The Manson Girls and Privilege in America

Earlier this year, I read Emma Cline’s novel The Girls. This book has been widely praised and was subject to a publication bidding war.

The praise was deserved; it’s beautifully written. It’s also an interesting look at the 1960s; a young woman in northern California is drawn into a cult led by a charismatic, Manson-like figure. Charles Manson, of course, recently died in prison. He was the leader of a late 1960s cult in southern California that brutally killed about 10 people.

Here’s what I thought, reading the novel: the end is kind of a cheat. There is almost a thematic wrap-up at the end, where she mediates on the kind of rage necessary to commit the kind of murders these women did, and attributes it to…specifically female disempowerment howling for power, or being overlooked and unseen and desperate to be seen.

It’s not that I think these motives weren’t at work; it seems logical to think they were.

But. In reading around about Emma Cline, here’s what struck me. Part of this novel is about privileged Marin County, the suburb north of San Francisco. Emma Cline herself is a descendant of the Jacuzzi family, of whirlpool fame. Her family owns a winery there.

I can’t ascribe the novel to the author’s background, of course. But I can say that part of the protagonist’s Evie’s story seems analogous. In her case, a grandmother has been a famous movie actress and her money supports both Evie’s mother and Evie, so it’s significant enough to be a source of financial capital as well as fame.

So, shutting this book, I admired its style, but here’s what I thought: aren’t the Manson family murders equally about naked class resentment? Something we never like to talk about in this country? It’s about a type of revenge against the privileged, an “I’ll show you who’s boss” move. Big time.

One of the chilling things about the Manson family, I think – and a reason that those events resound with life in California — is that on the surface, the Manson family looked like what Joan Didion calls dreamers of the golden dream. They had long straight hair; they smiled easily; they took drugs and had a good time. They drove around in a van.

So did many middle and upper middle class people too. It seemed as if there was a linkage. It seemed they were all connected, by the ethos of the time, in which vans, drugs, and free love were the determinants.

But what struck me about the novel’s backdrop — which is true to the real proceedings in this particular — is the creepy hippy-esque poverty in which the cult lived. Dumpster diving for food. Wearing cast-off clothes. Stripping old cars for parts. In part, this was the style of the times if you lived in a commune. But wasn’t this also, in a way, the white underclass manifesting itself?

This thought was actually triggered by looking around for the whereabouts of the actual people involved. Part of the Manson family is still in jail. He recently died. Fortunately: their crimes were horrific, gruesome. Sharon Tate’s family reliably showed up at their parole hearings and argued against parole. Her one surviving sister still does.

The middle classness of the women in the cult was commented on by contemporary journalists at the time, and it’s become a staple in discussions of the Manson family. But maybe the long straight hair served as kind of a camouflage that made them seem like hippies rather than vagrants or small-time crooks, before the murders.

So they and their motives are often described in terms of romance, as in this review of The Girls in The Atlantic. What made them do it, kill so many people, when they were girls like us? Or in terms of popular music culture, as in this meditation on the death of Manson?

But Manson was a product of a specific underclass, with a mother who gave him away and served time in prison herself, as he did. Many of his followers had come from broken homes, lower middle class lives or, in Manson’s class, less.

Not that lower middle-class status made them criminals, of course. But it may have made the people they killed Other to them, symbols of privilege who deserved a big middle finger. And that’s a precondition for the acts themselves.

Sharon Tate was the daughter of a career military officer, and her handsome family — she may have been the movie star, but they were equally attractive — reek of a kind of San Diego-esque upper middle class privilege. When they’re pictured with George Bush for their victim’s rights activism, they look of a piece with him.

The Manson girls didn’t know Sharon Tate, as I recall the story. She was an accidental victim. But still, isn’t it more realistic to think they were all exacting revenge on the money and ease of upper middle class Californians? That’s who was killed, after all. Folger coffee heiresses. Wealthy restaurant owners, the next night.

