The Write Stuff

There is a long, slow line. The queue of narrow-shouldered boys in thrift-store shirts and black-tighted girls with Emily Dickinson stares is blocking aisles in a Washington bookstore. The faithful look to be just out of college or just past 30. They thread through the door and onto the sidewalk.

They are waiting for Dave Eggers to sign copies of his first novel. Eggers' charisma is not readily apparent. His hair is frizz, his eyes scrunched, his shirt untucked. He looks vitamin deficient. "I think," says bookstore clerk Keltie Hawkins, "his appeal has something to do with being a combination of cool and approachable." His is an unsexy cool -- it comes from a mawkish life story. When Eggers was 21, his parents died of cancer within a month of each other, leaving him to raise his 8-year-old brother. Seven years later, Eggers' 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, became a best seller. Its story of a near-child raising a child resonated with a generation marked by divorce, working parents and what Eggers terms "a loose weak human chaos of emotion."

A Heartbreaking Work was published by Simon & Schuster, but the novel he is signing in the Washington bookstore is a product of his own publishing company. Eggers, who once quit a plum editing job at Esquire magazine in disgust, abhors corporate publishing. His first novel is available only on his Web site and at independent bookstores. Despite these handicaps, You Shall Know Our Velocity has been on The Washington Post's best-seller list for months. An On the Road for the millennial generation, it follows two young men dispensing $32,000 to impoverished people across Africa and Eastern Europe. Most reviewers have either derided its puerility or raved about its prose. Few have taken seriously its characters' confrontation with economic inequities.

Most observers see Eggers and his fans as existing outside politics. But Eggers' literary superstardom is prompting an alternative culture that has grown up around him over the last five years. It is a San Francisco- and Brooklyn-based community of writers, artists, designers and, increasingly, children -- with a growing national following. They are the readers, contributors and designers of the literary journal-cum-Web site McSweeney's (first published in 1998) and McSweeney's Books. (Eleven have been published so far.) They are, especially in the last year, the audiences at McSweeney's-sponsored conferences, readings and concerts across the country. They are idealistic about education, sentimental about children and impatient with the homogeneous culture that corporations produce.

You Shall Know Our Velocity is dedicated to Beth, Eggers' older sister who was a law student at the time their parents died and also contributed to the parenting of the youngest Eggers, Christopher. In 2001, Beth took a fatal overdose of an anti-depressant combined with an over-the-counter pain reliever, acetaminophen. Once a family of six, the Eggers clan now numbers three. How many other upper-middle-class, suburban midwestern families can claim such familiarity with premature death and the parenting improvisations that have largely been the province of the precarious poor?

That familiarity may bear some relationship to Eggers' creation last April of a way station for the less parented in San Francisco's Mission District, a working-class Hispanic neighborhood.

Called 826 Valencia (after its street address), the learning emporium has a reading room done in Moroccan-style furnishings where young people can study. There is also a college-scholarship program for students interested in writing. Eggers and about 400 volunteers teach writing and comics creation, run workshops on SAT preparation and help kids launch student publications. They deploy 20 to 30 tutors at a time into classrooms at the request of teachers for one-on-one work on student writing. "They're great," said James Kass, executive director of Youth Speaks, a San Francisco, New York and Seattle nonprofit program for teenagers that fosters the literary arts. "They have a real belief that they can help teachers and public schools that are overextended and underfunded, because they can attract a lot more volunteers than most nonprofits because of Dave Eggers. They've done a lot in a short time." (Eggers and McSweeney's President Barb Bersche declined to be interviewed. "With our tight deadlines for our upcoming books, tutoring and teaching classes at 826 Valencia, and juggling traveling for speaking engagements, we really haven't been able to participate in any interviews all year," Bersche wrote in an e-mail.)

