Monday, September 5, 2016

Comforts of the Street

While I was out walking Google was gathering data on the street.
One thing I noticed on my walk the other day was a lack of accommodations for pedestrians on the street. I'm not suggesting the outside world should be turned into a living room, but there are several missed opportunities to make the streets pleasanter, more park-like, and inviting. I also understand how there is a crypto-fascist rubric at work in Texas: the idea that anyone who isn't driving a car is poor, and poverty is a sign of a moral defect in this particularly conservative mode of thought, and people who think that way don't want to make such moral throwbacks comfortable.

I went through a period when I read a lot of literary biography, and I focused on the generation out of the 1920s. Those people were writing and hanging out in Greenwich Village. They tended to write in the mornings and party in the night, as young adults are wont to do. But they were having a tough time paying rent in New York. So they suddenly went to Paris.

Paying dues as a writer involves a lot of writing for which one doesn't get paid much if at all, and the Lost Generation, as Gertrude Stein christened them, went to Paris not because of some romantic vision of the Eiffel Tower and life on the Left Bank of the Seine—that vision hadn't been invented yet, and these writers were the ones who invented it—but because it was (at that time) a cheap place to live. Hemingway wrote a great deal of The Sun Also Rises, a brilliant (almost) first novel while drinking massive quantities of wine in La Closerie des Lilas, which in his day was wonderfully cheap. By contrast, when I visited La Closerie in January 2005, a modest lunch of a salad, eight big oysters replete with a little wiggling worm that fell out on my plate, a bottle of mineral water, a slice of chocolate cake, a carafe of wine, and a coffee cost me around US$88. Funny thing about that worm—it died before I gained the waiter's attention, so I imagine he thought I was being a priggish American over a tiny thing, but when I was looking at it, it was folding and unfolding frantically—the only physical gesture a frantic little worm can make, if you think about it—as if falling out of the oyster had cost some vital supply that kept it alive.

In April 1996 I made a quick visit to the reading room of the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library near Boston. I had just enough time to look at the last page of the manuscrpt of The Sun Also Rises (the novel's working title was Fiesta, and it is still called that in UK editions). If the mini-series about Hemingway starring Stacy Keach is to be believed, much of Fiesta, including this last page, was written in La Closerie. The ultimate line is dialog spoken by the novel's hero, Jake, to Hemingway's femme fatale character, Brett. Hemingway wrestled a long time with this line—as he did with much of what he wrote—before it satisfied him. Brett tells Jake how nice it could have been if only everything hadn't gotten in the way and they could have been a couple. Jake, unlike Hemingway, was impotent because of a war wound. In the first draft, handwritten in blue books, Jake's reply, reads:

"Yes," I said.  "It's nice as hell to think so."

Then Hemingway wrote "The End" and dated it, "Paris, Sept. 21 — 1925."

But below that he wrote, "ain't it nice to think so."

He was already wrestling with the revision. I then looked at the typed manuscript submitted to Scribner's, which had the ending as published:

"Yes," I said.  "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Receipt from La Closerie
des Lilas, 29 January 2005.
This was a cheap place for
Hemingway, but an expensive
place for me. This thermo
paper fades quickly, and I had
to crank up the contrast to
make it readable.
The American Expats, another name they were known by, went to Paris because they knew it from World War I. Before the US actually joined the war a surprising number of Americans went to Europe to lend support by joining the ambulance corps of the Red Cross. As a result, there's a huge literary cadre of ambulance drivers including not only Ernest Hemingway, but many others like E.E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, W. Somerset Maugham, who was British but too old to enlist in their Army by the time WWI rolled around. Knowing Paris from the war, these writers came back to live cheaply so they could spend their time writing rather than working. Henry Miller, who arrived in Paris after the Greenwich Village gang had already gone back home, wrote hilariously about his poverty, about digging through the kitchen garbage of a friend kind enough to put him up, and about his desperate strategy of spending a whole day at Le Dôme Café until a friend rich enough to pay the bill just happened to come along (it was a literary hangout, so friends did come along).

Many of these writers complained with nearly the same words—the US was extremely judgmental of people who were poor, and people who took time to write inevitably spent time deep in poverty before they became able to support themselves from their scribbling. And Americans are mistrustful of intellectuals of any ilk, especially writers, most of whom were Communists, so that was another black mark against them. The McCarthy era was a pogrom against intellectuals as much as it was against Communists. Vladimir Nabokov, normally an intellectually flamboyant and entertaining writer whose works were generally invisible to the American proletariat, had one book succeed among the general public because it was commonly thought by people who apparently never bothered to read it to be a work of titillating child pornography.

An interesting cultural process surrounds offenses against children in the United States. As serious as such offenses are, they have in American culture been made exaggeratedly so because offenders against children provide a hate group—who is going to argue against that? Nobody sits around in their living rooms working themselves up into a lather over murderers, whose crimes are just as egregious because their victims, by definition, do not survive. Yet there are ample zombies programmed by our culture who have as their number one passion an outrage against sexual crimes against children—at the news hour people get into shouting matches in their living rooms over what to do with such criminals. It is no coincidence that this impassioned reaction happens in the same country that got so aroused by Lolita (again, without having read the book)—the titillation of the unread Lolita and the obsession with disproportionately severe punishment for sex criminals are two sides of the same coin.