Because the cult’s move into murder started (as the novel shows) as part of a series of microaggressions. In the novel, they start by simply going into people’s houses in Marin County and moving things about. In real life, they gradually took over a blind man’s property. Think about the sinister aspect of taking over power in the household.
It’s a criminal thing, microaggression. It’s symbolic. I can take what you have. I can fuck with what you have. And I’ll know it, but you won’t. And if you do realize it, you won’t be able to do anything about it.

It’s not that unusual for the relatively powerless to use it against the more powerful, especially if the powerful are unconscious and don’t react.

So, the Manson murders about female rage? Ok, yes. But also about class and privilege in America.


More Jane Smiley: Henry and the Cathars

Hello, readers, hello! My summers are often quite wild, so I haven’t written in a while. But not for lack of thinking.

What I want to do today is pick up on my last post, about Jane Smiley’s twentieth-century trilogy, composed of 3 novels, Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. In my last post, I talked about Smiley’s use of the everyday as metaphor.

Today, though, I want to touch on another aspect of the books, one quite removed from the everyday. I want to explore the relationship between the meditations and work of Henry, the academic member of the fictional family at the heart of the trilogy, with the family’s place in time and with Smiley’s project.golden age, smiley

Henry is a bookish Midwestern boy who goes on to become a professor, specializing in Old English. There are touchpoints where he seems to be pointing to the older roots of the characters — older than their provenance in America and even their provenance in 18th and 19th century Europe.

How? Well, early in Early Warning, he thinks of their nearest place of twentieth-century commerce, Denby, as “village of the Danes.” That’s what it means according to his studies. And, that’s what it still means, if you notice that many of Smiley’s characters in Iowa farm country are of Scandinavian or German extraction, and take “Danes” broadly and maybe even metaphorically.

Later, though, Henry begins to think more broadly, about the Cathars. The Cathars,  for those not up on medieval history, were a sect in the medieval period. Henry’s ruminations on them have to do with their sexual equality (women could be leaders), their plague-filled time (there is talk of bloody fluxes), their beliefs (vegetarian), and their persecution (many were ultimately killed rather gruesomely as heretics against the Catholic church).

When Henry thinks of the Cathars, he clearly thinks of touchpoints between their time and our own. Sexuality equality; a mark of our time. Vegetarianism; ditto. Bloody fluxes; several of Henry’s friends die of AIDS. The only outlier is persecution.

So are we supposed to read “the Cathars are us” as one of the meanings, given those commonalities? If so, what about that persecution?

Well, possibly that too, since the trilogy spans a time of religious divides.

rue des catharsI don’t think, though, that is intended to be the ultimate meaning. We are distanced from the Cathars much more than from Smiley’s multitude of Scandinavian/German/Northern European extraction Iowa-born characters.

I think it is intended to deepen her references to current events. All three books are a welter of contemporary-for-the-time references, and at times, for all my admiration of these books, the decades-by-decades references lend the books a cartoonish quality. In Early Warning alone, McGeorge Bundy drops in on a brother-in-law to discuss CIA policy and San Francisco poet Gary Snyder helps a sister in a motorcycle accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s references like this that make critics like NPR’s book critic Maureen Corrigan say things like it “occasionally feels like a flipbook of history-on-the-fly.”

However, there is a longer arc by century rather than decades. In the broad sweep of 100 years, the family in Smiley’s trilogy win and go ever upward. Once a local farm family, they end up bestriding the world, so to speak. Even with economic depressions, recessions, wars, and environmental concerns, the overall arc of their history is ascendant.

And, indeed, Americans often think of their history altogether as one of ascendancy.

With the Cathars, the book introduces a group that couldn’t, didn’t, meet every challenge. They weren’t ascendant. Perhaps it’s an intimation that empires rise and fall, and if the period of the 100 Years Trilogy is clearly a rise, the Cathars shadow a potential fall.

Jane Smiley and Her Trilogy

Hello, readers! Today, I want to write on books.

