As America stood on the brink of World War I, novelist Booth Tarkington published 'Penrod,' a book suffused in nostalgia for a time that never existed. Nathaniel Rich on how the Great War saved American fiction from such trifles.
Nothing is more fatal to literature than prosperity. It was Henry de Montherlant who said that happiness writes white. It leaves no trace. This is why the headlines always bring bad news, the world explodes a dozen different ways at the cineplex each summer, and comedies end as soon as there’s a wedding. It is a fact generally acknowledged that excessive happiness can kill a story. But can a joyful era—a golden age of peace and prosperity—sabotage its novelists? The answer can be found by scanning the list of novels published in the period immediately preceding World War I, the last time that the United States was, in the words of the historian Mark Sullivan, “a peaceful country in a particularly peaceful time.” It was a pleasant time to be an American, but an awful time for American fiction.
Paul Thompson/Topical Press Agency/Getty
On the day that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated, America, Sullivan wrote, was “sleeping the sleep of the well-fed, the care-free, the confident.” The newspapers that morning were a snooze, with headlines devoted to civil strive in Mexico, a gubernatorial election in New York, and a march on Washington by a group of suffragettes. There were anxious debates about the decision to begin playing baseball games on Sundays and about the rise of scandalous new dance styles (“Is the tango turning this country topsy-turvy?” asked the New York Sun). And the new literary and commercial sensation was a novel by Booth Tarkington about the misadventures of a mischievous 11-year-old boy named Penrod Schofield.
Penrod is a poor boy’s Tom Sawyer, a predecessor to Dennis the Menace and the Beaver. Fondly nicknamed “the Worst Boy In Town,” Penrod is conniving but not clever, wicked but rarely cruel. He dips a schoolmate’s braids in ink, paints his dog blue, and splashes his friends with tar (the enthusiastic misuse of paint, or paint-like substances, is an inexplicable motif). Penrod is an inattentive student but an active daydreamer, imagining himself flying out of his schoolroom, drifting “away from the painful land of facts,” and floating into “a new sea of fancy which he had just discovered.” The only person who understands him is his grandmother, who believes that a boy should not be made to apologize for his rambunctiousness, greed, or slovenliness, since these qualities are intrinsic to his nature. Apart from the book’s funniest episode—in which the sobriquet “little gentleman,” meant as a compliment, drives Penrod into an apoplectic fit—the humor is predominantly slapstick; the premises are identical to those you might find watching America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Ken Kalfus’s unjustly overlooked Equilateral speaks to the delusions of our time in its depiction of a man bent on communicating with Mars.
The novel published this year that speaks most eloquently about America in 2013 takes place in Egypt’s Great Sand Sea, in 1894. In the middle of the vast desert Professor Sanford Thayer, one of the world’s leading astronomers, is presiding over “the greatest international peacetime undertaking in the history of man.” But even that’s an understatement. At twice the expense of the Suez Canal, 900,000 men have been employed to carve into the white sand an enormous equilateral triangle. The workers consume nearly 800,000 gallons of water every day, most of which have to be brought in tankers from the Nile, a process that is itself “the greatest transport of liquid substance in the history of civilization.” Each side of the triangle will measure five miles in width, a foot in depth, and nearly 307 miles in length. After completion, its trenches will be flooded with 22 million barrels of petroleum from newly discovered oil fields in Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Persia—a quantity of oil that surpasses the total amount that has ever been extracted from the Near East. When lit aflame, the burning triangle will be visible from Mars. Thayer expects that sophisticated Martians, seeing this clear indication of man’s intelligence, will respond in kind, beginning a correspondence with Earthlings that will bring about a glorious transformation of human civilization. “Mars,” believes Thayer, “may well be the force that makes us truly civilized, truly kind to each other, wise, prudent, responsible to the natural world, courageous in facing our global challenges, and, paradoxically, truly human.”
