Wednesday, March 26, 2014

X Marks the Unknown

You have to admire them, on some level.  At least I do.  It takes enormous devotion and sometimes huge outlays of cash to be a Conspiracy Theorist.  I mean, they are seeking and finding The Truth.  I, on the other hand, spend my time redistributing the taxpayers money in service of the common good.  I attend meetings predicting the academic needs for the next generation of community college students, apply for grants to promote public/private dialog on some important topic still to be determined, or, when the time is right, request ten percent raises in faculty travel budgets.  I do important work—I really do.  But while I ply the trade of a bureaucrat, they become at various moments detectives, historians, scientists, and philosophers.  Their intellectual roots are those of Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Oppenheimer.  These are people who listen to whatever the authorities tell them and reply with a resounding, “Bull Shit! Let me tell you how things really work.”  
X Marks the Spot Where John Kennedy
          Suffered the Fatal Wound
For me, I just don’t care enough.  Nor do I care enough to search for the roots of my particular brand of intellectual apathy.  Perhaps I am cursed with an idiosyncratic strand of dull-witted DNA.  Maybe I suffer from the accumulated compound interest of so many afternoons imbibing in delicious beverages brewed from malt and hops.  It could be the cranial scar tissue developed over a decade or two from self-important verbal slashings offered by various discontented teachers who earnestly wished that I would finally learn their sage wisdom that “curiosity killed the cat, you know.”  Or maybe my unappreciative psyche never recognized the opportunities for intellectual freedom offered when I was caught alone in the corner of a dull dinner party while a brave Theorist spit the evidence of his canapĂ©, spiced with the latest crumbs of his pet atrocity.
It’s been fifty years and four months since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on Elm Street in Dallas, Texas.  I have lived in Texas forty-nine years, and this week was the first time I have visited Dealey Plaza.  (So the Theorists can exclude me as a suspect.)  I have no reason why it has taken me so long to visit this so powerfully important piece of geography.  I mean, when one makes the list of the most important dates and places in the history of the United States, November 23, 1963, 12:30 p.m., Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, is somewhere near the top of the list.  Being ten when he was killed, I am the product of the grieved and shocked nation: I am one who inherited the deflated hopes of a nation, the distrust of all authority, the skepticism of honor, and the fear of institutional evil.  At bottom, you know, the assassination and the unsolved crime, all just proves that in the end the bad guys will win.  The Vietnam War and Watergate, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, did nothing but reinforce those feelings.
photo by John Mazziotta, Dallas Times Herald
But who done it?  The Lone Gunman.  Or two. Or four.  Oswald. James Files. Howard Hunt.  Why?  Mob retaliation.  Cuban retaliation.  Ku Klux Klan.  CIA.  The Russians.  Lyndon Johnson.  While the Sixth Floor Museum allots respect to the possibility that someone hid behind the fence above the Grassy Knoll and to the difficulty of someone like Oswald firing three shots in the required time, I, at least, departed Dealey Plaza feeling what I have always felt.  I will never know.  Maybe my government did kill its president.  Maybe some criminal or political entity did.  Maybe, as in Lincoln’s case, it was a small group of discontents.  Or as with Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, the assassins of Garfield and McKinley, Oswald was his own special breed.  And perhaps this is another reason, we travel to Dallas and to Dealey Plaza.  We hope that we will solve this mystery.  It is like visiting The Alamo or The University of Texas Tower or the compound of the Branch Davidians.  We want to stand in the real world and feel our way toward answers otherwise denied us. But will we really understand what occurred in these?  I don’t expect so.  I do not expect to be set free in a perfect understanding of people or history.  Yet somehow I wake up each morning and proceed to do my job in spite of these unanswered questions.  Odd. 
      Before the family and I leave North Texas and head west for four months, I thought I should visit Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum in The Texas Book Depository.  Knightsmama and the boys decided that the sixteen dollar price tag was a bit much, so they headed over to the Ross Perot Museum of Nature and Science.  By the way, they loved it.  My sons were so happy not to be visiting another historical site or art museum.  And I was equally taken by the Sixth Floor Museum dedicated to Kennedy and the fateful day in Dallas.  I hung out for about three hours, with a couple hundred other people, at least, reading most of the historical displays and listening to the very informative taped guided tour.  I walked about Dealey Plaza imagining the motorcade making its turn onto Elm Street, hearing the shots, standing where Zapruder stood with his camera rolling, walking up the grassy knoll where there was or there wasn’t a second shooter.  And I watched my fellow human beings perform one of those odd and moving spectacles that it never occurs to me to participate in:  when the traffic halted for the light up the hill, men and women stepped into the middle of the street and stood on the X’s painted in the middle of the street.  The First X lay where Kennedy was struck by the first bullet that pierced his throat.  The Second X, several yards down the road, marks where the President suffered his fatal head wound. Now why would calm sane citizens rush out into busy street and pose for that photo-op.  “I stood where U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot,” they will tell their family members, their co-workers, the next guests at their back yard bar-b-cue.  What they won’t say is, “where his head exploded like a melon smashed by Gallagher’s mallets....”  What is the source of this urge I asked myself as I photographed the tourists standing on the spot.  X marks the spot.  X for extermination.  X for extinguish.  X for exit wound.  Are we gawkers at the gallows?  Are we meditators on memory?
Where the First Bullet Hit
Even though this one behavior struck me as bizarre, the rest of the experience was one filled with as much reverence and deep love for this country as our visit to the Statue of Liberty, to Ellis Island, to the 911 Memorial, to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, and to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  In each of these places, people of all ages, of many colors and hues, from many nationalities, speaking many languages come together to consider the weight of the dream that is American Liberty and the cost of that liberty and the cost of the mistakes we make creating and defending that liberty.  Of all the places that the Caravan has visited in the past year, and really in all our past travels as a family, these locations are significant for a deep sonorous hum of respect and awe that pervades.  At the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial, an international joy is added, a palpable sweetness, as if humans could really accept each other and offer mutual respect and love.  At the Vietnam Memorial, Dealey Plaza, and the 911 Memorial we honor great wounds to the American spirit.  We hope and pray, together, in our individual acts of pilgrimage and homage, to keep that spirit alive.  Through the winter of grief, we wish, that the sprig of greeny tenderness return.  We remember, we say, when peace and a purposeful positive future seemed possible, even probable.  We have not given up, we announce by our mere presence.  This is our civic faith and John Kennedy and his brother Bobby are among its saints.  



