If you’ve ever wondered how a novel gets made, from the first glimmerings in the author’s imagination to what readers say about it in their book clubs, Clayton Childress’s Under the Cover is the book for you. Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixon’s 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research. This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter. He begins by getting inside Nixon’s head, tracing the origins of Jarrettsville back to a family story about a Maryland ancestor, Martha Jane Cairns, who fell in love with a Union soldier shortly after the Civil War, became pregnant with his child, and then, after he left her, shot him dead in broad daylight as he marched in a parade. In these early sections, Childress occasionally gets sidetracked by his academic training, as when he suggests that “in Nixon’s writing group, recompense operates largely within an economy of time and artistic attention, a gift exchange of sorts,” as if trading story drafts were a lit-world equivalent of the exchange of shell necklaces among Trobriand Islanders. But he does a superb job of showing how Nixon’s decade-long struggle to write and publish Jarrettsville transformed a raw family story into a published book. Nixon spent five long years researching and writing a draft of the novel, then called Martha’s Version, which she sent to 22 publishing houses, all of which rejected it. Childress, ever the social scientist, breaks out the positive and negative comments in Nixon’s rejection letters into a handy bar chart showing that while editors liked Nixon’s treatment of the time period and the issue of race, they felt the plot was too slow and the major characters needed work. Anyone who has ever sent out a novel for publication has created their own mental version of Childress’s soul-crushing little bar chart, and like Nixon, has pored over it looking for the signal in the noise of conflicting editorial feedback. To her credit, Nixon figured out what was wrong and overhauled the book, adding a long section from the perspective of Martha Cairns’s doomed lover. Or, as Childress puts it: “Nixon took the editors’ explanations from the field of production, and first alone and then with guidance from her social circle used them to redraft Martha’s Version into Jarrettsville.” Much of Under the Cover is written in this curiously anthropological tone, as if Childress were explaining how to eat a bowl of cereal to a race of aliens who had never seen a spoon. What is even more curious, though, is that, amid all the jargon, Childress nails the great secret of publishing, which is that it is a business fueled by special brand of infectious enthusiasm. (This might be the place to mention that Childress quotes, at some length, from a Millions piece of mine, "'A Right Fit': Navigating the World of Literary Agents".) In his chapters on Counterpoint Press, where Childress worked as an intern while it was publishing Jarrettsville, he documents how Nixon’s book passed from her agent, to her editor, to her publisher’s sales force, to buyers at major bookstores, rising and falling in value as each person in the chain fell in love with the book or didn’t. Of course, each of these people are busy professionals who can’t possibly read every page of every book that crosses their desks, so much of the time they were falling in love, or not falling in love, with the idea of Nixon’s novel. Since each person in the chain was being paid to hype a full slate of books to the next person in line, any sign of unfeigned enthusiasm—a kind comment by a proofreader, a review of half the book from a sales rep—rippled through the system, carrying the book along in its wake. In the case of Jarrettsville, the book rode this tide of readerly goodwill straight onto the high-traffic front tables at Borders, the now-shuttered bookstore chain, where it foundered, in large part due to a single bad review in The New York Times. Childress gets this deeply human element of publishing exactly right, so it’s disheartening to see it explained in sentences like this one: While most sociologists, following the theory of Bourdieu, bifurcate the literary field into artistically and commercially driven poles, it is at the organizational level within the field of production in which art and commerce are harmonized as a requisite feature of being in the business of promoting and selling books. Translated into plain English, Childress is saying that despite what people think, publishing isn’t a war between art and commerce, but a business that thrives by blending these two things. This is a core insight of his book, and he’s right, but he’s buried his point in a sentence that seems almost scientifically designed to be impenetrable to non-specialist readers. First, there’s that single-name reference to Bourdieu, tossed in without context as if the late French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were a cultural phenomenon like Madonna or Beyoncé, so instantly recognizable that you only need the one name to know who he is and be fully up on his theories. And if you weren’t scared off by the mononymic French dude, the rest of the sentence will stop you cold, with its weakly focused main clause (“it is at…”), awkwardly placed introductory prepositional phrases (“at the organizational level within the field of production”), passive voice (“are harmonized”), insular terms of art (“the field of production”), and ornate Latinate phrases (“bifurcate,” “requisite”). I've been teaching writing at the university level for more than 20 years and I can assure you no one writes like that naturally. You have to train people to write sentences like this, and when they regress and start making sense again, you have to ensure that their livelihoods depend on being consistently incomprehensible outside a narrow set of like-minded colleagues. Therein, to my mind, lies a small, perhaps unavoidable tragedy of how knowledge is produced and promulgated in our society. Childress was able to do such a fine job researching American publishing in part because he was heavily subsidized, first as a doctoral student at the state-supported University of California at Santa Barbara, and later as a junior professor at a research university partially funded by (Canadian) tax dollars. When he began Under the Cover, Childress explains in an afterword, he was a grad student looking for a subject, and now, many years later, he is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, no doubt thanks in large part to the publication of Under the Cover. So the deal worked out well for Childress, and it has worked out well for cultural sociologists and their students, who now have a new text to study in their classes. But for other readers who might be interested in the subject matter of Childress’s book, particularly writers and people considering a career in publishing, it’s more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Childress has given us a deeply reported insider’s look at how the sausage gets made in contemporary publishing. On the other hand, he has built such high walls of academic verbiage and doctrinal framing around his work that only a few hardy souls outside his area of specialty will ever succeed in climbing them.
If I could teleport myself to any moment in American literary history, I would set my controls for the crisp fall day in November 1856 when Henry David Thoreau met Walt Whitman at Whitman’s family home a few blocks from the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The year before, Whitman had published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and sent a copy to Thoreau’s mentor, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson responded with a glowing fan letter, saying, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman, being Whitman, slapped the great man’s words on the spine of the second edition of his poems, simultaneously pissing off the Sage of Concord and pioneering the book blurb. This was the context of Thoreau’s meeting with Whitman on November 10, 1856. As we learn in Laura Dassow Walls’s excellent new biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life, when Thoreau was in his early 20s, Emerson had anointed him as the next great American poet, showering Thoreau with praise and helping him get his poems published. Now 39, Thoreau had long ago given up poetry for essays, but he wanted to meet Emerson’s latest enthusiasm for himself. Things got off to a rough start when Whitman declared, in his casually messianic way, that he represented America and Thoreau responded that he “did not think much of America or of politics & so on—which may have been somewhat of a damper to him.” Thoreau also was put off by the fact that Whitman hadn’t made his bed and left the chamber pot out for all to see. But when Whitman gave Thoreau a copy of his second edition—the one with Emerson’s blurb on the spine—Thoreau loved it, though he was troubled by its sensuality. “He does not celebrate love at all,” he wrote. “It is as if the beasts spoke.” It is a testament to the power of Walls’s biography, which is on a fast track to definitive status, that she pushes the reader look beyond the obvious Puritan squeamishness of this observation to see how, for a man like Thoreau, who spent his happiest hours tramping in the woods feeding his hunger for contact with raw nature, a poet’s ability to channel the beasts of the field could also be seen as a rare gift. But the connection between the two men went deeper than that. Whitman was lusty and brash where Thoreau was solitary and contemplative, but in many ways they had led similar lives. Both threw over conventional careers, Whitman as a newspaper editor, Thoreau as a Harvard-educated school teacher, to focus on their writing, much of which they ended up publishing themselves. More than anything, though, they were alike in their indifference to their differentness. Whitman, bohemian and essentially jobless, spent whole days riding the omnibus up and down Broadway declaiming Homer at the top of his lungs. Thoreau had lived for two years in a house he built himself near Walden Pond where he wrote essays, planted beans, and spent weeks in the dead of winter obsessively measuring the pond’s width, length, and depth. So it’s hardly surprising that when he returned home from his visit to Brooklyn, Thoreau carried his copy of Leaves of Grass, in Emerson’s words, “like a red flag, defiantly.” Thoreau heard in Whitman’s poetry what he was striving to capture in his own work: a true, unadorned American voice. “Though rude & sometimes ineffectual,” he wrote of Whitman’s book, “it is a great primitive poem—an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp.” It is a commonplace of writing workshops that writers must first “find their voice,” but today’s writers have it easy, needing only to find a voice authentic to themselves as individuals. The task was trickier for American writers of Thoreau and Whitman’s generation, who came of age in the early 19th century. Writers of the so-called American Renaissance of the 1850s, which include Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, along with Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, had to locate within themselves a voice authentic not only to them personally, but to an entire nation. For writers like Thoreau and Whitman, both born in the 1810s, the American Revolution was very much a part of living memory. But while their grandfathers had helped overthrow British tyranny, the literary world they inherited still saw British and European literature as the model for all but the most frivolous popular writing. You can hear this influence in even the work of that most distinctly American author, Edgar Allan Poe, who set many of his most famous tales in Europe, and in his poems employed a rhyme scheme and classical rhetoric (“Quoth the Raven,” etc.) wholly foreign to the American ear. In his 1844 essay “The Poet,” Emerson called on American writers to cast off shopworn tropes of the past and strive to capture the spirit of their raw, still-forming nation. Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boats, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres. Whitman heard a version of this essay as a lecture in Brooklyn, and Leaves of Grass was in many ways an answer to Emerson’s call. But so, too, was Thoreau’s Walden and Melville’s sea tales and Hawthorne’s Puritan-era romances and Emily Dickinson’s verses. To an uncanny degree, each of these foundational American writers followed a similar path, stepping off the conventional career track early in their lives to draw inward and look more directly at the world. Whitman quit newspaper work and spent years bumming around New York, taking odd jobs and declaiming poetry on city buses. Melville put out to sea and lived among the natives of the Marquesas Islands. Hawthorne spent 12 reclusive years in his parents’ home studying colonial history and writing fiction. Dickinson, who came along a few years later, retreated into her parents’ home, where she spent much of the next four decades scribbling poems on scraps of paper. And of course, Thoreau built a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond with enough room for a bed and a desk and three chairs—“one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.” One of the pleasures of Walls’s Thoreau is seeing how Thoreau’s stubborn refusal to lead an ordinary life turned a bright, but otherwise rather ordinary young man into a great and original artist. The story of Thoreau quitting his first teaching job because he wouldn’t strike his students is the stuff of legend. Less well known is his long, largely unsuccessful struggle to carve out a more conventional career as a writer. For a time, Thoreau wrote poetry while helping out in his family’s pencil business and, later, launching a small private school with his brother John. When that school folded, Thoreau moved to Staten Island where he tutored the son of Emerson’s brother and tried to break into the bustling New York literary market. Thoreau’s year and a half in Staten Island, the longest he ever lived away from Concord after college, was a slow-moving disaster. “I have not set my traps, yet, but I am getting the bait ready,” he wrote home in a letter shortly after he arrived in New York. But just four months later, he had to admit that “my bait will not tempt the rats; they are too well fed.” To Emerson, he joked ruefully, “Only the Ladies Companion pays…but I could not write anything companionable.” This was the Thoreau who went into the woods, a 20-something Harvard grad who had tried teaching, tutoring, tinkering, and freelance writing, and ended up back where he began, in his hometown helping out in his parents’ pencil business. But he wasn’t a failure, exactly. By the time he moved to Walden Pond, on July 4, 1845, he had gathered an impressive array of literary benefactors, including Emerson, Hawthorne, and Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New-York Tribune, who served as an informal literary agent for Thoreau the rest of his life. Perhaps more importantly, Thoreau had hit on a successful working method. It began with daily immersion in nature, mostly through walking, which Thoreau did the way other people read the news, and with much the same purpose. He walked everywhere, and everywhere he walked he noticed: What wildflowers were out? On what date had the pond iced over? Why was it that when a farmer cut down a pine forest oak saplings sprouted, but when an oak forest was cut down pine saplings sprung up? He recorded these observations and questions in his journal, which he had started, at Emerson’s urging, shortly after he finished college and continued until he could literally no longer hold a pen, amassing some two million words. He shaped this raw material into essays, which he tested out in lectures he delivered to his neighbors in Concord as well as to audiences across New England. The best of these lectures he reshaped yet again into articles or book chapters, which he then published. The cabin at Walden was crucial to all this, putting him in close, daily contact with his principal subject—nature—while giving him a rent-free “room of his own” where he could transform the raw data of his journal entries into lectures and essays, and, after yet another round of sifting and shaping, into books. At the same time, as Walls puts it, Thoreau’s “two years, two months, and two days living at Walden Pond became and would forever remain an iconic work of performance art”—one which, when boiled down to a single, lightly fictionalized year, gave him the narrative spine for his most famous book. In his short time at the pond, Walls notes, Thoreau began work on the great bulk of the material he is famous for today, including a first draft of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a nearly finished draft of Walden, and a rough draft of his essay “Ktaadn,” about his first visit to Mt. Ktaadn, which would figure in his posthumously published book The Maine Woods. The flailing young New York freelancer who couldn’t dream up anything companionable enough for The Lady’s Companion had found his voice. That voice, by turns cocky and self-serious, erudite and homespun, spiritual and blasphemous, rings out from every page of Walden: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.” It’s there, too, in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—“I cock my hat as I please indoors or out”—and in the iconic opening line of Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” From there, the American sound changed and grew as the country itself grew. The writers of this first American Renaissance were all white men from the Northeast. As the nation spread westward, writers like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce added a tart dose of western humor to American literature and Southern writers like William Faulkner pulled and stretched the English language like taffy. Women writers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather joined the choir, as did black writers of the Harlem Renaissance like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Each generation since — the great Jewish novelists of the 1950s, the Black Arts Movement poets of the 1960s, the Dirty Realists of the 1980s — has shaped and refined how America sounds to the world, but that distinctly American voice, now so familiar we only hear it when a writer finds a new way to use it, can be traced directly back to Thoreau and Whitman and the other writers of the 1850s, who broke away from their European influences and created a truly American literature. What’s interesting is how they found it. The writers of the American Renaissance were extraordinarily well-read, but they arrived at their unique sound not principally through reading, but through deep immersion in the world. To one degree or another, they each stopped what they were doing and listened, and what they heard coming back was the sound of a new country.
Novelist Julia Fierro has an eye for spoiled paradises. In her first novel, Cutting Teeth, a satirical look at parenting customs in Brownstone Brooklyn, a group of angst-ridden, citified parents spend a fraught Labor Day Weekend in a shabby Long Island beach house ironically named Eden. Fierro's second novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, a darker, more ambitious book, is set on Avalon Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Long Island beset by an infestation of gypsy moths and, more troublingly, by toxic waste from an aviation plant that may be poisoning the local water supply. The Gypsy Moth Summer, which came out in June, is at heart a tale of two women: Maddie LaRosa, whose family straddles the class divide between tony East Avalon and working-class West Avalon; and Leslie Marshall, scion of the town’s most prominent family, who returns to the island with her African-American husband, Jules, and their two biracial children. Maddie falls in love with Leslie’s son Brooks, upsetting the delicate balance of race, class, and deeply held secrets that have held Avalon together while poisoning its culture—and its children. Fierro and I recently exchanged emails about the real-life inspirations for her novel, the intersection of race and class in America, and the growing toxic plume spreading underneath her native Long Island. The Millions: Writers often start a book with a line of prose or a visual image. Was that the case for you with The Gypsy Moth Summer? What started you writing this story? What sustained you once you got started? Julia Fierro: The Gypsy Moth Summer's first seed, so to speak, was planted many years ago with the character of the Colonel, based on my maternal grandfather who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. Like the Colonel in the novel, my grandpa was a tough son-of-gun and inspected our bedrooms wearing his white military gloves once a year (we got a dollar if we passed and a talking-to if we failed), but my grandfather was not as tyrannical as the Colonel in The Gypsy Moth Summer. In my first creative writing class at college, I wrote a sketch of the Colonel who, two decades later, became the patriarch of Avalon Island in The Gypsy Moth Summer. That sketch sat ignored for years until I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. I tried to turn the sketch into a story titled "The Gypsy Moth Summer." I rewrote that story many times over the next decade—from the Colonel's perspective, from teen Maddie's perspective, even, I am ashamed to admit, from the caterpillars' omniscient point-of-view (I'm laughing at myself). Eventually, I realized this was no story but the opening chapter of a novel. After my first novel, Cutting Teeth, was published, I looked at that pile of pages (hundreds of pages of various opening chapters all for the same book) and tried again. This time, all those details and characters, and, most importantly, the story, fell into place. It would be easy to look at all those pages as a waste of time, but I was fully informed when I sat down and wrote the novel. TM: You speak of the Colonel, and of your granddad on whom he is based, as tyrannical, but as a reader, I found him more pathetic than frightening. He's slipping into dementia, he yells at the TV every time Bill Clinton appears, and his worldview seems almost comically out of date. I read him as a symbol of the broader rot that you seem to be saying existed at the heart of the Reagan-Bush-era U.S. war machine, which in the novel is producing bombs that kill American women and children by spreading carcinogenic toxins. Was that your intention? JF: I was raised by two devout Roman Catholics, and although I'm an atheist now (the doubt which makes me a decent fiction writer makes me a bad believer), and I don't necessarily believe in "karma" (if only the universe was so just), I wanted to write about an island's sins catching up with its sinners. It was my intention to expose what you call "the rot" at the heart of an island whose bread-and-butter is the making of killing machines. But I thought of it as a poison, similar to the real-life toxic plume that is growing under Long Island. The Gypsy Moth Summer's Grudder Aviation is loosely based on Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, a major producer of military aircraft from 1929 to 1994, when it was acquired by Northrop. Grumman was a half hour east from where I grew up. Many of my cousins, aunts and uncles lived near the factory, and several of my school teachers. The breast cancer rate in this area is triple that of New York State. Throughout my childhood, at any time, I knew multiple people who had cancer—family members, neighbors, teachers, even school friends. Most survived with treatment. I knew I wanted to address the cancer rates on an island that, like Long Island, gets its drinking water from wells. I grew up on an idyllic islet (like Avalon) but my parents forbade us from drinking well water. We made weekly trips to my grandparents' home "in town" where they received water from the town supply. We filled plastic gallon bottles—my father called it "Holy Water." When I first