I would say “a book,” but in fact I’m writing about three. They are the three books that make up Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. The century trilogy follows one family from the 1920s to 2020. (Yes, according to Smiley’s web page, she is prognosticating into the future!)

I think Jane Smiley is one of the best of contemporary novelists, and today I want to talk about one reason why.

She excels at making metaphor out of everyday life. In one section of Early Warning, which focuses on the 1960s, a soldier is going through basic training. Around him, other soldiers sing/chant the rhymed marching songs known as “Jody’s,” for the Other Man who appears in all of them. An example from the book: Jody saw your girl today/ How’s he gonna stay away / She turned your picture to the wall/ Left his boots out in the hall. Another: Ain’t no use in feelin’ down/ Jody’s got your girl in town. early warning

There are others: “Ain’t no use to sit and moan/ Jody’s got your girl back home” is one I can quote from memory, although it isn’t quoted in the book.

Although quoting a Jody could be seen as part of verisimilitude – it’s just a realistic picture of what a soldier’s life is like, along with learning alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta, foxtrot – it acquires a different resonance once we know what happens to the soldier, a grandchild of the original family. He dies in Vietnam.

Reading the book, it suddenly became apparently to me that the Jody’s are about dying. Though they are ostensibly rueful humor, they are also inextricably about another man replacing you. Because you’re not there. The soldier is always not there in the scene described by a Jody: his absence is a precondition of a Jody. The girl is with another man – pursued, courted – because the solider singing is no longer there.

How did this become apparent to me in the book? Well, for one thing, Jody’s are always doubled. They are a call and response form. As such, they are also, more overtly, about joining a group and being part of it, as a solider does in the army.

The call and response is the way Smiley actually represents them in the book, not in the quotes I’ve done above. Like this: “Jody saw your girl today! (Jody saw your girl today!) How’s he gonna stay away! (How’s he gonna stay away!)” (pp. 175-176).

Perhaps it’s the presence of English professors in the book, but it caused me to think about the literary purpose of the doubling. The singing/chanting soldier, there, marching, is always doubled by a soldier who has been taken away from his haunts and is no longer there.

The Jody’s are about being erased from the land you once knew. In that, they remind me of A.E. Housman’s “Is My Team Ploughing,”  from A Shropshire Lad. In that one, a Jody conducts a colloquy with the dead soldier.

More on Jane Smiley and her trilogy soon!


Patti Smith’s New York

One of the things that really interests me in life is U.S. regionalism. So today, reader, I’m going to talk about that.

The first part of this blog is about the New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, as viewed through the prism of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. I have to say that, when I was a young woman, I never particularly liked Patti Smith.  (Well, I do like “Because the Night.” But not so much her oeuvre in general.) She seemed like a poseur of major proportions, and, frankly, not particularly musical.

So it was that I had never read Just Kids, about her time as friend, lover, and muse to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 1970s. Just Kids has been lauded, certainly—it won a National Book award—but I stayed far away.

Until recently. I grabbed it from my local library’s shelves and have read it with some degree of absorption. I ended up with a lot more respect for Patti Smith, who becomes a person of substance as she goes through her life.just kids book jacket

I want to talk about, though, what hit me most forcefully about her recounting of that period, and that was, how crappy New York was to live in during the 1970s. A lot of Just Kids is Patti Smith recounting how poor she and Robert Mapplethorpe were. Literally, not a lot of money—rationing themselves to a shared hot dog. Partly, this is because they were starving artists. But partly, it is because New York took a lot of money to live even in at the time, and they didn’t have it.

I was particularly struck by one anecdote, on their first apartment in Brooklyn. (Which was, at the time, considered cheap compared to Manhattan. It still is, but no longer the place where people restricted to sharing one hot dog can even think about living.) Their first apartment had been used by junkies, and it had used syringes nearly filling the oven and blood on the walls.