Soundtrack.  Moms Mabley:  "Abraham, Martin, and John."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On the Road, Again

I was drunk.  It was dawn.  Those are two facts I am certain of.  I was strolling down an empty two-lane country road.  That’s a third fact.  Then let impression and imagination step into the story.   Some details are foggy, but the sky is cloudless, not quite blue yet, still gray, but lightening, like worn white sheets, cool and comforting.  The song of a few birds rise from some random trees.  It is late April, early May, 1974, slightly past the height of wildflower season west of Austin.  The startling outcroppings of bluebonnets have receded, and sporadic stands of swirling flames of Mexican Blankets have replaced them.  There are Prickly Pear and the occasional juniper cedar, spared for some reason by generations of Hill Country cedar choppers.  Most of this section of land has for decades been routinely cleared for small herds of scrawny cattle.  But since LBJ and other visionaries dammed up the Colorado in 1942,  the speculators have been buying and dividing, and the county’s been angling roads around undeveloped parcels, seemingly heading nowhere, but eventually descending toward Lake Travis, where a few camp homes, saved for wealthy city dwellers or rented to hippies or near-do-wells, nestle somewhere near the water.  There is no breeze.  I am the only thing moving across the landscape.
Willie Nelson. by sculptor Clete Shields
I have been abandoned by my equally drunk friends—Claud, Tim, and Neal.  Actually, I am unsure exactly who sits in my car, and who scoots over into my seat, when I neglect control of the wheel to take a piss.  Claud, I am sure, is here.  Fact four.  Tim and Neal are good bets.  Sometimes Tim would drive up to Austin after his finals at Rice for a post-semester celebration.   Neal and I are roommates, a year away from graduation.  What I remember or reconstruct is that Neal and Tim and I are celebrating the end of the semester with homemade tacos and refried beans, Shiner beer, and tequila.    One thing leads to another shot and at some point we decide we want to appreciate a sunrise at the lake.  These were the good ole days when people drove drunk and somehow remembered to stop at red lights and always managed to avoid wayward joggers and bicyclists.   Things have certainly changed.    These days, someone would be dead or arrested.  (Don’t do as I did, children.)
So it was still dark, and I was driving as steadily as I can.  We navigate the roller coaster of Ranch Road 2222, famous for its sharp curves that carry you over the Balcones Fault line and into the new world.  Some people say the Balcones Fault is where the “East” ends and the “West” begins.  For sure, once one crosses and enters the Texas Hill Country, there ain’t no more farming.   We make it to Ranch Road 620, which runs parallel west of the city about 15 or 20 miles from downtown.  Drive on it long enough and you ride the top of Mansfield Dam that temporarily halts the flow of the Colorado River, thus creating Lake Travis, home to notorious Hippie Hollow where men and women swim naked.  Hell, they walk around and sun bathe naked, tempting like sirens, motorboat loads of straight families with binoculars hoping to glimpse what freedom looks like.   In the east, the sky begins to brighten.  I peel off to the right on a narrow road,  heading west again, thinking the Lake must be over there somewhere.   We drive around for awhile, and wonder where have all the road signs gone.  Where are we?  Where is the lake?  I need to piss.
Willie, downtown Austin
It was Claud.  It was always Claud,  chemistry major at UT,  smart as a whip, funny as a knife, always the guy with the practical jokes.   A fact I insist upon:  Claud climbs behind the wheel of my car.  While I stand by the side of the road, returning to the dry earth some of its precious liquid, my car pulls away, at moderate speed, proceeds for several hundred yards, and then approaches a rise, crosses over and disappears into the radiating nub of the corona of the rising sun. 
Did I tell you I was drunk?  And I was twenty-one and attending the University of Texas.  And the semester was over.  And I felt free.   There I stood in the cool air of a Texas dawn.  I am wearing my pointy-toe cowboy boots, faded blue jeans, a pearl snap button cowboy shirt.  A bandana around my longish hair?  Sure.  I don’t remember, but it would not be unusual for me to be dressed so.   But what happened next I do remember because this moment was and remains one of those moments of light, enlightenment, lightness, where what we know and what we experience come together in a unity, in an explosion of joy.
I zipped up my jeans, tucked in my shirttail, and began walking along the side of the lonely, neglected road, away from the lake I had been searching for, toward the sunrise, toward home, not knowing how long Claud’s joke would last.  And this is a fact: I began singing, loudly, jubilantly, maybe even foolishly,

It’s a bloody Mary morning
Baby left me without warning
Sometime in the night.
So I'm flying down to Houston
With forgetting her the nature of my flight.

As we taxi down the runway
With the smog and haze reminding me
Of how I feel,
Just a country boy who's learning
That the pitfalls of the city
Are extremely real.


