The Mudsill, Vol. 1, No. 4
February 15, 2021
We are pleased to bring you another fine edition of The Mudsill.
In Context, musicologist Christopher J. Smith brings us “An Alphabet Soup for the Arts.” His piece explains how the New Deal supported musicians in developing new idioms of American becoming and calls for a similar support for the arts today.
In Comment, author and writing professor J.L. Wall makes the case for an aesthetic beyond politics in his essay, “Aren’t There Bigger Things to Talk About?”
In Craft, author and emeritus college professor Nancy Barnes offers a work of fiction, “Friends in Yangon.” Inspired by the recent military coup in Myanmar, this story explores the unusual combination of distance from horrific things happening on the other side of the world and the closeness of relationship that can occur between teacher and student, or maybe simply between two people of different cultures and ages.
In Critique, Frank Donoghue reviews The Queen’s Gambit, exploring what the show misses but what it gets right about the spirit of the game of chess. His review, “The Missing Conversation,” contains a few spoilers. Still, it will be a delightful read for all who loved the show or love the game of chess.
An Alphabet Soup for the Arts
The New Deal and the Biden/Harris Recovery
by Christopher J. Smith
Multiple factors in our contemporary North American world suggest that we are at yet another historical tipping point: emerging from the chaos, neglect, and bad-faith dealing of Trump regime, entering into a new presidential administration whose tasks of repairing economy, infrastructure, public health, social justice, and concepts of democratic citizenship are dauntingly enormous, we are nevertheless also in a moment whose resonances with aspects of our public past may present a way forward, and even possibly a sense of renewed empowerment and optimism.
In 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 32nd President of the United States, he faced a banking shutdown, an economy in tatters, skyrocketing unemployment and alienation, an adversarial political and economic elite, and the worldwide rise of strongman authoritarianism. Roosevelt opted to “go big,” initiating a series of appointments for his remarkable cabinet (Harold Ickes, Cordell Hull, Henry A. Wallace, and Harry Hopkins among others), and a spate of new and radically expanded government spending whose sheer proliferation of letter-named agencies in the First 100 Days led to jokes about “alphabet soup”—National Youth Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and eventually the FDIC, the SEC, Social Security, the WPA, the National Labor Relations Board, the WPA, and numerous regional initiatives, most notably the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Despite the fact that, from 1934 onward, recalcitrant Congress-members and business leaders set assiduously to work to dismantle this New Deal, and despite the eventual culmination of that anti-government sabotage in the era of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, FDR’s administration, in its sense of both historical crisis and of the necessity of historical confidence, permanently transformed the nation’s vision of itself—for the better.
At the same time, the rise of authoritarian fascist and imperialist powers, both beyond and within the nation’s borders, meant that Roosevelt had to create a new sense of connection and empowerment among his many competing constituencies. Those stories, and the transformative impact of the WPA and the Federal Theater Project and the rest of the alphabet soup of agencies, have been widely and well told, and our national heritage and archive are infinitely enriched, by everything from James Agee’s and Ralph Ellison’s prose to Marc Blitzstein’s and John Houseman’s theater to Orson Welles’s radio to Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnography to Charles Seeger’s collecting to Dorothea Lange’s photography to Walter White’s NAACP to the Negro Theatre Unit to the sheer lasting volume of priceless documentation of the Roosevelt-era arts-activist state.
In the world of music, both so-called concert music composers like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson and so-called popular artists like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman sought to find new idioms and new performance frames that would let them also contribute to the nation’s recovery. As fascism bloomed like a poison flower overseas, home-grown patriots and internationalists fought back against the isolationism and inherent selfish conservatism of big business and the 1936 Congress.
Even as new technology was transforming corporate media, most particularly the ways in which 78rpm records threatened the American Federation of Musicians’ monopoly over live music on radio, new hungry startup companies and startup musical genres emerged. After 1939, white swing band musicians began to look toward the looming possibility of the USA’s entrance into World War Two; meantime, they gigged even more in the booming war economy, during which accelerated manufacturing of arms and munitions for Lend Lease to Britain made space for the entry of Blacks and women into the workforce, and through a boom in disposable income resulting from rising wages and swing-shift economies.
