This issue is replete with upstarts and transgressors of varying kinds—characters who have crossed boundaries or altered things or who are trying to do so. The subject reminds me of the larger issue of change itself and the perennial fear of its messing up the future. In a postindustrial world, the pace of economic, cultural, and technological mutation sometimes seems threatening and hard to keep up with.
We all have our favorite “I can’t believe how fast x has happened”—whether “x” is thought to be good or bad—the quickly spreading acceptance of different gender self-definitions, evolving attitudes toward drug use, Internet-connectedness via addictive smart phones, the use of artificial intelligence or robots, the speed at which a company can go from nowhere to among the largest in the world (or in the opposite direction), the amazing rise of billionaires, political shifts . . . one can go on with the list.
Our sense of the rapidity and risk of change may be a bit exaggerated, especially regarding the fear that change is much more menacing now than it was in the past. Every decade of my lifetime has had what seemed at the time its “unbelievable” shifts, threats, and absolutely-for-sure apocalyptic perils. Historiographers remind us that earlier historians exaggerated the idea of stability and sameness during certain periods of the past that they falsely deemed as homogeneous. For example, it was a long-held assumption that most of Europe was locked in a class- and [End Page 5] religion-confined monotony for centuries during the Dark Ages. This notion disregarded the genuine vigor and inventiveness in certain areas of thought, commerce, and technology during that period as well as powerful cultural differences in distinct geographic areas. Historians of colonial and early US history have long been aware that historical myths of the founding of this nation overstate the logic, coherence, and certainty of what—for those who lived through it—was a daring and fragile and even unlikely day-to-day experiment. It is only through the dimming, blurring lens of what we imagine to be historical “logic” that we view such times as unthreatening and inevitable.
Literature feeds on change and the fear of it. The novel as a genre arose partly from the increasing literacy of both sexes and the quickly evolving—for many, scary—mutability of women’s position in society and in power relationships. It is still easy to wonder about or even identify with Moll Flanders, Daisy Miller, Eliza Doolittle, or Rebecca Sharp—whether she be self-made or fake or a little of both. The character of the upstart or transgressor is a classic figure not just in the novel but in most forms of literature.
In this issue’s historically set story “The Tongues of Angels,” K. C. Frederick writes about Monsignor Baran, head of a Polish Catholic parish in Detroit in 1947. Baran is comfortable in his appointment, able to manage his subordinates in ministry and the needs and conflicts of his parishioners, despite the fairly recent race riots resulting from the city’s rapid population increase and wartime buildup of industry. Enter a black migrant from Louisiana who speaks French-inflected English and wants to join Baran’s all-white, Polish American congregation. The would-be parishioner doesn’t know about the racial tensions in the city and the attitudes of Baran’s Polish parishioners. Faced with this challenge, the monsignor is torn between what is morally and spiritually right and the reality of his congregation’s racism.
Peter Mountford’s “You Have to Continue, You Have to Hurry” tells about a couple who are undergoing what seem like too many changes and difficulties at once. The narrator and his wife, Vicky, are youngish professional parents of three, struggling to maintain employment during the recession. They’re already dealing with an underwater mortgage and the uproar of family life when their youngest child gets hit by a car and is hospitalized with a brain injury. The husband is drawn to an older attractive woman neighbor—single, childless, independent, and [End Page 6] seemingly an exemplar of purposefulness and control—who he imagines is...