Willie Nelson, originally from Abbot, Texas,  125 miles north of Austin, was forty-one years old when the album Phases and Stages appeared.  The song I was singing, “Bloody Mary Morning,” begins side two.  Do you remember when music came on vinyl records with two sides?  It was like there were second beginnings, second chances, in those days.   A couple of years before, Nelson had abandoned Nashville, where he experienced solid, but moderate and frustrated success. Recently, he had divorced for the second time and lost his home in a fire. He needed a change, perhaps a new career, even. So he moved to Austin.  In the next three years, from 1973 to 1975, Nelson reinvented himself blending, as we Austinites of a certain age always say, our unique mixture of hippie and redneck cultures.   He released three albums, Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, and The Red Headed Stranger, each one developing bit by bit the eclectic and electric persona that became the moral and aesthetic center, of, to use Jan Reid’s phrase, “the improbable rise of red-neck rock.”  I could call these the midlife crises albums—declarations of freedom, expressions of regret, and explorations of a new self. 
Your Essential Magnificence, by James Talbot
Recently, in reading Joe Nick Patoski’s biography of Willie, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, I was, now that I think about it, struck, stupidly, about how ambitious, how conscious, how quietly manipulative Nelson was in re/creating himself.  “Well, the short-hairs in Nashville won’t listen to me, so I’ll grow my hair and move to Austin,” I can almost imagine him saying to himself.  Just like Elvis and Rick Nelson (another of my favorites), Willie wasn’t getting his share of the cash from the hippies.  Willie went so far as to recognize his music, his own being, as a product like beer.  Patoski quotes a representative from Lone Star beer telling how Willie came to him and told him they were in the same sad boat.  The kids won’t listen to his music and the kids won’t drink Lone Star beer for the same reasons:  their parents liked it.  So they worked out product placement deals and advertising campaigns around Willie and Lone Star as the next cool thing.  I bought Willie and ignored Lone Star.  But nowadays the hipsters in Austin, and the rednecks, are still drinking Lone Star. 
Close up of Your Essential Magnificence
Those who have followed Nelson’ career know, however, that he never stood still.  After teaming with Waylon Jennings to help invent Outlaw Country—which basically meant country music without the Nashville strings, literal and figurative, or we could call it country music without bullshit—Willie began placing himself in the center of a greater American culture.  Step one, to my mind, was the album Stardust, an album of songs from the Great American Songbook, which won Nelson a Grammy for best country male vocalist, and so far has sold over five million copies.  He assembled this album, lived in this record, just as Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra would.  Willie was always an interesting and intentional singer, but with Stardust he began a second or third career in which he becomes sometimes an astonishing singer and interpreter of classic songs, whether they be country, jazz, blues, pop, folk, or rock and roll, everything from “Will the Circle be Unbroken” to “Georgia on My Mind” to “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Graceland.”  In many ways, he has become something beyond a songwriter or performer, and reached a cross over status something like an icon or treasure.  He sort of reminds me now of one of his heroes, Louis Armstrong, someone about whom one simply forgets all the labels.

Over the years, since my drunken revelry, I seldom followed Willie’s music closely, like I did Leonard Cohen’s or Dylan’s or Paul Simon’s, or Joni Mitchell’s, for that matter.   In 1996, while I was living in an apartment in the process of getting a divorce, I purchased the album Spirit.  After listening to it a few times, I found myself so depressed, I shelved it.  It is a quiet but powerful record, and I recommend it if you want to cry.  Still, even though I haven’t been purchasing each new record, it’s not like Willie is not a constant part of my life.  Knightsmama wore out her copy of Across the Borderline. When I pulled out the CD to download it for the trip, it was cracked and broken.  When I visit my sister The Queen Bee, who hasn’t lived in Texas for thirty years, the first thing she does is make a batch of margaritas and “puts on some Willie.” 
Stevie Ray Vaughan,
             by sculptor Ralph Helmick
           For all of these reasons, on a recent trip to Austin—while still anchored in East Texas—I made sure I visited Willie’s statue in the center of town.  I am re-beginning my pilgrimage in my home town, in downtown Austin, on Willie Nelson Drive and visiting Willie’s statue, placed there by the city of Austin on April 20, 2012 (4-20, if you’re a code breaker).  Willie Nelson is not a native to Austin—very few of us are.  But somehow he embodies the character and personality of what the best of Austin has striven for, a smiling rural acceptance of one’s fellow humans blended with a knowing urban skepticism of power.  It is a love of tradition balanced by a fierce individualism.  This is a fact:  American art and ideas don’t get much better than Willie Nelson. 
            While I was at it, I made my way to the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan along Lady Bird Lake.  I also drove by two sculptures along South Congress Avenue created by two men I like to call friends.  Right near the Congress Avenue Bridge is the “Bat Sculpture” by Dale Whistler, whose work commemorates the Austin spirit all around town.   Further south is the iridescent throne by the multi-media artist most people know by his last name—Talbot.   When Knightsmama and I begin to contemplate leaving Austin for good because of all the changes that are being wrought, I remember the cultural roots of Austin that made all these people move there in the first place.  Before us, it was country boys and girls wanting a little liberal sophistication offered by the University and state government.  Next, it was us Rednecks wishing to be Hippies.   Now, it’s Hipsters wishing to be whatever they think Austin offers.    

Nightwing, by Dale Whistler
              In five days, the Caravan hits the road again, leaving Hundred Acre Woods in Wills Point by way of the highway that “brung” us here, Interstate 20.  In January 4, when we learned of The Buckaroo’s stroke, we caught 20 in Columbia, South Carolina, and drove straight through to Tyler.  On March 30, we will hop back on to 20 and ride it until it ends in far West Texas.  We will have driven almost the entire length of it, approximately 1450 miles on this one road, which is 1539.4 miles long.  An odd accomplishment.  But one we will all celebrate by singing with Willie, “On the Road Again.”



Soundtrack Double Feature:  Willie Nelson:  "On the Road Again."

Willie Nelson:  "Bloody Mary Morning."


