Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes @ the Photographers’ Gallery

‘The fact that I never had a family, a place or a story that defined me, inspired a need in me to join the community of mankind. I did so by inventing a poetic form linking this community, at least symbolically, in my imagination, through this form.’ (Dave Heath)

This is the first major UK exhibition dedicated to the work of American photographer Dave Heath (1931-2016).

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath started taking photos towards the end of his stint in the Korean War (1950-53). All his photos from Korea ignore battlefield heroics, firefights, explosions and hardware – instead showing the average grunt as isolated individuals caught in moments of thought, looking down, looking sad.

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

And this is the sensibility he brought back to civilian life. Of the 109 photos on display here, I only saw three where the subject is smiling or laughing. The other hundred and six show individuals or couples looking moody, intense, sullen, lost in thought. Inhabitants of solitude. Aficionados of introspection.

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Even the handful of photos which aren’t of people, but of buildings or the sidewalk, manage to make them look lost in thought and downbeat. The result is tremendously atmospheric if, on occasion, a bit samey.

Biography

The downbeat tone was set early in Heath’s life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1931 to very young parents who abandoned him at the age of four after which he was sent to a series of foster homes before being placed in an orphanage. From then on he carried a sense of loss and abandonment which he projected, very successfully, onto everything around him.

Heath became interested in photography as a teenager, and joined an amateur camera club. He read the photo essays in Life magazine and cites one in particular as having a decisive impact on his future. Bad Boy’s Story by Ralph Crane depicted the emotional experiences of a young orphan not unlike young Heath.

In a flash Heath realised that photography could be a means of self-expression, a way of shaping the external world to fit his experiences, and a way of connecting to others.

In his early twenties he set about becoming an expert in photographic techniques, taking courses in commercial art, working in a photo processing lab, and studying paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His stint in the army as a machine gunner interrupted his career for a few years, but crystallised his approach to subject matter, his skill at capturing a wide range of people in moments of thought and vulnerability.

On his return, Heath developed this aptitude for capturing an ‘inner landscape’, seeking out the lonely and lost and fragile on the streets of big city America. Most of the photographs on display here were taken on the streets of Chicago and New York (where he moved to in 1957).

Heath’s subjects seem eerily detached from their physical context, shot either singly or in couples, but always intensely aware of – almost physically projecting – their isolation.

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath is quoted as saying:

My pictures are not about the city but from the city. I’ve always seen it as a stage and I’ve always seen the people in the streets as being actors, not acting out a particular play or story, but somehow being the story itself…

It would be wrong to think that all his photos are close-ups of alienated individuals or couples. There’s more variety than that. At the busy end of the spectrum there’s a photo of a crowd gathering round a policeman in Central Park guarding the spot where a suicide has been discovered. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes he picked out just details, lost property, street detritus, close-ups of parts of people’s bodies, which manage to convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment.

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath’s photos capture that eerie moment in American history just before the 1960s exploded, just around the time JFK was assassinated and Civil Rights began to become an enormous, society-sundering issue and then, of course the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

He had always been interested in exploring how individual photos could be tied together into sequences which created something larger than the sum of its parts. Heath once wrote that ‘the central issue of my work is sequence’ and thought that the rhythm of images arranged in collages or montages created a deeper and more complex psychological state than a single image.

A master printer – so good that other photographers asked him to make their prints for them – Heath also crafted handmade books and experimented with multimedia slide presentations. All this thinking and experimentation culminated in the book which is considered his masterpiece, A Dialogue with Solitude, published in 1965.

A Dialogue With Solitude

A Dialogue with Solitude was conceived in 1961 but not published till 1965. Heath chose 82 of his best or most characteristic photographs taken between 1952 and 1962 and grouped them into ten chapters dedicated to variations on the theme of solitude, being: violence, love, childhood, old age, poverty, war, race and death.

Each one is preceded by a short quote from a literary giant including: Matthew Arnold, James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, William Hazlitt, Herman Hesse, Rilke, Yeats and so on. In other words, all the names you’d meet in a basic undergraduate course in comparative literature – or at least before the explosion of feminist and black and queer studies added a lot more women and marginalised writers to the canon.

The book is commemorated here by a wall-seized display which places scores of photos next to the bookish quotes, to create a sort of immersive visual and literary experience.

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitude at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

In the opinion of the writer whose wall label accompanies this display, Francesco Zanot:

The primacy of montage and sequencing in Heath’s work is made obvious. The result has nothing to do with linear narration, but rather resembles a vast poem, rhapsodic and tormented. Heath merges together on the space of a page references as refined as they are distant from one another. The book, then, becomes the ideal medium by which to carry out a reflection both through and upon photography.

Thoughts

I liked the Korean War photos best. Soldiers in a war really have got something to be pissed off about. Guys lying on their bunks or sitting on a crate smoking a fag reminded me of all the crappy labouring jobs I’ve had, and how it feels when you get a break and five minutes to just sit staring into space, too tired to think about anything, too tired or too mind numblingly bored to say or do or think anything.

The photos of sad people in Philadelphia and Chicago and New York are undoubtedly atmospheric and poignant, beautifully composed and printed with a grainy effect that carries the viewer back back back to a historic era.

And yet… and yet…. I think I’ve seen too many photographs of unhappy Americans recently – the hundred or more photos by Diane Arbus currently at the Hayward Gallery, or the long career of Dorothea Lange devoted to documenting American misery and injustice, celebrated at the Barbican last summer, or the enormous brightly coloured images of alienation and being lost in the crowd created by Alex Prager.

Upstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery, right now, the works of Mark Ruwedel don’t feature any people but they, also, convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment via pictures of run-down shacks in the desert or the abandoned sites of military tests.

Abandonment, loneliness, isolation, solitude, unhappiness. These seem to be the default subjects of American art photographers.

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Independent movies

Off to one side of the main display rooms is a dark room where you can watch clips from cult independent films from the 1960s, contemporary with Heath’s works, which also focus on theme of solitude. These include:

1. Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke (1966), Jason being ‘a gay African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer’.

2. Salesman by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Mitchell Zwerin (1968) a creepy depiction of slimy American salesman.

3. The Savage Eye by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick (1960)

Interview with Senior Curator, Karen McQuaid

Curators

  • Curated by Diane Dufour, Director of LE BAL.
  • Senior Curator for the Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuaid

Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Corita Kent: Power Up @ the House of Illustration

Corita Kent (1918-86) was a nun, who began making personal, rather Expressionist prints with religious subjects in the 1950s, and then swiftly evolved in the early 1960s into a pioneering political print- and poster-maker. In 1968, under pressure from the revolutionary times and enjoying greater artistic and commercial success, she asked to be released from her vows, left her order, and became a fully commercial artist, continuing to make prints as personal statements, but also for a wide range of commercial clients, up to her death.

The House of Illustration has brought together some 70 large, colourful Corita Kent prints to create the largest ever show in the UK of this ‘pop artist, social activist and nun’.

The exhibition is bright, uplifting, thought-provoking and, as usual, divided between the gallery’s three exhibition rooms and small video room.

Introduction room

In 1936, aged 18, Frances Kent entered the Catholic Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and took the name of Sister Mary Corita. In 1951 she was introduced to the technique of print-making by Maria Sodi de Ramos Martinez.

The first room displays a handful of Kent’s early works, which are dark and stormy, every inch of the surface covered with often dark browns and blacks, amid which you can see outlines of primitivist or Byzantine images of Christ the King. Dark and troubled, packed and claustrophobic, they’re redolent of the Abstract Expressionism which dominated the American art world of the time.

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

In their murkiness they reminded me a bit of the art of Graham Sutherland, the presence of the religious imagery reminding me of Sutherland’s work for Coventry cathedral.

Within a few years Kent had begun to experiment by including handwritten text into the designs. The need to make the text legible meant she had to declutter the images though they are still, in this first room, a little scary, apocalyptic, done in drab austerity colours.

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Main room

This first room is sort of interesting but it doesn’t prepare you at all for the impact of walking into the next space, the gallery’s main room – which features a riot of colour, an orgy of huge colourful prints and posters, showcasing a wide range of fonts and lettering set against vibrant dynamic colour designs.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

It’s difficult to believe it’s the same artist. Out have gone the minutely detailed, busy and cramped designs, and in have come big white spaces used to emphasise the use of primary colours to bring out simple texts and slogans laid out in a dazzling variety of formats and designs.

Some of the prints still use religious texts from the Bible, but these are accompanied by slogans from protest movements, song lyrics, modernist poetry and lots of subtle or overt references to the signage and billboard adverts of Kent’s native Los Angeles.

There’s a sequence of searing prints protesting against the war in Vietnam and unashamedly using images lifted from magazines and newspapers, hard-core images of soldiers and war of the kind the American public was watching on their TVs every night from the mid-60s onwards, alongside images and slogans protesting against black segregation, celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, bitterly lamenting the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on.

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Everywhere you look are classic slogans from the long-haired, dope-smoking, flower power protests of the day. ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ ‘Stop the bombing’. ‘Get with the action’. ‘Violence in Vietnam’. ‘Yellow submarine’. ‘Come Home, America’, and the slogan which gives the exhibition its title, the words POWER UP spread across four enormous prints. (Which, on closer reading, we discover was the slogan used by the Richfield Oil Corporation in their ads, and one of the many elements of signage in the cluttered visual landscape of her native Los Angeles).

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

It is an astonishing transformation, from the personal and cramped and expressive, to the public and political, big, bright and open, in half a decade.

One of the videos playing in the video room shows ancient footage of young men and woman dancing in circles and painting their faces and carrying all manner of props and decorations and art works, to and from the numerous ‘happenings’ which blossomed all over America.