This turned my stomach—there’s something about the warmth and comfort of a kitchen being turned inside out this way that’s quite chilling. (I might also add that I just watched the movie CBGB recently, in honor of Alan Rickman, who plays the owner. The time period of CBGB occurs at the tail end of the Just Kids, of course, but the same “incredible and upsetting filth” motif runs through it: huge roaches, overflowing toilets, and so on and on.)

But the anecdote also caused me to start to meditate on New York and the West Coast, because a lot of my own life in New York City at a later period was being shocked that it was so different from the western states I’d come from.

I was completely fascinated by these differences, which manifested in every conceivable way. For one thing, I had grown up on the West Coast and had never really seen a lot of stuff that was really old. And dirty. Which a lot of the apartments I looked at in searching for rentals were. Not as bad as Smith and Mapplethorpe’s rentals, but still.

But also, I was fascinated with the different ways of using space. In both Oregon and California, for example, you found stuff in a grocery store by finding a long horizontal display. Corn flakes, for example, would be in a row left to right.

In New York City grocery stores, by contrast, corn flakes took up the space of one corn flakes box, and the multiple boxes lined up behind it. To a West Coast kid, it was genuinely difficult to see what you were looking for, because your eye was so oriented toward looking for a display that was an expanse.

So that has remained an orienting idea of NY/West Coast; the first is restricted and vaguely crummy in its space (unless you are quite rich); the second is expansive. This idea is one of the reasons I became very comfortable in suburbia. Expansion—spread out houses, spread out parking lots, spread out vehicles—is the animating spatial idea of suburbia, just as it is the animating idea of the West.

That people were expected to put up with so little space, and such crummy space, seemed very bad to me. It seemed bad for art, actually, which is partly about outreach and not constriction. Which is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with Smith’s narrative, because she accepts the crappiness and the overall idea that artists starve for art completely.

So tomorrow, readers, I’m going to talk about space restriction and space expansion as two separate kingdoms in the US, and further, where we are in these two kingdoms!


I Love School; or, the Bird Has Not Flown

As part of my transition out of graduate school, I’ve been working occasionally for a test prep company. Last weekend, I met my class in a local high school. It was a great autumn day–literally, there was a bright golden haze on the meadow.

I’m not in high schools when I teach, usually, so I was kind of shocked by it. And moved. And here’s the reason why.

It was an English classroom, obviously—I could tell by the posters on the wall. George Orwell. Virginia Woolf. Shakespeare, sitting and holding a quill. (And an oddly technicolor rendition of the Globe, his theater.)

The shock and the emotion emanated from the same place, I think. So often, discussions about education and the younger generation assume a kind of “everything is different now” stance. You know, the young have Facebook. They are digital natives. They face enormous challenges—environmental catastrophes, rogue states, a refugee situation that may remake the face of the globe. And that’s just for starters.

But not everything is different now. There was hardly a single thing in that room that wouldn’t have been there when I was a student. (And I’m midlife, remember, so we are talking decades.) It was startlingly the same. Steinbeck. A poster about Of Mice and Men. (Yep, the very one I’m picturing here!) Tennessee Williams. of mice and menAdvice from Winston Churchill on prepositions: “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Dickens. London buses, double decker.

Even the few differences echoed the situation when I was a student. There was a colorful poster of the Khmer Empire. (We worried about Vietnam.) The teacher’s painstakingly annotated copy of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying was on the desk. (We carried around his Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.)

Yes, yes, I know that knowledge is culturally constructed and this cannot be said to mean that the experiences of reading and writing in an English classroom is timeless. (Although I have to confess that it felt that way.) But I did feel I was in a great and good place—where emotions are discussed, thought is encouraged, and empathy holds sway.

Also, it illustrates how much we embrace the shock of the new concept to our detriment. It’s a commonly used frame that often just doesn’t get it right. What we often have is the commonality of the old.

Language Fun, Canadian Style

Greetings, readers! I had a very wild June and it’s so good to be back in this blog, conversing as I will.