After Pearl Harbor, white swing musicians, already experiencing difficulty in sourcing the rationed tires and gasoline necessary to keep a working band on the road, hastened to enlist, often en mass, in order to be able to continue their musical work in uniform rather than serving in combat. In contrast, African American musicians, who had likewise cut their teeth as players and professionals with the touring swing bands, knew that if they enlisted, they were likely to be denied the opportunity to play. Especially considering the rigid segregation within the armed forces, and the likelihood that a Black enlistee would most likely wind up driving a truck or boiling potatoes, Black players avoided the Armed Services altogether. Stuck in New York and in other cities around the US—especially Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles—young swing players began to explore other and more ambitious and extensive musical idioms.
After 1941, a restrictive new entertainment tax made dancefloors much more costly for club owners, resulting in a shift away from dance music, to a more complex and demanding instrumental style intended primarily for listening. New small clubs emerged, especially in New York along 52nd St, in which the young Black players, off the road and woodshedding their skills, and enjoying the extended and ongoing contact with one another which had been precluded by the rigors of touring, began to develop this new music: as the piano Thelonious Monk put it, “we are going to make a music that’s so hard those white boys can’t steal it.” It was, to quote the jazz pedagogue and composer David N. Baker, “the moment when jazz became an art music”—in the lightning tempi and dazzling technical virtuosity of the new music called, onomatopoeically, bebop.
Wartime restrictions on shellac coincided with the American Federation of Musicians’ battle with major national recording companies, in which the union insisted that radio networks must pay artist royalties for recordings broadcast on air. AFM President James F Petrillo was not mistaken about the potential for musicians’ lost livelihood, but his attempt to hold back the new technology, which culminated in the union’s strike and the banning of its musicians from any commercial recording from August 1942 onward, was incomplete and unsuccessful—yet paradoxically productive of new alternative creativity.
Major recording companies, particularly those like Columbia and RCA which were affiliated with radio networks and phonograph manufacturers, retaliated by shutting-out AFM members; what this meant, more lastingly, was that the new music of bebop remained largely underground, known only to hipsters white and Black in the clubs of the major cities. It only began to trickle out on 78 when new young startup record companies, defying the AFM ban and employing the newly-founded (1939) licensing agency Broadcast Music International to compete with ASCAP, began issuing bebop on records.
Those discs, on little hipster labels like Continental, Savoy, Guild, and Dial, became the new canon of jazz aspiration for even younger players across the country. At the clubs in which it was born and the small studios in which it was captured—Minton’s, the Five Spot, and the Royal Roost—became cornerstones of bebop’s rise. And this music, and the musicians who cut their teeth on its challenges—from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, Mary Lou Williams to Anita O’Day to Sarah Vaughan—transformed the sound of jazz, cool and hard bop and fusion and funk, for the next 30 years.
Periods of economic crisis and infrastructural degradation, not to mention international conflict and medical emergency, demand “go big” responses—but they also provide windows for new creative and entrepreneurial opportunity. FDR and his cabinet understood this in the First 100 Days, in the First and Second New Deals; his disciple Lyndon Baines Johnson likewise understood it after the murder of JFK, even though the insanity of US involvement in Southeast Asia would destroy LBJ’s domestic agenda for the Great Society.
It seems possible that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and the remarkably diverse, expert, and inclusive teams they have steadily assembled as we wound out the clock on the gangster cronyism of the Trump regime, likewise understand the essentiality, at this moment of crisis yet potentially of opportunity, of going big.
We need a new New Deal. We need a new Alphabet Soup of activist government agencies and initiatives to put people back to work, to protect and support the vulnerable, to defend democratic equality, and to recover both our standing internationally and our sense of ourselves—including our sense of who we are, in our participatory artistic democracy, and of who we wish to become.