Anyone who undertakes a systematic study of African-American literature will find abundant fictional record of rape involving children: Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Toni Morrison's Beloved; Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man are only a few examples. It isn't that the sexual abuse of children is particularly more common among black Americans. Black literature lays its soul bare upon the pages of its books in ways that few other literatures do. This terrible tragedy is not confined to blacks, but it is commonplace everywhere. If Americans allow those few who have been caught and punished to continue to be treated as scapegoats, then the corporate dictatorship rallies its flagging support around the flag by creating an internal enemy, the sex offenders, but it does little or nothing to actually alleviate the rampant crime. Already America publishes a list of registered sex offenders much as the Nazis had their list gathered during the census of Jews who would eventually be gassed. People browse the sex offender web pages and send off for documentation as a kind of pornography that titillates an ironic sense of erotic self-righteousness. But if Americans realize that it is wrong to exploit the exposure of a few to extraordinary punishment only for political purposes and for toying with the political emotions of those too weak to think for themselves, then they can begin to address a problem that is much more commonplace, that happens in more households than it doesn't, and only then might you really begin to save children.

That same judgmental self-righteousness applied to the poor led many of the Expats to say they would never go back to the United States. Yet they did, all in a matter of weeks of each other, just as they had crossed the pond, almost all at the same time too. The story of the Expats, their adventures in Paris, their fascinating interactions with the French literati and French society in general, as well as the surprisingly large number of them who became successful writers—many people consider the Parisian experience a prototype of the MFA program—is well documented by the Expats' self-appointed record keeper, Malcolm Cowley in his books Exiles' Return and A Second Flowering.

So American thinking runs along the line of the old pop song, "Nobody Walks in L.A." Except it's not just Los Angeles: nobody walks in Texas or anywhere else in the US. A person who has no car is a second-class citizen, a poor person, and hence morally suspect. In Texas, most pedestrians are what the common euphemistic parlance calls homeless. In reality, in Texas (and probably other states), the homeless did not arise from twelve years of Reagan-Bush (the whole phrase often spoken as if it were one word—twelveyearsofreaganbush) but from the traditional cowboy conservative thinking that if anyone doesn't fall within the narrow strait of normality, he or she should be locked up. During the 1980s Texas greatly expanded its prison system, reaching deep into East Texas where conservatives devoid of imagination were sitting around without much of a clue of how to make money. The ironically named Texas Department of Criminal Justice doubled as a welfare system for these people. Whole towns in East Texas work as prison guards except for a few chubby sons and daughters who work the 7-11 and the Dairy Queen. Prison really does go on a permanent record, especially in an age when a basic background check costs about a dime. While the average prison stay runs about 11 years, work becomes hard to get afterwards. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, prison always breaks a man's back. Always.

So on one hand, I have the prevailing view that the poor are morally defective, yet by locking up as many people as possible, Texas creates a highly visible, unemployable class of poor people who actually are morally defective. In their mutual disdain for each other, the former prisoners beg at busy intersections, drink beer, and party outdoors in places hard to reach by people in cars like cops. Most of them are not actually homeless but pool their resources with others to obtain Section 8 (i.e. federally subsidized) housing. Begging in America pays better than one might suspect, so the average beggar can get by on a few hours at the corner with his sign, then spend the rest of the day with his buddies. Yet some might work all day, or at least both rush hours, because they have something resembling ambition. It's because of these homeless people, the twelveyearsofreaganbush people, or the forever blacklisted felons who have done their time, that no outdoor furniture can be found. Customers drive to the store in a car that they lock—no public seating there. In the store there's nowhere to sit, but you can at least harvest goods from their shelves for as long as you can afford. In some instances a grocery store may have a bench where people can sit while they wait for a ride, and it's also true that some bus stops have not only a bench but a roof for inclemental weather, but this still lacks the hospitality of park-like settings that evolve when cities are not dominated by cars.

* * *

The other day I watched on Netflix a documentary called Salinger about the famously reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye. Two points particularly struck me, and I'll touch first upon the one less relevant to the stream of thought in this essay. Salinger was reclusive not only from the world at large but from the people who lived with him. On the land on which his house stood he had what one spouse called a bunker, into which he would sometimes disappear for days at a time when he was in the throes of a writing project. His spouses also observed that he was not a person in the world but an observer of the world, and part of this might have been shaped by his World War II experiences in Europe. He was, for example, one of the American soldiers who discovered Dachau. Writers

There were two murders and one attempted murder: John Warnock Hinckley Jr. who shot Ronald Reagan and three others. Mark David Chapman, who shot and killed John Lennon. Robert John Bardo, who shot and killed model and actress Rebecca Schaeffer. According to the documentary, Salinger, all three of the young men were under the influence of J.D. Salinger's seminal work, Catcher in the Rye. Wikipedia mentions this in the cases of Chapman and Bardo, who denied any influence from Chapman. "You read," the documentary says, "Holden's antipathy to the culture as license to kill."