Earnest young women in mini skirts, men in Grateful Dead sideburns, dancing and painting themselves, intercut with the usual footage of napalm over Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on. It’s the ever-popular 1960s, the decade we can’t leave alone.

The exhibition feels like the poster and print accompaniment of that era, flower power, hippies, protest songs, the stormy later 1960s.

The Fraser Muggeridge studio

A word on the design and layout of the exhibition which is beautifully done by Fraser Muggeridge studio. They have very successfully replicated the super-bright, Pop Art colour palette of the original works without in any way over-awing them, which is quite a feat. The result is that the main and final room themselves take part in the exhibition’s vibrancy and dynamism.

At the end of the main room is a set of 26 prints, Circus Alphabet, from 1968, each one of which combines one of the letters from the alphabet done big, set against a fascinating variety of layouts, some simple, other cluttered with text, in a wide range of fonts. Reminded me of the imagery surrounding Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the song Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Apparently, Kent was inspired by the poet e.e. cummings who was devoted to the institution of the American circus (‘damn everything but the circus’, he is quoted as writing), and the prints combine political texts with material she found at the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, with images from A Handbook of Early Advertising Art, compiled by Clarence P. Hornung.

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

What fun! What a tremendous eye for layout and design. What an consistent thirst for innovation and experiment.

End room

The smaller final room is painted a deep azure blue. This space showcases work Kent produced after she asked to be released from her vows and left the convent in 1968. At which point she moved to Boston and became a fully commercial artist. Apparently, her sister became her business manager.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Corita Kent: Power Up at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The photo above captures pieces which demonstrate a new variety and style in her work.

At the bottom right you can see ‘our country is red spilled blood’ from 1970, a poster commissioned by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee to promote a three-day fast for peace and depicting a Vietnamese woman grieving over the body of her dead husband. (At the turn of the 60s, early 70s, a lot of the titles omit capital letters, another testament to the influence of the laureate of lower-case, e.e. cummings).

The wide, thin poster to the left of it uses the slogan, ‘Come home America’, the slogan used in the campaign of Democratic Presidential contender George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign.

Above it, the piece divided between blue on the left and orange on the right, is ‘the Ellsberg poster’ from 1972, containing a quote from US government analyst Daniel Ellsberg who decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 (subject of the recent Stephen Spielberg movie, The Post). The quote reads: ‘Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?’

The display case in this room shows a number of books Corita illustrated, including several by Catholic priests protesting against the war.

But it isn’t all political protest. The two works on the right hand wall in the photo above, are designs to accompany purely literary texts, by James Joyce (on the left) and Rainer Maria Rilke (the pink and orange one on the right).

You have a sense that Kent was exploring beyond the dayglo and sometimes rather baroque stylings of the 1960s (the Sergeant Pepper circus chic) into a more laid-back 1970s. I suppose low-key minimalism was coming in during this period to replace plastic Pop Art.

The work in this room all feels cooler. More understated. The Joyce and Rilke ones look like a cross between Mark Rothko and Matisse’s late paper cuts in their combination of bold colour with abstract patterning.

And I also realised that the texts in all the works in that photo are hand-written and in relatively small point sizes. You have to go right up to the Rilke piece to even realise there’s writing on it. This is a sharp contrast with the Circus works – which use an entertaining variety of ready-made, machine fonts in massive sizes – and with the other more political works: these had non-machine font, hand-cut-out texts and slogans, but they were enormous and simple. The works in this room feel more… intimate in scale and effect.

On the wall opposite is a montage of prints featuring quotes from classic authors, each one treated in interesting new ways, experimenting with fonts and layouts and colours and designs. These are ads commissioned by Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, a TV station. Kent began working with them as early as 1962 and continued to produce magazine-page-sized ads until nearly the end of her career.

A wall of Corita Kent's work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

A wall of Corita Kent’s work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

The texts are fairly trite – worthy and high-minded quotes from Shakespeare or Dr Johnson or Thoreau – the kind of unimpeachable uplift any corporation could use to mask its commercial operations in spiritual guff (‘The noblest motive is the public good’). Taken together, I found they called into question the whole point of pithy slogans. Somehow the way she could turn her vivid imagination to souping up Shakespeare in order to promote a TV channel undermined the seriousness of the ‘political’ work. I could almost hear a stoned hippy saying ‘All artists sell out, man’. She was 52 at the dawn of the 1970s. ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30, man.’

Content aside, what impresses is the way Kent produces such a wonderful variety of fonts, designs and layouts in which to set the text, and yet still manages to retain a visual unity and identifiable style. No wonder Westinghouse stuck with her for nearly 20 years.

IBM

The whole final wall is a blow-up of a magazine advert for computer manufacturer Digital. They commissioned Kent to create three suites of screen-printed decorative panels for Digital’s range of desks and computer cabinets. You see the blue and green wash panels at the end of the guy’s desk, on the side of the filing cabinet? That’s Kent’s design. This was in 1978, ten years after the heady year of the King assassination, the Democratic convention riots and all the rest of it. Her designs no longer hope to change the world but to beautify its everyday element. ‘Sold out to the man, baby.’

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Videos

In one of the two videos running in a loop in the small projection room (a spot of googling shows that there are quite a few films about Kent and extended interviews and documentaries), Kent is quoted saying something very interesting about the interaction of text and design. She relates it right back to the work of medieval copyists and the unknown monks who produced the extravagant decorations of illuminated manuscripts (of the kind to be seen at the British Library’s brilliant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition).

As she puts it, from those early textual illustrators right up to the times of her and her peers, there is some kind of joy and delight in the way colour and pattern brings out additional meanings latent in texts, and words crystallise and empower what would otherwise be abstract colours and designs.

For some reason, no doubt to do with the wiring of the human brain and the way we separately register colour and meaning, the power and variety of interplay between the two systems can often be extremely powerful and, as her work goes to prove, seems to be never-ending.

In my ignorance I’d never heard of Corita Kent. This is a wonderful – and wonderfully designed and laid out – introduction to the development and variety and life-affirming positivity of this scintillating artist.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions is longer than the average Vonnegut novel at 270 pages in an old Panther paperback edition I have.

It’s experimental in several ways. Each paragraph is introduced with an arrow → making them seem more like disconnected apothegms than part of a consecutive prose text, and sometimes the paragraphs reduce to totally disconnected sentences. More like reading Nietzsche than a novel.

Then there’s the author’s amateurish but quite appealing drawings, at least one every two pages, sometimes two on a page, squeezing the prose out, like in a children’s book. I counted 119 of them. Here’s an example.

Page from Breakfast of Champions

And another one.

Goodbye Blue Monday by Kurt Vonnegut

It took Vonnegut a long four years to grind out Breakfast of Champions and several times he abandoned it. It had poor reviews and in later life he gave it a low rating among his works. But I like it. I think it demonstrates two of his leading characteristics.

1. It is chatty. It is like listening to an interesting guy who’s knocked about the world a bit, telling you funny anecdotes, about pornography, explaining how we’re all actually machines, leaning forward to impress on you that war is wrong, and so on.

2. And it is roomy. Having established this chatty, informal persona, Vonnegut can casually rope just about any subjects he wants into the so-called ‘story’.

For example, out of nowhere in particular comes this paragraph:

The Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, shook Trout’s hand in a Cohoes grocery story one time. Trout had no idea who he was. As a science-fiction writer, he should have been flabbergasted to come so close to such a man. Rockefeller wasn’t merely Governor. Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
‘How’s it going, fella?’ Governor Rockefeller asked him.
‘About the same,’ said Kilgore Trout.

That is the complete ‘section’, that’s all we hear about Governor Rockefeller. On the face of it this is some kind of satire against obscene wealth – the kind of stoned oppositionism which made Vonnegut such a hero of the counterculture and 1970s students. What I like about it though is its irrelevance. Its irreverent irrelevance. Its insouciance. He tells a story. Nothing much happened. It was a thing. OK. So long.

As to ‘plot’, well, the story follows events in the lives of two American men, Kilgore Trout, the failed author of hundreds of science fiction novels who we met a few years back in Slaughterhouse-Five and who appears in about five other Vonnegut novels; and Dwayne Hoover,  a Pontiac car dealer in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The plot comes to a climax with them both meeting, by accident in a bar, and Trout’s presence being the thing which topples Hoover into his psychotic episode (beating up a bunch of people in the bar, his mistress and a couple of cops before being overpowered and taken to gaol).

Both characters contain elements of self-portraiture: Trout since Vonnegut himself struggled a) in his early, poor days against indifference and bad reviews, then b) when he was famous, against writer’s block; and Hoover since Vonnegut (apparently) suffered lifelong from depression, was on anti-depression medication and tried to commit suicide at least once. It is relevant that Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 21 – not least because he tells us as much in chapter 17.

‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself behind my leaks.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
‘I know,’ I said.

And he makes Dwayne’s wife, Celia, kill herself by drinking Drāno.

a mixture of sodium hydroxide and aluminum flakes, which was meant to clear drains. Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains.

For the richest and most powerful country in the world, America sure was, and apparently still is, full of very unhappy people.

The narrative arc is that Trout – based in New York – is invited to an arts festival taking place in (the fictional) Midland City, and has a string of adventures getting there, while Hoover is going mad in Midland City, disconcerting his various staff and employees at the Pontiac salesroom he owns.

But the real point of the novel is, I think, the way Vonnegut just adds all sorts of anecdotes, stories, jokes, pictures and reflections into it.

For example, the notion that Trout is almost supernaturally prolific allows Vonnegut to add in one-page synopses of Trout’s far-out science fiction novels. They come across as too simple to even be worked up into short stories, but they make excellent one-page diversions. There are at least ten of them, which add an extra layer of wackiness to the mix.

