Before he memorialized the Alamo, fifth-generation Texan Michael Lind made his name as a political writer by turning against the very conservatives who nurtured him.
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MY FIRST DRAFT WAS TOO bombastic and had too many echoes of Shakespeare and Milton,” Michael Lind confessed as we flipped through the galleys of The Alamo, his 6,006-line epic poem that will hit bookstores on March 6, the 161st anniversary of the legendary battle. “I chose to use the seven-line rhyme royal stanzas because of the historical connotation. The two epics in English that use this poetic form are Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, which is a very substantial epyllion.”
I glanced up from my notebook. “Epyllion?”
“A short epic. I focus on the individual,” Lind continued, seemingly without need of oxygen. “This is my major innovation. I name all one hundred eighty defenders and show each of them making his last stand within the rooms of the Alamo. Homer does this in the Iliad—he has all of these androktasiai. It’s twenty-seven hundred years old, but it’s still a very avant-garde narrative technique.”
A little dizzy from Lind’s roller coaster vocabulary, I squinted at my scribbled approximation of “androktasiai” (a classicist friend explained later that it’s the introduction of a minor character’s life history the moment before he’s killed). We had been talking for the better part of two hours in a book-lined conference room at the Manhattan headquarters of HarperCollins, which last year published Lind’s third book, Powertown, a merciless portrait of political life in the nation’s capital. Decked out in jeans and pointy cowboy boots, he resembled a boyishly pudgy George Will all set for a barbecue. He was unnervingly soft-spoken, and his voice seemed less a presence than a channel of encyclopedic information about everything from economic libertarianism to Hill Country folklore.
Lind’s intellect, however, circled the room like a shark’s fin. If not the most intelligent young writer in America, at the age of 34 Lind is arguably the most productive, his razzle-dazzle professional life the career equivalent of all the big words he uses: His first New York Times op-ed piece was published before he was out of his twenties. He has already served as a senior editor for Harper’s and The New Republic and as the executive editor of the foreign-policy quarterly The National Interest; he’s currently a staff writer for The New Yorker. His poetry has appeared in Sparrow, The Classical Outlook, and other journals. He has been interviewed on National Public Radio as well as the political talk shows Crossfire and Firing Line and has delivered lectures at Yale and Harvard. Before finishing The Alamo and Powertown, he published not one but two autobiographical books about American political life and his role therein—a feat not surprising, perhaps, from someone who, at the age of six, supported Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 bid for the presidency. Without a gray hair yet on his head, Michael Lind has accomplished more in his still-blossoming career as a political pundit, novelist, poet, and full-time intellectual than a bevy of eighty-year-old think-tank icons.
A fifth-generation Texan, Lind grew up in Austin and at twenty graduated from the Plan II liberal arts honors program at the University of Texas. (His father, Charles, is a former assistant state attorney general; his mother, Marcia, is a retired elementary school principal.) Recently in The New Republic Lind waxed nostalgic, if not somewhat romantic, about a childhood in which he “chased armadillos and fled rattlesnakes” and about being a teen who cruised around the Capitol in a white Cadillac with two members of an all-girl punk band called the Chickadiesels. I remember Lind from a UT freshman philosophy course we both took back in 1979. He wore mismatched clothes so unfashionable he seemed almost transcendentally cool. On the first day of class the professor challenged us to identify several dozen relatively obscure figures from the world of intellectual history: Finnish composers, Greek mathematicians, Eastern mystics. I knew maybe six of the names on the list. Lind knew them all. And over the semester the rest of us would listen, slack-jawed, as he discussed their accomplishments as effortlessly as most other teenage Texans might discuss Longhorn football stats.
Precociously well read (and Democratic) as a kid, Lind transformed into a precociously influential (and Republican) political writer while completing a master’s degree in international relations at Yale. Under the tutelage of premier conservative William F. Buckley—who helped fund Scrutiny, a “center-right” political journal Lind founded while still a student—Lind was soon professionally and socially embraced by the most powerful conservative intellectuals in America. “There was a Texas connection,” Lind said, explaining his initial involvement with Buckley. “Turns out his family was from Texas. His father, William Frank, was the big man on campus at UT back in the twenties. Believe it or not, his grandfather was the sheriff of Duval County.”
But after Pat Buchanan’s inflammatory address at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston, Lind publicly broke with his Republican friends and colleagues. “I got angry,” he said as he recalled the conservative columnist’s harangue against seemingly everyone who is not white, heterosexual, and overtly Christian. “It was a scary speech. A Jewish friend of mine—whose mother escaped Hitler—called up and said that it was happening all over again. So I sat down that evening and wrote an attack on Buchanan that the New York Times op-ed page published on the day that Bush was renominated.”
The attack persisted in Lind’s first two books, The Next American Nation (The Free Press, 1995) and Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America (The Free Press, 1996). Both detail what Lind perceives as the growing plight of American politics, embodied in far-right conservatives like Buchanan and televangelist Pat Robertson. Up From Conservatism opens with the proclamation that “American conservatism is dead” and concludes just as direly: “A future in which the alternatives are symbolized by Newt Gingrich and Patrick Buchanan is grim to imagine—but, alas, not all that difficult to imagine. It is too late to rescue American conservatism from the radical right. But it is not too late to rescue America from conservatism.” On the pages in between, Lind laments how influential the Christian Coalition has become in the Republican party and repeatedly knocks Gingrich (a “fraud”) and Buchanan (“anti-Semitic”), as well as Robertson (“the single most important purveyor of crackpot conspiracy theories in the history of American politics”), former Secretary of Education William Bennett (a “would-be cultural commissar”), and Senator Phil Gramm (“sneering, pseudo-folksy”); even Buckley gets an earful. “The leaders and intellectuals of the American right,” Lind writes, embrace “a vision of the United States as a low-wage, low-tax, low-investment industrial society like the New South of 1875—1965, a kind of early 20th-century Mississippi or Alabama recreated on a continental scale.” Lind also chides the American “overclass”—those “who have advanced degrees and can afford maids”—for turning its back on Main Street’s social concerns.