began researching cancer on Long Island, I read about the toxic plume under the island stretching south to southeast—4.5 miles long by 3.5 miles wide. This plume is growing. Its origin is the now-closed Grumman Aviation factory in Bethpage. Why didn’t I know about this plume of Trichloroethylene, classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA, that had been growing, thriving, under the island I’d believed so beautiful? Why hadn't I been paying better attention? TM: Wow. So, many of your friends and family from near where you grew up have had cancer? What's happening in the real-life counterpart of the fictional town of Avalon? Have people turned against the factory? JF: Avalon Island is an amalgamation of different parts of Long Island. The east side of Avalon Island is modeled on the wealthier towns of Cold Spring Harbor, Laurel Hollow, and Lloyd Neck. When I was eight, my parents moved from a working class town mid-island to a wealthier town on the North Shore. They found a house that had been abandoned by its previous owners. My father fixed up the house as best as he could. My parents moved so my brother and I could attend the prestigious public school. They wanted us to grow up around wealthy kids in the hope, I imagine, that pedigree would rub off. They worked multiple jobs to pay the astronomical taxes. The west side of Avalon Island, where the fictional Grudder factory churns out aircraft, is based on towns further east, like Bethpage, former home to Grumman and most affected by the toxic plume. Why hasn’t the toxic plume and its connection to Grumman been covered in national news? Perhaps it is due to geographic isolation. Or is it an issue of class? The pollution affects working class and middle class towns stuck between the tony western towns of Nassau County closer to the city and the summer vacation areas out east in the Hamptons. Still, the demographics of these towns are mixed—there are working-class families, but also white collar professionals. Perhaps, the answer is the close ties Grumman has to the military. It wasn't until 2012 that the issue was fully covered in the press and only in 2016 did Governor Andrew Cuomo order the Navy and Northrop Grumman to provide the state and a local water district access to test for toxicity. The resulting numbers are abysmal—drinking water at risk for 250,000 people; clean-up costs "between $269 million and $587 million," which could take "up to 100 years to clean." When my younger brother graduated from high school, my parents moved further east—closer to the pollution but with a fraction of the taxes. They noticed immediately the unusual number of people with cancer. Out of 50 homes on their road, 10 had one or more family members who had cancer, had died from it, or who were in recovery or in treatment. TM: Some writers find it hard—and risky—to write characters from outside their own culture and experience. In the case of Jules, he's male, black, and from a working-class background. Then there are his biracial kids, who are figuring out their own place in the world. Did you ever find it tricky to write these characters? What experiences did you draw on as you were writing their chapters? JF: Writing outside my perspective often feels far more rewarding. Maybe this is why I write fiction. I find myself feeling more comfortable writing from a male point-of-view, and I imagine it’s the distance that allows me to escape into another person's consciousness. Jules is the character I care most for in the novel. Perhaps, because I felt a great responsibility to do his story justice, aware that his story is not my own. It’s essential for writers writing outside their narrow perspective to be mindful that it is a great privilege to do so, and he or she must be open to and accepting of criticism. Writing and reading is how I practice my humanity and to write (and/or read) only within my limited experience seems counterproductive, and cowardly. I read many memoirs by African-American writers, specifically books focusing on the experiences of young black men, like Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped and the recent essay anthology she edited, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race; Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle; D. Watkins’s The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America. I reread books that had shattered, and then rearranged, my limited perspective as a young reader, the most important books in a reader’s life—Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Sula, and Beloved; and James Baldwin’s nonfiction, especially his book of letters, The Fire Next Time. TM: One of the central relationships in the novel is the marriage between, Leslie Marshall, the white daughter of one of the factory's founding families, and Jules. Why did you decide to add that layer of racial and class complexity to the novel? JF: I do not think one can, or should, write about class without also writing about race and the intersection of the two. The Gypsy Moth Summer is very much an "anti-revenge" revenge story and I knew Jules had to be black in order for both sides of Avalon Island, the wealthy white easterners and the working class white westerners, to unite in their need to make him the scapegoat for their own crimes, ultimately absolving themselves (only in their bigoted minds) of their racism, and their responsibility for the terrible tragedies of that summer. As the child of an immigrant, I’ll always be interested in the competition among Americans to advance in status. There is a vast difference in privilege in my life versus that of my father who spent the first 18 years of his life in poverty in Southern Italy. He was eight years old when the Allies liberated his region from the Germans and he hid with his village in a cave for weeks as the bombs fell. Only recently, after becoming a mother, was I able to accept the reality of his early life. The poverty, the disease (they had no access to healthcare—his sister died at four because of a cut on her foot), the lack of education. No running water or electricity. My life is so privileged in comparison—it often feels as if there are two or three generations between my experience and my father’s. Yet, because my parents moved us to an affluent area for the good schools, I often felt like an outsider next to my wealthier classmates. I need to write about this impulse to look "above" and "below,” to aspire to rise in status, even if (as those on Avalon Island do) it means stepping on the backs of those “below.” My father's favorite show was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and we'd watch it together every week. I can't remember if there was an episode focused on Donald Trump—but how could there not have been? I grew up watching my father worship, envy, and, sometimes, detest the rich. Is this juxtaposition of idolizing and loathing the elite intrinsically linked to the American Dream? I write to examine that question.
On October 19, 1972, four months after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that set off the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, gave the president some shocking news on the source of a series of damaging stories in The Washington Post that had begun to tie the bungled break-in to the White House. “We know what’s leaked and we know who leaked it,” Haldeman told Nixon as the Oval Office tapes whirred in the background. “Is it somebody in the FBI?” Nixon asked. “Yes, sir,” Haldeman reported. “Very high up.” Nearly half a century later, as another American president finds himself engulfed in scandal over claims of election misconduct, his staff may well want to start reading up on the Watergate scandal. Thanks in large part to the bestselling book All the President’s Men, the source for the classic film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Watergate is understood in the popular imagination as the story of a newspaper investigation. In this version of the tale, two hotshot reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, fueled by righteous indignation and a burning desire to get the story, nearly single-handedly brought down the leader of the Western world. But this slant on Watergate is, in many ways, an accident of history. Because Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal their prime source, famously nicknamed Deep Throat, until 2005, it has taken historians decades to piece together an accurate account of how the scandal unfolded. In fact, as Tim Weiner details in his recent history of the Nixon presidency, One Man Against the World, one of the principal architects of the president’s downfall was Mark Felt, the second-in-command at the FBI who, as a deep background source to Woodward and Bernstein, leaked incriminating information from the FBI files that he knew would probably never see the light of day in any other way. Felt held a personal grudge against Nixon. A 30-year veteran of the FBI, Felt believed he was the rightful heir to the job of FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in. When Nixon passed him over for L. Patrick Gray, Felt was hurt -- and smelled a cover-up. But Felt was experienced enough in the ways of Washington to understand that a mere FBI agent, even the deputy director, could not take on a president alone. So he used the best tool at hand, a young, ambitious reporter he happened to know at The Washington Post. In other words, while the Watergate scandal was the product of shoe-leather investigations by a pair of dogged reporters, and later by an equally dogged pair of special prosecutors, Richard Nixon was also very much the target of a palace coup. This is the essence of the news Haldeman delivered to Nixon in October 1972. The recording of their conversation is now available on YouTube, and it is worth a listen for anyone interested in speculating on the kinds of conversations Donald Trump may be having with his aides as he combats the recent spate of damaging leaks from intelligence operatives and his own staff. Felt, Haldeman explains in that October 19 conversation, is the source of the press leaks, but there isn’t much the president can do about it. “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything,” Haldeman tells Nixon. “He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. He has access to absolutely everything.” “What would you do to Felt?” Nixon asks. “I asked (White House Counsel John] Dean,” Haldeman says. “He says you can’t prosecute him.” “Oh, no?” Nixon says. “He hasn’t committed any crime,” Haldeman reminds him. Trump, of course, faces no such constraint in his own skirmishes over press leaks. Since much of the material being leaked about alleged connections between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian government during the election involves classified national security matters, Trump can plausibly threaten to prosecute the leakers. And, unlike Nixon, Trump has a stalwart Republican majority in both houses of Congress as well as a popular distrust of the media almost unimaginable in the early 1970s. Still, if there is any truth to leaked claims that Trump’s aides had contact with Russian intelligence officials involved in hacking into the Clinton campaign’s email servers during the 2016 election, Trump and his team would do well to heed the hard lessons of Nixon’s discovery of the Watergate leaker, Mark Felt. On the October 19 tape, Haldeman, grasping at straws, suggests transferring Felt to “Ottumwa, Iowa,” to which Nixon replies: “Christ! You’d know what I’d do with him? Ambassador.” (“He’d like that, you know,” Haldeman says.) But in the end they did nothing. According to Weiner, FBI director Patrick Gray was ordered to fire Felt five times, but he never pulled the trigger. Eventually, Gray himself was ousted, and Felt retired from the FBI in 1973 after Nixon again passed him over the top job. He eventually moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he lived in relative obscurity until Woodward outed him as Deep Throat in his 2005 book The Secret Man. Felt died, a hero to many, in 2008.
