By Thane Peterson With the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks nearly upon us, American artists, writers and musicians still seem daunted by the magnitude of that day's horror. Perhaps they're afraid of seeming to exploit the tragedy, or perhaps it's still too soon. But for whatever reason, nothing has appeared in the flood of books, films, songs, and other works about the attacks like Guernica, Picasso's anguished masterpiece painted in response to the ruinous bombing of a village in his native Spain during civil war in the late 1930s.
Still, artists have created some extraordinarily moving responses to the tragedy. Here, at least in my opinion, are some of the very best.
First off, let's be clear on one thing. Though musicians ranging from Neil Young to the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan have written September 11 songs, only Bruce Springsteen really rose to the occasion. Springsteen caught a lot of flak from critics accusing him of exploiting the tragedy in his latest CD, The Rising. And there may be something to that: The Boss has hyped the album to the hilt. And it's also true that he recycled some old tunes, notably My City of Ruins, which was actually written several years ago about Asbury Park, N.J.
MASTER OF EMPATHY. But, to me, the song's mournfulness and oft-repeated refrain "Come on, rise up!" make it quite moving in the context of the September 11 attacks. And the same critics who chide Springsteen are also criticizing politicians like New York Governor George Pataki for reading Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in his commemorations, rather than coming up with a tribute of his own.
In many ways, Springsteen's CD is the bravest attempt so far by any American artist to assimilate the horrors of that day. Rather than pander to the feelings of anger and patriotism evoked by September 11, Springsteen, long a master of empathy in song and ballad, struggles to give voice to the anger, loss, and horror felt by the families and friends of the victims.
Monmouth County, N.J., which is Springsteen's own heartland, lost 158 residents at the World Trade Center -- many of them (as described in New York Times profiles) were major fans of his music. He interviewed the widows of some of those who died, and you can't help but feel that their sorrow crept into lyrics like these from the song You're Missing:
Too much room in my bed,
Too many phone calls.
How's everything everything?
By comparison, the poems written about September 11 seem tentative. You can find a few of them -- by contemporary poets such as David Lehman and C.K. Williams -- in the new collection, Poems of New York (Knopf, $12.50) but these poems don't mourn or howl in anguish in the way the event seems to demand. Maybe that will come later. In the meantime, this little pocket-size volume is worth having just as a portrait of the city by such great dead poets as Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Allen Ginsberg. W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" is also included.
BEARING WITNESS. With its talk of "darkened lands of the earth obsessing our private lives" and the "unmentionable odour of death offending the September night," it still seems more appropriate to September 11, 2001, than any other poem, though it was written more than 60 years earlier.
In my opinion, the finest of all the thousands of photos of the disaster can be found at Time magazine's Web site in a photo essay called "Shattered". They're by the great war photographer James Nachtwey, who's now in his mid-fifties and has devoted his life to bearing witness to the horrors of war. He lives in lower Manhattan but spends most of his time shooting photos in trouble spots like Bosnia and Rwanda.
By some quirk of fate he was home on September 11 and brought all his considerable experience with the horrific to bear on documenting the fall of the Trade Center towers. I've viewed his photos over and over again on the Web during the last year, and for me they're still the purest distillation of what happened.
FIREHOUSE EULOGIES. The best alternative in book form may be "New York September 11" (Powerhouse Books, $29.95), a collection of photos by the members of the legendary Magnum agency. A staff meeting had been held at the agency's New York office on Sept. 10, so some 18 Magnum photographers were in town the next morning when the disaster struck. All of them immediately headed for lower Manhattan.
None of them attained the heights Nachtwey did, but many of the photos are nonetheless stunning. Proceeds from the book's sales -- more than $600,000 so far -- have been donated to charities helping 9/11 victims.
I cried several times while reading the play "The Guys" (Random House, $9.95) by Columbia University journalism professor Anne Nelson. The play, Nelson's first, came about by serendipity after the author helped a bereaved New York fire captain write eulogies for the eight men from his firehouse who died on September 11.
INTENSELY MOVING. By chance, Nelson later met Jim Simpson, director of the tiny Flea Theater in lower Manhattan, who persuaded her to write a play about the experience. Simpson's wife, actress Sigourney Weaver, took one of the play's two roles when it premiered last December and recruited Bill Murray to take the other. It may seem an odd pairing, given that Weaver and Murray last worked together in Ghostbusters, the 1980s sci-fi comedy movies. Yet, "The Guys" became an immediate sensation and is now being made into a movie.
I recommend that you read this little play, perhaps early some autumn afternoon, which is when the fire captain and professor first sat down to write eulogies together. It's only 55 not-very-densely-printed pages long, but it's intensely moving for those of us who blithely went about our business for years without giving a second thought to the firefighters, police, and emergency workers around us.
The play perfectly preserves the moments during which Nelson gradually comes to a full realization of the selflessness and courage of "the guys" at the firehouse down the street who rushed into the towers and died. It's a realization that has changed many lives in the last year.
UNKNOWN LEADERS. American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (North Point Press; $23) isn't due out until October, but The Atlantic magazine is showcasing the book now in a three-part series. The magazine's national correspondent, William Langewiesche, apparently had admirers in the New York Fire Dept. or the city government, because he was given instant and almost unlimited access to Ground Zero.
He tells the in-the-rubble story of the rescue effort, which gradually turned into the deconstruction of the Trade Center and a search for remains. The chief protagonists are people never mentioned in most accounts of the disaster -- structural engineers, building-collapse experts, bureaucrats from obscure government agencies who emerged as leaders of the unbuilding effort.
Langewiesche starts with a detailed description of the structural damage done by the two Boeing jetliners as they crashed into the towers and the process that led the buildings to collapse. From there he describes how the frantic rescue effort took form and gradually devolved into a highly organized round-the-clock project directed by leaders who emerged naturally from the initial chaos. He takes us down on the ground among the steelworkers and firefighters scrambling into the inferno and makes the scene come alive in all its terrifying grandeur.
"THE PILE HEAVED." Here's how he describes work at "the pile: "It was not just the ruins of seven big buildings but a terrain of tangled steel on an unimaginable scale, with mountainous slopes breathing smoke and flame, roamed by diesel dinosaurs and filled with human dead. The pile heaved and groaned and constantly changed, and was capable at any moment of killing again. People did not merely work to clear it out but went there day and night to fling themselves against it."
In the end, the story of the aftermath of September 11 is so deeply American -- an entrepreneurial unbuilding project led by a meritocracy and fueled by patriotism, compassion, and anger. Once hope of finding survivors was gone, the workers at Ground Zero wanted to give what succor they could to the families of the victims by finding whatever remained of their loved ones. But they also wanted to strike back at the attackers by showing that the destruction wouldn't stand. In his fascinating and highly readable account, Langewiesche shows how they succeeded, on both counts. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online