The fake naive style

What most distinguishes Breakfast of Champions from Vonnegut’s other books, and from any other book I’ve ever read, is the author’s deployment of a strategy of describing everything, even the most minute and obvious elements of life and society – as if to an alien who has never heard of them before.

Everything he mentions, almost anything, he stops the narrative to explain it as if to someone who has never heard of it before, often adding one of his drawings.

For example, right in the opening pages he sets out to piss off any conservative readers, and whip up his student fanbase, by treating America and its iconography as if it is inexplicably weird.

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously… (Vonnegut quotes the entire lyric of the American national anthem)

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

And:

If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it, like this: (a hand-drawn illustration of the logo on an American dollar) Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength’.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times.

As to American foreign policy:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

All this was written as the Vietnam War reached its bloody climax:

Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

If American authors want to say their country is rubbish, that’s fine by me – although I’d love to read about the backlash there must have been against Vonnegut by any kind of conservative writers, publications or institutions.

What interests me more is the wide-eyed innocence of this narratorial approach – as if he were not only explaining America to aliens, but to alien children.

Thus later on the narrator explains what a beaver is (with a drawing), what a clocktower is (with a drawing) what a gun is (a device for making holes in other people, along with a drawing), what an apple is (with a drawing), what a lamb is:

A lamb was a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well on the planet Earth. It looked like this:

To a large extent whether you like the book or not will be based on whether you can read hundreds of pages written in this faux innocent style, whether you find it liberating, or at least interesting, to see all human activity through these alien child’s point of view. Or whether you find it tiresome and almost demented.

Machines and chemicals

Closely related to the style is the delusion the author attributes to Dwayne Hoover of seeing all other human beings as machines. This is one of the ‘hallucinations’ which tips Hoover over into full-blown madness but we know, from the preface and from comments liberally sprinkled throughout the text, that Vonnegut often feels the same.

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

This conceit is used more for humour than bleakness. In fact the idea is most fully expressed in a book by Kilgore Trout which Dwayne reads in the cocktail bar at the climax of the novel and which brings on his fit. In the book, Trout writes:

‘Your parents were fighting machines and self-pitying machines,’ said the book. ‘Your mother was programmed to bawl out your father for being a defective moneymaking machine, and your father was programmed to bawl her out for being a defective housekeeping machine. They were programmed to bawl each other out for being defective loving machines.

‘Then your father was programmed to stomp out of the house and slam the door. This automatically turned your mother into a weeping machine. And your father would go down to a tavern where he would get drunk with some other drinking machines. Then all the drinking machines would go to a whorehouse and rent fucking machines. And then your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.’

If read in the right mood, this is pretty funny.

And Vonnegut sees human beings not only as machines, but as bags of chemicals:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

This comes over in the thread running throughout the text whereby the author refers to all kinds of aspects of the characters’ behaviours as being determined, not by free will, but by ‘the chemicals in their brains’.

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads.

Vonnegut tells us in the preface that:

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep. When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

I know from personal experience what a huge difference medication for mental illness can make to a person. Chemical imbalances in the brain can certainly be life defining, character defining. Vonnegut lays this fact out with the same wide-eyed fake naivety as everything else from the American flag to apples.

Taken together the ideas that people are a) machines b) whose behaviour is largely determined by chemicals in their brains, dominate the book’s worldview.

Race

There’s a lot about race in the book. Of course the 1960s in America saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of its leaders, and the growth of Black Power. How exactly the historical background seeps into the book, I couldn’t say except that it is very aware of ‘the black problem’ and, as you would expect, Vonnegut is 110% on the liberal side, depicting southern slavery, southern bigotry, black crime rates and black incarceration rates as all aspects of white oppression.

Francine mused about the prison, where the guards were all white and most of the prisoners were black.

Then again, he crosses all kinds of lines we, in 2019, have been taught to avoid. He uses the N word more than any modern writer would dare, mostly setting it down in his standard fake naive way, a way that conveys the outrage and injustice embodied in the word all the more powerfully for being used flat and blank.

Harry knew Dwayne better than did any other man. He had been with Dwayne for twenty years. He came to work for him when the agency was right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger was a human being who was black.

There’s a lot more in the same ilk, some of it pretty disturbing. Here is Harry LeSabre, sales manager at Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership, talking with his wife, Grace.

‘Can the reindeer hear you?’ said Harry. ‘Fuck the reindeer,’ said Grace. Then she added, ‘No, the reindeer cannot hear.’ Reindeer was their code word for the black maid, who was far away in the kitchen at the time. It was their code word for black people in general. It allowed them to speak of the black problem in the city, which was a big one, without giving offense to any black person who might overhear. ‘The reindeer’s asleep – or reading the Black Panther Digest,’ she said.

The reindeer problem was essentially this: Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold the black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions. They were given small amounts of money every month, so they wouldn’t have to steal. There was talk of giving them very cheap dope, too – to keep them listless and cheerful, and uninterested in reproduction.

The Midland City Police Department, and the Midland County Sheriffs Department, were composed mainly of white men. They had racks and racks of submachine guns and twelve-gauge automatic shotguns for an open season on reindeer, which was bound to come.

This is bleak whichever way you view it. Is Vonnegut agreeing that there is a big race problem in America? The idea that blacks are given a small dole to stop them stealing is bleak satire. Should Harry and Grace’s attitude be taken as the average white middle class view of the day? And then the mass arming of the police against the coming of a race war even bleaker.

Sometimes Vonnegut combines his fake-naive approach to race with the conceit that humans are machines, to produce really biting dark satire. Thus, emerging from a porn cinema in Times Square, Kilgore Trout is propositioned by two hookers.

These were country girls. They had grown up in the rural south of the nation, where their ancestors had been used as agricultural machinery. The white farmers down there weren’t using machines made out of meat anymore, though, because machines made out of metal were cheaper and more reliable, and required simpler homes.

All America’s social problems are treated in the same way, with huge detachment as if we are all machines in a grotesquely malfunctioning factory.

Sex

Slaughterhouse-Five offended many Americans because of its dwelling on pornography. Not the writing of pornography, just Vonnegut dwelling on it as a symptom of human beings’ madness. Well, men’s. There’s a lot more of it in Breakfast of Champions.

Sex shops It turns out that Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels are generally bought up by pornographers purely to pad out their wank mags. This means that, before he sets off to the arts festival in Midland City, Trout spends some time cruising the sex shops around Times Square in New York.

Beaver shots Vonnegut goes to town on this, describing how hard core sex magazines advertise that they contain ‘wide open beaver’ shots i.e. photos of women with their legs and labia apart, for men to masturbate to. It’s a classic opportunity to use the false-naive approach to highlight the absurdity of men, women, sex, humanity.

At the time he met Dwayne Hoover, Trout’s most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. The publisher didn’t change the title, but he obliterated most of it and all of Trout’s name with a lurid banner which made this promise:

WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!!!!!

A wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen. The expression was first used by news photographers, who often got to see up women’s skirts at accidents and sporting events and from underneath fire escapes and so on. They needed a code word to yell to other newsmen and friendly policemen and firemen and so on, to let them know what could be seen, in case they wanted to see it. The word was this: “Beaver!”

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

When Dwayne was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and the courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine. It was somehow decided that wide-open beavers, which were ten thousand times as common as real beavers, should be the most massively defended secret under law.

There you have Vonnegut’s satirical view of the absurdity of sex, pornography and society.

The clitoris Trout has written an entire book about the clitoris (p.144) and how a man should pleasure a woman.

Penis size There is also a longish passage half way through the book, where Vonnegut tells us the precise penis lengths of all the make characters in the book. This feels like Tristram Shandy, the most famous example of learnèd wit, i.e. taking the mickey out of absurd scholarship and learning, updated to the era of the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour. In case you’re wondering:

Dwayne Hoover, incidentally, had an unusually large penis, and didn’t even know it

while:

Kilgore Trout had a penis seven inches long, but only one and one-quarter inches in diameter

at which point, in his fake-naive style, Vonnegut includes a drawing of an inch so that we know what we’re talking about.

Orgasms And this segues into a discussion of how many orgasms the main characters have per month.

Dwayne’s monthly orgasm rate on the average over the past ten years, which included the last years of his marriage, was two and one quarter. [Grace]’s monthly average over the same period was eighty-seven. Her husband [an assistant in Dwayne’s car dealership]’s average was thirty-six.

Cross dressing I was struck that Harry LeSabre is a transvestite. At weekends he likes to dress up in women’s clothes. His wife, Grace, is fine with this, but Harry is petrified lest it get out among his work colleagues.

Homosexuality And Dwayne is bothered because his son, George, has come out as gay, after having a terrible time at the military academy Dwayne sent him to when he was only a boy –

George Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else.

with the result that he now insists on being called Bunny and plays piano in the cocktail lounge of the town’s Holiday Inn.

Role playing Earlier Dwayne took his secretary and lover, Francine Pefko, to the Holiday Inn where they made love but then Dwayne a) got really angry with her, shouting accusations, after which b) he collapsed into self pity and wanted her to be his Mommy.

He begged her to just hold him for a while, which she did.
‘I’m so confused,’ he said.
‘We all are,’ she said.
She cradled his head against her breasts.
‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’ said Dwayne.
‘You can talk to Mommy, if you want,’ said Francine. She meant that she was Mommy.
‘Tell me what life is all about,’ Dwayne begged her fragrant bosom.

Prison sex A minor character, a black man just out of prison named Wayne Hoobler who’s been hanging round Dwayne’s Pontiac salesroom, reminisces about sex in prison.

He missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and the asshole, and jerking off – and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in a normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew.

My point being that if a contemporary novel tackled these ‘issues’ it would be praised for being up to date and contemporary. But here’s Vonnegut writing about them 45 years ago. Nothing changes. Sex deranges everything.