Thayer seems loosely modeled after Percival Lowell, the gentleman astronomer from Boston who, for more than three decades, was one of the world’s most prominent observers of the red planet. He detected through his telescope more than five hundred Martian canals, which he believed to be the sophisticated infrastructure of an industrious civilization. Lowell’s errors, which multiplied over the years, were inspired by the mistranslation of a single Italian word. In 1877, the Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced that he had observed a network of intersecting channels on the surface of Mars. The Italian word for “channels” is canali, which credulous Americans commonly mistranslated as “canals.” The word “channel” denotes a natural formation, while “canal” denotes an artificial waterway used for travel, shipping, or irrigation. The world was at the time canal-crazy: the Suez Canal had been completed eight years earlier, and the Panama Canal was being surveyed. These triumphs were seen as the apotheosis of human enterprise and might. But Lowell observed that Mars’s canal system was growing even faster, and larger than our own. The leading newspapers of the time made what seemed to be the only reasonable conclusion: there was life on Mars, and Martians were much like us, only more industrious, stronger, and wiser. This view was accepted by much of the public, though not by many professional astronomers, until 1909, when other forms of analysis cast doubt on Lowell’s theory. Still the belief in Mars’ canals persisted in some quarters until 1971, when NASA’s Mariner 9 photographed most of the planet’s surface at close range. The photographs not only revealed the absence of canals, but of almost all of the physical features observed by Lowell and many of his peers. Mars’ canals were a collective fantasy, one of the greatest in the recent history of human science.
Equilateral, Ken Kalfus’s first novel since 2006’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, is a virtuosic portrait of the animating power of self-delusion. Thayer is Equilateral’s most powerful delusionist, his observations persuading six nations to contribute enormous quantities of treasure, men, and resources to his grand project, but every character in the novel finds strength in the lies they tell themselves. Thayer’s faithful, long-suffering secretary, Adele Keaton, nurses the hope that the self-absorbed Thayer loves her. Sir Harry, the director of the consortium of private and public interests that have funded the project, justifies the expense by telling himself, and his investors, that trade with Mars will be highly lucrative. The Khedive of Egypt persuades himself that the success of the equilateral will silence his local political rivals. And the project’s pragmatic chief engineer, Wilson Ballard, willfully ignores the short cuts taken by his workers because they ensure that the project will finish on time. (The engineer’s name is a tribute to J.G. Ballard, whose feverish novels of obsession and paranoia, particularly The Day of Creation, seem to have influenced Kalfus.)
One of the most intriguing and provocative novels about slavery came out ten years ago. Nathaniel Rich on how it was misunderstood on publication but its real message haunts us even more today.
The reviews greeting The Known World upon its publication in 2003 were uniformly rapturous, and, for Edward P. Jones, uniformly maddening. Critics singled out for praise the novel’s depiction of black slave owners in the antebellum South, a largely overlooked and toxic fungus in the cellar of American history. So little was known about the subject of black slave owners, and so little had been written about it, that Jones’s novel about Henry Townsend’s plantation and its slaves was taken as a feat of historiographic revelation. “Jones has clearly done a tremendous amount of research to bring this time and place to life,” wrote John Freeman in the Boston Globe; the USA Today critic expressed gratitude that his “historical novel” didn’t “become a tedious showcase for the author’s research.” As Jones irritably pointed out in later interviews, including one appended to the novel’s paperback edition, there was one problem with this interpretation: he had done almost no research whatsoever. “I started out thinking I would read a whole bunch of books about slavery,” said Jones. “But I never got around to doing that.”
In fairness to his critics, Jones works hard to camouflage his lack of research by including gratuitous details that, though invented, give the novel a patina of verisimilitude. He notes exact dollar amounts for each slave purchase; census information for Manchester, the fictional Virginian county where the novel takes place; references to (invented) contemporary works of scholarship; and historical anecdotes about the intricacies of slave law. Jones is not trying to be duplicitous; detail is the essential clothing of all good fiction, historical or not. But the apparent superfluity of some of these details can be unsteadying. Like the premise of black slave owners, the torrent of pseudo-factual information forces readers to question what they know about slavery and race, and to wonder which stories are too horrible to have been made up.
Time functions in an even more unsettling way in The Known World. The novel has no present tense. Though much of the action takes place on Henry Townsend’s plantation in 1855—where slaves fall in and out of love, try to escape or don’t, and suffer the indignities of working for a master several shades darker than themselves—Jones frequently takes wild bounds into the future or the past. The ground beneath our feet is always shifting. A scene about Townsend will slip into a reminiscence about his childhood, or a forecasting of his death. (Jones has a compulsion for telling us when each character will die; it is often one of the first things we learn about a character.) There are enough flashbacks, and flashforwards, to make the reader question when exactly the novel takes place. Is it 1855? Or 1881, when another black slave owner, Fern Elston tells stories to a Canadian journalist—the very stories that comprise The Known World? Does the novel take place in the present day, narrated by a Jones-like writer with access to historical scholarship? Or have we entered some supernatural realm? For Jones’s narrator is able not only to move freely through time, but beyond time—into the afterlife, where he follows his characters’ souls after they leave their bodies. We are dealing here with an unusually omniscient omniscient narrator. A slippery one, too. Dissolving the line between past and present, and between fact and myth, Jones forces the reader to question where the novel ends and life begins.