Go big, Joe. Seize this moment, Sir and Madam. Lead us as we Climb that Hill. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary leadership, and sometimes leaders rise to their moment. Let us become the nation which we have always had the capacity, though never yet the comprehensive will, to become.
Christopher J Smith is Professor and Chair of Musicology, and Director of the Vernacular Music Center, at the Texas Tech University School of Music. He is a specialist in American vernaculars, music and dance, and historical performance practice, and composes and conducts “orchestral folk” for TTU’s Elegant Savages Orchestra. He is a former nightclub bouncer, line cook, framing carpenter, lobster fisherman, and oil-rig roughneck, and a published poet.
Aren’t There Bigger Things to Talk About?
(In Defense of Writing About Things Other Than Politics)
by J.L. Wall
“Colonizers write about flowers,” declares the poet Noor Hindi. It’s a line that Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen quoted to illustrate his December call for a more actively political American literature. “This,” he approves, “is my kind of poem.” With no patience for the niceties of the MFA workshop, its title alone could be a manifesto for activist poetry: “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying.”
Challenges to apolitical art—especially objections to brittle, outmoded poems about flowers—are nothing new. Consider “Scandal,” over a century old, written by the Irish-American poet and activist Lola Ridge:
Aren’t there bigger things to talk about
Than a window in Greenwich Village
And hyacinths sprouting
Like little puce poems out of a sick soul?
Some cosmic hearsay—
As to whom—it can't be Mars! put the moon—that way....
Or what winds do to canyons
Under the tall stars...
How that old roué, Neptune,
Cranes over his bald-head moons
At the twinkling heel of a sky-scraper.
Ridge was a modernist, albeit one deeply opposed to what modernist literature ultimately became: she loathed the works of Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and other avant-garde expats as much as she did the clichés of the late-19thcentury. In “Scandal,” they merge. There are—there must be—bigger, more important issues for poetry to take on than hyacinths, highbrow Classicism, or the self-indulgent malaise of the modern soul. Eliot, Stein, and Ezra Pound were all children of privilege, after all—why celebrate their dissatisfaction with what life dealt them?
Although she’s largely forgotten today, Ridge was prominent in literary culture from the publication of her 1918 debut collection, The Ghetto and Other Poems, until her death in 1941. For a modernist, and a poet, she was broadly read: avant-garde little magazines were her home, yes, but so too were liberal and leftist political magazines: The New Republic, The Nation, and New Masses—and the mass union mailings and labor rally posters that displayed her verse. Ridge was an activist-artist even today’s would-be activist-artists might admire. A literary bohemian, radical feminist, and anarcho-socialist, she edited Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review, became Emma Goldman’s traveling companion, and was arrested for her activism on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, the immigrant anarchists whose murder trial was the era’s cause célèbre.
Her deeply political work explores the living conditions of immigrant communities on the Lower East Side, takes up the cause of labor martyrs, articulates and defends her own strident and idiosyncratic feminism in both poetry and prose, and finds, again and again, Christ crucified among the American oppressed.
But not even Ridge wrote exclusively political poetry. The title sequence to Sun-up (1920), the collection which contained “Scandal,” is a lengthy, dream-like account of a young girl’s childhood in New Zealand. (Born in Ireland, Ridge was raised in a New Zealand mining town and immigrated to the United States in 1907, when she was thirty-four.) The explicitly political collection Red Flag (1927) begins with “Mo-ti,” a poem in the stylized, apolitical “Oriental” mode common to American modernists. Even “Scandal,” for all its implied critique of T. S. Eliot’s early (and voyeuristic) habit of peering into and out of windows in his verse, itself appears in a string of poems labeled “Windows” linked less by politics or cynicism than their focus on the architecture and cityscape of a changing New York.
Ridge’s poetry turns to these topics without politicizing them—or, at least not politicizing them in the activist mode that characterizes much of her work and that both she and Nguyen, at times, call for.
