Tim Kaine adorned with two literary references his introduction to Hillary Clinton when she gave her historic concession speech before an audience of their bitterly disappointed supporters.
One was to a poem by Langston Hughes, the other to a fragment of fiction by William Faulkner.
Both writers served the bittersweet moment well, if in different ways. I say “bitter,” because fresh blood was still flowing from the wounds inflicted by Donald Trump’s army; I say “sweet,” because the quality of Kaine’s and Clinton’s speeches as they faced defeat reminded some of us of the resilience of the human spirit.
In his remarks, Kaine recited one of Hughes’ youthful poems, “Dreams”:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Since Hughes’ poem makes no allusion to politics or racism, we can take it at face value as a lyric meditation on our need to resist despair when facing life’s vicissitudes — those troubles from which no one, no matter how privileged, is exempt.
The poem speaks to the essence of living. Nevertheless, it is difficult to know that a young black man composed it during some of the worst years of Jim Crow in America and not see it at once as a political rallying cry despite its sentimentality.
But the dream was a marinating, evolving motif in Hughes’ work. It would achieve its most mature form probably in the popular “Harlem.” That work begins with the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” and ends with the threat “Or does it explode?”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would pick up on Hughes’ dream imagery in his most celebrated oration, which we remember for its recurrent assertion “I Have a Dream.” That speech underscored his hopes for an America that would conquer social injustice ingrained into our daily life as a consequence of slavery.
One is reminded also of Hughes’ militant anthem of the Great Depression, “Let America Be America Again,” which appeared in 1936: (America “never was America to me,” and yet America “must be.”)
Introducing Clinton, Kaine paired the sentimentality of Hughes with something much more muscular, and even menacing. With his invocation of Wash Jones’ defiant line — “They kilt us but they ain’t whupped us yit” — from Faulkner’s 1936 novel, “Absalom, Absalom!” — one is tempted to say that Kaine in a sense brought a bayonet to what had been a war of words. It’s a strange turnaround, and an odd application of the deeper lessons of the Civil War, but one that makes sense. Kaine is from Virginia, where they live and breathe this sense of American history and its symbolism.
The grand fight now is for the future of America. Kaine was reminding his and Clinton’s people that their election loss was only one setback, like Bull Run, when the South routed Union forces and terrified many people in the North, but it is not the end of the war.
The courage of the rebel South in the Civil War is distinct from the pro-slavery goals of that same rebel South. In a paradoxical reprising of what took place in America in the 1860s, the remarkable courage of the rebel South is there to be invoked and emulated in what his and Clinton’s supporters must often see as a primal battle, a new civil war, for the soul and state of America.