You’ve probably never heard of Stephen Wright’s 1983 novel 'Meditations in Green,' but you should know it now. It’s one of the strangest and evocative book about the Vietnam War. Nathaniel Rich goes into the jungle.
A good war novel forces you to visualize, in vivid detail, the horror and dysfunction of combat. A great war novel goes further—it makes you feel the horror personally. The putrescence of a corpse rotting at the bottom of a trench wafts from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front; readers of Farewell to Arms are susceptible to sudden sharp pains in the legs and scalp. Meditations in Green, Stephen Wright’s debut novel about the Vietnam War, does these things well, but it also does something far more peculiar: it convinces you that the war never ended. Not in the general sense that history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, or in the sense that man has an unquenchable desire for bloodshed, rendering future wars inevitable. Wright’s novel instead suggests that Vietnam at some point transcended the Indochina peninsula and became a mental condition, a state of being not unlike certain forms of insanity, that has become encrypted in our genetic code.
“Catastrophe,” declares Wright at one point, “lacked coherence.” So does Meditations in Green, but its incoherence feels purposeful, mimetic. If war is chaotic, shouldn’t a war novel reflect that chaos? Wright evidently believes it should. His novel unfolds like a scrapbook, in a series of vignettes that range in length from a paragraph to twenty pages, which follow the adventures of intelligence officers stationed in an isolated military base in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle. The members of the 1069th Military Intelligence Group are responsible for interrogating prisoners of war, analyzing aerial photographs, and determining which villages to bomb and which patches of jungle to defoliate with Agent Orange. Occasionally they must join a mission in the field, where they experience the grotesqueries of battle firsthand, but generally they have a lot of down time, which they occupy by playing Scrabble, trying to sleep with their Vietnamese maids, and doing drugs—first weed, later heroin. A large cast of characters drift through the novel’s pages like ghosts, which seems appropriate, since that’s what most of them quickly become.
Among the most memorable are Claypool, a virginal hick from rural Indiana, who descends into catatonia after he is exposed to gunfire; Everett “Trips” Triplett, cocky and cool, who is driven mad by grief when a dog he has adopted as a pet is shot; and Wendell, who is making a feature film about the war, using the soldiers as actors and incorporating real battle scenes. Obsessed with his grand cinematic vision, Wendell also goes mad, ultimately filming his own death. But every character goes mad.
Why did ‘The Princess Bride’ captivate America in the year of Watergate? Nathaniel Rich revisits William Goldman’s classic and finds it grippingly readable—and bluntly honest.
In 1973—“the year of infamy”—the last American bombs were dropped on Cambodia, OPEC issued an oil embargo, the stock market crashed, and Woodward and Bernstein revealed that there was more to the Watergate break-in than had first appeared. Even by American standards, it was a moment of extravagant uneasiness, disillusionment, and mania. In the midst of this maelstrom came a strange and determinedly anachronistic new novel by William Goldman. It told the fairy-tale story of a Princess named Buttercup, her abduction by an evil prince and a six-fingered count, and her rescue by a soft-hearted giant, a vengeance-mad swordsman, and a debonair masked hero named Westley. It is difficult to think of a novel that bears less connection to its time than The Princess Bride. Which is exactly what made The Princess Bride so timely.
‘The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure’ by William Goldman. 512 p. Harcourt. $11.49 (PENDERGRASS)
It’s possible that a suspicious reader might discern certain Nixonian qualities in Humperdinck, Goldman’s vain, conspiratorial, power-hungry prince, or see in Count Rugen, the prince’s diabolical, merciless, hypocritical hatchet man, a medieval Robert Haldeman. But Goldman isn’t interested in satire; in fact it is one of the novel’s central motifs that satire is a bloodless, empty exercise, lost on all but the most pretentious, scholarly readers. There is plenty of room for observations of this kind, for “The Princess Bride” is a novel within a novel. In a thirty-page, first-person introduction, Goldman explains that it was written by S. Morgenstern, the legendary Florinese writer (Florin being a country “set between where Sweden and Germany would eventually settle”), and read to Goldman as a child by his father, a Florinese immigrant. When Goldman revisits the novel as an adult, he realizes that his father skipped many hundreds of pages in his reading, much of it historical detail, backstory, and long, tediously satirical passages about Florinese customs: fifty-six pages on a queen’s wardrobe, for instance, or seventy-two pages about the royal training of a princess. “For Morgenstern,” writes Goldman, “the real narrative was not Buttercup and the remarkable things she endures, but, rather, the history of the monarchy and other such stuff.”
