Tags: Old weird America; Ratched, Wormer, and Hogg; the banality of anti-Americanism; your cheating humu humu nuku nuku a’pua’a.
“One measures a circle beginning anywhere,” said Charles Fort. Our expedition to the old, weird America will begin in Kansas: home of Dorothy, Bob Dole, Clark Kent, Brown v. Board, and the world’s largest ball of twine (disputed). This may seem an odd place to begin. Isn’t Kansas the anti-weird? The bluest of blue states, the pancake-flat heartland? Well, yes and no. Frank Baum knew what he was doing when he put the gateway to Oz there. But before we hit the road, a little discussion of what the old, weird America is good for, and why we might value it at this particular point in time.
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. … When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.
–the opening lines of The Wizard of Oz, duh.
I’ve had to make certain adjustments in teaching U.S. history to Canadian, rather than American, students. When you’re teaching U.S. history in an American classroom, you can almost always get some frisson in the classroom by shooting down comfortable myths about the nation’s past. Even in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, the very lair of Chomsky and Zinn, there will be at least one brave patriot willing to defend Thomas Jefferson or the Frontier Thesis or the G.I. Bill from your freedom-hating latte-liberal depredations. But with my Canadian students this gets me nowhere. They don’t push back against criticism of America. What do they care?
I could flip things, I guess, and spark more debate in the classroom by launching a spirited defense of American policies and institutions. Which is what I do when talking about America’s unquestionable, no-fooling, gifts to the world: “all men are created equal,” the D-Day landing, Chuck Berry, Texas BBQ, and so on. But my heart isn’t in it at this exact geopolitical moment. And it’s not like I mind if Canadians are critical of the United States. I’d be worried if they weren’t. What gets to me is what Tony Judt called “the banality of anti-Americanism.” In the Canadian case against Uncle Sam, the Trail of Tears, Abu Ghraib, Jerry Springer, and Kraft Singles all are crimes of essentially equal magnitude. None provoke horror or soul-searching or intellectual inquiry, just a smug shake of the head. “Americans. What can you do?”
I shouldn’t pick on my students. They’re smart and interested and a pleasure to teach. But they are the children of a culture in which it seems one can make any ludicrous generalization about “the States”–the term itself a warning sign of cud-chewing provinciality–without fear of contradiction. In the little town where my parents live, the term “American” refers to all summer tourists who drive noisy, irritating jet-skis, regardless of their citizenship. Actual Americans who prove themselves better than this stereotype–like, say, my wife–receive the ultimate Canadian compliment: “oh, you don’t count as an American.”
Greil Marcus adapted the phrase “the old weird America” from Kenneth Rexroth’s “the old free America,” a phrase Rexroth used to describe the country he found in the work of Carl Sandburg. “Those words … almost made me dizzy,” Marcus writes, but he recoiled from them, because he felt they fixed the free America, the true America, in the past, rebuking modern Americans but ultimately letting them off the hook. The old weird America, Marcus insists, is not a rebuke but an inheritance and a challenge to live up to, “an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America itself is a mystery.”
Consider Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Smith released it in 1952. That was the first year of the hydrogen bomb and the peak of Joseph McCarthy’s sway on American life. Frankie Lane and Doris Day topped the music charts. Pundits declared the decline of the American male because women–in 1952, mind you–had too much power in American life. Is it any wonder the Anthology blew all the folkies’ minds? What must it have looked like in 1952, with its cryptic liner notes and its theosophical-alchemical organization and its spooky familiar-unfamiliar tunes? What must it have sounded like?
The Wichita, Kansas Public Library in 1952 was probably the last place on Earth you’d expect to get your mind blown. But that’s where the artist Bruce Conner came upon Smith’s Anthology. “It was like field recordings, from the Amazon, or Africa … a confrontation with another culture … arcane, or unknown, or unfamiliar views of the world, hidden within these words, melodies, and harmonies,” Conner remembered. “In Kansas, this was fascinating. I was sure something was going on in the country besides Wichita mind control.”