The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind
According to the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, poetry defines one of the four modes of human experience. (The historical, scientific, and practical are the others.) To differentiate poetic experience, he fell back on the very cliché that Noor, Nguyen, Ridge, and any creative writing teacher would tell you to avoid: the isolated flower, pretty and fragile.
Delight, wonder, contemplation: these are what poetic experience add to human life. Poetry, he contended, “is a wildflower planted among our wheat.” Its beauty and significance stem precisely from its uselessness. Oakeshott, of course, is talking about “the poetic” rather than poetry itself. Applied as a strict rule for writing, this view might be just as extreme as a call for only political literature.
However, Oakeshott helps us to see the difference between political and apolitical literature in helpful terms. Political literature has utility. Its value stems directly from this.
This isn’t out of line with what Oakeshott describes as the historical, scientific, and practical modes of experience. What he calls “the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind” is, in essence, one of necessary dissent. Maybe there aren’t always bigger things to talk about—but there’s more, it insists.
I think the American modernist Charles Reznikoff illustrates this neatly in his short poem, “Notes on the Spring Holidays, III (Hanukkah)”:
In a world where each man must be of use
and each thing useful, the rebellious Jews
light not one light but eight—
not to see by but to look at.
Reznikoff was a harsh critic of the dehumanizing effects of utility: economic use, political use, even literary use. Here, he applies the logic of a distinction within Jewish religion to the modern world. One is not allowed to use the candles in the Hanukkah menorah. If you need light to see by, Jewish law instructs, you need to find another source. To put it in Oakeshott’s language, the light of the menorah is purely poetic: a thing to be delighted in for its own sake. To set aside use, even for a moment, is to rebel against what Reznikoff sees as the reigning order of the twentieth century, what Oakeshott saw as the century’s threat to poetry: the need to be useful.
Delight and aesthetics aren’t all that live beyond utility. So does morality. In its different and competing permutations, it asks us to act in accord with what is just, or true, or right, or good. Such actions may well have utility, but are moral in virtue of themselves. Actions don’t need to possess historical, scientific, or practical utility to be moral—and, most moral systems will warn you, may be opposed to the decision that seems most useful.
This is not to say that political literature is strictly utilitarian; indeed, much modern political literature takes aim at utility in the name of morality. But there are realms of moral choice that live beyond the political. To be human, as the novelist Marilynne Robinson contended in a 2018 essay, is to “experience the reality of moral choice continuously.”
Insisting that literature ought to be political closes off exploring other realms of moral choice: Ridge’s poetry of childhood, Robinson’s novels of grace and forgiveness within families and among friends.
Madame Bovary is not a political novel. Its power stems (beyond Flaubert’s prose) from its ability to take an otherwise dull, unremarkable life in the countryside and cast it as the experience of continuous moral choice. If that example is too highbrow for you, consider The Mandalorian, an exploration of Din Djarin’s discovery of continuous moral choice as the ethic of fatherhood replaces a bounty hunter’s amorality.
“We are the moral animal,” the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his final book, last year’s Morality, in a challenge to Aristotle’s claim that we are, primarily, a political animal. “It is our existence as moral agents, our ability to stand outside our own desires and drives, our capacity to refrain from doing what we can do and want to do because we know it might harm others, our very experience of choice itself as both the challenge and the glory of the human situation, that makes us different and confers dignity on human life.”
At their best, both political and apolitical literature give testimony to this reality. What differentiates them are the realms in which they explore moral agency and discover human dignity.
The Privilege of Literature
Still, aren’t there bigger things to talk about? Maybe it’s not that the apolitical is unimportant, but that the political is more important. This, after all, is the fairest representation of Nguyen’s call for a more political American literature. He frames it in the language of privilege: that focusing on non-political issues is, in fact, a sign of not needing to confront them daily. A “retreat back to the politics of the apolitical,” he writes, is “a retreat back to white privilege.”