Goldman’s Princess Bride is therefore an abridgement, with all of the “other such stuff” having been removed (but summarized in playful asides). What we are left with is “the ‘good parts’ version”—a rare understatement in a novel filled with dastardly deeds and thrilling feats of derring-do. Goldman is one of the century’s hall-of-fame storytellers, and in The Princess Bride he moves from strength to strength, each chapter a new adventure more surprising and delicious than the last: the passionate, unspoken love affair between Buttercup and her Farm Boy, Inigo Montoya’s twenty-year quest to avenge the death of his father, and Westley’s attempts to survive torments like the Fire Swamp, the Zoo of Death, and an infernal torture device known simply as the Machine, while trying to rescue Buttercup from Humperdinck. It is one of the basic rules of storytelling that your characters must overcome difficult situations, but Goldman takes this formula to impossible extremes. At one point, for instance, Westley must storm a heavily fortified castle defended by one hundred men, with only a bumbling giant and an alcoholic swordsman to assist him. Further complicating matters is the fact that, one chapter earlier, Westley died.
Even 50 years after it scandalized America with its frank sexuality, Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ still has the power to unsettle. Nathaniel Rich on the novel’s lessons on the ideological life.
American readers were scandalized by The Group when it was published in 1963; for quite different reasons, The Group also scandalized Mary McCarthy’s critics—many of whom happened to be her friends, rivals, and lovers. The novel follows nine Vassar girls, class of ’33, through their 20s and into their bathrooms, bedrooms, and the bedrooms of their friends’ husbands. Libby, the ambitious English major, has a little secret: “she sometimes made love to herself, on the bath mat, after having her tub,” achieving a state that she names “Over the Top.” Dottie Renfrew has a secret too: she has been deflowered by a callous lothario named Dick Brown during which, to her astonishment, she went Over the Top herself. Norine is having an affair with her friend’s husband, in part because her own husband can manage erections only with prostitutes. Norine wonders whether it might make things easier if she allowed her husband this one indiscretion. “Supposing Put were to spend five minutes a week with a whore—the time it takes him to shave? Why should I mind?” We also learn about the sensitivity of a new mother’s nipples; the proper way to emplace a diaphragm; and the secret fear, and resentment, that young mothers harbor toward their own children.
McCarthy’s candid accounts of female sexuality are accompanied by unsettlingly honest portraits of male cruelty. The men in The Group behave with glibness, condescension, and even brutality toward the Vassar grads. When Norine consults doctors about her husband’s problem, she is told that she should consider herself lucky that her husband is unable to have intercourse, and that, besides, sex isn’t necessary for a woman. Another doctor advises her to buy black chiffon underwear and cheap perfume, so that her husband will start thinking of her as a whore. Meanwhile, Libby is fired from her publishing job, even though she has done her work with exceptional diligence and passion. “Publishing’s a man’s business,” her editor informs her, “unless you marry into it. Marry a publisher, Miss MacAusland, and be his hostess.” There is an inverse correlation at play: the nicer a man appears, the greater his cruelty behind closed doors. Nils, Libby’s charming Norwegian suitor, turns violent when they are left alone in her apartment. He stops only when he discovers she’s a virgin. “It would not even be amusing to rape you,” he says, glaring down at her ruined dress. These gentlemen compare unfavorably with Dick Brown, who at least is honest about his interest in Dottie, is gentle in bed, and helpfully advises her to take birth control.
The candor of McCarthy’s treatment of these themes contributed to the novel’s enormous popular success—it was the bestselling hardcover in the country for five months and would sell nearly 300,000 copies in its first year. But those in McCarthy’s circle disapproved. Dwight Macdonald, her longtime friend and colleague, summarized the gossip: “Most of the intellectuals I’ve talked to, or read, about The Group, think it is the old Mary, cold and bitchy and superior.” Elizabeth Hardwick, one of her closest friends, wrote in The New York Review of Books under a pseudonym a nasty parody of Dottie’s defloration scene; this was a double betrayal, as McCarthy was one of the Review’s inaugural writers and close with its editorial staff. In the following issue, The Group was the subject of a snide, imperious review by Norman Mailer. It later turned out that Robert Lowell, Hardwick’s husband and a founder of the Review, had proposed Mailer for the essay; Lowell also disparaged the novel in his letters to friends. Norman Podhoretz joined in, calling the novel “flatly written and incoherently structured ... a trivial lady writer’s novel ... a well-deserved fiasco,” a comment echoed by Lillian Hellman, who called The Group the work of “a lady writer, a lady magazine writer.”