Today, I’m just going to focus on things I find very cool about language. As readers of this blog know, I am very fond of mystery novels, never more so than in the summer. My text is a mystery novel, Old City Hall, by the Canadian writer Robert Rotenberg. (Part of the great NPR “Crime in the City” series.)

Perhaps I should say things he finds very cool, because a character in this novel (a lawyer named Albert Fernandez) is the occasion for extremely interesting observations made about the English language. Fernandez is from South America, emigrated as a child to Toronto, and though outwardly fluent, has worked very hard to not let his struggles with English show. As a kid, falling into a Canadian snowbank, he shouted “aid me” to the other students. And was mercilessly teased by those same kids, for not knowing the proper idiomatic form of “help me.”

So here is Albert, musing about the English language by recalling a college linguistics lecture: “the professor…drew a line down the middle of the blackboard, and wrote…’Anglo-Saxon’ on one side and ‘Norman’ on the other.’” Words with the same meaning face each other across the divide: “go in/enter; meet/rendezvous.” The pairing that previously gave him trouble, “help/aid,” is accounted for: “Thanks to the French invasion of England in 1066, the two main [contributors to the current language] ran parallel throughout.”

Then Albert Fernandez muses on English political speeches: “That’s where Churchill came in…Churchill understood the power of the simple Anglo-Saxon words. He preferred them to the flowery, foreign Norman words. His most famous speech, ‘We will fight them on the beaches…,’ was the greatest example. Every word was Anglo-Saxon, except for the very last one: ‘…and we will never surrender.’ ‘Surrender,’ the only three-syllable word in the whole speech, was a flowery French word instead of the simpler, Anglo-Saxon ‘give up.’ In this way, Churchill underscored how the very idea of surrender was a foreign concept to his British audience.”

Ok, I’ve quoted at some length here. Why? Well, first, this passage exemplifies the kind of close reading that makes study of English so much fun—and so meaningful. It’s what students and teachers in English departments get to do, and this is a very nice example (and done by lawyers, which just underscores how important language is to understanding and analysis). Albert applies this to his experience in courts, observing that a client’s tone changed in a way that caused Albert to believe he was lying; only later, when he reads the transcript and begins to circle the Norman words, does he begin to understand why. When the accused uses Anglo-Saxon words (“I walked into the kitchen”) he is telling the truth; the shift occurs when he begins using Norman words instead (“to the best of my recollection”; “she maneuvered”).

The other pleasure of this is that it’s a clever commentary on the background of the book itself. The maple leaf flagnovel is set in a profoundly multicultural Canada, with a backdrop of many languages, but of course the two official are English and French. Highlighting English and Norman this way implicitly makes a plea that Canada, not Britain or the U.S., is the inheritor and paradigm of the polyglot tongues that underlie contemporary English. (I know the quoted passage about the accused is kind of a swipe at French. Still, the hero of the series—a detective named Ari Greene—drives around listening to the French language stations on his car radio. So there is that.)

And here’s a fun fact I’ve never been able to work in anywhere else: since I referred to the Norman invasion earlier, at least there’s an opening. Early in graduate school, I had to buy The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. To draw a distinction between it and British histories written to assume a proto-empire and English triumphalism already apparent in the medieval period, the introduction implies that the England of this time was more colonized (earlier, by the Danes; by the French) and multivocal than earlier understood. Guess what the last numbered page is? 1066. No accident, think I. A wonderful example, I’ve always thought, of using the physicality of the book to comment on its contents.

Another fun fact:  the picture here is from a great post on the early designs for Canada’s Maple Leaf flag. Click on the link here to read.

And happy July!

More American (Food) Revolution

This is a continuation of my post from a couple weeks ago, on an essay about the growing popularity of vegetarianism—and, more to the point, about how we date the revolution in American cooking that made vegetables a centerpiece.