The environment

But amid the satire about humans being machines driven by malfunctioning brain chemistry, about the madness of patriotism and wars, about the crazy attitudes to sex and the brutal racism of American society, there’s another strong theme which is environmentalism.

Right at the start of the novel Vonnegut describes Earth as a damaged planet, a dying planet, a wrecked planet, before we learn Trout’s theory that the atmosphere will soon become unbreathable and goes on:

He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.

The theme is picked up by the truck driver who Trout hitches a lift east out of New York with. As they drive through the wastelands of New Jersey, the driver laments how dirty and polluted the whole state has become.

‘And when you think of the shit that most of these factories make – wash day products, catfood, pop…’ He had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.

He said he knew that his truck was turning the atmosphere into poison gas, and that the planet was being turned into pavement so his truck could go anywhere.

And the theme is repeated big time when they drive through West Virginia and see how the landscape has been devastated by coal mining and Vonnegut, using the fake-naive approach, laments how crazy it is that people, because they own the minerals and oil and coal deep within the Earth, are allowed by our laws to devastate and pollute the surface of the Earth which we all inhabit.

The truck carrying Kilgore Trout was in West Virginia now. The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

Summary

The experience of reading Breakfast of Champions is funny if disconcerting. The fake naive style, the casual way all kinds of topics are – race, sex, politics, war, environment – are treated with a deadpan straight face and reduced to absurdity by being illustrated with the author’s drawings, all this is often quite amusing.

But as soon as you stop and tabulate the themes, as I’ve done, you can see that just beneath the surface – and quite often on the surface – is world class depression, pessimism and nihilism.

In the last third of the novel Vonnegut himself appears as the author of the book and begins to play a role in it. We learn how he bought a pair of dark glasses on his way to Midland City where he walks into the same cocktail bar where Kilgore Trout is sitting and then watches the entrance of his character, Dwayne Hoover. He then shares with us the process of making up various secondary characters, giving them names and attributes and generally orchestrating the events which follow.

Not only does he tell us how he’s making the story up – in standard post-modern style – but he shares with us his worries about his mental illness (‘leaks’ in this extract is the term Vonnegut has developed to describe glasses and sunglasses).

There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia. The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes. I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbours believed.

I am better now.
Word of honour: I am better now

Much of these personal anxieties are present in Slaughterhouse-Five but there they are contained and channelled into the vivid description of, and emotional reaction to, Billy Pilgrim’s terrible war experiences. They are justified by the genuine nihilism of war. That’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five a classic. The subject justifies the deranged treatment. The reader thinks: well, having been through what Vonnegut went through, I’ll give him any amount of leeway in how he presents it.

But Vonnegut is all too aware that this novel completely lacks the historical authenticity and punch of its predecessor. It lacks the excuse of being about a Big Subject.

For sure, he excoriates every aspect of American society and human nature which he can get his hands on, but as a result the book not only lacks focus but lacks a justification. Instead, you keep circling back to find Vonnegut’s face, staring out at the reader in mute despair.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction

Americocentric

It is Americocentric. There are no other countries worth troubling with on earth. Whether ‘man’ reaches out to colonise the planets, to settle on Mars or Mercury, invents hyperspace and travels to colonise distant planets, or stays at home to create the megacities of Caves of Steel – it’s Americans who do it, with American technology, and American culture.

And the home city is always New York: in the final story of I, Robot, it is New York which becomes seat of the new World Government and the World Co-Ordinator is, of course, American, as are the inventors of robots, and the hyper-drive, and anything else worthwhile that mankind comes up with. 3,000 years later, after billions of people have left earth to colonise the Outer Worlds, detective Elijah Baley lives in New York.

Everyone speaks English

With the result that everyone speaks English. It is one of the many ludicrous elements you have to overcome in order to read the Foundation trilogy, that 12,000 years in the future, and inhabiting planets scattered right across the inconceivable distances of the Galaxy – everyone speaks English. There’s a slight gesture towards reality, in that some of the humans on the more remote planets have an accent which is a bit hard for others to understand. But it’s always, everywhere, basically English that is spoken.

Planets become provinces

I can’t quite define it, but it’s the way all his (and other golden age writers’) universes consist of planets which just do one thing and are treated, in effect, like real-world people treat regions of their countries.

Thus a planet in the Foundation books is a ‘holiday planet’, as if one whole planet were made of beaches and cocktail bars. Another planet just supplies raw materials, in The Naked Sun Solaria is the planet with most advanced robotics. And that’s it. That’s what it does.

Planets – entire planets – are conceived of as one-trick ponies, which do just the one thing. Completely ignoring the evidence we have about the only planet where we know life exists – our own one – that planets are astonishingly diverse, in climates, life forms and so on.

It is a profoundly dumb way of thinking about planets. As if each one is a toy in a childish game. It is an example of the way Asimov and other Golden Age writers dismiss or ignore the mind-boggling diversity of life on our own planet. In Asimov’s fiction planet earth is reduced to American men arguing in rooms. It follows that his view of the entire galaxy is the same, but extrapolated to many more rooms.

It is this reductive gesture which makes so many of the planets in the Foundation stories end up sounding the same. They may be given a paragraph or so of cursory description – but they all have earth-type gravity and air, no radiation or dangerous environmental elements of any kind. They’re just variations of the same kind of futuristic room where Elijah Baley ends up meeting and arguing with people, or the protagonists of the Foundation stories end up meeting and arguing with people. In American.

A human-only universe

This imaginative reductionism is related to the way that there appears to be no other life in the galaxy.

Humans colonise all the other planets, and then hypertravel off to other star systems, and end up colonising pretty much every other planet in the galaxy and yet – encounter no other significant life forms.

It’s not only that this is unlikely (although it’s all completely unlikely). More to the point, it is extravagantly boring. It means that all Asimov’s fiction is about people, the same kind of people, a certain type of calculating adult, calculating the same kinds of odds and trying to figure out whodunnit.

They’re all detective stories

All the Foundation stories and the Elijah Baley stories are, in a sense, whodunnits. The Baley ones, obviously since he is a detective investigating murders. The Foundation ones in a more roundabout sense. In every Foundation story there is a dilemma or threat. Individual or group X think the best way to solve it is by doing Y. But the hero (or heroine) of each story knows better and all the stories end the same way: the secret of what really happened is revealed right at the end. So although they’re not overtly detective stories, they have a similar structure: dilemma – fake leads and red herrings – revelation of the true solution or meaning of events.

Simplistic politics

Having painted a childishly simplistic vision of a galaxy in which each planet does just one thing, in which there are no aliens to disrupt his whodunnits, Asimov only incorporates the most simplistic and child’s-eye version of ‘politics’ as is required to drive the stories.

If there are ‘political’ movements, they are a) perfectly understandable and b) perfectly rational and c) childishly simple.

Thus in The Caves of Steel there is a ‘party’ – the ‘Medievalists’ – which wishes to return humans to a simpler, earlier time. That’s it. There don’t appear to be any other political parties in America, there’s no mention of elections, with the vast amount of corruption and bullshit they usually throw up, let alone of the notion that there are different countries who might be economic or military rivals (as we know there have been throughout all human history).

No – magically, the entire world of national and international politics disappears with a wave of the magic wand, leaving behind just enough of a child’s cartoon version of ‘politics’ (a secret society who want to turn the clock back – about as sophisticated as the League of Red-Haired Men in Sherlock Holmes) as is required for make the hokey storyline.

Pretty much the same ‘party’ – really a conspiracy – appears in the final story if I, Robot where it is the Society for Humanity which opposes the rise of the robots.

Any other notion that people might disagree about fundamental principles of how to run the economy, how to redistribute wealth, whether to allow unchecked capitalism or moderate it or try and implement some kind of state economy, the usual nationalist, xenophobic and populist motivations for politics which we all know from the real world – gone, vanished, evaporated, cleansed – just like other nations or other languages.

Economics

Similarly, Asimov’s take on economics is raw materials are needed for factories on earth. That’s about it. The earth of The Caves of Steel is rigidly hierarchical but we don’t really get to see anyone at work except the police (we do meet a worker in a nuclear plant and the staff of a shop where an anti-robot riot nearly breaks out) and these police could come out of a Raymond Chandler novel or any of the thousands of other contemporary cop thrillers.

Real economics involves the continuously evolving exploitation of raw materials, and siting and building of factories, and the training of workforces to supply technologies which are constantly being invented solely to make money. America has been the world’s leading capitalist economy and society for at least a century. It is extraordinary that Asimov, for all his supposed intelligence, is blind to the disruptive energies of capitalism which always lead, everywhere, to the provision of a high standard of living for many, maybe a majority of a capitalist population, but also always involve low wages, unemployment and – a cardinal fact of untrammeled capitalism – the cycle of boom and bust, with periodic crashes leading to deep depressions every ten years or so.

In the real world it is difficult even to organise the workers in a particular industry to join together to take industrial action or bargain for better pay. In Asimov’s world entire planets truck along quite happily producing raw materials or being vacation planets, with no sense of struggle or exploitation or grievance or class or racial conflict.

All the things which we know absolutely dog the actual world – are excluded from his stories.

Wars

Similarly, real world wars break out for complex reasons and, once started, tend to develop a dynamic of their own and become very difficult to end.

As you might expect by now, wars in Asimov’s fiction are the opposite, as simply motivated and easily ended as his paper-thin notion of politics. Some of the Foundation wars do start for the time-honoured motivation that strong planets see an opportunity to conquer weak ones – but they are nearly always started by specific named individuals who, when we meet them, are portrayed as pantomime baddies.