In 1953, at the height of American conformism and anti-communist hysteria, William S. Burroughs published ‘Junky,’ an irresistible strung-out ode to the joys and perversities of drug addiction. Nathaniel Rich takes a hit.
In 1953, while Joseph McCarthy was hunting for communists in the highest ranks of the federal government, an Arkansan congressman named Ezekiel C. Gathings was conducting his own witch hunt. His target was the paperback-book industry. He argued that pulp fiction had “largely degenerated into media for the dissemination of appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion, and degeneracy.” Of particular interest to Gathings were novels about drug abusers, a class of American society nearly as reviled as communists. At the time, as Allen Ginsberg later wrote, there was a sense “that if you talked about ‘tea’ (much less Junk) on the bus or subway, you might be arrested—even if you were only discussing a change in the law.” The publication of a pulp novel named Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, by the pseudonymous William Lee, was therefore a welcome surprise. It sold 100,000 copies in its first six months. American readers wanted what “Lee” was pushing.
William S. Burroughs in a portrait from 1965. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Lee was William S. Burroughs, Harvard graduate and heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune. Burroughs’s inheritance left the young scion free to pursue education and drugs at his leisure. He first took up anthropology, at both Harvard and later Mexico City College; then medicine, in Vienna; and finally heroin. Heroin stuck. Junky—as his novel is now known—combines all these interests. Unlike Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (also published in 1953), Junky eschews allegory for scrupulous realism. The approach is journalistic, pedagogical, often clinical, bearing little resemblance to novels for which Burroughs is now better remembered, like Naked Lunch and Nova Express. Although Bill, Junky’s narrator, mentions reading Oscar Wilde, Anatole France, Baudelaire, and Gide as a young boy, the tone owes more to Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Junky is Bill’s life story, but only in a sense, for he discusses only the parts of his life that relate to junk. The story follows the development of his addiction, his attempts to quit, and his travels in search of cheaper, better drugs. Along the way we meet a largely interchangeable cast of dealers, users, thieves, and con artists. More than anything else, Junky reads like a field guide to the American underworld.
“Junk,” we learn, refers to opium and its derivatives: morphine, heroin, pantopon, Dilaudid, codeine. But it is much more than that. Junk, he says, “is a way of life.” And it’s an expensive one at that. A heroin addiction in 1953 cost about $15 a day, or the equivalent of $125 in today’s dollars. Junkies have their own look (emaciated, haunted, sallow) and their own junk names: Doolie, Cash, and Dupré. Junk has its own dialect. A user who robs drunks on the subway to support his habit is a “lush-worker”; a junkie’s eyedropper, spoon, and hypodermic needle constitute his “works”; doctors are “croakers.” The easiest way to convince a croaker to write a “script” for morphine is to fake gallstones or kidney stones. If those excuses fail, try facial neuralgia.
You’ve likely never heard of Jane Bowles, but she wrote a strange, mesmerizing novel in the midst of World War Two. Nathaniel Rich on a lost genius and her novel of two women going to pieces.
“To hell with stockings,” said Mrs. Copperfield, who thought she was about to faint. “Let’s get some beer.”
Two Serious Ladies is a spectacular enigma of a novel. It shouldn’t work; by any conventional criteria, it doesn’t work. The characters are inscrutable, the plotting careless, and, at every opportunity, Bowles subverts the dramatic stakes. In the novel’s final line, she describes her main character’s evolution as being “of considerable interest but of no great importance.” But the language is mesmerizing. Each sentence is like a viper, coiled in on itself and ready to bite. Stylistically Jane Bowles resembles her own heroine, Miss Goering, to whom another character complains, “you can never sit down for more than five minutes without introducing something weird into the conversation. I certainly think you have made a study of it.”
'Two Serious Ladies' was written at a time when women were starting to enter the workforce in great numbers. (Thurston Hopkins/Hulton Archive, via Getty)
Over the years Bowles has been called the “the most important writer of prose fiction in Modern American letters” (by her friend, Tennessee Williams); a “modern legend” (another friend, Truman Capote); a “mistress of the elliptical, an angel of the odd” (Joy Williams). Her work is a literary Rorschach test. Frequently she has been cursed with the designation, “a writer’s writer”; John Ashbery went further, calling her “a writer’s writer’s writer.” Capote classified her as “a humorist of sorts,” while her husband, the novelist Paul Bowles, described her work as “like the unfolding of a dream.” Francine du Plessix Gray and Stacey D’Erasmo, among others, have claimed her for feminist and lesbian literature, respectively. Lost in all of this is the fact that Bowles’ only novel was published in the middle of World War II.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Nathanael West took real letters from desperate people and mined them for America’s blackest novel. Nathaniel Rich on why Miss Lonelyhearts feels more essential than ever.