Beyond confirming how the center works, 826 Director Nínive Calegari also declined to be quoted, saying, "We've been asking people not to focus on us. There are so many nonprofits in San Francisco doing such great things, we're kind of shying away from any publicity." She has a point. The Mission Learning Center, for example, in existence for 30 years, tutors students who read below their grade level. Aim High, in its 16th year, is an academic- and cultural-enrichment program for motivated middle-school students. Less than a year old, 826 may merely be another well-intentioned but ultimately micro attempt to solve a macro social problem -- the failure of urban education.

The nine issues of McSweeney's, lined up on a shelf, are a curious collection. One is composed of 14 color pamphlets in a box. One is a short-spined, cloth-covered oblong. One's front cover is blank. Inside, the graphics are luscious, funny and playful, culled from children's illustrations, scientific drawings, museum catalogues and flea-market memorabilia. This mishmash is the McSweeney's aesthetic. There is an implied McSweeney's economics: What is valuable is made in batches, the hand of its maker much in evidence. There is a McSweeney's psychology: Previously outmoded warmth is defended with a force field of self-consciousness. And there is McSweeney's endorsed music: Exemplified by the band They Might Be Giants, it is a cross between understated rock and nursery chant, with quizzically cerebral lyrics. The band appeared with Eggers and other McSweeney's writers at performances last fall in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere.

But until recently, there was only the most primitive McSweeney's politics. In his memoir, Eggers writes proudly of the idiotic magazine he founded in the early 1990s, Might. He describes Lead ... or Leave and Third Millennium, two national advocacy groups designed to mobilize a youth version of the AARP to fight for Social Security reform, writing, "We make contact with these organizations, pledge solidarity, though to be honest we have absolutely no idea what they're talking about."

Eggers writes that the magazine lionizes Wendy Kopp, "at twenty-five the founder of Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in understaffed or -financed schools, mostly urban. We love people like this, those who are starting massive organizations, trying new approaches to age-old problems and getting the word out about it, with great PR, terrific publicity photos, available in black and white or color transparency." The smirk at the end is a lot like Eggers' take on political engagement: "It's like the '60s! 'Look! Look,' we say to one another, 'at the imbalances, the glaring flaws of the world, aghast, amazed. Look how things are! Look at how, for instance, there are all these homeless people! Look at how they have to defecate all over the streets, where we have to walk! Look at how high rents are! Look at how the banks charge these hidden fees when you use their ATMs!'"

Eggers' novel Velocity has a different outlook. Here the narrator criticizes his mother for mocking his madcap globalized charity:

You're the type that won't give to a street person; you'll think you're doing them harm. But who's condescending then? You withhold and you run counter to your instincts. There is disparity and our instinct is to create parity, immediately. Our instinct is to split our bank account with the person who has nothing. But you're talking behind seven layers of denial and justification. If it feels good it is good, and today, at the ocean, we met a man living in a half-finished hut, and he was tall and had a radio and we gave him about $700 and it was good. It can't be taken from us, and you cannot soil it with words like condescending and subjective, fey and privileged words, and you cannot pretend that you know a better way. You try it! You do it! We gave and received love! How can you deprive us of that?

The McSweeney's generation brings to mind another that thought parents had it all wrong -- the London counterculture of the early 1960s. As Shawn Levy points out in his book Ready, Steady, Go! The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London, at first there was little that was political about iconoclastic fashion (Mary Quant and Twiggy), new music (the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) and defiant lifestyles (illegal drugs and sexual license). These trends spread to the United States, but there they became, as they did not in the United Kingdom, transformative political movements -- civil rights, feminism and Vietnam War protest.

Could McSweeney's alternative culture be a precursor, as swinging London was, to a new political physics? Could McSweeney's be analogous to the 1950s City Lights Journal, City Lights Publishers and the Beats -- Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac?

There is not a protest flavor to McSweeney's. This, along with its relative indifference to drugs and sex, separates it from the Beats, the forerunners of Haight-Ashbury's hippies. But there is, as there was in swinging London, inventiveness. Some of this comes from McSweeney's "why not?" sense that there are ways around the mega-consolidated culture manufacturers. "Perhaps Dave's most political act is his attempted rebuke of the publishing industry and the chains," says a New York editor.