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Look Homeward, Bibliophile

It hasn’t been a dominant part of our trip, but it has been an occasional pleasure.  Visiting Bookstores.    To a certain extent, we have avoided bookstores.  All of us in the family have serious book habits, which is fine when we live in our 2500 square foot house in Austin.  But we are living in the belly of the Monster.  Although the Monster is a serious structure to haul around the nation with a pick up truck, it’s not terribly accommodating for people and their personal libraries.
Thomas Wolfe
So we have been very disciplined book purchasers.  First, everyone is buying, renting, and borrowing books for their Kindles or IPads.  No clutter in The Cloud.  Two of my favorite digital books have been Scott Martelle’s Detroit:  A Biography and Deborah Davis’s gossipy history on Newport, Guilded: How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort. How Newpor  Second, we will only occasionally purchase a hard-copy souvenir.   I now have a book on Cahokia, Seneca Falls, Bar Harbor, the Lower East Side, and a pamphlet on the iron industry in South Central Pennsylvania.  At the Longfellow House and Museum in Portland, Maine, I succumbed to a cheap paperback copy of Evangeline and Other Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I had not planned to read Evangeline, but I did and am very happy to have done so.  The rhythm of Longfellow’s dactyls bounce along quite nicely with the hum of the road. Third, I did sin, once.  I over-indulged when I could not resist some mass paperbacks at a library sale in Bar Harbor:  The House of Seven Gables, The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Square, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and The Awakening.  Fifty cents a piece, each of these filled a slot in the syllabus for the great American Road Trip. 
More important are all the books we have resisted.  Think of all the places we have visited and all the gift shops.  Woody Guthrie, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, L.L. Bean, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Calvin Coolidge, Emily Dickinson, Paul Revere, John Bradford, Frederick Douglas, John Brown, W.E. B. Dubois, Sojourner Truth, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, Robert E. Lee, Longstreet, Stonewall Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Martin Luther King, and the list goes on and on.  So many wonderful, fascinating, strange Americans to understand.  I have my reading list for when we return.
Bruised Apple Books
So fourth and finally, the bookshops.  My three favorite bookshops on this trip so far are Bruised Apple Books in Peekskill (New York),  Daedelus Books in Charlottesville (Virginia), and Black Mountain Books in Black Mountain (North Carolina).   At Bruised Apple, I picked up The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, and A Fan’s Notes.  The first two became part of Dr. J.’s and my shared reading (as we had done with Huckleberry Finn, Winesburg, Ohio, On the Road, and The Road).  I reserved Exley for my own personal miseries.  At Daedelus, I nabbed a copy of Leo Damrosch’s biography of Jean Jacques Rousseau and a couple of other books,  for the class I am taking to satisfy requirements for the sabbatical that is paying for this adventure.  The owner of Daedelus, who is famous in the area and a wonderfully sweet and generous man, gifted Jacob with three mysteries.  At Black Mountain Books, a little tourist bookshop that remains true to the artistic heritage of the town by hiding some really tasty books in the backrooms, I found my copy of Look Homeward, Angel
At nineteen and twenty, at the University of Texas, I fell head over hills in love with Scott Fitzgerald.  I read almost everything he had written.  A few years later on Staten Island, that obsession transformed into a summer of love with Ernest Hemingway, which, on returning to graduate school, was soon tempered by a sweet tryst with Thornton Wilder.  William Faulkner entered my life occasionally for a few desperate over-wrought hours, but departed soon enough.  Even though in the mid-nineteen seventies, some professors still recommended the beauties and pleasures of Thomas Wolfe’s enthusiastic and overbearing prose, I resisted.   I can’t tell you why really, except that I have an innate attraction to the clean and classic, the simple and direct, none of which is a description of Thomas Wolfe.  And, being a slow reader, I avoid large books when I can.
Daedelus Books
But we were in North Carolina.  We were visiting Asheville.  We are seeing America, and no one—except, of course, Walt Whitman—loved America, wished to roll himself in the strong arms of this great and various nation more than Thomas Wolfe.  He gushed and spurted, salivated, spit, drooled, splashed and slopped his never ending rush of words over the body of the nation.   Now that I have finished his first novel, I have added the names of his other books to my “To Read Once the Adventure Is Over” list. 
