Return to site

I Contain Multitudes


Carolyn Cooke

My fire season reading flickered toward the bleak and gripping: I needed a book to read in a gas station parking lot if my house burned down. To my “go pack” of masks, rubbing alcohol, tequila, and ready-to-eat lentils, I added the pitiless social universe of Edith Wharton, the post-human futures of Octavia Butler.

Post-election, the mood is different. I’ve been trying to understand why U.S. history functions as fiction.

What can I—as a white writer of fiction—do to see more capaciously, more humanly? Three books are helping: Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, and David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.

To start with an earlier time of division, Whitman chronicled over 600 visits to wounded and dying Civil War soldiers —he calls them “specimen cases”—in hospitals and makeshift convalescent camps near the front. With ferocious empathy he writes love letters to the sweethearts of blown-out seventeen-year-olds, shares ice cream, apples, and quarters in the wards, reports on atrocities on the battlefield (a Union soldier’s feet pinned to the ground by bayonets, worse) and takes note, near a tree outside a Virginia hospital, of a “heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, & etc.”

Whitman blasts the “secesh” slave states for their “military resistance to national authority” but, being Whitman, loves all the boys, North and South, and takes pains to show their humanness, the individual experiences that form “the untold and unwritten history of the war—infinitely greater (like life’s) than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written.”

The Civil War reflected our settler-nation’s first reckoning with its founding delusion: that the American dream of freedom is possible without human freedom. Ibram Kendi picks up the story 150 years later.

“We thought on a false continuum, from more racist to less racist to not racist,” he writes. “Race and racism were constructed in the fifteenth century,” Kendi reminds us. “Racist ideas are not natural to the human mind.”

In a similar vein, have you ever met a textbook that discusses Native American history after 1900? David Treuer sets out to dismantle the myth that Indigenous America is a tragic story of the past. In a Whitmanesque sweep across the country, Treuer interviews dozens of Native people, constructing a narrative of human experience and a vision of what it means to “become” more of what you already are. “If we are going to imagine our past and reimagine our future,” Treuer writes, “we are going to have to do it with curiosity and care.”

Carolyn Cooke is the author of the novel Daughters of the Revolution and two short story collections, including The Bostons, winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a first book and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. 

Books by Carolyn Cooke and all Journal of the Plague Years contributors can be found on our bookshelf on, the anti-Amazon, aimed at keeping independent bookstores alive.

I Contain Multitudes: Emma Swift

The Past Sure Is Tense: Captain Beefheart

Pocohantas: Neil Young

Now That The Buffalo’s Gone: Buffy Sainte-Marie