Fayetteville native Caleb Smith has a long essay on Tom Cotton‘s new book, “Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery,” in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

“Sacred Duty is a pretty bad book, thin on research and thick with platitudes,” writes Smith. Nevertheless, Smith writes, he can’t stop thinking about the bad book, and about Tom Cotton.


Smith, who teaches English and American studies at Yale and is the author of the prize-winning “The Prison and the American Imagination,” reflects on his own experience growing up in Arkansas around the same time as Cotton, and how the politics of Cotton (and Trump) are rooted in that time and place. A sample:

Tom Cotton was born in Arkansas in 1977, and so was I. If you want to understand how Tom Cotton thinks about life and death, I think you need to know a little bit about what our home state was like, back then. Coming of age as a white boy in Arkansas, you could feel very free and very unprotected, all at once. It was a beautiful place and a desperate one, too. It seemed old but also undomesticated. Its landscape, where the South stretched into the West, still had some wildness about it. I loved it there. …


I took a lot of pleasure in roaming rural Arkansas’s wide open spaces, but I came to see it as a place lagging in the past. I admired the fierceness of the men and women I grew up around, their independence and their practical skill, but I feared the resentments that seemed to haunt them. In time, I came to harbor my own shame about Arkansas’s provincialism and its old-fashioned ways. The forces of secularism and racial integration and the more polite forms of civilization, even the law, seemed not to have taken hold, at least not all the way, at least not yet. I imagined that we were waiting to catch up with the modern world.


But for people like Cotton, Arkansas was something else. It was a vision of the future.

Cotton is a Romantic, in his way, Smith concludes. “Heaven on earth, for Cotton, is a place of nationalism without the state, community without difference, and family without sex,” Smith writes. Cotton’s book is a love story “about America’s romance with death.”


Smith imagines a different vision rooted in his native Arkansas, a different kind of politics, what might have been:

Arkansas has become Trump country, but Trump country has a lot of Arkansas in it, too. And this is one reason why I can’t stop thinking about Tom Cotton: he seems to stand for the worst things about a place that he and I both cared about in different ways, a place we both said goodbye to so that we could pursue an education elsewhere. For my part, I am left wishing that the wildness and beauty of our home state could have animated a better kind of politics — not the death cult of Trump or the biopolitics of the Clintons but a version of freedom in love with life.

Full essay here.