1. In 1798, a decade after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, President John Adams signed the infamous Sedition Act. The controversial law, passed alongside a slate of Alien Acts aimed at cracking down on immigrants deemed dangerous to the state, made it illegal to produce any “false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States…with intent to defame the said government…or to stir up sedition within the United States.” The brief history of the Sedition Act, which expired in 1800 after Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, had its comic moments. One day, an elderly New Jerseyan, Luther Baldwin, stopped to watch President Adams and his wife parade down Newark’s Broad Street accompanied by a 16-gun salute. According to James MacGregor Burns’s judicial history, Packing the Court, someone in the crowd shouted, “There goes the President and they’re firing at his a – !” Baldwin, who had been drinking, retorted that he “did not care if they fired thro’ his a – !” and was promptly clapped into jail. But the Sedition Act was also used to silence press criticism. Scottish-born polemicist James Callender spent nine months in jail and paid a $200 fine for calling President Adams, among other things, a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” More famously, Benjamin Bache, editor of the virulently anti-Federalist paper the Aurora, was arrested under the Sedition Act after printing stories attacking Adams and accusing George Washington of secretly collaborating with the British during the Revolutionary War. I was reminded of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the opening days of the Administration of Donald Trump when, in rapid succession, the president halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and his chief policy adviser, Stephen Bannon, told The New York Times that the media “should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Like a lot of people who read Bannon’s interview during that first tumultuous week when the president was signing one new wildly controversial executive order after another and millions of Americans were flooding the streets and airports in protest, I heard only the line about the nation’s media needing to sit down and shut up. When I reread the Times piece some days later I realized that Bannon wasn’t simply trying to muzzle the American media. He was also delivering a blistering critique of a media culture so lost in its bubble of urbane liberal comfort that it missed what may one day prove to be the story of the century. “The media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong,” he said of the 2016 election, calling it “a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there.” This, the blown coverage of the 2016 campaign, is the context for his headline-making denunciations. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he told Times reporter Michael Grynbaum, adding: “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.” Now, obviously, mainstream media outlets weren’t the only ones who misread the Trump election. Everybody missed that story, including some members of Trump’s own campaign staff. It is also absurd to suggest that “the media,” en masse, are out to get Trump and his administration. There is, after all, a well-financed network of right-leaning news sites, one of which, Breitbart.com, Bannon himself has run, offering full-throated support to Trump’s presidency and even more full-throated condemnation of his enemies. But if you look past the bombast and exaggeration, you can detect in Bannon’s comments the outlines of a chillingly accurate analysis of an American news media crippled by half a century of technological disruption. The national media did miss the white-working-class rage that propelled Trump into office last fall, and even now large swatches of the mainstream press seems perplexed by -- and in some cases, openly opposed to -- the president that populist anger helped elect. Meanwhile, the news sites that saw Trump coming, the Breitbarts of the world, seem dangerously uninterested in facts and instead relentlessly push a hard-right political agenda. This, then, is the predicament facing the American news consumer today. It’s not just that we live in a polarized media universe. It’s that we are, journalistically speaking, flying blind. One segment of the population, the one that just elected a president, is in thrall to a fact-challenged ideological fringe while the rest of the population relies on a badly weakened legacy media whose reporters are highly educated and professionally concerned with facts and evidence, but so deeply ensconced in their elite, urban echo chamber that they’re not always capable of making sense of the facts they find. Thus, as we stand in the still-smoking ruins of the 20th-century American media machine, we risk returning to a media environment not unlike the one before the rise of the mass-circulated print newspapers when a hyper-partisan press free-for-all pushed an American president to sign a law allowing the government to lock up journalists it didn’t like. 2. I care about news because I read and watch a lot of it and because I rely on it as a voter, but in another way, this is personal for me. Thirty years ago, as a 22-year-old straight out of college, I lucked into a job at my hometown weekly, the Mill Valley Record. I had no journalism training, and I hadn’t written a news story since high school. I just showed up one day in the newsroom looking for work and the editor handed me a press release for an upcoming public meeting. “Why don’t you go to this?” he said. “If there’s any news in it, we’ll print it.” Three months later, I had a full-time job covering local politics. Like many young reporters in those days, what little I knew about journalism before I began practicing it myself came from two books, All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Powers That Be by David Halberstam. The Halberstam book is a massive doorstop history of 20th-century journalism while the Woodward and Bernstein book is a tick-tock thriller about a single major news investigation, but both books offer riveting accounts of American print journalism’s finest hour, the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate Scandal, which ultimately caused the resignation of President Richard Nixon. At the Record, I may have been covering planning and zoning meetings and writing puff pieces about local businesses, but in my mind I was a junior Bob Woodward nailing down that last fact, making that extra phone call, so that one day I would be able to speak truth to power on the front pages of a major metro daily. What I didn’t know -- what no one of that era understood -- was that in a little more than a decade the Internet would strangle the small-town weeklies that had trained generations of cub reporters like me and put the major metro dailies that I aspired to join on life support. Three decades on, I understand that the media landscape that I knew as a small-town reporter in the late-1980s and early-1990s was just one iteration in the ever-shifting continuum of American journalism. In the early days of the Republic, the era that brought us John Adams’s Sedition Act, newspapers were a luxury item sold by subscription to a relatively narrow, educated elite. Often, these journals were owned and operated by political parties with the express purpose of advocating for their candidates and embarrassing their rivals. That changed with the advent of the steam-powered press, which so radically reduced the cost and sped up the process of printing a newspaper that editors could slash the cover price from six cents to a penny and market it to a working-class audience. Over the next century, print newspapers grew from a handful of blog-like broadsheets into a complex network of newspapers ranging from tiny, one-man-band local weeklies to national publishing chains run by tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In 1950, before TV began stealing eyeballs and ad dollars, there were 25 percent more newspapers sold each day in America than there were American households. The midcentury American newspaper, written for a local readership and dependent on local advertising dollars, naturally reflected the political outlook of its audience A newspaper in a segregated Southern town had to toe the segregationist line or go out of business, just as a newspaper in a well-to-to liberal suburb faced disaster if its news columns contradicted the views of its readers. But in both cases, editors had a strong incentive to avoid extreme rhetoric or wildly inaccurate reporting because they depended on local advertisers, who would pull ads from a publication whose reputation besmirched their own. The system was far from perfect, but it built the journalistic world I stumbled into the day I took that press release from my editor at the Mill Valley Record. The reporters and editors I worked with were not especially serious people, but they took their jobs seriously. When a reader buttonholed one of us on the street to complain about an issue of local import, we asked questions and followed up. We called both sides in any dispute, always. We knew the people we covered well, but we routinely rotated beats so we wouldn’t get too cozy with our sources. We called back to double-check facts, and when we screwed up, we wrote a correction for the next day’s paper. More than anything, we prided ourselves on being able to cut through the bullshit and explain in clear, direct prose what had happened. Thirty years later, that world is fast vanishing into the digital ether. No footloose 22-year-old without journalism training could expect to fall backward into a full-time newspaper job today, unless, of course, he or she was of the social class that could afford to take a nonpaying internship and follow that up with two years of journalism school. That, more than any nefarious liberal cabal, explains the leftward tilt of what remains of the mainstream media. As local newspapers in smaller cities and towns die off, we’re increasingly left with national publications and TV and cable networks based in liberal urban centers. Meanwhile, digital disruption has changed how reporters are trained, which is changing who enters the profession. A generation before me, news reporting was still a union job only a small step up from the guys who ran the Linotype machines. Today, thanks to the same forces of technological disruption that have hollowed out so many middle-class professions, journalism is the province of a highly educated and urban elite -- precisely the class of person most likely to look askance at a man like Donald Trump. 3. This, I think, is what Stephen Bannon means when he calls the media the opposition party. Bannon sees himself as leading a white working-class revolt against the multicultural liberal elite, which is neatly personified by the latte-sipping chattering classes of Washington DC. Of course, by declaring war on the media and by prodding his boss to make ever more alarming moves in office, Bannon is himself pushing an already liberal-leaning press corps in an ever more shrilly leftward direction. But really, this fact is less frightening than the fact that he can do it so effortlessly. Without that truth-seeking ecosystem of healthy small- and mid-size daily newspapers to explain national news in terms local readers can understand, Americans are left stewing in separate echo chambers, one urban, educated, and liberal, the other working-class, rural, and spoiling for a fight. Not only do the inhabitants of these echo chambers not talk to each other; they barely speak the same language. It’s heartening to hear that digital subscriptions to legacy media sites like The New York Times and The Atlantic are on the rise, just as it’s refreshing to see ordinary Americans using social media to organize and keep themselves informed. Maybe over time, as we grow more sophisticated about our digital tools, we’ll get better at using Snopes.com-like sites to knock down fake news stories and start crowd-funding citizen-journalists to cover small cities and towns the way I once did. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the Internet. It’s a tool like any other. We just have to learn how to use it. For now, though, we would be crazy not to acknowledge the danger we face as a nation flying blind without a media we fully trust. No one in government has discussed reviving John Adams’s Sedition Act, but every day that Trump sends his press secretary into the White House briefing room to dress down the media or uses Twitter to gaslight Americans into disbelieving the facts they hear on the nightly news is a day we inch a step closer to that reality. Image Credit: Flickr/Ahmad Hammoud.