Herbert Hoover used the word “Depression” to describe the nation’s financial miseries advisedly. He felt it would cause less alarm than “crisis” or “panic,” terms that were more commonly used at the time to describe financial collapse. But Hoover’s nomenclature was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Panics and crises, painful as they might be, tend to resolve themselves quickly. The Great Depression caused great depression, the incineration of the stock market cauterizing the national mood, yielding a period of cynicism, inanition, and despair. No novel captured the spirit of this time more indelibly than Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, which was published in the year that the national unemployment rate reached its highest level. Twenty-five percent of American workers were unemployed in the winter of 1933, but one job remained in high demand: newspaper advice columnist. The misery industry was booming.
The idea for the novel arose from a dinner that West had with the writer S.J. Perelman, who was his brother-in-law, and Quentin Reynolds, a former college roommate of Perelman’s. Reynolds wrote an agony column, “Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart Letters,” for the Brooklyn Eagle. He thought that the pathetic letters he received might be of use to Perelman for one of his humor pieces, but Perelman found the letters too depressing to be mined for comedy. West, on the other hand, immediately understood their potential. He stuck them in his pocket, and would later copy them, almost verbatim, into his novel.
It’s ironic then that the most comical moments in Miss Lonelyhearts come from these letters, whose authors sign their names “Desperate,” “Disillusion-with-tubercular husband,” “Broken-hearted,” and “Sick-of-It-All.” But the humor is black, disturbed, curdled:
As the Jazz Age entered full swing in 1923, the bestselling novel in America was by 65-year-old Gertrude Atherton who was dismissive of the flappers. Nathaniel Rich on a novel that warned of what was to come.
1923 was the year of the first “Marathon Dance,” the endurance contest in which couples dance until they fall over from exhaustion. Miss Alma Cummings won the inaugural competition, held in New York City, after staying on her feet for twenty-seven hours. The contest quickly caught on nationally and Cummings was bested the next month by a dancer in Cleveland who lasted ninety hours and ten minutes. Not long after that, a man in North Tonawanda, NY, after shuffling his feet for eighty-seven hours, earned a different distinction—he was the first Marathon dancer to drop dead on the dance floor.
R: Author Gertrude Atherton. (AP)
But everyone kept dancing. After the recession of 1921-1922, the country had entered an era of unrestrained economic growth. The jazz age was in full swing and the so-called “younger generation,” whose poets and artists called themselves the “lost generation,” was ascendant. A novel published in 1920 by a twenty-four-year old F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, brought to national attention the impetuousness and licentiousness of this new generation. “The decade,” as Mark Sullivan wrote in Our Times, “was the decade of the young.” Yet the best-selling novel of 1923 was written by the 65-year-old Gertrude Atherton, an author best known for her historical novels and short stories about California, some of them published more than three decades earlier. Atherton had drawn her novel’s title, Black Oxen, from a line in W.B. Yeats’ verse drama, The Countess Cathleen:
“The years like Great Black Oxen tread the world
And God the herdsman goads them on behind.”
In the early 1900s people in the prairie states started going insane, literally. Enter Willa Cather with her 1913 novel ‘O Pioneers!’ to capture the loneliness and darkness of life on the plains. Nathaniel Rich on her brutal vision.
It became obvious, around the turn of last century, that something was very wrong with America’s farmers. Many of them—much too many—had lost their minds. “An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives,” observed E.V. Smalley, the editor of Northwest Illustrated Monthly Magazine, in 1893. The cause, Smalley believed, was loneliness. The Northern European immigrants who came to settle Nebraska and the Dakotas were accustomed to living in small farming villages, among people their family had known for generations. Now, marooned on the Great Plains, separated from their neighbors by vast distances, language barriers, and extreme weather, they lived in almost total isolation. “Is it any wonder,” asked Smalley, that so many settlers “lose their mental balance?”
Author Willa Cather wrote O Pioneers! in 1913. (AP (L))
In The Americans, the historian Daniel Boorstin traced the madness of the farmers to the Homestead Act of 1862. The legislation, signed by Abraham Lincoln, decreed that a settler had to live on his acreage for five years in order to perfect his title. That meant towns, or even villages, were almost inconceivable. As the size of a settler’s plot increased, so did the distance he would have to travel to visit his neighbor. Since greed tended to prevail over comity, the Great Plains bred depressives and sociopaths. By 1908 the problem had become so dire that Theodore Roosevelt created a Commission on Country Life to improve social conditions for farmers and eliminate “the disadvantages which are due to the isolation of the family farm.” Roosevelt’s commission ended in failure. It was too late to reconfigure the organization of the land, and the spirit of isolation—or self-reliance, to give it a grander name—had become ingrained in the local character. American farmers were doomed to insanity.