There is much to say about Look Homeward, Angel.  Too much really.   I put some of what I have to say into an essay for the class I am taking (many thanks to the professor for allowing me to bring non-required reading into the course).  You can find that essay here.   On a personal level I found the final third of the novel to be compulsively overwhelming, feeling what I imagine a glutton feels gorging, gorging, gorging long after one is sated.  One cries, “No more! No more!” while scooping up larger and greater portions.  Remember that scene in Magical Mystery Tour with John Lennon shoveling pasta on to the diners’ plates.  That’s it.  Gleeful torture.
Thomas Wolfe's First Novel
Some critics call his work indulgent, adolescent, lacking art.  I think they are missing the point.  Is Ulysses adolescent?  Is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man mere autobiography?  Weren’t these the books Wolfe was attempting to place his book beside?  I think Wolfe knew exactly what he was doing—at least in the composing.  Sure, he was less assured in the assembly.  But that criticism misses the point.  His narratives were not constructed on emotional arcs.  His novels were a great piling on of detail.
Wolfe captures that American compulsion to over-indulge, over-desire, over-emote, over-express, to dominate and to be dominated by personal demons.  It’s LBJ and Nixon.  It’s Cheney and Trump.  It’s John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison.  It’s everyone of us who doesn’t know when to say that we have had enough, that “This is all I need.”  Wolfe’s father was a raging and periodic alcoholic.  His mother was perfect American capitalist, denying love and comfort to her family, as she nurtured tenderly and greedily her bank balance.  And Wolfe, himself, gushed forth his own coinage into the vaults of his novels, with rage and greed equal to his parents’. 
I read somewhere that Look Homeward, Angel was one of Kerouac’s favorites, and, if true, that fact makes sense to me.  Both writers were unsettled, rebelling against and imprisoned by their hometowns.  They couldn’t go home; nor could they make home elsewhere.   Look Homeward, Angel is one long aching plea—“Where is my home?”  Isn’t that close to why Kerouac hit the road?  Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Mexico, all part of a search to find the place where it all feels right.
Thomas Wolfe's Home, Called "Dixieland" in his novel
In our family, Knightsmama is the searcher.  It is her hunger for change, for some kind of perfect home, that animated this adventure.  I am the homebody.  Give me my books, a typewriter of some form, and some friends and family I see on occasion, and I will be content.  I am the introvert; I search inside.  Knightsmama is the extrovert; she searches the borders.  Yet, I have loved this trip, the great adventure, even with our being tied to the docks in East Texas for three months now, almost.  And I am ready to hit the road again, and I am not sure I would ever wish it would end. 
An Angel from Wolfe's Father's Shop
Thomas Wolfe’s fourth novel, published posthumously, is titled You Can’t Go Home Again.   Of course, the first fact is you can go home again.  I know plenty of folks who left my hometown of Temple and returned, and they seem perfectly happy.  The question for those of us who got out and made ourselves a life away from home is why would one want to go home again?  And in a strange way, this is a question I have to ask myself as I contemplate the completion of this year on the road:  why would I want to return home in Austin?  My job is the first reason.  I like having a job.  But if this year has taught me anything it is that home is where I am, where I am with my boys and with my wife.  That could be in the thirty-four foot monster.  It could be in The Buckaroo’s home on Hundred Acre Woods in the middle of Nowhere, East Texas.  It could be in any of our favorite places where we have stayed:  Fayetteville (Arkansas), Paducah (Kentucky), Grand Bend (Ontario), Cooperstown (New York), Newberryport (Massachusetts), Portland (Maine), Narragansett (Rhode Island) Peekskill (New York) or, Carlyle (Pennsylvania), Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia), or Crozet (Virginia), or Asheville  or Wilmington (North Carolina).  That’s my list, at least.
In one week, we will be hitting the road west.  We have “lost” about six weeks from our original Western itinerary.  Mostly these weeks will be subtracted from New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California.  We lost a great deal of lingering time. We still have our firm date of hitting Corvallis, Oregon, for Knightsmama’s graduation from Oregon State University.  She completed all her course work, the final classes in the fall, on the road.  Then in June and July, we point the monster home east and then south.  If all goes to plan, we will still hit all the western states.

