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During the Kansas territorial period, four attempts were made to write and adopt a constitution under which Kansas would become a state. The first attempt to write a constitution emerged as a movement — the Topeka movement — in reaction to unfair elections that gave the proslavery party initial control of Kansas' territorial government. The so-called "bogus" legislature convened at Pawnee on July 2,


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In SeptemberOliver Brown walked his young daughter to her neighborhood school in Topeka, Kansas. When he tried to enroll her in the all-white Sumner School, however, she was denied a spot because she was black. The rejection set in motion one of the most famous court cases in United States History, Brown v.

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Lerner, a white male poet from Kansas, even gave the name Ben to the narrator of his second novel,in addition to endowing him with roughly his own biography. Both earlier books feature the interior monologues and exterior dealings of Lerner-types. Both are also ironic, formally experimental, skeptical of their narrators while deeply enmeshed in their particular way of seeing the world.

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And both books are beautifully, exasperatingly, transcendently wordy. In The Topeka SchoolLerner writes from the vantage ofand from the premise that the collective is broken and common discourse has been derailed. Jonathan is a therapist primarily for disaffected young white men of privilege, teenagers who seem to have everything but who suddenly turn angry, sullen, withdrawn, violent.

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At school, Adam falls in with the kids of the Foundation faculty; the boys among them have a tense and violent relationship with the sons of blue-collar Topekans. His behavior at home grows so explosive that his parents insist he either see a therapist or learn biofeedback methods for regulating his emotions. He opts for the biofeedback. For the most part, Adam navigates both worlds reasonably well, verbal virtuoso that he is, a state debate champion.

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At the same time, debate is a route to the flow state he craves:. Glossolalia is either pure communication, the presence of the divine in language, or terrible babble, the impulse to be understood and to understand pushed to the point of implosion. In his lessons for Adam, we see the beginnings of a national political glossolalia:.

If the novel is a chronicle of his coming-of-age in language, the suggestion is that it is also a larger semantic origin story, about faux-populist, frenetic Trumpian rhetoric, and the subset of articulate, angry men who helped cultivate it. But why are these men so angry? In the book, a Foundation analyst offers an explanation:. This diagnosis is compelling but unsatisfying, partly because it ignores how directed white male rage is: It has targets, and those targets bespeak something more than godlessness or hunger or existential emptiness.

They betray anxiety—anxiety about power. Instead, she recounts a story about how her stepfather used to talk so endlessly at dinner that she once just slipped under the table and crawled off into the kitchen, where her mother was doing dishes.

The two women looked at each other and then stood together in the doorway, watching him talking with vigor to an empty room. When they are challenged, they explode.

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Throughout the novel, the women who love them gently try to persuade them to slow down, make sense, and shut up, with little lasting effect. They empty streams of abuse and death threats into the phone until she interrupts them in an innocent tone to say the connection is bad; could they please speak up?

Can they say that again, but louder? It works for the moment, but then more men call. The male vitriol seems inexorable. In The Topeka Schoolwomen are neither geniuses of language nor abusers of it in the manner of men. Lerner seems interested in reiterating via the details of his own biography the now-evident political reality that these alienated men are powerful and dangerous precisely when they feel they are not.

Even in Adam—a relatively sensitive poet, who nominally embraces feminism and prides himself on being the only boy he knows who studiously performs oral sex on his girlfriend—we see threatened white masculinity deploying whatever language is at its disposal to reclaim the ascendancy it believes is its birthright.

It seems sort of ridiculous until you remember the specter haunting this book, an extemporaneous wonder whose incoherent babbling serves to dissemble, deceive, distract.

After being refused enrollment at an all-white school in topeka, kansas, brown’s court case led to the historic supreme court ruling that ended segregation

In America, Lerner reminds us, you can sound like an idiot all you want, but if you master the spread, you rule. Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe. He passed, as he often passed, a mysterious threshold. He began to feel less like he was delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him, that the rhythm and intonation of his presentation were beginning to dictate its content, that he no longer had to organize his arguments so much as let them flow through him.

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He looks at my chair then back at us and now my mom and I start really cracking up. Like how dare you cunts laugh at me. But I give him the stepdaughter smile back and hold it, hold it. Sophie Gilbert.