It is in this context that one should read Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, which follows the lives of several mentally unstable Nebraskan homesteaders between 1883 and 1900. In the novel’s opening section, this “dark country” feels like “the end of the earth”; the expanse is so immense that it seems “to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes.” To some extent, Cather is speaking literally: the settlers’ houses are built out of the sod itself, and so tiny, that they are invisible to the eye sweeping across the plain—“you did not see them until you came directly upon them.” But the landscape’s vast dreariness also wreaks psychological damage. The settlers felt themselves “too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.” Even wild flowers, a symbol for youthful spirit if ever there was one, are snuffed out by the brutality of the plains. They’ve all disappeared, except “a few of the very toughest and hardiest,” which settle “only in the bottom of the draws and gullies.”
Is Jack London’s 'The Call of the Wild' a stirring defense of Social Darwinism or a critique of American individualism? In the latest in Nathaniel Rich’s 'American Dreams' series, he reviews Jack London’s 1903 bestseller and sees the shadow of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Spencer, and Darwin.
“Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing…”
Trouble is brewing all right, and the trouble begins in the first sentence of The Call of the Wild—a sentence that concludes by revealing the fact that Buck, Jack London’s hero, is a dog. Few American novels are as tenaciously (doggedly) allegorical as London’s “beast fable.” Although we know that dogs are imbeciles on the order of a pre-verbal toddler, Buck often behaves, and thinks, exactly like a man—a man, incidentally, much like Jack London himself. Buck may not read newspapers, but he understands words, laughs, and expresses himself so eloquently that his master “reverently” exclaims, “God! you can all but speak!” And Buck can think too: he “imagines,” “wonders,” “divines” and “reasons it out”; he hates with “a bitter and deathless hatred” and he “accepts…with quiet dignity.” He can even “flee from the defence of a moral consideration.” Try to teach your dog that trick!
Author Jack London, at right. (AP)
The other person Buck sounds like is Theodore Roosevelt, who then was serving his first presidential term. In the title speech of The Strenuous Life (1901), an essay collection published the year he succeeded the assassinated William McKinley, Roosevelt urged America to embrace its “manly and adventurous qualities.” The country, he argued, needed to build a larger army, compete for sovereignty of the seas, and engage in foreign nation-building, beginning with the Philippines, over which it had gained control during the Spanish-American War. But it was not just the federal government that needed to man up: every American citizen should refuse to “shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil,” and strive for a life of “toil and effort, of labor and strife.” America, and Americans, should reject “the doctrine of ignoble ease” that had emasculated the nation.
What is the one book published this year essential to understanding America today? Nathaniel Rich picks Ben Fountain’s novel.
The villain in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain’s novel about the Iraq War, is not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or George W. Bush (whom one character likens to “the nicest banker you’d ever hope to meet”). Nor is it Saddam Hussein, or Osama Bin Laden. The arch villain instead is Jerry Jones, the billionaire Texas oilfield titan and owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Fountain, perhaps on the advice of his lawyers, doesn’t use Jones’s name in the novel—he’s “Norm Oglesby”—but the resemblance is precise, down to the “ghostly cold-fission blue” eyes, the “famously nipped, tucked, tweaked, jacked, exfoliated mug,” and the “peach-tinted hair.” Every one of his features projects money; the same effect, notes Fountain, would be achieved by “plastering your face with thousand-dollar bills.” Norm is a symbol of implacable corporate power—preening, surgically perfected, casually domineering. He is, in other words, a symbol of America itself.
It’s difficult to think of a novel in the last decade more preoccupied with symbols of American power than Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the entirety of which takes place on Thanksgiving Day during a game between the Cowboys and the Bears (Bears win, 31-7). Norm is hosting the eight surviving members of Bravo, an army squad back from Iraq on a brief “Victory Tour.” Two weeks earlier, Bravo’s exploits in something called the Battle of al-Ansakar Canal were broadcast on Fox News. For his heroics, one of the soldiers, Billy Lynn, has achieved a national celebrity on the magnitude of Jessica Lynch. But what exactly happened at al-Ansakar Canal is never fully explained; the details are as blurry to the reader as they are to the soldiers involved.