There is a strange thing about our plans for these final months.  The greatest goal is our visits to American National Parks.  The strange thing is that Thomas Wolfe died at age thirty-eight after touring several great western national parks.  We have his notebooks, his great enthusiastic jottings.  It will be one book I carry along with us.  O great arms of America!  I am returning see you again!

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Dan Seals:  "Heading West."
Cyndi Lauper:  "Heading West."

Friday, March 21, 2014

Refusing Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”

An essay for the class I am taking.


Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is sometimes seen, especially in recent decades, as a description of natural or divine forces at play in society akin to Newton’s description of gravity or Darwin’s of evolution.  His theories in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations come equipped even with a divine “explanation”:  “an invisible hand.”  It’s a phrase that he used only once in The Wealth of Nation, and which originated in his first book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But it is an idea that animates—and sweetens—his description of how national economies function.  The idea, as it is often portrayed, is that no matter how much humans muck around with the economy, displaying their greed and incompetence, everything will always end up righting itself and some kind of balance will return to markets.  As history has progressed there are reasons enough to credit Smith with a great deal of insight, but to respect the limitations of this theory.
Smith lays out a basic description that an economy is founded on the principles of buyers and sellers.  In any given transaction, there is a person or group selling a product that another person or group wishes to purchase.  He believes we all benefit by increasing the number of these exchanges.   Generally, he is interpreted as advocating that we should do anything we can to support the expansion of these transactions. The more, the merrier. His well-known statement that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” alludes to both sides of the transaction (119).  Both parties need to benefit from the transaction:  the buyer receives the goods that he or she needs or desires, and the seller receives some sort of profit, which he or she will use to satisfy his or her own needs or desires.  If only the buyer benefits, then the seller will cease selling.  If only the seller benefits, the buyer will not be able to continue participating. 
Smith also describes how three essential factors function:  land, labor, and capital.  First, there are the owners of land, buildings, factories, and equipment.  These can be rented to others.  Next, there are those whose work creates the product.  The more specialized that labor, he argues, the more product that can be produced at lower costs.  Third, there are those who have capital—either in cash or in equipment, or as Smith calls it, “circulating” or “fixed” capital.  All these factors inevitably contribute to the “natural price” of a commodity, or, simply, the cost to produce the product.  This “natural” price” should include a little profit for the contributors of the land, labor, and capital.  The problem occurs—but Smith would not call it a problem—because each of the parties involved—the owners and providers of the land, labor, and capital—are in competition with each other and with other providers of the same product.  Everyone is trying to maximize his or her own income and to minimize his or her own outlay.  Similarly, consumers are in competition with each other to purchase various products.  In this way, prices for commodities can vary if one is attempting to buy or sell food products during a drought or excessively rainy season, if one is offering black (mourning) cloth during a war or period of pestilence, if someone has secretly developed a new technology that reduces labor, or created a product that supersedes or eliminates the need for previous products. 
At every moment, the economy has opportunities to be thrown out of balance, for good or ill, for one or more constituencies—buyers, sellers, land owners, workers, capitalists.  If commodities become scarce profits go up, owners hire more laborers with higher wages to increase output.  If the market is glutted with commodities with low or no profit margins, cut labor.  Still, through that mysterious force of the “invisible hand,”  benefits flow to one or all in the long run.  Or, cynically, one might believe that it is those who benefit who believe that the benevolent “invisible hand” has been active.  I wonder if the poor, unemployed, and others who have not benefited from a particularly violent economic shift believe that the ‘invisible hand” has rebalanced their lives.   
One of the effects of Adam Smith and later theorists like Karl Marx coming to understand economic markets so well is that, of course, others would come to understand them equally well.  Especially, people in business.  And those business people were not interested in understanding the economy for policy or political or ethical reasons (no, Theory of Moral Sentiments, here); rather, they were looking for the best way to make a profit, or to game the system. One can think of the business tactics of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, for instance.  A recent academic example is Harvard professor Michael E. Porter’s ideas as developed in 1979’s “How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy” and his subsequent books.  “[C]ompetition in an industry is rooted in its underlying economics, and competitive forces exist that go well beyond establishing combatants in a particular industry.  Customers, suppliers, potential entrants, and substitute products are all competitors that may be more or less prominent or active depending on the industry” (2).   Porter established the process of analyzing “Five Forces” when developing a business strategy.  It seems to me that he basically applies Smith’s macro–analysis to a business strategy that advocated avoiding all situations in which “natural pricing” occurs.  In other words, one’s business strategy should always be to deflect the “invisible hand.”  A business’s best competitive stance is to make certain the economy, or at least one’s own sector of it, should never come to balance.  Profits occur when there is an imbalanced market place.  So as Smith accepts (and even applauds), Porter implies that a business’s goal is never to promote or sustain the public good, but to exploit opportunities for maximum profit by accessing one’s strength over and vulnerability to five forces: supplier power, buyer power, (the number and strength of) other existing competitors,  threat of substitution, and the threat of a new competitors.
It seems to me that his conclusion is simply a statement of how important it is that a business not fall victim to the constant urge of the economy to balance itself:
            The key to growth—even survival—is to stake out a position that is less vulnerable to attack from head-to-head opponents, whether established or new, and less vulnerable to erosion from the direction of buyers, suppliers, and substitute goods.  Establishing such a position can take many forms—solidifying relationships with favorable customers, differentiating the product either substantively or psychologically through marketing, integrating forward or backward, establishing technological leadership.  (10)
            But, of course, the world in which Adam Smith wrote no longer exists.  Industries and corporations are larger, markets are more extensive and even more global, banks more powerful, financial products more complicated than ever.  Still, Adam Smith and his ideas remain influential.  Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman acknowledges, “The birth of economics as a discipline is usually credited to Adam Smith, who published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Over the next 160 years an extensive body of economic theory was developed, whose central message was: Trust the market” (1).  Then in 1929, we suffered the stock market crash, which ushered in The Great Depression and faith in the markets was shattered.  Yet over the course of over sixty years of prosperity, the pain of The Great Depression was forgotten.  “[E]conomists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations.”  And
“[t]hey turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation.” (1)
            So even though I have enjoyed reading Adam Smith and feel that I have discovered a rational explanation of how the economy functions, I have two issues that have nagged me as I studied his work.  First is that I simply don’t trust capitalists and corporations to act in moral ways.  I believe that many, if not most, are out to game the system in some way.  Perhaps it is to lock up suppliers of key components or technologies so that competitors cannot enter the market.  Perhaps they will focus on global profits to the neglect of local employment.  Perhaps, larger wealthier companies will purchase smaller vulnerable companies with advanced products and refuse to bring those new competitive products to market.  Adam Smith might say that certainly these things can happen, but that over time, some competitor will break the lock on suppliers, offer jobs locally, or discover and release competitive technology.  Sure, I can agree, but that leads to my second issue.
            Macro-economics of this kind just simply does not take into account all the small and personal instances of harm.  Some economists, for instance, believe that The Great Recession of 2008 and beyond was simply a typical kind of market correction that they interpret Adam Smith acknowledges and accepts.  As Krugman points out, the effects of that recession include:  “U.S. households have seen $13 trillion in wealth evaporate. More than six million jobs have been lost, and the unemployment rate appears headed for its highest level since 1940 (6).  It might be stimulating to be a rational Smithian economist who flies high overhead computing these numbers, but down on the ground in the individual lives losing six million jobs, the effect is devastating. Like Krugman and other economists who are critical of the warmed-up and simplified versions of Smithian economics, I believe that markets need to be regulated and that there will be occasions for real and urgent government interventions.  As Krugman concludes:  “When it comes to the all-too-human problem of recessions and depressions, economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly” (8).  Or sometimes, an “invisible hand” needs a nice, old-fashioned slap on the wrist.




