is another mode of American populism is not so much about making the ordinary
person larger than life, as in Walt Whitman’s poetry. This other strain of American populist is about finding
the pathos in small, everyday moments. Maybe my favorite U.S. populist in this
vein is Thornton Wilder, author of the play Our
Town, and the novel The Bridge of
San Luis Rey, among other works.
addition to Our Town, which
beautifully celebrates meaningful moments in small-town American life, Wilder
wrote a wonderful one-act play called The
Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden. How much more mundane can you get
than a family road trip from one city in New Jersey to another? The family
members are traveling to visit the eldest daughter, who lives with her husband
in Camden. En route, the family talks about the most banal topics—billboards
they see with ads for spaghetti and cigarettes, for instance. They debate whether to make a
pit stop at a gas station, whether the son is old enough to take a paper route.
The mother is the loudest, most uneducated, obnoxious character. When the
family finally gets to the home of the fully grown daughter, it’s the usual
small talk—how much the kids have grown, how nice her house looks. Can life get
any more boring?
suddenly, Wilder has the mother send the other family members off on various
errands. The mother is now alone with her grown, married daughter.
see a video of part of a production of the play here. The scene I’m going to discuss starts right
after the 2:40 second mark and goes till about 4:07.
married daughter breaks down and starts sobbing, and the mother folds her in
her arms, so we see that the daughter is still her child, even if she is fully grown and living on her own. The audience finds
out the real purpose of the car trip—the mother has come to console her daughter on
her recent miscarriage. The mom had missed her chance to do this when the daughter was in the hospital right after she lost the baby—a gruff
doctor had sent the mother away. This moment when the mother finally gets to soothe her daughter in Wilder’s play is so unexpected, so poignant. We
realize that all those mundane details are just the wrapper, the outside of
life, and inside are the incredibly moving moments that sustain us.
next blog in my series on approaches that U.S. writers take to American society is about a literary stance that is in
some ways the diametrical opposite of the expatriate, the subject of my last two posts. I call this type of writer the populist. The
populist writes about moments in the American experience that convey a deeper
truth. He or she is looking for the inspiration and epiphanies that exist even
in seemingly mundane lives or moments. The poet Walt Whitman was a populist writer who believed that American life was the greatest possible inspiration for literature. In his preface to his book, Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote, “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth, have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Whitman adds, “…the genius of the United States is… always most in the common people.”
Whitman took his own advice in choosing subjects for his
writing, for instance in “I Hear America Singing”:
hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon
intermission or at sundown,
delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl
sewing or washing,
singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust,
with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
like to imagine Walt Whitman coming up with the idea for this poem by taking a
walk in the morning around his neighborhood in Brooklyn, hearing two or three people singing as they work. From that day on, I can imagine that Whitman was
alert to the poetic possibilities of people singing, and he collected bits and
pieces of other moments to create this collage of different American laborer-singers.
How beautiful that he starts with, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I
hear.” We don’t often think of the word “carols” outside of the phrase “Christmas
carols,” but it does have a more universal meaning of “song” that Whitman draws
on, even as he assigns the sacred connotations of “carol” to work songs, as
opposed to religious hymns. Who is singing? The entire continent of America, as though it were a giant folk here, a Paul Bunyan or John Henry, but with a song instead of a hammer or axe. I like the inverted syntax of “the varied carols I
hear,” putting the subject and verb of that clause after the object of the
verb, the carols. Beginning and ending the first line with the words “I hear”
is a rhetorical device that Whitman uses nonchalantly and makes it feel like
the most natural, American speech.
is the essential populist, believing in the goodness and beauty of the common
man or woman. He celebrated the dignity of enslaved Africans in his poem “I
Sing the Body Electric”:
A man’s body at auction,
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it…
brand of populism is to describe the workingman or woman as embued with
divinity, almost larger than life. In the next blog, I’ll talk about another form of American populism, one that celebrates the small moments in life.
roster of U.S. expatriate writers is a distinguished one. It includes Gertrude
Stein, Edith Wharton, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Natalie Barney, Djuna Barnes, T.S.
Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes. In the 1920s and 30s,
almost the entire U.S. literary world decamped to Paris and the French Riviera,
where F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and many others spent a good part
of those decades. Of course, part of their interest in the urbane, sophistication
of Europe might have had to do with the fact that one could drink alcohol
legally there, which was not true in the U.S after the passage of the
Twenty-first Amendment in 1920, the beginning of the Prohibition era. Another reason behind the expatriate lifestyle may have been the fact that it was much cheaper to live as an artist in Europe than in the U.S. in the 1920s.
undercurrent in expatriate writing is the high percentage of gays and lesbians
among the authors who left the U.S. Western Europe has long been ahead of our
country in its embrace, or at least tolerance, of gay and lesbian lifestyles,
and of LGB subject matter in literature. A majority of the expatriate writers
I’ve mentioned have been gay or lesbian or bisexual, including Gertrude Stein,
James Baldwin, Natalie Barney, and Henry James.
though the U.S. has become somewhat more sophisticated, the expatriate strain in American writing continues to this
day. The author David Sedaris is a contemporary expatriate writer. Sedaris, who
is openly gay, has purchased and renovated a cottage in Sussex in the U.K. and
often writes critically of American naiveté,
comparing it unfavorably with English and continental sophistication. All of this
might start to sound familiar to those who read my last blog, which discussed Henry James.
David Sedaris’s critique of the attire of American travelers, from his essay “Standing
By,” which appeared in The New
Yorker, and which you can hear him read in his audiobook, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls:
I go, someone in an eight-dollar T-shirt is whipping out a cell phone and
delivering the fine print of his or her delay. One can’t help but listen in,
but then my focus shifts and I find myself staring. I should be used to the way
Americans dress when travelling, yet still it manages to amaze me. It’s as if
the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly
threw down his sponge, saying, ‘Fuck this. I’m going to Los Angeles!’”
always reminded when I take an airplane about how we Americans look when we
travel. To be frank, it’s often not a pretty sight. Compared to U.S. citizens,
Europeans and other nationalities are much better dressed and show much more
respect for others in the way they present themselves, both in airports and in
general. That European savoir faire
is hard to find in the United States, and it’s not just a question of wardrobe.
It’s also an outlook on life, an appreciation of beauty and elegance. I think
that’s a part of the motivation of the expatriate American writer.
writers have reacted to Puritanical and materialistic trends in American society in various ways. One way is just to get out, otherwise known as being an expatriate, living outside the
leaving the country is not just a form of escape. It gives an author an alternative
framework and value system to evaluate U.S. society. “Give me a lever and a
place to stand, and I will move the world,” Archimedes stated. Well, if the
lever in this case is literature, certain authors need a place to stand outside
our society in order to have leverage to budge it.
Expatriates Outside England and France
expatriate writers have mostly gravitated to England and France, with some exceptions. There have been a few American writers who have clustered in Morocco, such as Paul and Jane Bowles, and William Burroughs. There’s also Ezra Pound grumbling at the Grand Canal
in Venice. The poet Cid Corman lived for many decades in Kyoto, Japan, running an
ice cream and cake story with his wife. (I had a letter of introduction to Cid
Corman when I visited Japan in 1986, and he asked me to meet him at the store,
where I was hoping to learn from his many years of experience as a writer—mostly I learned about ice cream). But, in general, the refined and urbane cultures of the U.K. and Paris have been the
Henry James, the Quintessential Expatriate
To me, the quintessential American expatriate writer is Henry James. James, who was
born in 1843, spent much of his life in Europe, including a lot of his childhood. He
came from a stellar family. His older brother was the philosopher of
spirituality William James. His younger sister was the diarist Alice James—the literary press Alice James Books is named for her.
ultimately purchased and renovated an eighteenth century house in the town of
Rye in Sussex in the U.K., where he settled and lived his last twenty years,
till his death in 1916.
James wrote twenty-three novels, scores of short stories, many books of
criticism and travel writing, and several plays. When I was assigned his novel The Ambassadors in college, I dismissed
him as something of a fuddy-duddy. James writes in a way that can seem overly
formal these days. Few of his sentences would fit on the screen of a
smartphone or a phablet. His plots move as slowly as a rowboat crossing the Atlantic
Ocean. I just didn’t have the patience when I was younger to wait him out.