Or, to put it in the language I’ve just been using, isn’t it a moral choice to focus your attention and talent on the marital foibles of the suburban middle class rather than steeper, more systemic challenges?
But brief moments and small spaces free from politics are precisely the privilege that politics—or liberal politics, at least—seek to create and to preserve. They enable the privilege to engage in free moral choice; to delight and wonder at a flower, a child, a lover; to consider what it means to be human in the fullest extent.
At its best, apolitical literature, like any art that isn’t “useful,” serves as a bulwark in defense of this privilege: a reminder that politics is not the end but the means. Literature that helps us carve out space for wonder and delight, for the politically useless aspects of our humanity may be the product of privilege—but it’s a product of privilege that, in fact, opens broader access to these privileged spaces.
Apolitical literature democratizes access to everything about human experience beyond politics. Close this off, and you limit that access to those who already have the leisure to step away whenever they would.
This doesn’t deny that there’s a larger conversation without which poetry’s—or literature’s—voice would be as dull and monotonous as a field of the same wildflower over and over again. But this conversation would be something less—less worthwhile, less enjoyable, less true, less human—if everything must be of use.
J.L. Wall’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Breaking Ground, Arc Digital, Atlanta Review, and Kenyon Review Online. He teaches college writing.
Friends in Yangon
by Nancy Barnes
The news of the military coup in Myanmar was alarming. There was no information, since one of the first acts in the army’s take-over was to cut all internet service. What about the young people, she thought: Seng Pan and Arkar and The Su and Khin – Oh, what about Khin? Where are they now? Are they safe? Her thoughts were racing. What are they doing? Will they go into the streets to protest?
She couldn’t stop thinking about her young Burmese friends. They weren’t kids now, of course not. They had been her students in Yangon a decade ago. People in Yangon are almost half a day ahead of New Yorkers, as the clock measures it. And they are far away, more than 8,000 miles away. A decade is a long time; she hadn’t stayed in touch but she was with them now, in her mind and in her heart.
What is it, this tie she feels? It was such a particular relationship, the way she had known them. That was as far as she could go in her mind, thinking about what it had been like, remembering. It is such a particular relationship, she keeps repeating the phrase to herself. It was years ago, they are no longer young, no longer students, she has no idea how their lives have unfolded. Yet they are so present in her mind.
When she was in Yangon in 2010 Khin, a young Burmese man, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, had been assigned as the translator for the class she was teaching. Khin was slight, like many Burmese, his hair sleek and glossy, his eyes dark and sparkling. She knew no Burmese but the students, who came from half a dozen different ethnic backgrounds, spoke three or four languages. They all spoke English. Khin’s English was perfect and he did translate, sometimes. Most days, Khin simply did everything. He banged on the ancient air conditioning unit just so when it creaked and sputtered and stopped, reviving the faint puffs of slightly cool air that meant it was working. He coaxed the shy young women in the class to speak up, telling them that they knew about gender, they should just tell the professor about their lives. When the classroom was stifling and she began to flag, Khin brought her bottles of cold water before she could even ask.
One afternoon Khin asked if she would she meet him early the next day. They would meet at the Shwedagon, he gestured with his shoulder, lifting his chin towards the gleaming gold dome they could see from the doorway in the classroom. Burmese people never point.
“Meet at the pagoda?” she said.
Khin nodded. She was surprised. They had never met up outside the class although they almost always sat and talked afterwards.
“Well yes, we can meet.” She didn’t know how to ask him why. People journey for thousands of miles to visit the Shwedagon so it seemed like a rude question.
“Sure,” she said again, “but we have to be back here for class by 10.”
“That’s fine,” Khin said firmly. “We will. We will go early because I want you to meet my uncle.”
“Your uncle?” she repeated what he had said, trying to keep up.