Last time, I cited a review essay in the New Yorker that characterized The Moosewood Cookbook as the result of “preachy vegetarian communes and collectives…[that] began to proliferate [in the 1970s]….remember the breads and carrot cakes that weighted almost as much as the people eating them?” I focus on this particular set of phrases because they represent a mechanism that particularly fascinates me in life—the overwriting of existing cultural moments, events, or communities into invisibility—and how that takes place.

It quite often takes place through describing or discussing said cultural moments, events, or communities as if they have in fact disappeared, or become archaic and/or just plain wrong. Two examples. In Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, he discusses the removal of ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles and their replacement by ambitious but not always realized urban renewal plans (such as freeways), noting that citizens just a few years after the tearing down of the older neighborhoods don’t seem to realize that they were ever there. He says of this phenomenon: “the overall effect resembles what psychologists call ‘distraction,’ where one false memory allows another memory to be removed in plain view, without complaint—forgotten.” Another set of descriptions can be found in Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860, which focuses on the cultural attempts to make New England seem solely white in ethnicity despite the existence of a black population. These attempts were largely successful in the popular imagination until fairly recently.

It may seem a far stretch to analogize the ways in which communities are rendered invisible and forgotten with the way that cookbooks are dissed and removed from revolutions they helped create. But look at how much the methods resemble each other. Characterizing The Moosewood Cookbook and related phenomena as “preachy” and associating them with “heavy” (a dread word in contemporary cookery, as modern-day cooking wins praise by being “light” or “bright”)—and, more tellingly using “remember” as the lead in—makes those things seem a) wrong and b) dated. The latter especially makes it seem as if these phenomena have simply disappeared in the mists of history. A textbook method of cultural overwriting into invisibility.


This is particularly interesting because in fact most of these cultural plot coordinates are still going strong. Moosewood, for example, is still a restaurant, still open, and still a collective. Mollie Katzen, who wrote and illustrated the original Moosewood Cookbook, is still publishing cookbooks (including an update of the original), and is a major food consultant to the Harvard School of Public Health. She has been inducted into the James Beard cookbook Hall of Fame and named one of “Five Women Who Changed the Way We Eat” by Health magazine.

So does this attempt at overwriting contain a cultural meaning? Coming in a future post.


American (Food) Revolution

Several months ago, the New Yorker published a long essay about vegetarian and vegan cookery. In the process, it critiqued a number of cookbooks of the vegetable stripe—recent titles like Plenty, Vegetable Literacy, and Veg.

In the process, though, it gives a long history of vegetarian cooking, touching on ancient religious prohibitions against eating meat and the English nineteenth century, when a minister’s wife apparently wrote the first vegetarian cookbook. What I want to talk about, though, is a remark made about The Moosewood Cookbook, which the writer characterizes part of a moment where “preachy vegetarian communes and collectives…began to proliferate….remember the breads and carrot cakes that weighted almost as much as the people eating them?”

In this post, I intend to rise to The Moosewood Cookbook’s defense, but also to do a little historical correction and think a bit about the cycles of revolution and how they are overwritten.

So, to begin. Remember The Moosewood Cookbook reader? Two things. The Moosewood Cookbook was published in the late 1970s as a product of a popular café in Ithaca, New York (yes, called Moosewood!). It was communal in style, with many people doing cooking duties. The cookbook was originally a stapled-together version of handwritten recipes that diners had begged for.

More importantly, perhaps—and the point completely missed by the New Yorker–it was one of the first American cookbooks to say that vegetables could be it: could be the main part of your meal. Essentially, they moved vegetables from an afterthought on the margins of a plate to a possible (and desirable) centerpiece. It was a decisive break from the cooking of the 1950s (think Betty Crocker, and even Joy of Cooking). And not only in its emphasis on vegetables: it was far more international (baba ganoush rather than meat and potatoes), and it encouraged handmade rather than technological production. (Betty Crocker is a fictional character designed to give a human face to the laboratories of General Mills.) Betty Crocker cookbooks look like a slickly produced version of homey. Moosewood was designed, even after it was picked up by a mainstream publishing company, to look like a spiral bound, art-filled, hand-drawn book. moosewood cookbook

I started to read some of the history of Moosewood (and two other revolutionary cookbooks, The Tassajara Bread Book and Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet) because I was really struck by the New Yorker writer’s dismissal of Moosewood (and lack of mention of other two). At one point, these 3 constituted something of a holy trinity in the college towns among which I moved.