“Wichita mind control.” That’s a good name for it, the pressing weight of Cold War conformity and atomic fear. Or Patriot Act conformity and post-9/11 fear, come to think of it. That’s how many of my students are inclined to imagine America, I think. Not as Moloch, not as Amerikkka, not as the Great Satan. Just the Wichita Public Library, 1952. Dorothy’s Kansas in black and white, or gray and gray. Footloose before Kevin Bacon comes to town, Pleasantville before Reese Witherspoon. A town council staffed by Nurse Ratched, Dean Wormer, and Boss Hogg.
“How had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity?” Oedipa asks in The Crying of Lot 49. “How had this Melvillean collection of “mongrel renegades and castaways and cannibals” been brought to accept such a diminished conception of itself?” “This is the quintessentially sixties question,” observes historian David Harlan with a bit of a sneer. But it is not without relevance today.
I snickered a bit myself in my previous post at the Barking Irons guys, launching the “revolution against branding” with $60 designer t-shirts. But actually I think what they’re doing is pretty cool. (And I do want one of those shirts. Did I ever tell you about my zine about t-shirts called SMXL? No?) The Times article quotes the Caserella brothers calling the Collect, a polluted pond drained in the early 1800s to form the notorious Five Points slum, the “original sin of Manhattan,” which is a neat idea. If Manhattan has an original sin, it surely involves real estate (cf. every second episode of Law and Order). And the t-shirt auteurs wonder if the city’s forgotten past can offer “an intellectual antidote to the superficial, surface-driven present.” Again: with $60 t-shirts? But still. The Caserellas have the right idea. The weirdness of the past is the best inoculation going against Wichita mind control in the present. Alternative pasts allow us to imagine alternative nows. Strange histories help us to see the ways the present is strange: the things we take for granted, the choices others made for us, the injustices we don’t protest. The old, weird America is an alternate history, not one that takes off from a historical turning point into a future that might have been, but one that snakes back from the present into a hidden past that really was. It insists that America is older, bigger, and stranger than we know. Ideally, it asks us what we intend to do about it.
Now for me personally, as an outsider, the value of the old weird America is not always about finding a usable past in this way, but it is related. It’s about the joy of surprise: after years of studying this stuff, I am still learning new things all the time, and delighted every time I do so. Maybe you knew this already, for instance, but I learned just this week, from the podcast I mentioned last time, that the steel guitar, probably the most essential and instantly-recognizable instrument in honky-tonk country, was invented in Hawaii in the 1880s, and came to the mainland as part of a Hawaiian music craze kicked off by the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco. In 1916, Victor sold more Hawaiian records than any other genre. Legendary guitar players like Bob Dunn took correspondence courses from the Hawaiians by mail and several early hits for Hank Williams and others like him were note-by-note reworkings of WWI-era Hawaiian novelty tunes. That is so damn cool. Add to that the minstrel roots of country, and it seems that American roots music consists in no small part of songs written by New York immigrants in imitation of imagined black slaves, played on Hawaiian instruments adapted from the Portuguese laborers who brought the guitar to Hawaii in the first place. A Melvillean collection of “mongrel castaways and cannibals” indeed.
Finally, the old weird America is another way for me to hook into Canadian students who might otherwise think they know it all about that country they’ve seen on TV, to crack through some of their assumptions and preconceptions and get them to really puzzle over the history of the United States. There is no learning without puzzlement. Any time I can get them to say, as the kids say, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, that’s a teaching moment. And American history will always reward a quizzical second look. What is the connection between Ignatius Donelly’s Populism and his devout belief in Atlantis? Is there none? What is going on in Randy Newman’s “Sail Away”? Is he serious? Is he joking? What is the joke? What is the deal with The Wizard of Oz? Why is it so creepy? What is the matter with Kansas? Well, I’ll get to that next time: nothing that a little weirdness can’t fix.