Special Report—United We Stand

Literature Lessons: "No Words: September 11, NYC"

Thinking About the Selection
Writing Activity
Research and Technology
Speaking and Listening
Connecting to Literature


Julia Lee Barclay is a writer and director living in New York City. As a member of a theater group, she prepared and presented this speech as part of a public reading on September 18. Describing the reading later, she said the smell of destruction hung in the air even then, a full week after September 11.

"No Words: September 11, NYC"
Julia Lee Barclay

Someone else's words. That's what I thought the flier for this event said: If you want to read someone else's words. And I was relieved, and thought, of course, someone else's words. Not mine.

Who has words for this? I don't. I flipped through T.S. Eliot, some of it held, but not all. Flipped frantically through Yeats, and most of that didn't hold either. I looked through my library last night of poems and plays and fiction and remarkably, none of it held. I thought, that's it, it's all done. We have to start from scratch. I've never felt that way about any other event. The words don't hold up. Ancient words even. Not a dent. I so wanted to find someone else's words, to comfort, soothe, explain, reconcile, anything. I don't want to be left here typing electronic dots on a screen.

There is only one phrase from Yeats that keeps racing through my mind: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity…". And then I don't know where I stand in that dialectic either. I confront my own self-righteous indignation at other people's self-righteous indignation. My friends and I make cookies for firemen. Singing in the Rain seems like the best film ever made. Then I talk Middle-Eastern politics and think I'm enlightening people. Then I see a wall of hand made fliers with pictures and names of the missing, thousands of them, on the walls of Bellevue from the M15 and cry, having just given a plate of cookies to a rescue worker who's been at ground zero for four days and is hungry. He is talking to the bus driver about being called up to serve as an army reservist. His eyes are moist with exhaustion. He is absurdly grateful for cookies. I am absurdly grateful he took them. I look away and have no words to say to him but "thank you." I fear he will die.

All the stories, endless stories: I saw it on television, I saw the gray cloud coming towards me, I saw it on a roof, from the train, from the bridge, from the Promenade, from the Avenue, heard it on the phone, felt it in my building, was covered in ash, surrounded by midnight, pushed down the stairs by the blast, knew someone, know someone who knows someone who. …

Then the theories, endless theories: this means global capitalism will prevail, this means we will be nuked, this means "they" must pay, this means we are finally paying. This means we will be better people, worse people, more scared, more strong, more something—always different from what we were on September 10. We now supposedly love more, hate more, are in shock, are grieving, need counseling, don't need counseling, should not watch TV, should watch TV, should talk to people, don't have to talk to people. …

Then the first reactions: need to see people, wish we were in love or are glad to be so, cling to the familiar, attack Muslims for no reason, protect Muslims from those who attack them, yell at our credit card companies, go to work, stare at useless letters typed onto useless computer screens, understand people in Beirut who stayed in their bombed-out city and cling to New York City as home, flee the City and wonder why anyone stays, try to get back to the City from out of town, cry, panic, feel comforted, pray, meditate, do yoga, go to church, scroll through e-mail, talk on the phone, wonder when to breathe, tell jokes, cry, hug people for dear life, listen to stories, tell stories, look into people's eyes, stranger's eyes, for the first time. …

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" (Yeats, "The Second Coming")

"And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not." (T. S. Eliot, "East Coker")

At least there are clues left in the books, a burnt and charred map, some of it obsolete but not all. I hope to scratch through this maze with all of you here now, make tunnels, chart through the tunnel, rebuild the next world, not throwing away all of the old but letting go of what no longer fits. We aren't alone. We never have been, and I am not alone and never have been.

Thinking About the Selection

  1. (a) Why did Julia Barclay look through all of her books? (b) What do you think she might have been looking for in the books? Explain.
  2. What did she find about most of the literature she scanned?
  3. Barclay quotes two lines from the poet W.B. Yeats that stay in her mind: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." (a) Analyze these lines and rewrite them in your own words. (b) What connection does Barclay find between these lines of Irish poetry and the events of September 11, 2001? Explain.
  4. (a) Find two details that set the "stories" in paragraph 4 apart. (b) What do all the "stories" in paragraph 4 have in common?
  5. (a) Find two contradictory theories in paragraph 5. (b) How do you think the writer feels about these contradictions? Explain.
  6. (a) According to paragraph 6, describe four different reactions to the attack on the World Trade Center. (b) Why do you think there is such a broad variety of responses?
  7. (a) What questions does the writer seem to ask about the future? (b) Where does she suggest people will find the answers? Explain.
  8. What does this firsthand account of one person's emotional response to the terrorist attack tell you that a news report, presidential speech, or textbook could not?

Writing Activity
Literary Analysis: Is this account "literature"?

When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, he used his acceptance speech to implore writers to address subjects that are important. He said that literature should reflect the human spirit. Specifically, Faulkner asked writers to address—even relearn—universal themes and truths. Faulkner said,

Until he [the writer] does, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and worst of all, without pity of compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. …

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man.

Based on these ideas, decide whether this selection should be considered "literature." Using the account presented here, or one of your own choosing, evaluate it using Faulkner's criteria. Use these questions to guide your writing:

  • Does the writer provide more hope than fear? Why or why not?
  • What message does the writer convey about the human spirit?

Use evidence from the selection to support your opinion. Share your writing with classmates.

Research and Technology

Using the United States Responds links, visit other sites on the Internet to find other firsthand accounts or photographs of the events of September 11, 2001. Consider these questions as you read each one:

  • Where was the person during the event?
  • Which emotion does the writer or photographer convey most strongly: fear, sorrow, hope, anger, or something else? Why?
  • What lesson or message does the selection convey?

Choose one account or photograph that you find especially powerful and share it with classmates in a group discussion.

Speaking and Listening

Invite a member of your community to speak to your class about recent events. You may want to interview a city or town government official, a local rescue worker, a psychologist, or a reporter, so that he or she can share experiences and ideas with the class. Prepare a list of questions and use them as a starting point for a class discussion.

Connecting to Literature

"The United States Responds" feature suggests specific selections to read in Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. Read one of these selections. Then, in a brief essay or class discussion, explain what connections you can find between the selection and the events of September 11, 2001.