I’m thinking of the story, The Mayors, in which the planet Anacreon is ruled by Prince Regent Wienis, who rubs his hand and cackles like a pantomime villain or Ming the Merciless, while bullying his whiney teenaged nephew, King Lepold I. It only takes Salvor Hardin to pull off a few tricks (he’s bugged the Anacreon fleet and also manages to turn off all power in Anacreon’s capital city) to overcome Wienis and the threatened war to end as quickly as it began.

My point is that, in the real world, wars are often supported by entire populations which have been whipped up top expect them – as all Europe expected World War One, as the Nazis whipped up the Germans or the Japanese military leaders organised their entire society for war. In Asimov’s fairy tales, the goody only has to eliminate the cackling baddy and the rest of the population instantly returns to being reasonable and peace-loving. Exactly the opposite of reality.

Women

It’s to Asimov’s credit that he gives a leading role to Bayta Darell, who grasps what is going on quicker than her husband in The Mule, and to her grand-daughter, 14-year-old Arcadia Darell, in Search By the Foundation, that Elijah Baley’s wife, Jessie, plays some role in The Caves of Steel and Gladia Delmarre plays the lead, a somewhat stereotyped romantic lead, in The Naked Sun. And not forgetting the way he places Dr Susan Calvin centre stage for the linked stories that make up I, Robot.

Still, Asimov’s failure to anticipate women’s lib and feminism is a good example of the way that, while he and his fans had their eyes fixed on the stars, real and profound social changes were transforming human relationships here on earth (in the West, at any rate) in a matter of just a few decades.

I’m not blaming him for failing to anticipate specific social changes: I’m pointing out that his fictions envisage basically unchanged social relationships stretching for thousands of years into the future and how profoundly misleading a view of human nature that is.

Race

Ditto race. In The Naked Sun the humans refer to the fleets of robots which do all the hard work as ‘boy’. Now this is the offensive, abusive term which white Americans used to blacks from the Reconstruction period onwards, and reached horrible aggressiveness as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Asimov couldn’t anticipate that only a decade or so after he was writing, America was to be seriously divided by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and then the assassination of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so on.

But that’s the point. While Asimov was extrapolating his neat and tidy Three Laws of Robotics, and anticipated them being carried 100, 3,000 and 12,000 years into the future by white English-speaking, Americans – meanwhile, around him, through the 1950s into the 1960s, the real world descended into a messy chaos.

Summary

This is why so many adult readers, writers and critics were, and are, able to dismiss and ignore most science fiction – it’s because science fiction itself simply excludes and ignores almost everything which makes up the actual world we live in, with all its difficulties and complexities and challenges and, by extension, its rewards and interest.


Reviews of books by Isaac Asimov

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’

1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery

1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn (2016)

My thinking about the concept of borderlands has been influenced by a growing body of literature interested in exploring the liminal spaces in which social relations, cultures and claims to sovereign authority make contact, struggle, and reshape one another. (p.525)

Executive summary

This is a long, turgid and demanding book. Plenty of times I nearly gave up reading it in disgust. If you want to find out what happened in America between about 1820 and 1865, read James McPherson’s outstanding volume, Battle Cry of Freedom. For the period from 1965 to 1910 I currently can’t recommend an alternative, but they must be out there in their hundreds.

Two types of history

There are probably countless ‘types’ of history book but, for the purposes of this review, they can be narrowed down to two types. One type provides a more or less detailed chronology of events laid out in sequence, with portraits of key players and plenty of backup information such as quotes from relevant documents – government paperwork, constitutions, manifestos, speeches, newspaper articles, diaries, letters – alongside photos, maps, graphics and diagrams explaining social or economic trends, and so on. You are bombarded with information, from which you can pick the main threads and choose the details which most inspire you.

The other type is what you could call meta-history, a type of history book which assumes that the reader is already familiar with the period under discussion – the people, dates and events – and proceeds to ask questions, propose new theories and put forward new interpretations of it.

Since this kind of book assumes that you are already familiar with the key events, people and places of the era, it won’t bother with biographical sketches, maps or photos – you know all that already – but will focus solely on laying out new ideas and interpretations.

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn is very much the second type of history. If you want to find out what happened in America between 1830 and 1910, with maps, pictures, diagrams etc – this is not the book for you. There are no maps at all. There are no pictures. There are no diagrams. Sure there’s still a lot of information, but what there mostly is, is lots of ‘reinterpretations’.

Reinterpretations

In the first paragraph of the introduction Hahn declares his intention to tell ‘a familiar story in an unfamiliar way’, and the front and back of his book are plastered with quotes from high-end journalists and fellow academics confirming that this is indeed what he has achieved – praising his achievement in ‘reconceptualising’ and ‘rethinking’ this crucial period in American history.

  • ‘a forthright challenge to old stereotypes’
  • ‘subtle and original conceptualisation’
  • ‘not a typical chronological survey of American history’
  • ‘conceptually challenging’
  • ‘breathtakingly original’
  • ‘a bold reinterpretation of the American nineteenth century’
  • ‘an ambitious rethinking of our history’

What this means in practice is spelled out in the introduction, where Hahn announces that:

  • Traditional history teaches that the United States started as a nation and turned into an empire. Hahn seeks to prove the reverse: to show that the United States inherited an imperial mindset from imperial Britain, with a weak centre only loosely ruling a far-flung collection of autonomous states, and was only slowly struggling to become ‘a nation’, until the War of the Rebellion. The war gave the ruling Republican Party unprecedented power to pass a welter of centralising legislation which for the first time made America a ‘nation’. In this respect it was comparable to Italy and Germany which only became unified nations at much the same time (the 1860s) and also as a result of wars.
  • Traditional history teaches that America was divided into a slave-free North and a slave-based South. Hahn insists that slavery was ubiquitous across the nation, with some of the fiercest anti-black violence taking place in New York, and that the principle struggle wasn’t between North and South but between the North-East and the Mississippi Valley for control of the new country and, possibly, of the entire hemisphere. A recurring thread of the first half is the way that southern slavers seriously envisaged conquering all of Mexico and Central America and the available Caribbean islands to create a vast slave-owning empire in which the ‘slave-free’ north-east would be reduced to a geographic stump.
  • Traditional history teaches that America is an exception to the rest of world history, a shining light on a hill. Recent decades have overthrown that view to show just how deeply involved America was with trade, exploration and slavery back and forth across the Atlantic (this is also the thrust of Alan Taylor’s brilliant account of early America, American Colonies). However, Hahn wants to overthrow not only American exceptionalism but even this newer, Atlantic, theory – he wants to shift the focus towards the Pacific, claiming that many key decisions of the period don’t make sense unless you realise that politicians of both free and slave states were looking for decisive control of the vast Californian coast in order to push on into Pacific trade with Asia.
  • Traditional history teaches that there was a civil war in American from 1861 to 1865. Hahn prefers to call this epic conflict ‘the War of the Rebellion’ – partly because the war was indeed prompted by the rebellion of the slave states, but also in order to place it among a whole host of other ‘rebellions’ of the period e.g. the Seminole War of the 1840s, the refusal of the Mormons to accept federal power in their state of Utah, the wish of some Texans to remain an independent state, the attempts by southern filibusters (the Yankee name for buccaneering adventurers) to invade Cuba and Nicaragua in defiance of federal law, numerous native American uprisings, and countless small rebellions by black slaves against their masters. Instead of being the era of One Big War, Hahn is trying to rethink the mid-nineteenth century as the era of almost constant ‘rebellions’, large and small, by southerners, by native Americans, by newly organising workers everywhere, by the Mormons, by women – against the federal government.
  • Traditional history teaches that capitalism spread across America from its East coast, which was deeply interconnected with the global capitalist economy pioneered by Britain. Hahn seeks to show that there were all kinds of regional resistances to this transformation – the South was committed to a slave economy which limited the growth of markets and industrialisation; the whole mid-West of the country was occupied by native Americans who had completely different values and means of production and exchange from the Europeans; much of newly-settled West preferred small local market economies, virtually barter economies, to the cash-based capitalism of the East.
  • Probably the biggest single idea in the book is that the Republican triumph in the War of the Rebellion went hand in hand with the triumph of a centralised capitalist nation-state. But the latter part of the book goes on to insist that, even after its apparent triumph, capitalism continued to face a welter of opposition from numerous sources, from the disobedience of the defeated South, from western cowboy economies, through to resistance from highly urbanised Socialist and trade union movements – ‘the United States had the most violent labour history of any society in the industrialising world’ in the 1880s and 1890s.

Put this succinctly, these are certainly interesting and stimulating ideas. If only they had been developed in an interesting and stimulating way in interesting and stimulating prose which included interesting and stimulating facts.

But too often the ‘ideas’ dominate at the expense of the evidence and the basic information. Too often Hahn argues the points in prose which is so muddy, and with snippets of information or quotes handled so unpersuasively, or in such an obviously selective, cherry-picking way, that the reader has the permanent sense of missing out on the actual history, while ploughing through the interpretation. Take the new terms he coins:

New Terms

Most people in the world refer to the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865 as the American Civil War. Hahn’s attempt to ‘reconceptualise’ it and refer to it throughout as ‘the War of the Rebellion’ has a sort of appeal, especially if you can keep in mind the cohort of other rebellions he sees as surrounding it and feeding into it. But put the book down and start talking or writing to anyone else in the world and…they will be deeply puzzled. It will require quite a lot of explanation to convey why you’re using a different name from the rest of the world… and all the while you have the strong sense that it will never catch on…

To give another example: America saw rapid economic change in the 1830s and 1840s, as scattered farmsteads and distant agricultural regions began to be connected, first by canals and, in the 1840s, by railways. Raw materials and goods could be traded further than just the local market. Eastern investors became interested in money-making possibilities. Traditionally, this period has been referred to as ‘the market revolution‘. Characteristically, Hahn prefers to give it a different name, referring throughout to ‘market intensification‘.