Khin had never revealed a single bit of personal information, not once in the many weeks they had been working together. Burmese seldom do, especially not with foreigners. It wasn’t safe, someone told her in a hushed voice when she was a newcomer in Yangon. That was on her first trip in 2007 when brave monks in deep red robes, nuns in pink, went into the streets. That’s what they said then – go into the streets -- when brave people began to demonstrate and protest. Someone else had told her, that time, that she must never say the word democracy in her class, really never.
She had wondered about Khin’s personal life, those afternoons when they sat and talked after the students had gone, resting together in the close, muggy air. She thought he might be gay, and she hoped he knew that she was. But they would never speak of that. They talked about the other students and about her life in New York City, which Khin longed to visit someday. They discussed the weather, everyone spoke about the weather as they waited for the rains to come, and the traffic, which was horrifying in the old city, its roads cracked and rutted as the colonial past lurched into the modern world. Never an uncle.
“Yes, my uncle.” Khin didn’t elaborate, simply told her to meet him at Gate #4 at the temple. They would meet at 6:15.
She walked alone to the Shwedagon in the early morning cool, the sky still dusky. The temple is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world but she, no Buddhist, liked to view its expanse as a city. She loved cities and she’d already been to the Shwedagon many times. This was her third visit to Burma, the name that people in Myanmar chose when they wanted to signal allegiance with the democracy movement, that ocean of hope that was beginning to swell and rise in 2010. The Shwedagon was a vast, ancient city of midnight blue domes, gold leaf and spires reaching into the sky.
Coral streaks were beginning to color the sky, the air at that early hour felt almost fresh. Khin was waiting for her. They greeted each other with only a nod, the formality familiar to her by then, and entered through Gate #4. They climbed up three levels of the elegant stone staircase that curved around the east side of the pagoda. When they reached the top the open area felt immense, perhaps half a city block long.
The interior wall, curving to circle the gold dome at the center of the Shwedagon, was set with fountains. Carved from pinkish-gray marble, they stood tall, taller than she was. There were seven of them. Each one was carved in the aspect of a larger than life animal, the whole group spanning more than a hundred feet. She stopped and stared: a bear, a dog, a rooster, a lion or some other big cat, a giant stone snake, an unidentifiable fish, and a tiger.
“So Nancy,” Khin said, pulling her back to be with him, “my uncle will be coming soon now. He is the keeper of the birthday animal fountains.”
Khin must have known she was lost because he nodded in the direction of the stone figures. Water spouted from their mouths and flowed down, pooling at their feet in delicate inlaid basins. Little children were already playing in the pools at daybreak, their parents kneeling at prayer in front of the fountains.
She couldn’t say a word, charmed and confused by what she was seeing. Khin spoke again.
“The keeper takes care of the animals,” he said as though that explained everything. “Which is your animal, Nancy?”
“Yes, you know -- if you are Friday born it is the tiger, Monday born the fish – so which are you?”
“Khin, wait,” she didn’t know what he was saying. “Friday born?”
“Friday born, that means you were born on a Friday.” Burmese are unfailingly polite but she could tell that he was amused. “Friday, that’s the tiger. Which day were you born?”
“Khin,” she said, “I have no idea.” She was astonished. Not only was he asking her direct questions about herself, which had never happened, but also this was the most personal conversation they had ever had.
Khin smiled at her. Burmese do not show their feelings on their faces. Surveillance is like the air they breathe, the light from someone’s eyes could strike them. Parents teach their little children to have what they call stone face: show nothing. But now Khin’s eyes met hers and he smiled, definitely a smile.
“We don’t keep track this way in the States,” she said, “and I have no idea which day of the week I was born on.” She sighed, not wanting to disappoint him.
“That doesn’t matter,” Khin said, placing his hand on her arm and turning her towards the central dome, gleaming now in the sharp early sunlight, gold arrows shooting off the gold leaf.
Ordinary visitors to the Shwedagon purchase gold leaf in tiny squares like stamps. They paste the small leaves on the dome to gain merit, which Buddhists believe results from good deeds. The generals and their business cronies have paid for layers and layers of gold on the dome; the Tatmadaw, as the army is called, is where men get rich in Myanmar. They too wish to gain merit – some assurance about their lives to come -- with the gold. This is a hard thought to bear in mind.