Works Cited
Krugman, Paul.  “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong.”  New York Times Magazine.
2 September 2009.  Accessed on-line: 21 March 2014 <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/magazine/06Economic-t.html?_r=0>
Porter, Michael E.  “How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy.”  Harvard Business
            Review.  Reprint.  July-August 1997.  1-10.  Harvard Business Review
March-April 1979.  Accessed on-line: 21 March 2014
Smith, Adam.  The Wealth of Nations, Books I-III.  Ed. Andrew Skinner.  New York:

            Penguin Books.  1999.

Capital and Class in Look Homeward, Angel

This is an essay for a class I am taking.        

 In the first chapter of his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe describes the meeting of the parents of the main character, Eugene Gant.  Eugene’s father, W.O. Gant, a stonecutter, has recently moved to the town Altamont, where he is recovering his health from bouts of over drinking and grief from the death of his first wife.  He is lying on the leather couch in his rented shop in the middle of the afternoon when Elizabeth Pentland, a young woman with ambitions, enters.  She is a representative of a publishing firm and attempts to sell her wares.  As part of their flirtatious conversation, Elizabeth turns the topic to property ownership.  “’If I had a few thousand dollars I know what I would do,” she says (10).  She would purchase the lot the building that Gant was renting.  She predicts that the town will grow, a street will be constructed, and soon this “property is going to be worth money” (10).  Gant’s response startles her:  “’I hope I never own another piece of property as long as I live—save a house to live in. It is nothing but a curse and a care, and the tax collector gets it all in the end’” (10).  Although these two marry and raise a family, although Elizabeth eventually purchases a great number of properties, their disagreements over money and its uses never cease.  By including this conflict as one of the central threads in the fabric of this large and dense novel, Thomas Wolfe illustrates how the issues of money and property are woven into Americans’ sense of identity.  In this paper, I will employ a few of the concepts provided by Adam Smith and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to show how Thomas Wolfe captures, in a non-ideological manner, a conflict central to the American psyche.
            Adam Smith, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher of morals and political economy, has often been used in the United States to justify an unfettered free enterprise capitalism. A passage from Chapter Two of Book One in The Wealth of Nations is quoted often, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own interest,” he writes.  “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but of their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage” (vol. 1, 119).  The basic ideas here are first that humans prosper through the division of labor, when different individuals perform different tasks, and second that humans excel when they are pursuing their own self interest, advancement, and profit, especially in a competitive environment.  This passage also hints, distantly, to a second concept that Smith is esteemed for, that of “an invisible hand.”  This concept has been used to support the belief that if we just let everyone look out for their own personal self interest, that over-time everything will just work out fine.  In the second chapter of Book Four, Smith writes, “every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can.  He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. . . . he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention (vol. 2, 32).   Sure, things may be difficult for brief periods:  wages may rise and profits go down; wages may dip and workers left unemployed or destitute; commodities may become too expensive and demand lessen and workers be displaced; commodities may become too plentiful and profits disappear.  And thus we are always caught in cycles of expansion and contraction, but the greater good always wins out.  Or so the theory goes.  As Joseph E. Stiglitz writes in The Price of Inequality, “When markets work well—in the way that Adam Smith hypothesized—it is because private returns and social benefits are well aligned, that is, because private rewards and social contributions are equal” 941).  However, “[w]hen these are not aligned, we say there is a market failure, that is, markets fail to produce efficient outcomes.  Private rewards and social returns are not well aligned when competition is imperfect” (42).  The Great Depression of the nineteen thirties was one such period, as was, according to Stiglitz, the financial crisis this century.
            In Book One of The Wealth of Nations, Smith identifies three factors that form the basis of an economy:  labor, capital, and land.  In Look Homeward, Angel, all three become important features of the development of the novel.  Labor becomes represented in the father, W. O. Gant.  It is his work as a stonecutter and the creator of cemetery monuments that supports the family throughout the novel. We really do not learn much about his labor as the book progresses; rather most of the scenes highlighting the father tend to focus on either is alcoholism or his dynamic literary imagination.  But this we know: in spite of his occasional but recurrent binges, his labor still provides a firm economic foundation for the family. It provides the capital that purchases the family home and building for his business.  In addition, it provides the capital with which his wife begins her own obsession with purchasing land.   “Year by year, above his howl of protest, he did not know how, they gathered in small bits of earth, paid the hated taxes, and put the money that remained into more land.  Over the wife, over the mother, the woman of property, who was like a man, walked slowly forth” (16). 
            But, of course, the father is not the only worker in the family.   After Elizabeth and W.O. cease adding children to their family, the last child being the central character, Eugene, Elizabeth first briefly opens a rooming house in St. Louis, during the World’s Fair, and next purchases a house in Altamount that she calls “Dixieland.”  She leaves her husband and older children in the family home, and moves into Dixieland with Eugene, where she takes in boarders, travelers, and summer retreaters.  Over time, she adds rooms and expands the building, but she also serves as the chief cook and housekeeper.  By the end of the novel, when Eugene is twenty, she is often described as an old and beat woman, which we are to interpret as caused by both her determined hard labor and by her mean spirited greed.  In other words, both labor and capital (along with the greed for land) are the causes for her exhaustion and diminished spirit.  As the family comes to terms that Ben, son and brother, is about to die during the post World War I influenza epidemic, Elizabeth is described:  “Eliza bustled about eagerly, pathetically, busy, preparing breakfast. . . .  Behind her white face dwelt this horror, she made no confession, no complaint.  She bustled around doing useless things with an eager matter-of-factness.”  Seeing this, Eugene offers his mother comfort. “And Eliza, stripped suddenly of her pretenses, clung to him, burying her white face in his coat sleeve, weeping bitterly, helplessly, grievously, for the sad waste of the irrevocable years—the immortal hours of love that might never be relieved, the great evil of forgetfulness and indifference that could never be righted now” (452). 
            Eugene’s sympathy for his mother is a brief moment.  The final chapters of the novel almost seem to be a long accusation of the mother’s overpowering need for additional cash to purchase more property, and the resultant inattention to her family. 

  •  “’Mama, mama, in God’s name, what is it?  What do you want?  Are you going to strangle and drown us all?  Don’t you own enough’”  (365).
  •  ”’Oh, for God’s sake!” Ben jeered. ‘Economize!  What for?  So you can give it all away to Old Man Doak for one of his lots?’” (443)
  •   “’Did you give a damn, as long as there was fifty cents to be made out of one of your lousy boarders?’” (444)
  •  “’She let him die here before her very eyes.  Why, only day before yesterday, when his temperature was 104, she was talking to Old Doctor Doak about a lot.  Did you know that?’” (453-4)

