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At the Intersection of Violence and Scholarship

November 08, 1998|PATT MORRISON

Since "The Great Train Robbery" had them fainting away in the aisles, numberless films have been made about violence. Only one, to my knowledge (omitting its unforgivable musical remake), was ever made about an encyclopedia: "Ball of Fire," with Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and a cast of adorable eggheads. In the end, even that film made free with violence, albeit ingeniously delivered upon the bad guys in the service of true love and scholarship.

Now violence and the encyclopedia have occasion to intersect again, more substantially, in a three-volume, years-in-the-making "Encyclopedia of Violence in the United States," an enormous ship captained by a USC professor whose roots are more literary than criminological.

When I heard of his undertaking, I couldn't imagine where he would begin--or where he would end, so deep and unquenchable is the taproot that violence has sunk in this culture, this country, this species.

When you open Volume I--Scribner is publishing it next fall--you will see it begins at the beginning, at "A." But what a route it takes to get there.

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An fyi to anyone expecting a movie's ironic story arc: The encyclopedia's editor in chief, Ronald Gottesman, made the acquaintance of violence not as victim but as scholar. From his graduate work on the terrors in "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn," he came in time to teach a USC graduate seminar on violence and how it is cast in high and popular culture.

Almost the first thing his students learned was that there was no solid reference book spanning the facets of violence. Violent novels, certainly, in unstinting numbers, coffee-table books on famous murderers, and focused academic works aplenty, but nothing both substantive and broad-based. "That's when I hatched the notion of some kind of interdisciplinary book," taking on violence as cultural, medical, biological, psychological, historical.

Play word-association, and "violence" evokes "crime." But among the million words from some 500 scholars, being paid the scut wage of 10 cents a word, are these subjects: a "harrowing" entry on violence against animals (8 billion a year slaughtered in this country for food), on violence in engineering (someone designed those "stun belts" for prisoners), and on violence in dance and the fine arts--unexpected, but once Gottesman mentions them, you think, "Of course."

Gottesman's 600-ish entries are ordered in a fashion he likens to a series of Chinese glass boxes, nesting one within the next.

Some 50 or 60 very long essays, as much as 10,000 words, are broad takes on broad topics, such as criminal justice. Another 150 shorter essays undertake subjects such as the violence of slavery and American methods of execution.

Two hundred more entries detail such topics as the violence of sexual harassment. Finally, another 200 entries, the briefest, examine individuals and incidents that resonate in the national psyche, from Lizzie Borden to Al Capone.

And there will be--you'll forgive the term--a killer index.

Yet even before one gets to "A," Gottesman frames the case for violence as a ubiquitous presence on this continent, from antiquity to the millennial horizon--and how we find ways to accommodate its pervasiveness, turning it from a daily, hourly horror into life's more unpleasing wallpaper.

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Gottesman's experience of violence had been through literature and film, its prisms and magnifiers and filters. One Native American PhD student cited for him Louise Erdrich's story about cold and disease killing everyone on a reservation--everyone save for one old man, who survived, he declared, because "I began talking and I kept talking, and so there was no room for death to enter." Storytelling made it possible to survive and endure even the worst.

But Gottesman began hearing his students' stories, too--of spousal abuse or childhood sexual trauma. One student, now teaching at the University of Texas, was on her way to his seminar when she saw yellow crime-scene tape, and there, two doors from her own front door, lay a headless corpse, as police rummaged in the dumpster for the head. "Always," says Gottesman, "there was that kind of very direct, immediate personal experience, a reminder that violence permeates American life and always has."

Half in warning, half in promise, he says that virtually every topic will be controversial. He was surprised himself by an entry showing that the number of guns doubled between 1975 and 1995, yet the number of gun homicides declined; by the counterintuitive finding that low cholesterol correlates with a higher incidence of aggression; by the entry on the nation's 10 wars, eight of which, the writer declares, were unnecessary, including the American Revolution. (The "necessary" ones: World War II and the Persian Gulf War.)

Two-thirds of the way into reading those million words, he is most struck by this: how violence has spread like an ineradicable stain along the warp and weft, the latitude and longitude of our national life--"like a drop of ink on a handkerchief," he thinks, "or, I suppose I should say, a drop of blood."

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