First, there was the endless presidential campaign, the daily, ugly slog through the mud of “Hillary lied!” and “Grab them by the pussy,” the compulsive visits to 538.com, the circular arguments on Facebook and Twitter, the depressing reality that this -- this sour, angry, nationally televised sandbox tantrum -- was the method by which a country that elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln was going to pick its next president. Then there was the gut punch of election night itself, the lung-crushing spectacle of watching Hillary Clinton’s blue Upper-Midwestern firewall crumble in a wave of white working class fear. Late that night, after the networks had called Pennsylvania for Donald Trump and it was finally, irrevocably over, I turned to my mother, who was visiting from out of town, and said, “I don’t know my own country anymore.” More than anything Trump has said or done in the days since, that moment stays with me. I may be the walking embodiment of the coastal urban elite, but my parents both grew up in a small Southern mill town, where I spent long stretches of my childhood. I’ve traveled America from end to end, visiting every state but Maine and Alaska, and I spent three formative years living in Richmond, Va., where statues of Confederate generals line the streets to this day. I thought I knew America, warts and all. I thought I understood its essential decency. On November 8, I learned that I did not. It’s a shock from which I may never fully recover. All this has made reading nearly impossible. On November 7, I was reading, of all things, Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy. On November 9, I set it aside. I just could not read another goddamn word about Jack Kennedy facing down Mississippi’s segregationist governor Ross Barnett, or Bobby Kennedy shaking off the agony of his brother’s murder to run first for the Senate and then for the presidency as a liberal firebrand. On November 7, all that was taking place in a country I knew and loved. On November 9, the book might as well have been set on Mars for all I could make sense of it. After several days of staring dumbstruck at the news and my Facebook feed, I picked up Jo Baker’s A Country Road, a Tree, a fictionalized treatment of Samuel Beckett’s life in France during World War II. A book club I belong to was reading it, and my plan, honestly, was to fake it. I had read Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett: A Biography, so I knew the outlines of the story and could talk knowledgeably about the central conceit of Baker’s novel, which is that Beckett’s desperate escape from the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Paris is the unstated plotline of his famously plotless play Waiting for Godot. I could barely read the newspaper, much less a whole novel, but in this case I figured I wouldn’t have to. Then I read the book’s opening line: “The tree stirred and the sound of the needles was shh, shh, shh.” I was sitting on the living room sofa when I read this, surrounded by student papers, my laptop open to The New York Times website, which still, two days after election night, read “TRUMP TRIUMPHS” in all caps. All that fell away, and I was halfway up a tree in Ireland hearing the branches sway in the breeze. I didn’t know precisely where that tree was, or who was sitting in it with me, but I didn’t care. I was a grown man in despair invited, for an instant, to inhabit the mind of a boy hiding in a tree, listening, alert to the music of the world. “The boy swung a knee over the branch,” I read, “heaved himself up, and shifted round so that his legs dangled. The scent of the larch cleared his head, so that everything seemed sharp and clear as glass.” Do you know what a larch tree smells like? I don’t either, not really. But I smelled it then. For nearly a year, I had been stuffing my head with useless crap -- turnout predictions of Hispanic voters in Florida, Bernie Sanders’s legislative record in Congress, federal law as it relates to the handling of classified government materials. Now I settled back into the sofa, smelling larch needles, and my head cleared just a little, just enough to keep on reading. All the time I read A Country Road, a Tree, I shifted between two competing states of being, a pre-Trump reader and a post-Trump one. The pre-Trump reader in me had read enough Beckett to know that he would almost certainly regard Baker’s novel as so much sentimental bollocks. One of the more charming quirks of Beckett’s extraordinarily quirky personality was that he dismissed his work in the Paris Resistance, for which he later was awarded the Croix de Guerre, as mere “Boy Scout stuff.” More importantly, by stripping plot from his postwar plays like Waiting for Godot and novels Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Beckett called into question the very notion of the dramatic hero. In a conventional narrative, plot is driven by the hero’s desire to achieve some essential objective. The more consuming this desire is, the more absorbing the story. You can argue, as some do, that Vladimir and Estragon, the bickering central figures of Waiting for Godot, are heroic in their desire to wait for the elusive Godot, that for them inaction is a kind of heroic action, but as decades of baffled theatergoers can tell you, that’s hardly the kind of action most audiences expect. The Samuel Beckett of A Country Tree, a Road is, by contrast, every inch a traditional dramatic hero. The book begins with Beckett in Ireland listening to the radio broadcast of Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in September 1939. He could easily wait out the war in safety at home, but he is in love with a Parisian woman, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, and just as importantly, he is creatively stymied and believes he can write only in Paris. When Beckett tells his mother that he plans to return to France, she asks witheringly: “And what possible use do you imagine you would be?” This line functions like a witch’s curse that gives the hero his purpose: For the rest of the novel, Beckett struggles to be of use. Disgusted by his inaction as his friends are rounded up by the Germans, he joins the Resistance and, like magic, the very traits that made him useless -- his introverted personality, his stubbornness, his savant-like gift for arranging random words and numbers into patterns -- make him an ideal Nazi saboteur. Over and over, in crisis after crisis, others panic or give in to hunger and fear while Beckett calmly saves the day with a resourceful decision or a well-timed joke. Once, on the run from the Gestapo, he and Suzanne get lost in a dark alleyway, and Beckett suggests they flip a coin to decide which direction to go. “What good would that do?” Suzanne asks. He shrugs, takes the cigarette off her. “It’d be something. It’d be a start.” “Hardly.” “So, we’ll stay here, then.” He takes a drag and settles down against the wall. “Shut up,” she says. “Idiot. You break my feet, you know?” He shuffles his shoulders, chilly brick against his back. “You know, I like this alleyway. I think we could be happy here.” “Oh, I’ve had enough. Come on!” Surely, Beckett would hate all this. Surely, he would see that, in translating his life into fiction, Baker has turned him into an Ernest Hemingway war hero: laconic, mordantly funny, graceful under pressure. And just as surely, that would drive up him the wall. One of the hallmarks of the postwar European avant garde was an almost reflexive resistance to the bourgeois morality that drives most conventional narrative. In occupied Paris, in the concentration camps, in besieged Leningrad, it was who you were -- Jew, Gypsy, enemy alien -- not what was in your heart that saved your life or ended it. And when it wasn’t that, more often than not, it came down to dumb luck. Had I read A Country Road, a Tree before the election, I would have said it was an enjoyable read, gorgeously written and historically fascinating, but also at a certain level a load of sentimental bollocks. But the election of Donald Trump on a wave of white aggrievement changed the way I read A Country Road, a Tree, as I suspect it will change the way I read and understand everything in the years to come. For one thing, I have felt so damn useless since Election Day, so gutless and impotent, and so I was primed for a good, old-fashioned bollocksy tale of a self-involved artist who, faced with the great evil of his time, finds within himself hidden reservoirs of courage and moral purpose. More than that, though, what I found restorative in Baker’s novel, so deeply necessary, was its beauty. Ours is an ugly, angry age, and this ugliness is reflected in our politics. Once, America turned out leaders who inspired the world, but can you think of a single memorable line from either side in the 2016 presidential campaign that wasn’t an insult or a threat? We have gone from a public oratory that gave the world, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “I have a dream,” to one that has given the world, “I will build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it.” A Country Road, a Tree resists all this, not by arguing against it, but simply by being beautiful. Baker writes beautifully, but she also cares about beauty, sees the intrinsic value in it. It’s there in that first line about the boy in the tree listening to the swaying larch branches saying “shh, shh, shh,” and it’s there 279 pages later in book’s quietly moving final scene in which a war-weary Beckett returns to his Paris apartment and settles down to write: In silence and in solitude, he folds open his new notebook. He flattens out the page. He dips his pen into the ink, and fills it, and wipes the nib. The pen traces its way across the paper. Ink blues the page. Words form. This is where it begins. There is no way to know what the next four years will bring, but whatever happens, it is safe to say it’s not going to be pretty. I, for one, plan to remain engaged politically, to write letters, make phone calls, sign petitions, and commit acts of civil disobedience, if none of those other things gets results. I continue to believe, Electoral College be damned, the America I know and love is still out there, strong as ever. But in the meantime, amid all that struggle and rancor, we can’t forget to make a place for beauty. We’re going to need it, now more than ever. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Anyone who has followed Jay McInerney’s long career has watched his gradual shift from a would-be F. Scott Fitzgerald to a kind of modern male Edith Wharton at home in the very circles of wealth and prestige his younger self so desperately yearned to break into. In the best of his early books, including his 1984 debut Bright Lights, Big City and Brightness Falls, published eight years later, McInerney’s characters were brash upstarts from the provinces intent on storming New York’s citadels of power that, in their minds, glowed at the heart of the metropolis like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. These incursions inevitably failed, but the heady cocktail of youthful idealism and drug-fueled self-loathing that propelled their execution lent those early books an edgy, antic charm that sent copies flying off bookstore shelves. But that was all a very long time ago when McInerney was himself a brash upstart from the provinces. Since then, he has published several bestselling novels, been the subject of countless magazine profiles and gossip columns, and married four women, most recently Anne Hearst, sister of Patty, and heir to the Hearst publishing fortune. In his more recent novels, among them Bright, Precious Days, which comes out this week, McInerney’s characters, while born elsewhere, are long-time New Yorkers who attend lavish society dinners and rub shoulders with crude-minded finance types Edith Wharton would recognize at first sight. McInerney is clearly wise to this shift. Bright, Precious Days, the third volume in a trilogy that began with Brightness Falls, brims with Wharton references, and it isn’t hard to imagine McInerney seeing Russell Calloway, one half of the couple at the center of the trilogy, as a 21st century Newland Archer, the bibliophilic gentleman lawyer of Wharton’s 1920 masterwork The Age of Innocence, who, as Russell might put it, values “the Art and Love team” over “the Money and Power team.” It’s a bit more of stretch, but it’s even possible to picture Russell’s wife Corrine as one of Wharton’s smart, headstrong heroines reimagined for a modern age when a Lily Bart or Ellen Olenska could be a happily emancipated woman married to the same man for 25 years. Unfortunately for his readers, the Wharton mantle is an uncomfortable fit for McInerney. Wharton was a native not only of New York, but of the uppermost echelons of its high society. Born Edith Jones, into the family for which the phrase “keeping up the Joneses” was coined, Wharton never suffered under the Fitzgeraldian illusion that the rich are different from the rest of humanity. When she describes Newland Archer in the opening pages of The Age of Innocence as “at heart a dilettante, [for whom] thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization,” she is describing a rich man’s affliction, but also a distinctly human, painful one. Newland is a man bursting with love who, by some quirk of personality and upbringing, cannot show it openly to another living being. McInerney, on the other hand, despite his decades as a successful New Yorker and his marriage to an actual heiress, retains an outsider’s reflexive fascination with, and envy of, the city’s plutocratic set. Status envy fuels nearly every sentence of Bright, Precious Days, from its breathless recitations of high-end restaurant meals to the Calloways’ constant carping about the inadequacies of their 1,800-square-foot TriBeCa loft, with its single bathroom and uneven wooden floors. The Calloways, you see, rent but cannot afford to buy their TriBeCa loft or their Hamptons summer home, and when they indulge their pleasures, whether it be bonefishing in the Bahamas or guzzling first-growth Bordeaux at a Manhattan eatery, they can only do so at the invitation of their wealthier friends. That they are successful in their professions, Russell running his own publishing house, Corrine the CEO of a charitable nonprofit, and that their children, though occasionally sarcastic and whiny, seem reasonably happy and loving – all this means nothing. Well into middle age, Russell and Corrine remain at heart perpetual children with their noses pressed against the window pane, wondering what the rich kids are doing. “How was it,” Russell asks himself late in the novel, “that after working so hard and by many measures succeeding and even excelling in his chosen field, he couldn’t afford to save this house that meant so much to his family? Their neighbors seemed to manage, thousands of people no smarter than he was -- less so, most of them -- except in their understanding of the mechanics of acquisition.” That sound you hear in the background is the world’s smallest violin playing “New York, New York.” But the Calloways are deaf to the tune, and so Russell, displaying his lack of understanding of the mechanics of acquisition, overpays for a memoir of dubious provenance, and Corrine, wishing to escape the horrors of upper-middle-class poverty in TriBeCa, rekindles an old fling with a globe-trotting private equity baron with whom she has nothing in common beyond the fact that they are married to other people. There is plenty more to Bright, Precious Days, some of it interesting, great masses of it flabby and cuttable, but this is as close as the novel comes to a true narrative engine: As they enter their 50s, Russell and Corrine pretty much have it all – great jobs, lustworthy real estate, loving kids, lifelong friends – yet still feel cheated by life. Why can’t they own their TriBeCa loft? Why can’t they blow thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine at lunch? Why can’t they take their friends bonefishing in the Bahamas? Why, oh why, is the world so unfair? The Calloways seemingly had it all in Brightness Falls, too, but in that book, the pair’s thirst for still more made them compelling, even admirable, Corrine restlessly seeking meaning in life, Russell, wildly ambitious and impetuous to a fault, engineering a leveraged buyout of the publishing house where he worked as an editor. That he failed in spectacular fashion was less salient than the fact that he had the nerve to try, that at the height of the go-go 1980s, when Brightness Falls is set, he could imagine turning the machinery of commerce against itself to further the aims of art. By the mid-2000s, when Bright, Precious Days is set, that Russell Calloway is gone, his place taken by a cossetted, self-involved gourmand who revels in knowing which strings to pull to get reservations at the latest trendy restaurant and walks an extra three blocks on his way to work to buy his morning latte at the café that, in his view, makes “the best coffee in the city.” If anything, Corrine, always the more likable of the pair, has become an even greater cipher, risking a family and husband she loves for a pallid, cliché-ridden affair with a semi-retired financial titan possessing all the outward personality of a bonefish. Two years ago on this site I made the case for Bright Lights, Big City “as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature.” I stand wholeheartedly behind that judgment, and I would put Brightness Falls, along with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, on any list of indispensable novels about the 1980s. Whatever else you could say about the young Jay McInerney, he was a damn good novelist. But it seems long past time to admit that, like his fictional avatar Russell Calloway, that early Jay McInerney is long gone, his place taken by an aging society wit, whose work, while never less than polished and professional, has lost its precious brightness.