Until recently, archness had been the hallmark of McSweeney's. A recent issue shows that attitude to have softened. At the top of its cover are the words "thankful" and "emboldened." Right below the magazine's title are the words, "The hot-blooded life-saving presumption of perpetual, irrational or more likely, irreducibly rational good will." The motto for this issue, also on the cover, reads, "We give you sweaty hugs." The issue is dedicated to the students of 826 Valencia.

There are more overtly political stories and essays, among them William T. Vollmann's "Three Meditations on Death," about Yugoslavia, the Holocaust and Vietnam; K. Kvashay-Boyle's "Saint Chola," about a Muslim girl's vilification in junior high; and Gabe Hudson's "Notes from a Bunker Along Highway 8," about the Gulf War.

One of the touchstones of McSweeney's has been Eggers' expansion of the obligatory copyright language into an expanded jujitsu lampooning the media. In the recent issue, Eggers devotes this section to the work at 826 Valencia:

The students have been astounding. Many of the stories written by our younger visitors involve nautical themes, because directly in front of the writing lab is our new store, where we sell quality pirate supplies at reasonable prices. The store's proceeds pay the rent at 826 Valencia, in toto, because we expected and have been correct in thinking that people were sick of having to drive all the way to the mall to buy swabbing mops, planks and millet. Behind the store and the reading lab are our new editorial offices where we assemble all the McSweeney's books and journals, with our full-time staff of two and the help of many outstanding interns. These three pieces -- the publishing, the lab, the store -- interact in wonderful and unexpected ways and can't be explained here. We feel very thankful for the life that exists at 826 Valencia each day, the noise it generates and the kids who come in to learn or laugh or, for some, to sit and read quietly.

In 1840, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, founding editors of the Dial, published a letter to readers. The journal, Emerson wrote, was united against any convention that was "turning us to stone, which renounces hope, which looks only backward, which asks only such a future as the past, which suspects improvement, and holds nothing so much in horror as new views and the dreams of youth. ... And so with diligent hands and good intent we set down our Dial on the earth. We wish it may resemble that instrument in its celebrated happiness, that of measuring no hours but those of sunshine. Let it be one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics."

While McSweeney's is hardly the Dial, and Eggers is no Emerson, there are interesting similarities. Optimism is only one. There are also commonalities between 826 Valencia and Bronson Alcott's Temple School, founded in 1834, with its colorblind admissions and emphasis on imagination to foster learning among children.

McSweeneyites also seem related to the pragmatist tradition, described in Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, a collective biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. While not their intellectual equals by any means, the McSweeneyites do seem to share that quartet's belief that ideas are, as Menand writes, "tools -- like forks and knives and microchips -- that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves. They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals -- that ideas are social. ... Ideas should never become ideologies -- either justifying the status quo, or dictating some transcendent imperative for renouncing it."

Ferlinghetti, the Beat poet who founded the City Lights bookstore, explained in a 1997 interview that ideology, indeed political engagement, were at first taboo to him and his peers. "The Beat ... is the cool citizen, the cool cat who will not stick his neck out far enough to be engaged," he said. Today, the Beats are associated with revolutionary politics. But the Beats never wrote about racial segregation or the second-class status of women. Today, the Transcendentalists (who did write about abolishing slavery and women's rights) have been drained of their engagement, becoming in the popular imagination little more than nature lovers extolling the beauty of Walden Pond and renouncing society.

No matter where Eggers and McSweeney's stand in relation to these important parts of American intellectual and cultural history, it is hard to ignore their new direction toward the political. There is a link between what Eggers experienced personally and his sensitivity to the need for mentoring that honors the connection between the seriousness of learning and play. He challenges -- in his graphic innovations at McSweeney's, in his shunning of corporate control of writing, in his desire to teach children to write, not just read -- accepted rules of publishing and pedagogy. Maybe he is an opportunist and a huckster. Very soon, like Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz, the so-called voices of my generation, he may fall into oblivion and inconsequence. But the readers who wait in line for him will remain, and so will the hopes they harbor for innovation.