Michael Chabon on Columbia and Obama

2 minute read

I saw this on Andrew Sullivan’s blog and thought it interesting: Michael Chabon’s interview at Salon where he talks about his new book Telegraph Avenue and name-checks Jim Rouse, Columbia (where he grew up), and Barack Obama:

I’ve been engaged in this process, since I maybe turned 40, of reconnecting through my fiction, with parts of myself — my upbringing, my heritage, whatever it may be — that had great importance, that I had somehow lost or abandoned or forgotten or set aside. ... [The] last remaining key element of my biography that I had wandered from, and in some ways the most painful to me—which took me a while to get around to facing—was black people, and their relative visibility or invisibility in my life, in sort of Ellisonian terms. I grew up in Columbia, Md., which during the 10 or 11 years my family lived there tried and to a fair degree succeeded to be a very racially integrated, economically integrated, place where all were welcome. **Yeah, I see where you gave a special acknowledgment to James Rouse, the planner of Columbia. That was a landmark in suburban planning, kind of the birthplace of “new urbanism” and one of the first, if not the first, intentionally integrated suburbs.** Right. And in Columbia I grew up surrounded by black kids. They were in my classroom, they were my friends, they were my enemies, they were my persecutors and my saviors and my girlfriends and my teachers and my school principals, and when I left Columbia, I rapidly discovered that the rest of the world wasn’t like that. It was a rude awakening for me. ... It’s what I heard Barack Obama, you know, when he gave that keynote address at the 2004 convention—what he was talking about, to me, was Columbia, Md. The America he was describing, was the dream of Columbia, the vision of Columbia, I had grown up believing in. ... It sometimes seems like a will-o’-the-wisp, but on the other hand it won’t go away, as a beckoning image of possibility or potential.

Chabon further comments on Columbia then and now in an interview with Kathryn Schulz (also linked to by Sullivan):

“I was very invested in the stated ideals of [Columbia],” he says, “and, during those first ten years, it really managed to pretty well live up to what it wanted to accomplish.” Over time, though, and to Chabon’s acute disappointment, Columbia capitulated to the status quo. It was not a spectacular failure, he says, “in the way that a lot of utopias are, where there’s a sexual-harassment lawsuit or they end up eating each other. Columbia is still there, people live there very happily. But in terms of its original vision, that faded.” Go back these days, he says, and you’ll find “a typical edge city.” Figuratively speaking, Chabon does go back to Columbia, again and again. “I seem, almost from the beginning, to be wrestling with the inevitability of failure, either as it’s played out through one person’s personal ambition or as it plays out through the effort to create a kind of utopia, the way the Columbia experience was for me.”

I haven’t read Telegraph Avenue (or for that matter Chabon’s previous novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union), but I quite enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. As to whether Columbia will ever again live up to the vision Chabon and others had for it, that’s a question for another day.