Danville, Va., the gritty Southern mill town where my parents were born and raised, is a city born out of slavery. Before the Civil War, tobacco planters living upstream along the Dan River sent their field slaves on flatboats laden with freshly harvested tobacco to Danville where slaves from many plantations cleaned and dried the tobacco for shipment. After the war, the emancipated slaves and their descendants, excluded by law and custom from most other work, worked in Danville during tobacco season for the next 120 years, well into my own lifetime. This naturally boosted the city’s black population, and in the early-1880s, Danville had a majority-black city council, along with black policemen and justices of the peace. Shortly before a bloody race riot in 1883, in which four black people were killed, put an end to this brief period of black rule, local white investors founded a cotton mill that, by adhering to a strict policy of hiring only white workers, made Danville once again a majority-white city government by often ruthless segregationists. This history, and my own observation of its aftermath, is the lens through which I read Nancy Isenberg’s provocative new history White Trash, and it’s the reason I found Isenberg’s book by turns fascinating and exasperating. The Danville I knew as a child was really three cities. One, where my grandparents lived, was a Mayberry-like Southern town of tree-lined streets where children set up lemonade stands and frolicked in backyard swimming pools. A mile away was the old mill village where thousands of white mill workers lived in tiny whitewashed homes that had once been owned by the mill, which rented them at reduced rates to its workers. A mile or so from the mill village, across the tracks of the Southern Railroad, was black Danville, where the poorest of the migrant tobacco workers lived in mud-floored shacks standing in the flood plain of the Dan River. Danville’s rigidly enforced social geography lasted into the late-1970s when globalization began eating into the profits of Dan River Mills, which at its height had employed some 14,000 people, the great majority of them white. From the time of its founding in the 1880s, Dan River Mills made an implicit deal with its white work force: work in its mills would be arduous, hot, and poorly paid, but white workers could count on having food for their families, a roof over their heads, and freedom from having to compete with black workers, who, quite obviously, would have worked the same job for less pay. When this social compact crumbled, undone first by the Civil Rights Movement, which forced a greater integration of the work force, and later by the global economy, which bled the mill dry, it left thousands of white Danvillians, many of whose parents and grandparents had worked in the mill, without a way to make a living. A generation later, those white Danvillians, along with millions of other disaffected working-class white people across the South and the Rust Belt, are lining up for Donald Trump, who is running for president on a promise to bring back an America that existed before globalization, immigration, and racial integration destroyed the world I knew as a boy in Danville. This was the history I was hoping to find explicated in Isenberg’s study of working-class white society, which appeared in bookstores last month eerily well-timed to help Americans understand the social and economic forces propelling Trump’s rise. What I found instead was half that story. In White Trash, Isenberg sets herself the task of puncturing the myth of American exceptionalism when it comes to social class. “Above all,” she writes, “we must stop declaring what is patently untrue, that Americans, through some rare good fortune, escaped the burden of class that prevailed in the mother country of England.” This case Isenberg makes convincingly. The early -- and best -- chapters of White Trash detail how 17th-century British elites saw the American colonies as a vast dumping ground for England’s lower classes in order “to drayne away the filth” from the homeland. Each succeeding generation of colonial elite further distanced itself from these lower caste British settlers, many of whom arrived in America as indentured servants, until they formed an essentially permanent white underclass known variously as “squatters,” “crackers,” “clay-eaters,” “mudsills,” and more recently, “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” and “trailer trash.” But even as Isenberg debunks one politically convenient fiction, she perpetuates an equally pernicious one, that of the special victimization of the white poor. Time and again, Isenberg soft-pedals the long and ugly history of white-on-black violence and minimizes the myriad ways -- legal, economic, social, and cultural -- the poorest of poor whites have been privileged over black and brown Americans. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is Isenberg’s handling of the Civil Rights Era, which in White Trash all but boils down to a single, curiously framed discussion of the standoff between poor white Arkansans and black students trying to integrate Little Rock’s Central High in 1957. Isenberg builds this brief section around a famous news photo of a 15-year-old white Central High student named Hazel Bryan hurling epithets at Elizabeth Eckford, a black student making her way through an angry white crowd on the first day of school. “Eckford looked calm, was dressed modestly, and appeared earnest,” Isenberg writes of the photo. “Her white adversary [Bryan] wore a dress that was too tight, and as she propelled herself forward, menacingly, mouth agape, she projected the crude callousness of the recognized white trash type. That contrast was precisely what the photographers intended to record.” In images sent out over the news wires, Isenberg writes, Bryan appeared as “the face of white trash. Ignorant. Unrepentant. Congenitally cruel. Only capable of replicating the pathetic life into which she was born.” This framing is just plain odd. In her discussion of Civil Rights Era, surely a crucial period in any account of the role of poor white people in American history, Isenberg says nothing of the lynching of Emmett Till, the vicious mob attacks on the Freedom Riders in 1961, Bull Connor’s dogs, or the four little girls blown up in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. The Ku Klux Klan, that 150-year-old force of white violence and intimidation, rates just four glancing mentions in the entire book, most noting in passing that this or that historical figure had once been a member or said something nice about the organization. Instead, Isenberg’s lone substantive discussion of the Civil Rights Era focuses on how one white teenager was stereotyped as “the face of white trash,” effectively turning the aggressor into a victim, a mere pawn of a manipulative national media eager dismiss poor whites as somehow less than human. Of course, in an important way, the Hazel Bryans of the world were pawns of a white Southern elite that happily left to poor whites the dirty work of enforcing segregation. As Isenberg notes, Bryan’s school, Central High, the students of which were poor and white, was scheduled for integration, while another high school on the city’s tonier west side was to remain all-white. And Bryan needed, desperately, the advantages that Central High offered. Bryan’s parents were high school dropouts who had moved the family from rural Arkansas where their home had no indoor plumbing. Her father, a disabled veteran, didn’t work, and her mother worked at a Westinghouse plant in Little Rock. “Permeable racial boundaries would pull down people like her even further,” Isenberg writes of Bryan. Still, Bryan was hardly a victim. Isenberg doesn’t record it, but as the famous photograph was being shot, Bryan was shouting, “Go home, nigger! Go back to Africa!” Around her, other white Central High students were shouting at Eckford, who had mistakenly arrived at school alone that day, “Lynch her! Lynch her! No nigger bitch is going to get into our school!” Will Counts, the photographer who caught Hazel Bryan on film, took an equally famous picture that same day of a black reporter being kicked and beaten by the angry mob. But it’s just as important to understand why those white kids outside Central High were calling for the lynching of a defenseless black girl and beating a black newsman bloody in front of the national press corps. They were defending a centuries-old system of laws and cultural practices that privileged poor white people over black Americans of all social classes. If the Westinghouse plant where Bryan’s mother worked was anything like most factories in the South, it was every bit as segregated as the local schools, and if the loan on her family’s home in Little Rock was anything like those on most homes in America at the time, it was guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, which systematically discriminated against black homeowners for decades. This is the half of the story White Trash leaves out. In the Danville I knew as a child, and in the America one finds in pioneering works of history like C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow and W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, white elites rigged the system so poor whites got slightly better schools, slightly better jobs, and slightly better homes, and then were expected to defend those privileges against people of color, often violently. Poor whites ended up with the short end of the stick, but they fought in the knowledge that they were at least better off than their black counterparts who got nothing. Isenberg occasionally says things in White Trash that are simply untrue, such as this head-scratcher regarding race and law enforcement: “Poor whites were inexpensive and expendable, and found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system.” Far more often, she is merely selective in her facts, playing up the suffering of the white working class while skirting history that might paint them in a bad light. Thus, in her chapter on the Reconstruction Era, Isenberg spends several pages on “scalawags,” the poor white dissenters from white supremacist ideology who tried to build a more racially equitable South after the Civil War, while never mentioning the Klan and its infamous night riders. In a similar vein, in her discussion of the 20th-century pseudo-science of eugenics, Isenberg focuses on the forced sterilization of poor white women judged “feebleminded” while downplaying the fact that much of eugenic theory was openly racist (see “Nazi Germany, influence on”) and that many forced sterilization programs targeted black women. This all matters because perhaps more than at any time in recent memory, we are in desperate need of a fair-minded accounting of the history of white America. The 2016 presidential campaign is about many things, but one of its running themes is white America and its opposite, be it Mexican immigrants, Muslim militants, or black Americans. Are the working-class white voters at Trump rallies right that political correctness has gone too far and the liberal elite’s coddling of minorities and immigrants has left hard-working white Americans vulnerable? Is the recent spate of shootings of black motorists by white police officers a tragic aberration or the latest twist in a long history of white police brutality toward black men? Is it racist to say “All Lives Matter”? If so, why? Americans searching for answers to these questions are thrown headlong into a clangorous scrum of cable-news shouters, hashtag revolutionaries, and online conspiracy theorists. Nancy Isenberg is none of these things. She is a tenured professor of history at Louisiana State University and the author of Fallen Founder, a respected biography of Aaron Burr, our third vice president. So it is profoundly dispiriting to find her history of poor white America leaving out such a crucial thread of the story. This strikes me less a failure of scholarship than a failure of imagination. Isenberg appears to have decided to write a history of poor white America and then persuaded herself that poor black America was only tangential to her story. This frightens me almost as much as news that Trump ranks within the margin of error in national polls. If America’s historians, who have dedicated their lives to understanding our past, who have spent years digging through the archives, can be so blind to the meaning of their own history, what hope is there for the rest of us to confront this very real and present crisis we are facing?