During their tour Bravo has been feted at the White House, appeared on local news shows in Phoenix and Omaha, and sat for interviews with countless local newspapers in Kansas City, Denver, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh—their itinerary, one soldier notes, is heavily weighted to electoral swing states. The final stop is Texas Stadium, where they have been asked to participate in a halftime celebration alongside Destiny’s Child.
In the latest in his ‘American Dreams’ series, Nathaniel Rich reads Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2002 novel ‘Middlesex’—and discovers a novel that takes seriously the notion that what we do reverberates through history.
By 2002, in the world’s major cities, it was no longer possible to determine a stranger’s ethnicity by sight:
You used to be able to tell a person’s nationality by the face. Immigration ended that. Next you discerned nationality via the footwear. Globalization ended that. Those Finnish seal puppies, those German flounders—you don’t see them much anymore. Only Nikes, on Basque, on Dutch, on Siberian feet.
Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, reigned victorious. But what had been lost?
Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex disguises itself as the memoir of Calliope (later Cal) Stephanides: b. 1960, Greek-descended, Detroit-born, U.S. diplomat, dark-haired, big-nosed, closet hermaphrodite. But of Calliope’s life story we witness relatively little: birth and childhood, and adolescent sexual consternation. Then, after a gap of a quarter century, we get the early glimmerings of a love affair set in the present day, when Cal is forty-one and living in Berlin. Eugenides’ focus instead is on the travails of Cal’s grandparents and parents. (Cal is not even born until page 216.) Even the sections about Cal’s youth are frequently interrupted by divergences into the stories of his ancestors. As a result Middlesex presents a view of history that is as determinative and linear as you will find in any Greek myth. The son not only inherits the sins of the father, but also the sins of the mother, grandfather, grandmother, a few other cousins, and aunts and uncles.
In the latest American Dreams essay, Nathaniel Rich revisits Richard Price’s ‘Clockers,’ a devastating 1992 novel about inner-city decay, drug crime, and the spread of AIDS.
Clockers is a 600-page novel about the investigation of a single, unspectacular crime: a drug-related killing in a New Jersey slum. Price’s fifth novel is not a conventional murder mystery, as there is almost nothing mysterious about the murder: a 21-year-old drug dealer is dead, and his killer, also 21, has turned in the murder weapon and confessed. There’s even an eyewitness who saw everything. It’s an open-and-shut case, what homicide detectives call “closed by arrest,” and a 30-year sentence seems inevitable. But one detail doesn’t sit right with the homicide detective, Rocco Klein: the motive. The killer, Victor Dunham, works two jobs and is the devoted father of two children. Unlike his younger brother, Strike, who oversees a crew of cocaine dealers, Victor has never committed a crime. When asked why he committed the murder, Victor claims “self-defense.” Long after his version of the events has been debunked, Victor continues to repeat his story, until it becomes a deranged mantra: self-defense.
But what is Victor defending himself against? Not his victim—Victor barely knew the man. The answer doesn’t come at once, but accrues over hundreds of pages, through Price’s evocation of Dempsy, a fictional city that bears some resemblance to Jersey City and Newark. Dempsy, also the setting of Price’s later novels Freedomland and Samaritan, looks, as one character remarks, “like Central America”: a wasteland of storefront churches, deserted lots, hair salons, candy stores, and “forlorn and battered doll houses under artificial light,” which surround the 13 high rises of the Roosevelt Houses—twelve hundred families over two square blocks, under constant police surveillance. Dempsy is a war zone, and nobody gets out alive. For those who start dealing drugs, or clocking, the life expectancy shrinks even further: “A good run on the street was six months, and you had to have a clear head and a lot of self-confidence to make it even that long.”
The exception to this rule is Rodney Little, a 37-year-old drug lieutenant who makes almost a million dollars a year on the street. In a scene that serves as a parable for the whole novel, Rodney recalls the first murder he committed in the early seventies. Rodney and his partner, a dead-eyed assassin named Erroll Barnes, set out for revenge on the three clockers who beat them on a dope deal. When they corner their victims in a tenement shooting gallery, Erroll waving a sawed-off shotgun, the three men start blubbering: “Yo please, please, it ain’t personal man, it’s the sickness, it’s the sickness.” Erroll shoots two of them, then commands Rodney to kill the third. “Shoot him,” says Erroll, “or I’m gonna shoot you.”
What American novels best tell the story of the 20th-century? In a monthly series, Nathaniel Rich sets out to chart the history of the American Century through its novelists and their work.
Go back to the 19th century and people freely used drugs, tobacco and booze, a far cry from our more restrictive days. A new book explores that stoned time and what changed.