Not surprisingly, Lind’s political writing has rubbed a number of folks the wrong way. Even though Up From Conservatism was listed among the New York Times’ “notable books” of 1996 ( Times critic Frank Rich told me, “I admire Michael Lind’s writing a great deal and think he has been a major force in exposing the influence and intent of the far right within the Republican party”), reviews of the book castigated Lind for his “overstatement, exaggeration and pontification” and for “producing a rant that is pompous, ponderous, pretentious, and preposterous.” The venom continued to flow in conspicuously mean-spirited reviews of Powertown. Published only two months after Up From Conservatism, the novel unfolds like a 264-page social map of Washington, D.C., and boasts an enormous, at times unwieldy cast of loosely linked characters covering the full spectrum of political power, from lobbyists to Third World domestics. Not unlike its New York cousin Bonfire of the Vanities, Powertown is ambitious in its scope and daring in its street-life intimacy (and for me an enjoyable and informative read), but one critic said it “is so deficient in nearly every aspect of style and construction that one must urge its author to stop already with his presto-change-o acts and stick to something, be it ideology or literary genre.” Another denounced Powertown unread: “[According] to those who have seen the galleys, [the novel] exhibits an ineptitude for fiction that would embarrass Newt Gingrich.” The same reviewer described The Alamo, apparently without having seen a page of it, as “excrescence.”
“The right-wingers are going after me,” Lind said as I pointed to several of the harsher reviews on the conference table. With a wave of his hand Lind dismissed the pile of negative reviews as ad hominem attacks and concluded, “If you’re a renegade, you’re worse than an infidel.”
It will be interesting to see what kind of response The Alamo generates. It took twelve years to complete—Lind got the idea for the book on a visit to San Antonio during a 1983 Christmas break from Yale—and includes a 33-page appendix on the epic style and a 28-page glossary. For my convenience, Lind provided a 2-page explanation of his use of literary allusions in The Alamo: “Travis’s speech to his officers is modelled on the remarks of Sarpedon to Glaucus in Book 12 of The Iliad. Santa Anna’s speech to his troops at the Rio Grande is modelled on that of Goffredo in Book 20 of Jerusalem Liberated (which Tasso modelled on the speech of Caesar to his legions in Book 7 of Lucan’s Pharsalia),” and so on.
The epic itself consists of twelve books made up of hundreds of seven-line rhyme royal stanzas, meaning they have an ababbcc rhyme scheme and each line is written in loose iambic pentameter. The reader will need to keep a dictionary handy—by the end of the first fourteen-page book, I had looked up almost twenty words, beauties like “lorgnette” (eyeglasses with a handle) and “enfilade” (gunfire directed along a line of troops). But The Alamo proves to be almost juvenile fun when read out loud. Try reciting the following while chewing gum: “All told, two dozen animals would graze / and prance and groom each other in the gaze / of their contumelious suzerain, /a skewbald stallion with a mottled mane.”
Though Lind takes some poetic license—he gives Travis a Colt even though the pistol wasn’t mass-produced until 1837, for instance—he emphasized that essentially all of his book is historically accurate. “The Alamo wasn’t a melodramatic battle between good and evil,” he said. “In real life Travis and Houston were members of the War Party, a faction of Texas settlers who were set on independence from Mexico. Travis is the book’s central character. The movies have always concentrated on Bowie and Crockett, but Travis was really much more of an important figure—and more interesting too. He was an intellectual as well as a revolutionary.”
In The Alamo Lind also humanizes Santa Anna and demonstrates that, despite the way the Mexican general is often vilified in Texas history classes, he was actually an excellent commander. “In his twenties he had saved Mexico from invasion by Spain,” Lind explained. “The old-fashioned Texas history is that every Texan went down with twenty Mexican soldiers, when in fact Santa Anna lost only five or six hundred. He also adopted orphans of both sides in battles that he fought and actually raised a number of Anglo-American kids.”
The final four books of The Alamo bring to life the ninety minutes of the horrendously violent battle. “In the Hollywood versions, everyone sits around playing the harmonica during the siege, and then the battle lasts about five minutes,” Lind said. “I did not want to write a pro-war, militaristic poem. If you do it the Hollywood way, you can be accused of jingoism because you gloss over the killing. This was one of the most grizzly eras of warfare. You didn’t just fall over and die—you were bayoneted. This is the advantage of the epic form. People have commented for millennia that Homer shows these guys getting their guts dragged out. As a poet, I had always been uneasy with blank verse as a form for The Alamo. Why not use stanzas? It’s much more difficult to write it that way, but I think it’s really much more of an achievement.”
Will there be an audience for a book-length poem about a 161-year-old Texas battle? Clearly The Alamo’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, thinks so. And the success of Vikram Seth’s 1986 verse novel, The Golden Gate, has probably made booksellers a little less poem-shy. “Maybe I’m wrong,” Lind said, “but I think there’s a huge audience for this—people who read historical fiction, people who like James Michener.”
I smiled as a look of childlike hopefulness filled Lind’s bright blue eyes. Will folks remember The Alamo a generation from now? Maybe, maybe not. But the odds are pretty fair that they will remember Michael Lind.