Sunday, November 16, 2008

American bitterness

During the 1930s some fifty books were published in Italy concerning America. While some bright spots were found, the dominant theme was “America Amara,” America as a bitter place. These writers were appalled by the power of the machine and by the apparently unregulated nature of American society. Accordingly they offered a series of doleful visions of a civilization where human beings live in hellish urban environments, enslaved by the machines that they have created. Even Mario Soldati, one of the more thoughtful writers, concluded that “America is monotonous, arid and sinister. The puritanism of the Americans has repressed and atrophied those instincts which make life worth living: love, conviviality, idleness, eating. The Devil, chased from the body, has re-entered the spirit.”

Emilio Cecchi, whose 1939 book is actually entitled “America Amara,” considers American society to be based on the puritanical principles of the founding fathers. In addition, he sees these principles as having been moulded by the struggle “to colonize the new land” and by the “impact of extreme natural forces.” In Cecchi’s opinion, the society has degenerated to such an extent that it can no longer provide a framework of general ideas for interpreting the experience of the individual. The best way of describing the situation is that of a prison or a madhouse.

Today these writers are little known, even in Italy. But their negative views find an echo in several famous recent American writers, who (one might think) should know better.

The journalist Studs Terkel died a few days ago in Chicago at the age of 96. The dramatists Arthur Miller and David Mamet are currently undergoing revivals on Broadway. All share a vision of American society as heartless and unforgiving, grinding down its hapless inhabitants, who must inevitably end with their pride and self-esteem shredded. This sad situation is, it seems, the inescapable outcome of untrammeled capitalism. Throughout his life Terkel thought that the answer lay in socialism, a view echoed by Miller in his earlier days. In Mamet, who is still living and working, the view degenerates into cynicism: “let me screw you before you get a chance to screw me.” In different ways, these three writers argue that the American dream is really a nightmare.

Louis (“Studs”) Terkel was born in New York City, but at the age of eight he moved with his Russian-Jewish parents to Chicago, where he spent most of his life. Terkel’s world view received an early stamp from the various marginal types who passed through his parents’ rooming house. During the Depression, Terkel joined the Federal Writer’s Project, working in radio. Later he became well-known for his radio program that aired on WFMT in Chicago between 1952 and 1997. He published a number of books which purport to be oral history. In fact, they carefully massage the material so as to convey his view of America as a kind of evil stepmother who destroys her children.

One feature I share with him is that Terkel never learned to drive.

A balanced picture, exposing Terkel’s weaknesses, emerged in an obituary column by the brilliant New York Times writer Edward Rothstein (November 2, 2008). As Rothstein correctly points out, “Terkel anticipated the academic movement of recent decades to tell history from below—not from the perspective of the makers of history but from the perspective of those who have been shaped by it. He once said he was interested in the masons who might have built the Chinese Wall, or the cooks in Caesar’s army.”

Tellingly, Rothstein goes on to say, “[b]ut if you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them and to what end. It often seems easy to guess whom Mr. Terkel liked and who is there to make a particular point or provide ironic contrast. . . . The most admired are those who, because of personal gifts, transcend the monotony of working life; the most respected are those who come to recognize those horrors most clearly and speak of them. The interviews fit the intellectual framework set up by the “Working” introduction: ‘This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.’ . . . This vision of work, though, is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor—the sense of disassociation that comes from the capitalist workplace. The most transformative accomplishment would be to recognize the causes of that alienation, because that would help usher in a new world; this is what Mr. Terkel seems to cherish in his most admired laborers and what he hopes to accomplish in the book itself.

“It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel’s political vision from the contours of his oral history. You grow more cautious as you keep reading. Mr. Terkel seems less to be discovering the point latent in his conversations than he is in shaping the conversations to make a latent point.
“This is not something often recognized about these books. Yet when Mr. Terkel’s 1970 oral history of the 1930s Depression, “Hard Times,” was reissued in 1986 in the heart of the Reagan administration, Mr. Terkel’s new introduction worked strenuously to show how the two eras were comparably nightmarish—though the 1980s never had anything like the 25 percent unemployment of the earlier era. Mr. Terkel writes: ‘In the ’30s, an administration recognized a need and lent a hand. Today an administration recognizes an image and lends a smile.’ Similarly, Mr. Terkel’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Good War,” has a title in ironic quotation marks because the emphasis, again and again, is on World War II’s shadows and injustices, with allusions, in the words of one interviewer singled out for attention, to a contemporary ‘meanness of soul.’