Let me ask you a question, my friends. When was the last time an American won the Nobel Prize? Do you know the answer? It was 1993, and it was an African-American woman! Nothing against African-American women, okay? African-American women, some of them, they’re gorgeous. Perfect 10s. But still, you gotta wonder: 23 years ago, and it was a black lady. Before that, you have to go back to 1976 – and it was a Jewish guy! Now, I love the Jewish people, and we all know the African Americans love me, but seriously, it tells you something when you have to go back to 1962 to find a real American Nobel Prize winner in Literature. Our literature is slipping, folks. We’re losing our edge. It’s sad. It’s just so damn sad. You know why we’re slipping? Because our colleges are run by politically correct guilty white liberals who hate America. Oh my God, America’s college professors are so dumb. I could have been a professor, okay? Believe me, I’m a terrific teacher. People love it when I explain stuff to them. It’s a gift I have. But why would want to be a professor? Sure, I could sleep with some cute coeds. But think about it: Do you see many college professors married to supermodels? Do you see college professors with personal brands worth $5 billion. No, you don’t. And you know why? Because they’re so dumb. You know how you can tell they’re dumb? From the books they teach. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The Interpreter of Maladies. The House on Mango Street. Anybody here read The House on Mango Street? I haven’t, either. I’m a businessman worth $10 billion. I don’t read books unless I wrote them, and even then I’m selective. But they’re teaching The House on Mango Street like crazy in English Departments across America – or at least they were in the 1990s, which just goes to show you how current my information is. The author of that book is Sandra Cisneros, who is, I believe, a Mexican. She was born in the United States, okay, but her parents are Mexican. So she’s Mexican. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, not if you’re black or brown. President Obama was born in Hawaii and his mother was a white woman, and yet the man’s Kenyan. It’s so obvious, if you think about it. Anyway, there she is, this Sandra Cisneros, on college reading lists along with Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz and all these other foreigners, and THEY’RE TAKING JOBS FROM AMERICAN AUTHORS. Good, hard-working American authors like Jonathan Franzen and John Irving and Richard Ford. Time magazine, which is, to be honest with you, this close to losing its press credentials with me, but anyway, Time called Jonathan Franzen “The Great American Novelist.” “The Great American Novelist,” my friends, and he can’t get onto a university syllabus to save his life. He’s too “commercial,” they say. He doesn’t play nice with Oprah. And, oh yeah, they never say it because they’re too politically correct, but he’s too white. That’s the real problem with Jonathan Franzen. He’s too white, too male, and too straight. Sorry, Jonathan. Three strikes and you’re out. We’re going to take back the Western canon, folks. We are going to build a big beautiful wall around books written by white people and we’re going to make the immigrants and the African-American writers pay for it. Foreign writers are eating our lunch right now. We used to dominate the world of letters. The Russians, the Chinese, even the French – they all read our books. We used to be feared and loved around the world. And now look at us. Look who’s winning Nobel prizes these days. Svetlana Alexievich? Patrick Modiano? Mo Yan? I mean, what the hell kind of name is Mo Yan? Is that a guy? A girl? Which bathroom does Mo Yan use in North Carolina? Hah! Ha! Ha! Ha! Damn, I’m funny. I’ve gotta tweet that. But this is serious stuff, folks. These foreign writers are winning the Nobel Prize year after year, and we’re letting it happen. They’re shlonging us and we’re so stupid and lazy and politically correct that we like getting shlonged! Well, no more. When I’m President, I’ll ban all books by immigrant writers until we can figure out what the hell is going on with the Western Canon. I’ll ban translations by foreign authors, too. We’ll ban so many books it’ll make your head spin, folks. We’ll empty out the university book stores! We’ll clear whole shelves from the library! We’ll fire all the politically correct professors who hate America! We’ll build piles of books as high as one of my big, beautiful, classy hotels, and we’ll burn them all to ashes! And when we’re done, my fellow Americans, we will make the Western Canon great again. (Hat tip to frequent Millions commenter Moe Murph, who supplied the headline for this piece.)
In June 1925, Ernest Hemingway turned to a blank page in his notebook and scrawled these five hopeful words: Along With Youth A Novel Hemingway was 25 years old, living in a cramped Paris apartment with his wife Hadley and their two-year-old son, Jack. He had published two chapbooks with tiny presses in Paris, and sold a collection of stories, In Our Time, to a New York publisher. In Our Time is now a classic, its stories taught in high school and college classrooms around the world, but his advance was just $200 and Hemingway understood that if he didn’t follow the collection up with a novel, it would probably sell a few hundred copies and disappear. Along With Youth was a sea story, apparently, set on a troop ship in 1918 and featuring Nick Adams, the Hemingway stand-in who stars in many of the stories in In Our Time. In the opening scene, Nick Adams talks with some Polish officers on the deck of the ship while someone strums a mandolin in the background. The book continued in this vein for 27 largely plotless pages until Hemingway gave up and packed his bags for his annual summer pilgrimage to the bullfights in Pamplona, Spain. Just two months later, in September 1925, he had finished a draft of The Sun Also Rises, the novel that would launch his career. Hemingway’s epic week of partying at Pamplona’s fiesta de San Fermín in July 1925 is the centerpiece of Lesley M. M. Blume’s new book Everybody Behaves Badly, which traces Hemingway’s rise from a promising young proto-hipster sweating out sentences in a Paris garret to one of the 20th century’s most influential prose stylists. Ninety years on, it can be hard for readers to comprehend the revelatory shock The Sun Also Rises delivered to its original audience. Yes, the sexuality and decadence of Hemingway’s characters raised eyebrows in a country where Prohibition was still in effect and adultery was against the law in most states. But it went deeper than that. The First World War upended a dynastic landed gentry that had patronized the arts for centuries, and new technologies, most notably movies and mass-circulation magazines, were bringing art and literature to a far wider audience than ever before. Paris was Ground Zero for the artistic response to these social and technological revolutions, and Hemingway’s innovation was to make the formal experiments of the Parisian avant garde accessible to middlebrow readers. “My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows,” he wrote to Horace Liveright, publisher of In Our Time. “There is no writing in it that anybody with a high-school education cannot read.” Hemingway was ideally suited to this role of middlebrow revolutionary. He was not only an American, but a Midwesterner, raised in the Chicago suburbs far removed from the urban cultural elite. Also, unlike many of his fellow Modernists, who attended the best universities in Europe and the U.S., Hemingway never went to college and served his apprenticeship not at Harvard or University College Dublin, but in the newsrooms of provincial newspapers and in the cafés and salons of Paris. This, the story of how Hemingway became Hemingway, is the subject of Everybody Behaves Badly. It’s a tale that has been told many times, but it bears repeating, in part because the version that most people know, the one told by Hemingway in his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast, is so deeply disingenuous, and in part because it demystifies the legend and makes Hemingway’s achievement comprehensible in human terms. The Hemingway of Blume’s book is not especially likeable. In A Moveable Feast, he paints his Paris years as a time of almost sacred poverty (“Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it,” etc., etc.), neatly eliding the fact that for much of his Paris period, he lived off his wife’s trust fund. Like many men who pride themselves on their toughness and self-reliance, Hemingway was almost comically insecure and prone to betray anyone who had the effrontery to do him a favor. In a typically gratuitous move, he repaid Sherwood Anderson, who had given Hemingway crucial letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, by writing The Torrents of Spring, a poisonous and unfunny satire of Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter. But if the young Hemingway was an asshole, and he was, he was a preternaturally talented and savvy one. In Everybody Behaves Badly, he seeks out the high priests of the Parisian avant garde one by one, soaking up what each has to teach him before abruptly casting them aside. Their influence permeates his work, from the stream-of-consciousness riffs in his stories to the famous epigraph to The Sun Also Rises -- “You are all a lost generation” -- supplied by Stein. But nothing exerted a more profound influence on Hemingway’s fiction than his work as a reporter. Hemingway wrote for newspapers, principally the Toronto Star, off and on for about four years, filing from war zones and writing travel and feature pieces about expat life in Europe. He never loved the work, and after a disastrous stint at the home office of the Star in Toronto he quit altogether to live off Hadley’s trust fund, but news writing not only gave his prose its signature economy of expression and coolly objective tone, it taught him to see the news value in a story. It’s not for nothing that Hemingway knocked out a draft of The Sun Also Rises in a matter of weeks. He saw in his 1925 trip to Pamplona a perfect vehicle for telling the hot story of the dissipated post-war generation in Europe, and he wanted to get it into print before it went stale. The first draft of The Sun Also Rises was so close to reportage that Hemingway didn’t even change the characters’ names. The most famous of these are Lady Duff Twysden and Harold Loeb, whom Hemingway immortalized in the published version as Lady Brett Ashley and her moony former lover Robert Cohn. Along for the ride in Pamplona was Twysden’s fiancé, Pat Guthrie, who like his fictional alter ego Mike Campbell was an alcoholic bankrupt who put up with Twysden’s compulsive promiscuity. In life as in fiction, shortly before the Pamplona trip, Twysden had run off with Loeb for a sex-soaked weekend at a seaside resort -- and in life as in fiction, the affair was just as much over for Twysden as it was alive for poor, lovestruck Loeb. Then there’s Hemingway himself, the model for the novel’s narrator, Jake Barnes. Blume says it’s unclear whether Hemingway had an affair with Twysden, but he was clearly fascinated by her and deeply envious of Loeb, whose first novel, Doodab, was set for publication in New York later that year. Then, too, in the summer of 1925, Hemingway was trapped between his unraveling marriage to Hadley and a nascent affair with his soon-to-be second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway airbrushes Hadley out of the tale and gives his alter ego, Jake Barnes, a war wound that renders him impotent while still allowing him the full range of romantic and sexual desire. As literary strategies go, this is a stroke of genius, transforming his autobiographical narrator from a husband with a wandering eye to poignant, wounded hero. But it’s more than that, too. In the architecture of the novel, Jake’s war injury turns him into that rarest of beasts: a knowing innocent, a man of appetites who is incapable of sin. This works so well because, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published just the year before, The Sun Also Rises is a novel about the tyranny of unbounded appetite. Hemingway’s characters spend the book consuming things: drink, food, bloody spectacle, each other. “It kept up day and night for seven days,” he writes of the fiesta. “The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequence. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.” What is true in Pamplona is true in more subtle ways elsewhere in the novel. None of the characters are tied down by marriage or have children to care for. Except for Jake, they have no visible employment, and thus no jobs to lose. They either have enough money not have to worry about it, or are so perpetually broke that it has ceased to worry them. This, more than the war, which has little practical effect on anyone but Jake, is what makes them “lost.” They lead lives in which their actions have ceased to have meaningful consequences. This is why Robert Cohn is so furious at Lady Brett: He wants their affair to have meant something, if not to her, then at least to the other men who are in love with her, Jake and Mike Campbell. In a traditional novel, the kind that the Parisian avant garde sought to outmode, this heedlessness would spell the characters’ doom. The temptress Lady Brett would have to be destroyed so bourgeois society could carry on, in the way Jay Gatsby must be destroyed at the end of The Great Gatsby. But nothing like that happens in The Sun Also Rises. In Pamplona, Brett seduces a 19-year-old bullfighter, Pedro Romero, the walking epitome of the Hemingway hero: handsome, self-assured, brave without artifice. “Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion,” Hemingway writes, “because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him each time.” Here at last, after hundreds of pages of drinking and eating and fucking, is the act that tears at the social fabric of the novel. Lady Brett seduces the pure young bullfighter, with Jake himself providing the introductions, yet no one in the novel suffers real consequence. After his first night with Brett, Romero performs so well in the ring that he is allowed to cut off a bull’s ear as a trophy, and after their affair has run its course, Brett sends him on his way, and slithers back to her long-suffering fiancé. This, finally, is the true modernity of Hemingway’s novel. In the fictive world of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a brilliant 20th-century stylist with a 19th-century sensibility, Gatsby must die for the sin of daring to rise above his station and love whomever he wants. In the fictive world of The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett Ashley, the witty, decadent castoff of Britain’s dying aristocracy, can live however the hell she pleases without it costing her a thing. Except that it does cost her one thing: Jake Barnes. A central conceit of the novel is that Jake would marry Brett but doesn’t because he can’t physically consummate the relationship, but after her affair with Romero, Jake finally tires of his high-maintenance girlfriend. When Brett tells him, “You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch...It’s sort of what we have instead of God,” Jake replies wryly: “Some people have God.” And a little later when Brett tries to weasel back into his affections, saying, “Oh Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together,” he responds with perhaps the most famous last line in American literature: “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?” And there it is, the revolution of the middlebrow. With an act of literary sleight of hand only a master could pull off, Hemingway manages to have it both ways: Lady Brett and her ilk live in a modern amoral world without consequences, and yet we his readers, through the eyes of Jake Barnes, the hard-boiled innocent, have judged her and found her wanting. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
There is so much I wish I could unknow about Emma Cline and her debut novel The Girls. I wish, for instance, that I didn’t know Cline was 25 when she sold the book, or that Random House paid a reported $2 million-plus for it as part of a three-book deal. I wish, too, that it weren’t so obvious that the cult that Cline’s narrator, Evie Boyd, joins in the novel is based on the Manson Family, whose senseless 1969 rampage at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate has been the subject of countless books and documentaries. Finally, I wish Cline hadn’t chosen to tell the story in the retrospective first person, both because the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the framing story kills any lingering doubt over what’s going to happen, but also because Cline’s narrative voice is so much smarter and more emotionally aware than the girl she’s writing about that it’s often hard to believe they’re the same person. Cline is a gifted stylist, and her subject is a sensational one, which is no doubt why her editors saw in The Girls the potential for a breakout literary thriller like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But I fear New York publishing has jumped the gun here. The weight of expectation that comes with the headline-grabbing book advance combined with Cline’s inexperience as novelist cancels out the many flashes of fine writing in The Girls, leaving the reader wishing this talented young writer had been allowed to develop slowly, under the radar, instead of being showered with cash and pre-publicity before her craft had caught up to her prodigious gifts. Those gifts are on display in the novel’s perfectly realized opening scene when Evie first sees the female acolytes of the Charlie Manson stand-in, here called Russell Hadrick, in the summer of 1969. The scene unfolds like the opening shot of a 1970s art-house thriller, all saturated color and sinuous slow-motion, as Evie watches the scruffy, long-haired girls saunter through a suburban picnic, seeming to “glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.” Evie, a lonely 14-year-old whose parents are divorcing, is mesmerized by the girls’ mix of grunginess and hauteur, noticing how “a ripple of awareness followed them through the park. The sun spiked through the trees like always -- the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets -- but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water. The novel begins to sag soon after this bravura start, though it takes a while to figure that out because Cline writes so well even when there isn’t much going on. Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments, but she has a natural’s eye for the telling detail, the single image that makes a character indelible: a girl with a “face as blank as a spoon,” a smarmy young drug runner whose “upper-class upbringing kicked in like a first language.” A few pages later, Cline nails the look of the late-1960s Haight-Ashbury in one pitch-perfect sentence: “Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too -- you could be some moon creature, chiffon over lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.” But whatever they may say in MFA programs these days, a novel is more than the sum of its sentences. For much of the first 100 pages, before Evie gets caught up in Russell’s cult, The Girls is a glacially slow tale of a lonely teenager struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. Here and there the social and political freakiness of the Vietnam-era 1960s penetrates Evie’s cocoon-like suburban existence, but for far too long the book reads like a well-written but underplotted Judy Blume novel. One plods through this familiar territory waiting for the shock of Evie’s immersion into the cult, only to find oneself once again dropped into a world that all too neatly matches one’s expectations. Cline has combined a few of the real-life characters for narrative simplicity, and moved the group’s base of operations from a ranch north of Los Angeles to a ranch north of San Francisco, but in every other way she has simply inserted the fictional Evie as a minor player in the true-crime story of the Manson Family. Here we have Russell/Charlie, a scuzzy Flower Power Wizard of Oz in buckskins and bare feet yammering on about free love and emancipation from straight-world hangups while dreaming of being a rock star. Here we have an actual rock star, Mitch Lewis, based on Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who befriended Manson and introduced him to music producers that Manson thought would make him a star. And most important of all, we have the teenage girls who idolize Russell/Charlie, sleep with him, cook and clean up after him -- and ultimately kill for him. Cline is very good on the heady concoction of big-sister admiration and suppressed sexual longing that draws Evie to one of these girls, Suzanne Parker. If she had distilled the relationship between these two -- one a lost, love-hungry suburban teen, the other a knowing, manipulative would-be murderer -- into a taut short story, or else deviated from the Manson Family script to carry Evie and Suzanne’s relationship to its logical conclusion, perhaps Cline could have added some fresh perspective on one of the most exhaustively documented crimes in American history. As it is, by hewing to the history of the Manson murders, and tossing in Evie as an innocent bystander, Cline manages only a pallid fictional retelling of a famous story that readers can get in more vivid form in Jeff Guinn’s excellent 2013 biography Manson or prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 true-crime classic Helter Skelter. Younger readers, for whom the turbulent '60s are as distant and exotic as World War II is to a Gen Xer like me, may not be as put off by the second-hand quality of the historical material in The Girls. But even readers who know nothing about the Manson murders and the period that gave rise to them may wonder whether Evie’s decisions make emotional sense. Why would this bright, ordinary kid run off to a commune where the girls scavenge trash out of dumpsters and where on her first night she’s forced to give a blow job to the filthy little twerp who runs the place? This, of course, is one of the enduring mysteries of the real Manson story. Many of Manson’s followers were ordinary suburban kids, and one, Leslie Van Houten, who was recently cleared for parole after 47 years in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, was famously a homecoming queen. But beneath this veneer of ordinariness, according to Guinn’s Manson, Van Houten was, like most of Manson’s followers, caught up in the madness of the '60s, dropping acid in high school and running away at age 17 to the Haight. This ultimately is what is most glaringly absent from The Girls, the deep gash in the societal fabric that swallowed up a generation of troubled kids. In 1969, America was losing a bloody war in Vietnam. The inner cities were exploding. Drugs and sex were everywhere. College kids were going underground to declare war on the United States, and high school kids were burning their draft cards and heading to San Francisco. In that atmosphere, which is curiously missing from Cline’s much-hyped debut, Manson’s apocalyptic ravings about a coming race war that would cleanse the planet of everyone but his followers could sound almost mainstream.