Throughout early 1993, a friend and I would sit in his apartment and watch the siege in Waco on TV. He was a professor of Religious Studies, a specialist in apocalypse, and he always had something to say about the Branch Davidians, something that I was not trained to think of. It was like following a season of baseball with Bob Costas.
On April 19, while the Davidians burned, we sat more than two hours and watched. My friend was silent. For months, he had almost erupted every time some F.B.I. sociolinguist had appeared on Nightline to tell America what David Koresh wanted. “He wants martyrdom,” my friend would growl the next day. “He wants to die and take everyone with him.” I’d sit and listen: I was a mere spectator; he was at work.
Because he had the real training, the discipline, to know the minds of apocalyptics, early on he had predicted a catastrophic end, perhaps an immolation. The Book of Revelation and a few years’ experience told him that was a pretty safe guess. But, even so, it was one thing to peacock your intellectual credentials, yet another to see theories made concrete. And so we sat and gaped at the television.
As the Davidians’ pathetic plywood ranch collapsed in on itself, my friend leaned forward and spoke quietly. “I hate to say it,” he said, “but I’m sorry it’s over. It’s been a great time for eschatologists.”
I know what he meant. I hate to say it, too. But it’s a great time to be an Americanist. Often American Studies has seemed an iffy thing – a department banged together for Elvis obsessives and semiologists of the everyday quilt. But it is no longer a trivial thing or a luxury. September 11 has made it a vital discipline. Many of us in the humanities dress in worker drag, in jeans and heavy boots, in shirts with sleeves rolled up. We call our scholarship “production.” It seems silly if you compare our jobs to New York City rescue workers’. But now we are as essential as cops and firefighters. They bring out the dead, we bring out the meanings. Thus:
At least two clichés emerging from the new American mood contradict one another. The first says that nothing will ever again be the same. At 9:03 Eastern time, when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center and it became immediately apparent that the first was not an accident, the American mood turned elegiac and wintry.
Thus, such lighter-than-lite entertainments as boy bands and the Chandra saga will sink out of sight as the new American gravitas weighs in. If we find ourselves pausing too long in TV Land, feel ourselves starting to smile, we’ll gasp at our own unthinkable silliness and surf the channels right down to purposeful, dour CNN where firefighters labor in the nearest thing to hell we can imagine.
The second argument is that not only do we remain capable of enjoying ourselves, but we actually need to go to ballgames and need to bask in the vulgarity of TV. There is already too much gravity in the world and we must take time away from it. The lighter the entertainment the better; we have been through so much that we must take our minds off September 11 – we must allow ourselves to be silly. Certainly the first few moments of the first few ballgames should have been celebrations of the uniformed services of New York and television cameras should have focused on signs that say “America has heroes. Baseball has players.” But then we should have played the game.
Thus, one point of view proposes that we focus grimly on the present and hunker down for a bleak future, abjuring levity altogether. “Let no one think himself happy,” wrote Sophocles in one of drama’s darkest curtain lines, “till he is safely in his grave.” From this vantage it is a sin to get caught laughing. The other point of view, about which Susan Wloszczyna writes in the September 20 USA Today, not only suggests but predicts a national trend toward lightness. The experts she interviews, people like Faith Popcorn and Leonard Maltin, think we will become as silly as we were during World War II when sappy Mrs. Miniver took our minds off reality, or after the Kennedy assassination, when we made the Beverly Hillbillies our favorite cultural anodyne.
But there is middle ground between the somber and the silly, between Oedipus and Uncle Jed. For enlightenment, we can focus in on the cultural climate of the Second World War, when blue collar workers like GI Joe and Rosie the Riveter personified America. Movie theaters offered Joe and Rosie fluff, but also more complicated, more upsetting, movies, not merely diversions but also reminders of the job ahead. Besides giving us the single-mindedly sentimental Mrs. Miniver (and Yankee Doodle Dandy), 1942 was also a year for double-minded movies: Orson Welles’s gothic farce The Magnificent Ambersons tested the myth of the American family and Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels set grim realism beside escapism. Even Casablanca, the year’s obvious “classic,” lines up romance behind duty after toying with boy-girl sentimentality for two hours. It took a hardhearted episode of The Simpsons to give a “happy” ending to a film that has “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” on its mind.
Other escapist signifiers of the Second World War – the prole god Babe Ruth, stars pulling a shift at the Hollywood Canteen – suggested that, while the English might be fighting for Shakespeare (or at least Olivier’s Henry V), American soldiers’ cultural symbols leaned toward the populist. Even the famous pinup of Betty Grable was democratic. You weren’t fighting for Betty herself, or even her famous legs. You were fighting for a mass-produced photo like those every regular guy had seen tacked up in machine shops.
The democratic amalgamation of significant and trivial occurred to E.B. White as well. He was the laureate of big and small, of big made small, so fond of picking the metaphors out of such mundane stuff as slaughtering a pig and milking a cow that you want to give him either a Nobel Prize or a pinch. He fled New York City for coastal Maine in 1938, a move obviously inspired by Thoreau: he wanted to simplify his life. More to the point, he apparently wanted to get his hands into the dirt and onto chickens, to do real work instead of just writing. He sent his essays to Harper’s. One Man’s Meat collected them in a first edition in 1942. In 1944 it was reissued with more essays he had written as the American war warmed up.
In one essay, he argued that Walt Whitmania had taken hold of the national psyche: you could tell by “the use of place names, the cataloging of ideas, the repetition of sounds, the determination to be colloquial or bust, the celebration of the American theme and the American dream, the appreciation of the man in the street and the arm round the shoulder, the ‘songs of the throes of democracy.'” As it happened, such “simple” details resonated with the working stiffs in foxholes. Soldiers “assur[ed] me that there is a positive value to them in the memory of peace and home.”
On any page there is something that seems banal unless you put yourself in the soldiers’ place: sending trousers off to be pressed, voting whether to light the town library electrically, the oddities of Maine speech, the furniture of an uneventful American life. But the essays are not escapist, not even if that is one reason soldiers treasured them. That is, they are not simple precursors for the sentimental entertainments Faith Popcorn sees coming our way. What is striking when you compare the pre-war essays with those written after Pearl Harbor is how similar they are. The paradigm shifted and yet cows still needed milking and proofs still needed editing. White’s subjects – his verities – remained the same.
As of today – September 25, 2001 as I write – the instantaneous historiography of news media revisits the Working Stiff theory of American history and finds us potentially worthy successors to “the Greatest Generation.” And so we celebrate firefighters and police officers, the working stiffs of this war, our war, and we line up to give blood, our symbolic self-sacrifice. And Americanists hunker down to puzzling out America, a real job for the times to come. You don’t feed the pullets because it takes your mind off bad times. You do it because it has to be done.
Author: Jimmy Dean Smith is Associate Professor of English and Communications at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky. A member of JMB’s editorial board, he also serves as a contributing editor to Pop Politics.