“All this is saying, perhaps, is that Mr. Terkel was a man of the political left—something of which he made no secret. The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories. But its perspective actually seems to guide its strategy, so one is no longer sure what is being omitted and how much is being fully seen. No part of history or human experience should be ignored, but all of it needs to be placed in a larger context.

“Part of Mr. Terkel’s wide appeal was that he seemed to be a scrappy liberal in his choice of causes and concerns, but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism. Though Mr. Terkel was not a theorist, nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory; he even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.”

Most revealing is the fact that late in life Studs Terkel provided a blurb touting the memoirs of William Ayers, about whom we have heard much lately. To be sure, there is not much connection between Ayers and president-elect Obama, but Ayers has never disavowed his days as a bomb-throwing radical, or his support for America’s enemies. Terkel thought otherwise. “A deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world,” he bizarrely opined. “Ayers provides a tribute to those better angels of ourselves.” (I’m pretty sure that Abraham Lincoln would strongly disagree.)

Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York City, the second of Isidore and Augusta Barnett Miller's three children. His father had come to the United States from Austria-Hungary and ran a small coat-manufacturing business. His mother, a native of New York, had been a public school teacher.

He was graduated from the University of Michigan in 1938, having won several awards for playwriting. Because of an old football injury, he was rejected for military service, but he was hired to tour army camps to collect material for a movie, “The Story of G. I. Joe.” His notes from these tours were published as “Situation Normal” (1944). That same year the Broadway production of his play “The Man Who Had All the Luck” opened, closing after four performances.

Miller's career blossomed with the opening of “All My Sons” on Broadway in 1947. A kind of modern tragedy, the play won three prizes, drawing audiences across the country. Then his signature work, “Death of a Salesman” (1949), brought Miller the Pulitzer Prize for drama, international fame, and an estimated income of two million dollars.

A caustic attack on American materialism, “Death of a Salesman” centers on the main character, Willy Loman. At the age of sixty-three, Willy has been a traveling salesman all his life. Despite his hard work and grueling schedule, the Lomans have always lived on the edge of poverty and Willy has always been an underling in his company. Yet Willy constantly tells himself and his family that the "big break" he deserves is just around the corner. He has raised his two sons, Biff and Happy, to also believe that somehow life has cheated them and insists that one day they will get their due. Linda, Willy's dutiful wife, lives under the thin veneer of denial that her husband has so long tried to keep from collapsing.

When he finds that because of changing economic conditions the company has no further need for his services, Willy is devastated. Despite his protests otherwise, Willy knows he is a failure. He begins to slowly kill himself by inhaling gas fumes from a hose in the garage, an act that relieves his mental anguish and gives him a brief high. The gas also muddles Willy's mind, conflating past, present, and future. He had sought desperately to be "well liked.” Yet without the status of being a manager who makes more money, the dream is impossible. He dies as he has lived, a failure in the eyes of society.

Miller's third Broadway play, "The Crucible" (1953), was set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, during a witch-hunting craze. In fact Miller's play was present-minded, for its subtext is the purported similarity to Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations of anti-American activities during the early 1950s. Both activities were reprehensible, but in fact the comparison is strained. People lost their jobs as a result of McCarthy, but no one was burned.

Miller wrote many other plays, but none had the success of these three. They all share the ambition of puncturing the American dream. The last, “The Crucible,” unconsciously picks up the Italian theme that American was ruined by puritanism.

Born in 1947, David Mamet was brought up in a Jewish section on the South Side of Chicago just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. He is the author of nearly thirty full-length plays, numerous one-act plays and radio dramas, sixteen scripts, three novels, and four collections of essays. He shares Terkel and Miller’s claim that the American dream has failed, devastating people’s lives. A special feature of his writing is the coarseness, as his dialogue tends to be liberally laced with profanity. He portrays an America that is falling apart. It is sometimes said that Mamet portrays the degradation of business ethic into deception and betrayal; this is untrue because he believes that business has always been corrupt and venal. A more general theme is the breakdown of communication between people; in his view, relations between men and women are always conflicting and discordant.