If this were all we examined we would walk away from the novel believing that Elizabeth’s devotion to the raising of capital and the purchasing of land did lead only collapse.  In this case, familial, not national.
However, if we step away from the value system of the narrator of this novel, which is in all probability the value system of Thomas Wolfe himself, we might see a slightly different understanding of the home economy of the Gant family.  [Thomas Wolfe’s fiction is notorious for being overtly autobiographical, to the extent that he refused to visit his hometown of Ashville, North Carolina, for many years following his bitter attack on his family and city.  In fact, a later novel dealt directly with this issue, called You Can’t Go Home Again.] Adam Smith offers an observation about capital and labor in a small town.  He write, “It generally requires a greater stock [capital] to carry on any sort of trade in a great town than in a country village.  The great stocks employed in every branch of trade, and the number of rich competitors, generally reduce the rate of profit in the former below what it is in the latter.  But the wages of labor are generally higher in a great town than in a country village” (vol 1, 192).  I think it is fair to say that in comparison to other cities, Altamount (or Ashville, North Carolina) can be considered more a “country village,” to use Smith’s term, than a thriving city.   His observation tells us something that is apparent in the novel without it haven been discussed by the narrator.  The labor of both the father and the mother were less profitable than Elizabeth’s use of capital in land purchases and speculation. 
The facts of Thomas Wolfe’s family also support a view that the mother was correct in her understanding of wealth building.  Scholar Richard Reed has examined the deed records in the Buncombe Country (where the Wolfes  lived) and found transactions for “almost 250 lots and nearly 1, 200 acres of farmland, plus various and assorted ‘parcel,’ ‘sites,’ ‘margins,’ and ‘tracts’” (48).  She was an astute and successful landlord and speculator.  At one point she was charging six percent interest on late mortgage payments.  “She was also quick to foreclose, naming her husband as trustee of the property and reselling it for a profit.  In one of the few instances in which clear figures are available for both purchase and sale price, the records show that Julia [Thomas Wolfe’s mother] bought a city lot for $500 in 1890 and sold it for $5000 just eighteen months later” (49). Reed estimates the family’s financial worth at the end of the novel to be several hundred thousand dollars or more (51).   In other words, the Wolfes, who began from humble beginnings, would have in their lifetime accumulated enough wealth to be, in today’s money, close to millionaires or more.  Since the father’s income was only adequate for supporting a solid, respectable family life, it was the mother’s use of capital, the buying and selling of land for profit, that formed the basis of the family’s wealth.  In this regard, in the novel, Elizabeth was correct.  Her decision to become a capitalist, to practice unrestrained free market principles, as writers such as Adam Smith describe, was instrumental in changing the family’s financial situation. 
However, as we have seen, Elizabeth’s capitalist’s values were also the cause of great family distress.  In much the same way that workers do not enjoy the rewards of the success of their employer, it appears that sons and daughters of the Gant family do not feel that their mother’s financial gains benefit them.  For example, when Eugene is preparing to return to college for his second year, his mother offers her advice to “Take care of your money—I want you have plenty of good food and warm clothes—but you must not be extravagant boy” (399).  Whereas just moments before, she was bragging about possible profits she might be making.  “[I]f I make a couple of deals and everything goes well, you may find me waiting for you in a big fine house with you come back next Spring” (399).   Later in the book, the children blame their mother’s penuriousness, her compulsion to reinvest rather than spend, as the cause of her son Ben’s lack of medical attention and eventual death.
Thomas Wolfe was born in 1900.  Look Homeward, Angel details the life of the Gant family, obviously based upon his own family, to 1920, the year Wolfe and Eugene Gant graduated from college and headed to Harvard and eventually to New York City.   Wolfe spent a great deal of the 1920’s writing his first novel, which was published in 1929, eleven days before the stock market crash and the beginning of The Great Depression.  (It is important to note that during The Great Depression, Julia Wolfe’s buying and selling of property subsided and did not begin again until her final years in the forties.)  While there would seem that Wolfe would have had plenty of opportunity to read and study the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, in Look Homeward, Angel, he makes no direct reference to Eugene Gant becoming so influenced.  In fact the narrator, somewhat ironically describes two ineffectual members of Eliza’s family has having been influenced by such ideas.  One relative “had been to a Presbyterian college, and had been expelled for advocating free love and socialism while editor of the college paper” (478). And a second “was a man past fifty, with a pleasant red face, brown mustaches, and a gentle placid manner.  He was full of puns and pleased good nature, save when he quoted from Karl Marx and Eugene Debs.  He was a Socialist, and had once received eight votes for Congress” (478).  Wolfe even seems to declare his political creed in the closing chapters of the book in clearly non-ideological terms:
Yet, Eugene was no rebel.  He had no greater need for rebellion than have most Americans, which is none at all.  He was quite content with any system which might give him comfort, security, enough money to do as he liked and freedom to think, eat, drink, love, read, write, what he chose.  And he did not care under what form of government he lived—Republican, Democrat, Tory, Socialist, or Bolshevist—if it could assure him these things.” (491) 
            Still it is clear that the worldview that it at the heart of the works of Marx and Engels permeates Look Homeward, Angel.  Wolfe is not a Marxist, yet he is intensely critical of the influence of American capitalism in the microcosm of this one family’s life.  Essentially, Wolfe has laid out in this novel the basic conflicts between the bourgeois and the proletarians.  While Eliza never allows herself to enjoy the benefits of her success, she maintains an air of superiority over her tenants and boarders, and, as we have seen, she hopes of a grand life. She creates her wealth through the use of capital.  She clearly strives to become part of the owner class.  However, her husband, while a skilled artisan, remains true to his desire to live and make a living through his daily labor.   One summer, before Eugene understands that he is an artist and intellectual, he travels to Virginia for work during the war time boom.  There, following the tracks of his father, he discovers the sorrows and pride of hard labor.  For a while he almost starves, but later returns home with a more money than he has ever possessed.
            One sentence from “The Communist Manifesto” stands out in the context of this novel.  “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation” (476).  Although Look Homeward, Angel is referred to as a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story, the story of the creation of an artistic spirit, it might otherwise be viewed as a “novel about money.”  The theme is subtle and is often merely a background element.  News comes to the family of the work that older sons are pursuing; brothers offer each other cash; a daughter understands the sacrifices she is making to care for her parents.  Eugene worries over his place at the university, acknowledging that he does not belong to the economic or social class to join a fraternity.  Two brothers discuss the cost of funeral arrangements for their other brother.  The funeral director offers a deal because he respects the family. “’Your father,’ continued Horse Hines, ‘is one of the oldest and most respected businessmen in the community.  And the Pentland family [the mother’s family] is one of the wealthiest and most prominent’” (474).  In the midst of all this, the Gant family is at war with each other, not because they are poor or suffering, not because they are exploited, but because money has become the measure of value for all things, including even respect and love.  Look Homeward, Angel is not a novel about how poverty can destroy the human spirit, but it is about a harder curse, how success and wealth building deprives humans more than rewards them.






Works Cited

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels.  “The Communist Manifesto.”  The Marx-Engel Reader.
2nd Ed.  Ed Robert C. Tucker.  New York:  W. W. Norton.  473-500.
Reed, Richard. “Real Estate in Look Homeward, Angel.”  The Southern Literary Journal
19:1.  (Fall 1986) pp. 46-55.  Retrieved:  < http://www.jstor.org/stable/20077819>
Smith, Adam.  The Wealth of Nations, Volume 1.  Books I-III.  Ed.  Andrew Skinner.  New
            York:  Penguin Books. 1999.
-----------.  The Wealth of Nations, Volume 2.  Books IV-V.  Ed. Andrew Skinner.  New
            York:Penguin Books.  1999.

Stiglitz, Joseph.  The Price of Inequality. New York:  W. W. Norton.  2013.