Monday, July 26, 2010

Decoding Mad Men with Cheever

With Ossining, New York as the locale of Don Draper's broken home in the TV series Mad Men, notes the New York Times, "If 'Mad Men' came with a decoder ring it would surely spell out: Read John Cheever."
    Cheever delved beyond the idylls of suburbia to find the mixed blessings beneath the surface in his prize-winning stories. Before he became the Ovid of Ossining, he learned the layers of American life and complexity writing about Manhattanites, including his stint on the New York Writers' Project, finishing up the WPA guide to the city.
    “One of Cheever’s most prominent themes is that things are not what they seem,” notes Blake Bailey, Cheever's biographer. In that, Cheever has much in common with fellow WPA alumni Richard Wright and noir novelist Jim Thompson (whose The Killer Inside Me was remade as a film released this year). Thompson's biographer Robert Polito says in Soul of a People, "Thompson said that Karl Marx gave him a language to understand his life, and he later put that in literary terms. He said that there were 32 ways of telling a story but really only one plot: that things are not what they seem."
    Wright similarly wrote of African American life in 12 Million Black Voices, penned while he was on the New York writers' project with Cheever: "Each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem…"
    Maybe this is only natural. The Great Depression heightened writers' awareness of the contradictions in American life. As literary historian Maryemma Graham notes in the current issue of Poets & Writers, WPA writers discovered "the possibility that there was another story of America that had remained untold..."

Friday, July 9, 2010

Birth of the Reality Show

You could call the Federal Writers’ Project the first reality show, with contestants thrown together from all walks of life vying for a chance to get a job doing real writing, not just emergency relief. Their challenge, more chaotic and impossible than a gourmet snack-food quickfire test on Top Chef: ‘Keep it real’ and paint America's portrait in guidebooks and the words of people floundering in hard times.
    Or you might argue the roots of the genre lie somewhere else in that period. During the Depression many writers engaged their readers in a kind of Survivor contest, challenging the reader directly to get through new and harrowing encounters. Ernest Hemingway practiced a brutal version of this in a New Masses article about the Florida hurricane of 1935, where he frog-marched his reader through a ruined landscape where hundreds of World War I veterans died working on a battered WPA highway in the Florida Keys. An outraged Hemingway spares you nothing and forces you to handle the bodies:
    “Hey, there’s another one,” Papa says. “Turn him over. Face tumefied beyond recognition…” After pushing you to turn grey and vomit, Hemingway by the end of the article is ready to kill you off the way the veterans died: “a high wall of water rolls you over and over… You’re dead now, brother.”
    That would teach readers of New Masses a lesson! “But presumably if you had survived,” William Stott writes in Documentary Expression and Thirties America, “this imagined death, as Hemingway did, you would try to do what he was trying to do with his article: bring to justice those 'who left you there in the hurricane months on the Keys.'”
    The WPA writers didn’t take it quite that far, but the life history interviews take you deep into their narrators’ experiences. In some cases, it was up to you to survive, for example, the vagaries of a corrupt local mafia, like one Fort Worth family in Soul of a People.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Seeing Where WPA Materials Lead Library Patrons

There's a round-up of experiences and lessons from the recent series of events in 29 libraries across the country here, based on presentations at the ALA annual conference in Washington last week. Good stuff! And a cool slideshow montage of those libraries' programs too.
    Also, the dvd of Soul of a People: Writing America's Story is now available to buy. It includes bonus scenes from an interview with Studs Terkel, among others.