He does this partly because – at this late date – there is, apparently, still widespread disagreement among historians about when the American industrial revolution began: was it the 1830s or 40s or 50s? Something was definitely changing about the scale of agricultural and semi-industrial production from the 1830s onwards – Hahn is suggesting a new term designed to more accurately convey the way existing structures of production and distribution didn’t fundamentally change, but became larger in scale and more linked up. More intensified.

It’s an interesting idea but it’s quite subtle and I felt a) it requires more evidence and information to really back it up than he provides, and b) I don’t, in the end, really care that much what it’s called: I’d just like to have understood it better.

Show or Tell

You could also think of think of the two types of history book I referred to earlier as ones which show, and ones which tell. James M. McPherson’s brilliant account of the civil war shows. He gives you all the facts, and the people, and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources. There are numerous maps, especially of all the key civil war battles, there are photographs which give you a strong feel for the era, there are diagrams and above all there are really extensive quotations from letters, speeches, articles and so on, so that you can read about the issues in the words of the people who were debating and arguing them.

As a result, McPherson’s account is rich and varied and highly memorable. You remember the people and what they did and said and achieved. As you follow his intricate account of the war, complete with maps and detailed descriptions of each battle, you get a real sense of what was at stake and how contingent human affairs are.

Hahn tells

By contrast, Hahn tells you what happened, with no reference to maps, no graphs or photographs, with minimum quotations. For example, he doesn’t give a single account of a civil war battle, and certainly no maps of them. All the evidence is subsumed to the need to make his case and put forward his theories.

But the risk of writing history in such a theory-heavy way is that your account might end up being more about yourself and your theories, than about the ‘history’; that you spend ages asking academic type questions…

What was the character of American governance? On what axes did American politics turn? How far did slavery’s reach extend, and what was its relation to American economic and political growth? How did the intensifying conflict over slavery turn into civil warfare, and in what ways did civil warfare transform the country? How integral was political violence and conquest to American development? How were relations of class, race and gender constructed, and what did they contribute to the dynamics of change? When did American industrialisation commence, and how rapidly did it unfold? How should we view popular radicalism of the late nineteenth century and its relationship to Progressivism? At what point could the United States be regarded as an empire, and how was empire constituted? (p.2)

… in order to devote the rest of the book to answering them in a similarly abstract, academic kind of way.

To give an example of the triumph of theory over detail, Hahn is heavily into modern identity politics and goes out of his way to discuss the history of women and of people of colour using the latest up-to-date sociological jargon.

Thus Hahn tells us that the nineteenth century family was a ‘patriarchal institution’ ruled by the ‘patriarchal father’ or the ‘patriarchal husband’. He explains that 19th century American society was profoundly ‘gendered’ (a favourite word of his), a society in which people have defined themselves by ‘gender stereotypes’, where people carried out ‘gendered divisions of labour’, according to ‘gendered norms’ and ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’. The more aggressive leaders of the era, such as presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodor Roosevelt, are both accused of ‘masculinism’.

Similarly, Hahn loses no opportunity to tell us the big news that Southern slaveowners and their newspapers and politicians often expressed ‘racist ideas’ and ‘racist conventions’ and ‘racist stereotypes’ in ‘racist’ language.

The thing is – this is not really news. It is not that useful to be told that 19th century American society was sexist and racist. The use of the latest terminology can’t hide the fact that this is pretty obvious stuff. Not only that, but it is deeply uninformative stuff.

Instead of giving specific, useful and memorable examples of the kind of behaviour he is deploring, there tend to be pages of the same, generalising, identity politics jargon.

Part of his attempt to overturn ‘received opinion’ is to attack the notion that slaves were the passive recipients of aid and help from well-meaning white abolitionists. Wherever he can, Hahn goes out of his way to show that it was the blacks themselves who organised resistance to slave-hunters, set up communications networks, who were aware of the political implications of the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, who organised themselves into groups to flee their southern masters and make for the Union front line then, later, after the war, continued the struggle for equality, organised themselves into networks and groups at local and regional level, and won significant political and administrative posts across the South, before, eventually, an anti-black backlash set in during the 1870s.

In a similar spirit (that marginalised people weren’t passive victims but strong independent people with their own agency who have all-too-often been written out of the story but whose voices he is now going to  bravely present) Hahn refers a number of times to women organising as much political activity as they were then allowed to do, taking on domestic and cultural responsibilities, organising a Women’s Convention in 1848, campaigning for women’s suffrage throughout the later part of the century, fighting for admission to teaching and the professions, and so on.

Well and good, and interesting, in outline – but the way Hahn tells these stories is highly generalised, draped in politically correct phraseology, rather than illuminated by specific stories or incidents which really bring them to life.

McPherson shows

By contrast, McPherson shows us these forces in action. He devotes pages to giving the names and stories of specific women who helped transform the perception of women’s abilities. These include the passages he devotes to the role of nurses during the war, and as workers in key industries depleted of men because of the draft.

I was fascinated by his description of the way that, in the pre-war period, the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male now went out to earn a wage, represented a big step up in power and autonomy for women. Interesting, because so counter-intuitive.

McPherson shows the important role of women in the 1840s in creating a new market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

McPherson devotes a passage to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I was struck by McPherson’s account of how women, in the 1830s and 40s began their dominance of the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female). The conference to launch the women’s rights movement which Hahn gives one brief mention, McPherson devotes three pages to, with accounts of the women who organised it, and the debates it held (pp. 33-36).

Later on, McPherson has a section about medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the male medical establishment, the army and the politicians so much that it made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness. Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483) and Elizabeth Blackwell who, in 1849, became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, especially in the North, where women were called in to replace men drafted into the army, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

All this is in the McPherson. You can see how it is all immediately more interesting, more enlightening, and more useful knowledge than any number of references to ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘gendered divisions of labour’, ‘gendered norms’, ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’.

And if you are a feminist or interested in what women did during this period, it is far more useful and empowering to be given specific names and events and stories, which you can then go and research further yourself, than bland generalisations. Being given the name and career of Mary-Anne Bickerdyke is more useful than being given another paragraph about ‘gender conventions’.

Other problems with the book

1. Poor style

Hahn’s prose style is awful. Pages go by full of anthropological and sociological jargon and utterly bereft of a single fact or name. Take this excerpt:

Although patrons expected favours and services from their office-holding clients, they had their own needs as well. Their power and prestige were enhanced by – often required – collections of followers who could offer loyalty, votes, skills, and readiness to intimidate foes, but all this came at the price of the rewards patrons had to make available: protection, work, credit, loans, assistance in times of trouble. (p.63)

Of what organised society is this not true? It could be describing power relations in ancient Rome, or Shogun Japan, or among the Aztecs.

Orotund Hahn’s core style is orotund American academese which combines:

  • preferring pompous to simple words
  • clichés
  • identity politics jargon

Pompous locutions Favourite words include ‘deem’ instead of ‘think’, and ‘avail’ instead of ‘take advantage of’ or just ‘use’. Hahn is particularly fond of ‘contested spaces’: America in the 19th century was thronged with ‘contested spaces’ and ‘contested narratives’ and ‘contested meanings’. All sorts of social forces ‘roil’ or are ‘roiled’. When he quotes speeches the speakers are always said to ‘intone’ the words. People never do something as a result of an event or development; he always say ‘thereby’ some great change took place.

Hahn has a habit of starting a sentence, then having second thoughts and inserting a long parenthesis before going on to finish the sentence – often combining two contradictory thoughts or ideas in one sentence, which forces you to stop and mentally disentangle them.

Cliché Given his bang up-to-date usage of latest PC jargon, it is a surprise that Hahn combines this with a fondness for really crass clichés. For example, early on tells us that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna initially supported the setting up of a monarchy in Mexico, then:

in a veritable flash, he sided with the liberals and constitutionalists

‘In a veritable flash’. a) That’s not very impressive English and b) it’s rather poor as historical explanation. Instead of serious analysis of Santa Anna’s motives for this (apparently sudden) change of mind, he is treated like a character in a fairy story. Hahn’s sense of human psychology is often disappointingly shallow. On the same page we are told that:

Santa Anna was haughty, temperamental, and guided chiefly by personal ambitions for power and adulation.

A political leader guided by a personal ambition for power. Fancy that. On page 24:

Napoleon, in his audacity, planned to reverse the wheels of history.

On page 29, President Andrew Jackson (who served for two terms, 1829 to 1837, and I think is seen as a bogeyman by liberals because he aggressively opened up the West to expansion by the slave states and capitalists, though it’s difficult to tell from Hahn’s book) is quoted in order to demonstrate the amorality of his expansionist vision:

‘I assure you,’ he boasted to the secretary of war, his imperial hunger not yet satisfied, ‘Cuba will be ours in a day.’

‘His imperial hunger not yet satisfied’. He sounds like a character in a fairy tale. Instead of stopping to convincingly explain to the reader why Jackson was such a Bad Bad Wolf, Hahn writes sentences like this about him:

In 1828, in an election that empowered white settlers west of the Appalachians and especially in the South, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, and the bell of doom began to toll.

Ah, ‘the bell of doom’. That well-known tool of historical analysis. What is he talking about?

The spread of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s prompted pro-slavery counter-attacks on black churches or schools:

as the fires of hatred were fanned to a searing heat. (p.61)

Ah, the fires of hatred. Half a dozen times ‘the writing is on the wall’ for this or that person or movement. Indians, or blacks, or women, or strikers ‘throw themselves into the fight against’ the army or Southern racism or the patriarchy or capitalism. Oppositions ‘dig in their heels’ against governments.