“Here comes my uncle now,” Khin said, looking beyond the dome towards the curving staircase. “He’ll have the book.”
“What book?” she tried to focus on what he was saying.
“The book – it has every date going back at least two hundred years. You just look up your birth date and the book tells what day of the week it was. Then you know your animal.”
Khin paused. She thought he was waiting for his uncle but he was looking right at her.
“You do know your birthday, don’t you?” This time Khin was grinning.
The news of the coup in Myanmar crossed the oceans on Monday. The army had cut off the internet when the take-over began but somehow, at the last possible minute, there was a text. There was no signature, only a few words: “We are very scared.”
Who had sent it? Were they alright, the friends in Yangon? It no longer mattered why she felt so connected to the young Burmese, her students all those years ago: she just did. It was a very particular relationship. The tie tugged at her, mind and heart.
Then, on Wednesday and Thursday and on into the following week, the resistance surged. All over the country brave people were going into the streets to protest: Seng Pan and Arkar and The Su -- and Khin.
Nancy Barnes’ long work life as a college teacher is what led to her extraordinary trips to Myanmar. She now divides her time between NYC and Northampton, MA, where she has begun to write and publish personal essays and stories.
The Missing Conversation
A Review of The Queen’s Gambit
by Frank Donoghue
By now, there’s no doubting the overwhelming appeal of Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s all time most popular scripted mini series. It takes its heroine, Beth Harmon, from an orphanage in Kentucky where she learns chess from the janitor to a victory over the reigning world champion in a high-profile tournament in Moscow, a meteoric rise that elevates her from rank beginner at nine to one of the strongest players in the world at twenty-two. Along the way, the series charts the obstacles Beth must negotiate in order to make this journey: her addiction to tranquilizers, first routinely given to all the girls at the orphanage, then to alcohol; her evolving sense of fashion, as she dresses as smartly as her growing chess earnings allow; to her halting an ultimately unsuccessful efforts at relationships with men. The story ends with Beth, alone in a Moscow park, indulging in her victory over the world champion by playing casual chess with strangers. The film’s plot is mundane: it’s a predictable bildungsroman, some of whose key moments border on cliché. So the dominant questions when I watched it were: Why chess? And why chess as it’s represented here?
Scott Frank said in an interview with chess.com that it was extremely important to him that chess be accurately portrayed, lest the chessplayers in his viewing audience be distracted. She learns from Mr. Shaibel, the janitor, that resigning a lost game is a show of good sportsmanship—very few real-life games end in checkmate, as they often do in films and on TV. But the quest for verisimilitude doesn’t end there, and the details might, if it were not for the captivating cinematography of the game sequences, distract non players. Near beginners know what doubled pawns are, but few know that their weakness is not intrinsic, but depends on the context of the position as a whole: Beth learns this lesson in her one loss to U.S. Champion, Benny Watts (Thomas Sangster-Brodie).
Only advanced players would recognize the Rossolimo variation against the Sicilian Defense, or the Albin Counter Gambit line in the Queen’s Gambit Declined, both rarely seen but played by the experienced World Champion, Borgov, to take Beth out of familiar territory. Few casual players would be familiar with the names Capablanca, Morphy, or Alekhine, or with the resonance of both their lives and their playing styles with Beth’s own. Jose Raoul Capablanca was a prodigy whose natural talent led him to become champion of Cuba at twelve, and later World Champion. Paul Morphy, born in Louisiana, took the chess world by storm in the late 1850s, and then retired at twenty-five when there was no one left for him to beat. He lived out his life in eccentric reclusiveness. Alexander Alekhine was a brilliant attacking player. World Champion from 1927-1935, he lost his championship to Max Euwe, in which many speculated that Alekhine played mostly drunk. He regained his sobriety and his title two years later. All three of these greats are explicitly compared to Beth, and they constitute the ingredients that make up her identity as a chessplayer and, arguably, as a person.