Getting to Henry James by Way of Tehran
in James was finally kindled, oddly enough, by way of Iran. A couple of years
ago I read Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran. In this engaging memoir, Nafisi tells the story of a
secret study group of Muslim women who met in her home in Iran after the
Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s, defying the 1984-like rules of a government that literally burns books. These
women risked prison merely by taking part in a reading group.
one of the writers who spoke most directly to these young women who were forced
to wear the burka in the streets, was Henry James. James created bold women
characters like Daisy Miler who weren’t afraid to flaunt convention by going on
an outing in public with a man who is not a family member. This was the sort of
“crime” that these women in Tehran were sometimes accused of. The penalty in
Iran if caught was to be whipped and ostracized from society. For the women of
this reading group, Henry James was a profoundly revolutionary writer. In
reading about the lives of these women in Iran, I realized how
shocking James was for the readers of his day—not that whipping was a common
penalty in New England in 1900, but ostracism was certainly a danger.
James’s subversive women characters is Maria Gostrey in The Ambassadors. Maria is a free spirit, a woman in her thirties
who lives by herself in England. That sort of life is almost unimaginable to the
novel’s main character, Lambert Strether. His fiancée, a widow from a powerful banking family in the fictional
town of Woollett, Massachusetts, sends Strether, the “ambassador,” to France to
bring back home her wayward son, Chad. Chad has spent entirely too much time
sipping delicious burgundies, eating triple cream cheeses, browsing painting
exhibitions, and worst of all, consorting with a widowed French woman who is
older than he is. Strether’s mission is to yank this young man back to Woollett,
where he is supposed do what all young men of his class are destined for: marry
a girl from a family just like his and make gobs of money.
Strether first meets the freewheeling Maria Gostrey, there is an interesting
culture clash, where American enterprise meets the good life of Europe. To
begin with, she suggests they go for a walk together in the garden of the hotel
where they're both staying Remember, she is an unmarried woman. Here’s how
James describes their encounter:
He looked repeatedly at his watch, and when he had done so
for the fifth time Miss Gostrey took him up.
“You’re doing something that you think not right.”
It so touched the place that he quite changed color, and his
laugh was almost awkward. “Am I enjoying it as much as that?”
“You’re not enjoying it, I think, so much as you ought.”
“I see”—he appeared thoughtfully
to agree. “Great is my privilege.”
“Oh, it’s not your privilege! It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with yourself. Your
“Ah, there you are!” he laughed. “It’s the failure of
Woollett. That’s general.”
“The failure to enjoy,” Miss Gostrey explained, “is what I
failure to enjoy. I think James hit the nail on the head there. The problem
with puritanical, entrepreneurial culture in the U.S. is that there is really
no space for enjoying the pleasures of an individual’s choosing.
book that deepened my appreciation of Henry James is a recent novel about
James’s life in Europe called The Master
by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín. I recommend it if you are at all interested in
James. In my next blog, I’ll talk about the American expatriate writers of the 1920s like Fitzgerald and Hemingway; the lesbian, gay, and bisexual side of the expatriate literary world; and contemporary expatriates such as David Sedaris.
series of blogs is about how U.S. authors have defined themselves in relation
to American society, and what we can learn from different approaches
to the question of how to be a writer in the United States.
writers have often viewed their role in reaction to, or in opposition to,
certain currents in our society. There is that great mass of North America that
lives seemingly only for the next football game or the upcoming trip to Disneyland
or Universal Studios—a pretty banal existence, in my opinion. It’s partly the
banality of American life that writers are bucking—the lack of culture and
current that poets and writers have rebelled against is the Puritan foundations of U.S. society. What is the Puritan mindset? Cotton Mather (1663–1728) was a Boston, Massachusetts, writer who helped both
to instigate and apologize for the Salem witch trials.
In his book, A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible
World, Mather wrote: “Behold, Sinners, behold and wonder, lest you perish:
the very Devils are walking about our Streets, with lengthened Chains, making a
dreadful Noise in our Ears, and Brimstone
even without a Metaphor, is making an hellish and horrid stench in our
Nostrils. I pray leave off all those things whereof your guilty Consciences may now accuse you, lest these Devils do yet more
direfully fall upon you.”
amazed at how real the forces of sin were to the Puritans. “Brimstone even without a metaphor…”
Brimstone is another word for sulfur, and the idea that burning sulfur was
present in our streets—well, it’s hard to comprehend.
Puritanical streak may have its roots in the colonies of the seventeenth
century, but it is very much alive today in every state of the United States.
strain in U.S. culture that writers often rebel against is the obsession with
work and business to the exclusion of all other activities. As President Calvin
Coolidge famously put it in 1925, “The chief business of the American people is
business.” What else is there in life besides work and making money?
the next blog, I’ll discuss expatriate writers, artists who have reacted to
mainstream American culture by leaving the country and living abroad.