Wrong usage Not only does he use surprisingly banal clichés, but Hahn is continually verging in the edge of ‘malapropism’, defined as: ‘the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect’. Here is a paragraph of Hahn which seems to me to combine cliché with phrases where he’s using words with slightly the wrong meaning.

Nearly one quarter of Santa Anna’s troops fell at the Alamo… and the slaughters he authorised there and at Goliad touched a raw nerve of vengeance among those left to keep the Texas rebellion alive. Believing that he verged on total victory, Santa Anna planned a multi-pronged attack on Houston and divided his army to carry it out. But the winds of fortune (in this case a captured courier) enabled Houston to learn of Santa Anna’s moves… (p.41)

‘He verged on total victory’ – can a person verge on anything? I thought only nouns could ‘verge on’ something, like the example given in an online dictionary: ‘a country on the verge of destruction’. Maybe this is correct American usage, but it sounds to me like an example of malapropism, something which sounds almost correct but is somehow, subtly, comically, wrong.

Elsewhere I was brought up short when I read that:

The militant posture on the Oregon question helped the democrats and their candidate, James P. Polk from Tennessee… eke out a tight election. (p.122)

The dictionary definition of ‘eke out’ is ‘to make (a living) or support (existence) laboriously’. Can it be applied to narrowly winning an election?

As for ‘the winds of fortune’ in the Santa Anna paragraph, that is just an awful cliché, isn’t it? Surely any historian – any writer – who uses phrases like ‘the winds of fortune’ or ‘the wheels of history’ or ‘the bell of doom’ or ‘the fires of hatred’ to explain anything, can’t be taken completely seriously.

2. Glossing over key events

Whereas McPherson dedicates a section of his book to a particular event, explains what led up to it, explains who the people were, gives extensive quotes explaining what they thought or planned to do, and then gives thorough descriptions of what happened – Hahn more often than not asks a sociological or anthropological question and then answers his own question at great length, only incorporating the subset of facts, events, people or quotes which suit his argument.

With the result that the book gives a very strong feeling that is it skipping over and omitting whole chunks of history because they don’t suit his agenda.

To give an example, early on in the book there are a couple of fleeting references to ‘the Alamo’. They come in the context of his discussion of the independence of Texas. Texas was initially a vast state or department of Mexico: the Mexicans invited or allowed American settlers to settle bits of it. Eventually these settlers decided they wanted to declare it a white American state. They were strongly encouraged by slave plantation owners in the Deep South who hoped they could export slavery to Texas.

Now this aim was itself only part of the wider ‘imperial’ aims of Southern slave owners who, in the 1830s and 1840s, envisioned creating a vast slave empire which stretched through Texas to the whole of California in the West, which would reach out to conquer Cuba for America, and which also would take control of some, or all, of Central America.

In this context, some notable American cowboys and adventurers took control of the Alamo and, when a Mexican army surrounded it, insisted on holding out till it was finally taken and everyone killed. From a macro perspective it was just one of the numerous clashes between American rebels and Mexican army from the period.

The point of explaining all this is that I know that The Alamo is part of American frontier legend. I know there’s an expression: ‘Remember the Alamo!’ I know a big Hollywood movie was made about it starring John Wayne. I hoped that, by reading this book, I would discover just why it’s so important in American folk mythology, what happened, who Jim Boone and the other ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were, and so on. I’m perfectly prepared to have the whole Hollywood ‘myth’ of the Alamo debunked, and to learn all kinds of squalid or disillusioning things about it, but I wanted to know more.

Not in this book I didn’t. I didn’t even get the debunking option. Instead Hahn more or less ignores ‘the Alamo’ because his focus in that particular chapter is on ‘reconceptualising’ that part of American history in terms of his broad meta-theme – the imperial fantasies of the southern slave-owners.

To find out more about the Alamo, I had to look it up online. Just like I ended up googling ‘the Comancheria’, ‘the Indian Wars’, the ‘robber barons’ and ‘Reconstruction’.

The entire era from the 1870s to about 1900 in America is often referred to as ‘the Gilded Age’ (because really rich Americans began to ape the houses and lifestyles of aristocratic Europe) but Hahn uses this phrase only once, in passing, only at the very end of the book, and doesn’t explain it. So once again I had to go off to the internet to really learn about the period.

Reading the book for information is an intensely frustrating experience.

3. No maps

The history of the United States in the 19th century is the story of its relentless geographical expansion – westwards across the continent, taking whatever territory it could by force, seizing Florida from Spain, seizing Texas and California from Mexico (in the 1846 Mexico War), doing its damnedest to conquer Canada but being held at bay by the British (in the war of 1812) – attempting to conquer islands in the Caribbean such as Cuba (in the 1850s), and stretching the long arm of its empire across the Pacific to seize little Hawaii in the 1870s, even creating a short-lived American regime in Nicaragua (in 1856-7).

To understand any of this at all – to see what was at stake, where places were, the route of invasions, the site of battles and so on – you need maps, lots of maps, but – THIS BOOK HAS NO MAPS.

Whoever took the decision not to commission clear, relevant, modern maps deeply damaged the usefulness of this book. In just the first fifty pages, Hahn describes the extent of Commanche land, the shape of 1830s Mexico, discusses the status of East and West Florida, describes the debates about the precise territory included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, follows the march of Mexican General Santa Anna to locations in East Texas. WITH NO MAPS.

So, in order to understand any of these discussions, and any of the hundreds of discussions of geographical issues, places, conflicts packed throughout the book – you need to have an Atlas handy or, better still, read the book with a laptop or tablet next to you, so you can Google the maps of where he’s talking about.

In fact, on page 33 I discovered that the book does contain maps, but that they are poor-quality reproductions of contemporary nineteenth-century maps which are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to read. Take this example, ‘A Map of North America by Palairet’, which doesn’t even give you a date. The print is so tiny you can’t make out a single place name except ATLANTIC OCEAN.

Map of North America by J. Palairet

Map of North America by J. Palairet

I’m not often moved to get on a high horse about anything, but this is disgraceful. This volume is part of Penguin’s multi-volume history of the United States. It was published in 2016. It’s meant at some level to be a definitive history of the period. The decision not to commission a single clear modern map, and not to use any contemporary photographs, or diagrams or graphs, is inexcusable.

Here’s another example, Bacon’s Military Map of America from 1862, showing America’s ports and fortifications. Can you read any of the place names? No. Can you see any of the ports and fortifications? No. Is this map of any use whatsoever? No. It’s a token gesture, and almost an insulting one at that.

Bacon's Military Map of America, 1862

Bacon’s Military Map of America, 1862

Part two 1865-1910

I’ve read several accounts of the civil war but know next to nothing about the period which followed it. That’s why I bought this book and I certainly learned a lot, though all the time having to struggle through a) Hahn’s unfriendly prose style b) with the constant feeling that I wasn’t being told the full story of events but only what Hahn wanted to tell me in order to make his points with and c) without any maps, diagrams of photographs to refer to.

The key points of the period which I took away are:

  • The administrative centralisation begun during the War of the Rebellion continued at accelerating pace for the rest of the century and into the 20th century, though not without all kinds of opposition.
  • ‘Reconstruction’ is the name given to the period immediately following the War of the Rebellion, when the North tried to rebuild the South in its own image. Abraham Lincoln was shot on 15 April 1865. He was succeeded by vice-president Andrew Johnson who, unlike Lincoln and the Republican party which had dominated the Congress and Senate during the war, was a Democrat. For a fatal year Johnson was fantastically lenient to Southern soldiers and leaders, letting them return home with their weapons, and return to their former positions of power. Congress, however, saw that the Southerners were simply reinstituting their racist rule over the blacks and so superseded Johnson, implementing a new, more military phase of Reconstruction, by sending the chief Northern generals to administer the South under what amounted to martial law. Thus there are two periods: Presidential Reconstruction 1865-67, and Congressional Reconstruction 1867 to 77.
  • Some of the colonels and generals who had risen to prominence in the War of the Rebellion were sent West to quell risings by native Indians, for example the Sioux Rebellion of 1862. There then followed about 20 years in which the U.S. government and army broke every agreement with the Indians, harried and pursued them, bribed and bullied them onto ever-shrinking ‘reservations’. Some administrators and military men openly stating that they aimed to ‘exterminate’ the Indians. (General Sheridan called for a ‘campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction’, p.379). It is ironic that Americans in the 20th century were so quick to criticise the British Empire and its colonial grip over native peoples, given that America did its damnedest to exterminate its own native peoples.
  • Describing what happened in the South from 1865 to 1910 is long and complex. But basically, there was ten years or so of Reconstruction, when the Republican government freed the slaves, gave them the vote, and tried to encourage their integration into economic life. This period ended around 1876 as the Republican Party lost its radical edge and became increasingly associated with northern capitalism. More to the point, the U.S. Army was withdrawn and the southern, racist Democrat party took over. They quickly began passing a whole raft of laws which brought about institutionalised ‘Segregation’. For example, during Reconstruction the number of black voters was huge, 80% or more of all adult black men, with the result that an astonishing number of local officials, judges and even governors were black. With the revival of the Democrats into the 1880s, all the southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed voter registration laws requiring voters to demonstrate specified levels of literacy, live in fixed abodes or even pay a small fee ($2) – with the result that voter levels fell to something like 5%! (pp.470-473).

This was one of the biggest things I learned from the book. Realising that it wasn’t slavery, or the Reconstruction period – it was this backlash during the 1870s and 1880s which instituted the Jim Crow legislation, the official segregation, the systemic impoverishment of black people, which was to last until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

This is quite mind-boggling, a massive stain right the way through American history. It made me rethink my attitude towards slavery: I’ve read numerous books about slavery, seen movies and TV series about slavery, stood in front of statues against slavery, visited exhibitions about slavery.

