Commencement 2010

On the History and Literature of America

I suppose it’s a bit boring, when looking back over my time at Harvard, to write about academics. I imagine that others will write about an extra-curricular activity, a summer abroad, a night spent talking with a classmate about politics, or poverty, Lady Gaga, even.

But I can’t quite forget, as my parents sometimes remind me, that academics are a pretty important part of going to college. That when you crunch the numbers, we pay something like $300 for every hour of lecture. That we go to school to learn things from people who are smarter than we are, and those people are often professors. So I’d like to tell you about what I learned in class, and what I learned in my concentration, specifically.

Sophomore year, I declared a concentration in history and literature. I began to pick classes. I chose classes about war in America. Perhaps I can explain why.

I moved to New York on Sept. 1, 2001. I had lived abroad before—well, for most of my life: New York, London, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and back again to New York. I had always considered myself American. At least, I thought I was American, even though I bore unmistakable signs of an expatriate. I didn’t know any of the state capitals. Sometimes, when I wasn’t careful, I called my mother "mum."


A week into school, in the ninth grade homeroom, my chorus teacher said, "A plane has hit one of the Twin Towers." She cried. My classmates and I stood there, tried to understand. I walked home after school, right down Madison Avenue. There were no cars in the street—no taxis, even. The sky was blue and brilliant, but thick with smoke. There was dust, too, on sidewalks, and sheets of paper in gutters.

At the State of the Union address, in the chamber of the House of Representatives, President George W. Bush said, "We are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom." He declared a war on terror.

I forget, sometimes, that America is at war.

America was born in war, or through it, and I think it is continually defined by war: from a colony to a united states, from a house divided to a union, from a country to a world power. I choose to study the history and literature of war because I know we can find, there, some fundamental aspects of our nation’s character. War, I believe, is an act of self-definition. It reveals not only what a country is, but also what it hopes to be. I learned this in class—in "The American Revolution," "The American Civil War," "Art and Thought of the Cold War," and "War and Ideas in America."

After 9/11, my father quit his job at an airplane company in Montreal, and my mother started a job at an off-Broadway theater in New York—a few blocks north of Ground Zero. The first play she produced there, "The Guys" by Anne Nelson, was about a journalist who helped a fire captain write eulogies for men lost in the North and South Towers.

I saw the play too many times. These are the lines I remember: "This is my city, too," the journalist says. "I can’t just watch it on TV. I want to do something. But this is all I know how to do. Words. I can’t think of anything else." The fire captain says, "That’s okay. They’re your tools."

If, for a country, war is an act of self-definition, writing during a war, or about war (or really, any writing) is an act of self-confirmation. Words help to explain the traumatic reality of war, to make sense of it, and then to live in it and to live in its wake—whether it be John Singleton Copley’s letters from Europe to his half-brother Henry Pelham back in America or Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. As I read these things, I learned something about reading the literature of war (or really, any reading): It is an act of self-validation. I didn’t live through the American Revolution or World War II. But I have seen things I did not want to see, and I have been confused, and afraid, too.

So here is the most important thing I’ve learned in class. More important than close reading or parsing the arguments of secondary sources—though those things have let me realize, and say, this:

In history and literature, I learned to ask when and how a text was written, but also why it lasted. I learned that a text could create and then support a community of writers and readers. I learned that sometimes, a book could be an answer to a private and unsaid prayer. That a book can say, "You are not alone."

Emily C. Graff ’10, a former Crimson magazine senior editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House.