Mamet's first success in the theater was his scatological play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” Some attendees must have been initially disappointed, because the title is misleading. The play does not dramatize obscure sexual practices. but focuses on the four characters’ inability to build meaningful love relationships. What is missing from their world is any intimacy, any shared perception of the possibilities generated by human connection and empathy. Both sexes lack a usable language or a shared understanding. The kaleidoscopic and fragmented structure of the play both reflects and induces a similar sort of haste and shallowness apparent in the human relationships that lack any depth of intimacy or emotion. Setting a kind of Strindbergian sexual battle against backdrop of the fast-spaced rhythms of the society, the play argues that the logic of capitalism-–possession and consumption–destroys any possibility of human solidarity. Mamet thinks that our national character makes violence take precedence over love.

His later plays are much the same. In more recent years Mamet has been working in Hollywood, where he finds (surprise!) that money and personal ambition dictate everything. This view informs his 1998 play “Speed the Plow,” currently being revived on Broadway.

Something of a departure from his usual themes appears in "Oleana" (1992), where he dared to take on the orthodoxy of political correctness concerning sexual harassment--real and imagined--in the universities. The play concerns a college professor, whose career is destroyed by a female student, who falsely accuses him of sexual impropriety. Some of Mamet’s former admirers turned on him, dismissing his work as a manifestation of backlash sexual politics characterized by outrage and hostility towards the agenda of contemporary feminism. Having seen the play when it was first produced, I found it a courageous early warning against a trend that was quickly getting out of hand.

In this vein Mamet has written recent essays revising his earlier views, causing him to be labeled--falsely, I believe--a neo-conservative. Instead he has shown signs of a new maturity. It is uncertain though whether he will be able to give his current insights sustained attention in the form of plays and films.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you might read some of what Studs Terkel actually wrote -- his books are widely available -- rather than focus on the hardly "brilliant" Rothstein's widely discredited -- by the New York Times's own obituary of Terkel, by the "Editorial Observer" column on the Times editorial page on what Terkel's books actually say and how they say it, by the letter to the editor published in the Times on Rothstein's screed by film critic Roger Ebert, among many others -- inaccurate, highly and dishonestly selective, cowardly (published by Rothstein two days after Studs's death but never before in the decades when Studs was alive and able to reply) and shabby piece of 1950s-style redbaiting.

As an academic and author -- retired or otherwise -- you surely know the value of primary sources.

Andrew Patner
WFMT Radio Chicago and
Chicago Sun-Times and

8:29 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

To what extent are the books compiled by Terkel “original sources”? It is obvious that out of the many interviews he conducted, he chose to publish only those that would support his point of view. Even for those that are included, I am told, he would make cuts and rearrange the material so that it represented his point of view, rather than that of the person interviewed.
Terkel’s work is ventriloquial journalism in that he is not an honest narrator, but a collagist who rearranged his material in order to make it accord with a particular ideology. The essence of that point of view is that America is not a land of opportunity, but a place of torment. That distorted perspective is what Terkel shares with Miller and Mamet.

How different was the experience of the first generation of immigrants to this country! Whether they came from Italy or Greece, from Ireland or the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist Russia, they were uniformly grateful for the opportunities afforded them in the New Country.

As it happens, all three of my subjects, Terkel, Miller, and Mamet, are Jewish. Jewish Americans in particular have done well in America, as the overwhelming majority will freely acknowledge. Only a few belly-aching intellectuals think otherwise.

Wayne R. Dynes

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Dynes -- not true at all!

Have you read the books? "It is obvious"? "I am told"? -- that's how you form an opinion? Should I write you up somewhere and discuss your publications without having read them, basing my conclusions on something written about them by someone writing a negative drive-by analysis of them -- and you?

You feel confident to accuse Studs Terkel, a man you did not know and have not read, whose radio programs you do not know, of being dishonest? That's really remarkable.

You feel that you can characterize his view of America -- a country he loved and found an endless source of optimism -- of being "a place of torment"? Where do you get that from? You call him a "belly-aching intellectual"? Come on with the empty generalities.

I'm sorry I attempted to engage you in a discussion. Enjoy the self-confirming comfort of your little website and the "brilliant" Edward Rothstein.

Andrew Patner -- Chicago

4:17 PM  

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