These details make the acting nothing short of astonishing. By their own admission, Anya Taylor Joy, Sangster-Brodie, and Harry Melling (Harry Beltik, Kentucky state champion until Beth dethrones him) knew nothing or next to nothing about chess when the production started, but, thanks in part to legendary teacher and National Master, Bruce Pandolfini, and former World Champion, Gary Kasparov, the chessplaying is completely believable, to the point of seamlessness. The rapid play during openings, when players know the lines by heart, and slower play during critical middlegame positions are both accurate. The scene in which Beth plays three people (Watts and two others) simultaneously in speed chess, with five minutes on her clock for all three games, is a tour de force. Not only must Taylor Joy remember ordinary dialogue, but she also must remember precise sequences of chess moves in three different games played at breakneck speed.
Nevertheless, the series’ resolution is disappointing. Beth reunites with Jolene, her long-lost friend from the orphanage, and Jolene confronts her with a combination of tough love and AA truisms. The key scene between them is like a twelve-step meeting run by Dr. Phil, taking place on, of all places, a squash court. After Beth’s epiphany of self-actualization, Borgov’s loss to her in their rematch is as predictable as Apollo Creed’s defeat in Rocky II. In the glow of this triumph, an important element in this period piece is lost.
While competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in arms production and space exploration were everpresent headline news during Beth’s childhood and adolescence, in the late 1960s, chess became part of this competition as well. Bobby Fischer, whose career timeline closely resembles Beth’s, ascended to world prominence and dethroned the reigning world champion, Boris Spassky, in 1972. This interrupted twenty-four straight years of Soviet dominance. During his brief career on the international stage, Fischer repeatedly pointed out that his Soviet opponents collaborated against him during adjournments (the film accurately depicts high-level games being adjourned at move forty). Fischer, meanwhile, attended tournaments alone or with one second. So his victory over Spassky was hailed not only as a Cold War triumph of America over Russia, but also as proof of the superiority of American individualism to nefarious communist collectivism.
The Queen’s Gambit touches on the terms of this contest, but does not explore it in the depth one would expect from a great period piece. Instead, the series’ last episode personalizes it. Beth catches a glimpse of a group of Soviet grandmasters analyzing her adjourned position with Borgov, tells her friend, Townes, what she saw, and he hastily cobbles together a team that analyzes her adjourned position with Borgov in a long distance phone conversation. But rather than emphasize the advantage the Soviets enjoy, the scene in which this is represented celebrates the comradery of Beth’s friends and lovers: two members of Beth’s team are Beltik and Watts, both of whom have slept with her. It’s a weird missed opportunity.
If the series drifts into clichés as a story about hardship and recovery, and if it misses the big picture of the Cold War, we’re left with chess as the main reason for its success. There has been a well-documented rise of interest in online gaming since the Covid pandemic prompted near quarantine living conditions for many Americans. One can readily understand the immense popularity of a game such as Animal Crossing, where people suddenly deprived of face-to-face contact with their real circle of friends find comfort in an imaginary community. The same deprivation seems to have led to an unlikely resurgence of interest in chess, unlikely because an in-person over-the-board tournament is like an exercise in social distancing: dozens of people seated in total silence across boards from one another for three or four hours.
Aside from the substitution of a virtual board and automatic timekeeping for a three-dimensional board and a manually operated clock, there’s not much difference between online chess and in-person chess. What’s missing, though, is the ongoing conversation about the game—analysis of recently completed games, discussion of general principles, of ways to improve. Fortunately, the internet has filled that void during the pandemic: online sites devoted to all these topics in the past year. The Queen’s Gambit is well positioned to take advantage of this wave, and for all its flaws, does so. It’s true to the game and to the psychology of competition that has always drawn people to it. On top of everything, the series came along at just the right time.
Frank Donoghue teaches English at Ohio State University.