urban professionals—might want to live there. Franzen in a novel seemingly celebrating family and devoted to family has Walter neglect his own family in need.

Also Walter seems focused on his anti-cat crusade as two of his neighbors on Nameless Lake are foreclosed. It’s the lout neighbors who help the two families in want, not Walter obsessed with birds. Walter comes off as an elitist anti-human crank who cares nothing about his neighbors having economic problems in the Big Recession. If you want to read a book with a big heart, read War and Peace.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

LA Laborfest Triangle Shirtwaist 100th Anniversary Commemoration Events March/Aprill 2011

March 12, 2011, 11:46 am

L.A. Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
100th Anniversary Commemoration Events
March 2011


Sundays March 13, March 20, March 26 8:30 AM
THE LABOR REVIEW, with Henry Walton, host. Interviews and short excerpts of upcoming Triangle Fire Commemoration events.
KPFK, 90.7 FM Los Angeles; 98.7 FM Santa Barbara; 99.5 FM China Lake; 93.7 FM North San Diego

Sunday, March 13 10:30 AM (Free admission)
A Flame That Keeps Burning: Marking the Centennial of the Triangle Factory Fire
An original program of drama, poetry and music that explores the legacy of the infamous fire and the struggles for workers' safety which continue today.
At: Westside Neighborhood School Campus, 5401 Beethoven Street, Los Angeles, CA 90066
Presented by the Sholem Community, Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, Progressive Jewish Alliance and LA Laborfest. For childcare contact For more info:

Sunday, March 13 7:30 PM
Walking through a River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Fire Poetry
Publication party for the new poetry anthology edited by Julia Stein, with an introduction by Jack Hirschman. Hosted by Julia Stein, anti-sweatshop activist, with SF writers Hilton Obenzinger and Alice Rogoff.
At: Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd CA 90291-4805

Thursday, March 17 7 PM
Public Works Improvisational Theatre's LA Times Bomb (Fourth Edition)
A theatrical salon in which we look at Los Angeles in 1911 from a hundred years in the future, and a look at anything we want to in between, in an effort to illuminate contemporary events and their immediate personal, political and social relevance.
At: Edgar Varela Fine Arts (EVFA) - 727 S. Spring Street, LA 90014 Free Admission & (contact

Friday, March 18 7:30 PM
Walking through a River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Fire Poetry
A reading from the new anthology by editor Julia Stein, with Lee Boek, actor/writer, and Lynne Bronstein, poet/journalist.
At: Skylight Bookstore, 1818 N Vermont Ave, Los Angeles 90027 (310) 822-3006

Monday, March 21 9 PM
Triangle: Remembering the Fire
A new documentary by Daphne Pinkerson about the fire and its aftermath. HBO

Friday, March 25 7:30 PM (Sliding scale donation $10 – no one turned away.)
The Triangle Fire – Remember Our Past. Inform Our Future.
LA Laborfest presents, as a benefit for the Los Angeles Garment Worker Center, an evening of music, theatre, spoken word, and film, with special guests, labor leaders, municipal officials, and rank and file workers. Spanish or American Sign Language translation available with advance notice.
At: Echo Park United Methodist Church 1226 N. Alvarado, LA 90026

Friday, March 25 - Saturday, March 26
Triangle Fire Shabbat Commemoration
Jewish congregations throughout the Southland will remember, consider and reflect on the importance of this event and its meaning today.. Complimentary study materials are available through Progressive Jewish Alliance, 323-761-8350 x102 or

Saturday, March 26 10 AM
March and Rally for Our Communities and Our Jobs
The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor rallies in support of grocery workers and all working families. LA Laborfest will be there in period costume to remember the victims of the Triangle Fire, and make the connection to contemporary issues and events.
Gather at: LA Convention Center and march to Pershing Square for the rally at 12 noon

Sunday, March 27 2 PM
The Triangle Factory Fire: By the Sweat of Their Labor
An afternoon of music by Voices of Conscience, selections from Julia Stein's collection of Triangle Factory Fire poems and photographic art by the "Common Threads" Art Collective.
Co-sponsors: Arbeter Ring (Workmen's Circle), the Sholem Community, the Jewish Labor Committee Los Angeles and LA LaborFest.
At: Arbeter Ring, 1525 S. Robertson, LA 90035. (310) 552-2007 or

Thursday, April 21 11 AM – 9:30 PM
Labor, Social and Environmental Justice Fair
Booths, Workshops, Live Entertainment, Refreshments, Art Exhibits, and More!
CSU Dominguez Hills Labor Studies Dept and Club (310) 243-3640

All venues are wheelchair accessible and disability affirmative. Contact each event sponsor or venue for other special accommodations at least 72 hours in advance.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My new book: "Walking Through the River of Fire; 100 Years of Triangle Factory Fire Poems"

C. C. Marimbo announces the premiere publication of 2011:
"Walking Through the River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Factory Fire Poems"
Edited by Julia Stein with an introduction by Jack Hirschman

This anthology remembers a turning point in U.S. history when on March 25, 1911, a fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The owners had locked the main door; the fire escapes broke. Within the hour 146 immigrant workers—mostly women--were dead. The Triangle fire galvanized a national social justice movement to protect workers’ health and to build unions.

The anthology of poems is organized to tell the story of the fire chronologically: the first group of poems deals with the fire itself and those who died, those who survived, and those who witnessed. The next group of poems describes identifying the bodies and the funeral. The third section describes the trial and organizing for new laws to make it safe to work. The last group of poems looks back at the fire years later. These poems tell a dramatic, gripping story in a way that actors or poets can producer readers’ theater or poets’ theater to engage the audience in the Fire.

A few days after the Triangle fire in 1911 Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld published in Yiddish his “Memorial to Triangle Fire Victims” on the front page of the Jewish Daily Forward. After a few years American poets forgot about the fire, forgetting for 55 years. When editor Julia Stein was a young poet in 1980 writing poetry about her grandmother’s generation of immigrant garment workers, she first wrote about the Triangle Factory fire inspired by Morris Rosenfeld’s poem. Then through the work of literary critics Janet Zandy and Karen Kovacik, Stein discovered a new post-1980s generation of poets writing about the Triangle fire. These new Triangle poets are Chris Lllewellyn (1981); Mary Fell (1984); Hilton Obenzinger (1989); Carol Tarlen (1996), Ruth Daigon (2001); and Alice Rogoff (2010).

Some of these poets’ Triangle poetry won major poetry prizes: Llewellyn’s book won the Whitman Award for Poetry while Mary Fell’s won the National Poetry Series. These poets attack the sweatshop, recapture the lives of immigrant women and of women workers, and inscribe workers’ lives and tragedies into literature. These poets have reacted to the post-1980 growing inequality in the United States with their Triangle fire poetry. The poems here are only a small selection of 100 years of literature about Triangle fire: a growing body of poetry, novels, dramas, and performance pieces. This small group of American poets is producing a new American poetry: public, historical, and engaged with society.

To: Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, PO Box 933, Berkeley, CA 94701-0933

Send me _______________ copies of

Walking Through the River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Fire poetry
44 pages, hand-sewn limited edition, ISBN 1-9030903-57-X publication date February 1, 2010
$12 (+$2 S and H for one; for every copy thereafter, 50cents; 25 or more free freight)
For further information: Randy Fingland, CC. Marimbo or Julia Stein,

to order, Name____________________________________________________


(Kindly make checks payable to Randy Fingland

Send to Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, PO Box 933, Berkeley Ca 94701-0933