But reading these pages made me realise that slavery isn’t at all the problem; that slavery is now so distant in time as to be almost irrelevant. It was this institutional racial Segregation, instituted across the Deep South of America, and whose ideology – if not its laws – spread to the North and West, infected all of American life – which is the real issue.

It was the deliberate trapping of black people in the lowliest, poorest-paid jobs, and their systematic exclusion from voting and public life, the division of parks and public places, theatres and toilets and buses into black areas and white areas – this is the thing to understand better because, as far as I can see, it continues to this day, albeit more subtly. #BlackLivesMatter.

In a way, then, the emphasis which is still given by schools and exhibitions to slavery is misleading. Slavery was abolished 180 years ago in the British Empire and 155 years ago in America. This book made me realise that understanding the philosophy and practice of Racial Segregation is much more important and much more relevant to our ongoing problems today.

Capitalism and its enemies

What feels like the lion’s share of the last 100 pages of the book is devoted to the consolidation of capitalism, and its enemies. There are detailed passages describing the rise of the ‘corporation’, as a new legal and commercial entity, quite different from the companies and partnerships which had preceded it (pp.454-464). I didn’t understand the legal and commercial details and will need to study them elsewhere.

Hahn is at pains to describe the way successive federal administrations, although equivocal about the massive cartels and monopolies which came to prominence in the 1890s, nonetheless took them as almost natural agencies which the government could use and work through – as potential extensions of state power. By the 1890s everyone on left and right thought that these huge monopolies (of railways, gold, silver, copper, iron, steel) a) were here for good b) that the reach and effectiveness of these huge transcontinental corporations or agencies could be a model for modern government.

Behind all this is the Rise of the Nation-State, the grand theme Hahn has been tracing since the 1830s. But although the various aspects of its rise is the central development, Hahn’s focus is much more about the multitude of forces which resisted the rise of the state, criticised, questioned, critiqued it, from both left and right.

So these last hundred pages devote a lot of time to the confusing multitude of opposition parties which rose up against the, by now, time-honoured duopoly of Republicans and Democrats.

We learn about greenbackism, anti-monopolism, the Populist party, the Progressive Party, the rise of mass trade unions, the Knights of Labour and the first socialist parties – and then descend into the jungle of disagreements and bickering among working class parties – socialist, syndicalist, anarchist, gradualist, evolutionary, revolutionary.

There is a lot about the strikes – kicked off by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – which blighted American industry in the 1880s and 1890s, all a revelation to me.

A softer, liberal version of resistance to monopoly capitalism came to be termed the Progressive movement, the idea that progressive politicians should use the levers of the state to combat alcoholism, illiteracy, corruption, infectious disease, prostitution, greed and labour exploitation (p.454). This movement laid the basis of what would later become the American welfare state (such as it is).

Some tried to bring the opposing blocs together. Liberal capitalists formed the National Civic Federation (NCF) in 1900, which brought together chosen representatives of big business and organized labour, as well as consumer advocates, in an attempt to resolve labour disputes and champion moderate reform.

The final pages describe how the whole American imperial mindset was then exported, just at the turn of the century, to Cuba and the Philippines, which America won off Spain as a result of victory in the following Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish–American War, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, and also to Hawaii which, after decades of slowly taking over, America completely annexed in 1898.

Hahn shows how the same military leaders who had crushed the Indians were now sent to impose ‘civilisation’ on the Cubans and Filipinos, and with much the same mindset.

By now we are very familiar with American racist and segregationist thinking and so are not surprised when Hahn quotes racist comments by soldiers and administrators, or the speeches of politicians back in Washington, who thought people from inferior races i.e. the multicultural populations of Cuba, the Philippines and so on – simply weren’t capable of governing themselves, and needed the steady hand and civilising influence of the white man.

By the end of this book, I really hated America.


Old for us, new to the Yanks

I can’t get over the fact that so much of this seems to be new to the book’s reviewers. Back when I was a kid in school in the 1970s, I’m sure we all knew about American slavery. I remember the stir caused by the TV series Roots when it came out in 1977, over 40 years ago. All of us knew about the American Civil War, and maybe even had confederate flags or union caps among the various cowboy and Indian and army costumes we wore when we were ten. When I was a student, a friend of mine bought me Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the classic 1970 account of how America betrayed, bullied, and massacred its native peoples.

I’m sure all educated people knew about this history and these issues decades ago. The people around me in the Labour Party of the 1970s, the party of Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were very well aware of America’s history of imperialism, its origins in brutal slavery which it didn’t abolish until the 1860s, how it exterminated its native peoples, reached out to seize islands in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and to dominate the nations to Central America, before going on to its long history of supporting military dictators, torture and assassination (in my youth these included the Shah of Iran, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, the military Junta in Greece, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and so on.)

In the 1980s I hung around the communist bookshop in Brixton which was absolutely plastered with posters about American racism and the legacy of slavery, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, protests against American imperialism and American multinational corporations and the CIA. Entrenched anti-Americanism was an absolutely basic, entry-level element of left-wing political awareness.

Yet somehow, in these books by Hahn and Alan Taylor, a lot of these things – the brutality of southern slavery, the genocide of the Indians – are presented as if they are new and seismic discoveries.

think what is happening here is that American academic history writing has finally caught up with how the rest of the world has seen America for generations – a hypocritical bully bragging about ‘liberty’ while keeping the descendants of the slaves locked up in drug-riddled ghettos, the last native Americans stuck in alcohol-soaked reservations, and propping up dictatorships around the world.

I think part of what’s going on in books like Taylor’s and Hahn’s is that, since the end of the Cold War, American academia has finally become free to portray the brutal realities of American history for what they were – and that, for American readers and students, a lot of this comes as a massive, horrifying shock. But to educated, and especially left-of-centre people throughout the rest of the world – yawn.

So if so much of the content has been so well known for so long, what was it that impressed the reviewers? I think it’s the unrelenting consistency with which he does two things:

One is the thorough-going application of a politically correct, identity-politics attitude which says right from the start that he is going to ignore a number of ‘famous’ events or movements or names (goodbye civil war, hello war of rebellion), in order to give more prominence to the role of native Americans, women and, especially, to blacks, than they have received in ‘previous’ histories.

But as I’ve commented above, very often Hahn’s widespread use of politically correct terminology like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘racism’ and ‘masculinism’ in the passages where he does this, tends (paradoxically) to obscure a lot of these voices, to bury them beneath a shiny sociological jargon which removes specificity – names, places, events and even words – from many of the groups he’s supposedly championing. In this simple respect, I’ve found much older accounts to be far more enlightening.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Hahn and all the other politically correct historians who nowadays use terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender’ and ‘people of colour’ do so because these terms in fact fend off real acceptance of the blood and horror of those times. These sterile, clinical and detached terms in a way help to drain accounts of the period of their emotion and outrage. You could argue that the language of identity politics, the jargon of sociology and anthropology which recurs throughout the book, despite his explicit intention to bring uncomfortable facts and ignored voices into the light – in fact, through its sheer repetitiveness and its unspecific generalisation – works to neutralise and blunt the impact of a lot of what he’s describing.

For example, Hahn gives facts and figures and sociological explanations for the rise of slave fugitives following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But McPherson, writing thirty one years ago, and without using any jargon, tells the specific story of the slave woman who escaped with her children to the North, but was tracked down. As the slave-hunters, with their dogs and guns, beat on the door of the cabin where she was hiding, this woman cut the throats of her small children so they wouldn’t be taken back into slavery, and then tried to cut her own.

You can see which approach leaves you most stunned, horrified and angry at the unspeakable horror of slavery, and it isn’t Hahn’s.

This is because the second thing going on in the book is what really garnered the praise, and that is Hahn’s high-level, intellectual and often bloodless ‘rethinking’ and ‘reconceptualising’ of the era in the terms I outlined at the start of the review.

He is interested in suggesting to highly educated readers already familiar with most elements of the period some new ways of thinking about it. Throughout, he downplays the voices of the white politicians who (I’m guessing) dominated earlier narratives, he really downplays the War of the Rebellion (maybe because there are already tens of thousands of other accounts of it), and instead plays up the notion that the increasingly centralised American state faced a whole slew of rebellions from multiples sources, devoting his time to describing and theorising this riot of rebellions.

And so he ignores what I’m assuming is the old-fashioned type of history which celebrated the rise of American freedom and capitalism and wealth and included lots of dazzling images from the ‘Gilded Age’, and he focuses instead on the wide range of oppositions which the state (and rich monopolists) faced from women, Indians, blacks, alternative political parties, the trade unions, socialists and so on.

But I find it difficult to believe that all previous histories of this period utterly failed to mention the movement for women’s suffrage, that there aren’t hundreds of books about the Indians, and thousands about Segregation, that nobody noticed the epidemic of strikes in the 1890s, or that numerous commentators at the time (and ever since) haven’t criticised America’s interventions in Cuba and Hawaii and the Philippines as being as blatantly imperialist as the European Empires her politicians liked to piously denounce.

Maybe some of Hahn’s high-level reconceptualising is new and interesting, but to the average educated reader the actual events of this era remain unchanged and the main feature of Hahn’s book is that he doesn’t tell them as fully or as imaginatively as other versions do.

In a word

Don’t read this book unless you are already master enough of the period to appreciate Hahn’s reconceptualising of it. If you want vivid detail, maps, extensive quotes and a deep understanding of the period from 1820 to 1865, read Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson: so gripping, so packed with information and ideas, that I had to write five separate blog posts about it.

For the period after the Civil War – I have still to find a satisfactory history. Reading this book suggests I may have to track down separate books devoted to specific areas such as the Indian Wars, the Gilded Age with its labour militancy underside, segregation and its long-term consequences, and the imperial conquests at the end of the century.


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