More importantly, they revolutionized American cooking in a way that the cookbooks that followed them didn’t. And that’s what I want to talk about in the New Yorker’s de facto history of the vegetable cookbook. Because she dates the revolution very differently: to Deborah Madison’s Greens restaurant (started, like Moosewood, before the cookbook) and the eponymous cookbook that followed.

I’m sure Greens is a great cookbook and the restaurant stellar. But revolutionary forerunner of the current vegetable vogue it is not. It takes the vegetable revolution exemplified by Moosewood and places it in a slick, expensive package for the successful and the upscale. (Greens was founded, and still is, in San Francisco.) Proof? When the founders of Moosewood looked back 10 years, it would have been difficult to find a progenitor saying that vegetables could be the centerpiece. When the founders of Greens did the same…they would have seen Moosewood, and also Tassajara, and the many restaurants in college towns that served that type of food. (And they definitely would have seen the latter, as its author, Edward Espe Brown, also helped found Greens.)

Coming soon…more on American (Food) Revolution.

Let Us Now Consider Walker Evans, Part II

A few days ago, I wrote on American Photographs, an exhibit of the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans, and my surprise at seeing how different these often-reproduced pictures looked in a museum setting. Well, readers, today I’m going to discuss Evans’s interest in symbols, and then what has become of representations he influenced.

Many of the pictures Evans took of businesses have a symbol that conveys the trade conducted Walker evans, shoeshinealong with the words telling viewers what was done there. The semiotics of such representation interested him. Many of his representations work with symbols and semiotics—so much so that I actually did a bit of research ‘cause I was curious to see if anybody had written about this aspect of his work. It doesn’t look like it has been. So, briefly, I’m going to!

Remember semiotics, reader? They are a type of symbol that conveys meaning without words. If you see a cluster of pink of red valentines (in chocolate boxes, cards, or balloons) in the local drugstore, for example, you do not need to be told “they are for Valentine’s day.” A pink or red valentine is associated with the holiday enough for the connection to be made wordlessly—purely by the symbol.

I think he is playing with symbolism in this intriguing photograph. Obviously, this is a photography Evans, entry to photography studiostudio, of a sort. The manicules point to the door where would-be portrait subjects walk in. (The idea of “photos” overwhelms the picture, to me, but it appears to be the entry to a driving school as well.) Like many of his photographs, it is of a business. But it’s also a photograph, unlike the others, that is about photography: the studio mirrors and recapitulates the actions of taking a picture. You walk into a dark place that seems to be in some way reminiscent of the aperture of a camera. Indeed, it is an aperture, in the sense of opening.

So Evans, early in his career, is having fun with the idea of photography and what auteur and subject do to make a photography. It’s even multiply determined, with the two manicules putting the entrant into their sights.

But the legacy of his photography has become, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, divested of play of European influence, or theory. Weather-beaten signage and old advertising logo’s like those pictured by Evans have been, for several decades now, a preferred décor in mid-level burger joints (those that proudly describe themselves so).

Indeed, what most struck me about this exhibit was the change in what the representations evoke. The same qualities that represented income inequality in the 1930s—the poor, weather-beaten quality of the wood and signage—now represents a sanitized past in those mid-level restaurants. A cheery past where 5¢ a photograph means that objects and services back then were cheap as water, easily affordable, and for everybody.

The forms are thus a fit subject for nostalgia. What they embody in these restaurants is a type of American optimism that takes posted, weather-beaten signs and prices as a guarantee of obstacles overcome, because stuff was so laughably low in price—and because history tells us that the hardships of the 1930s were eventually overcome. Perhaps this décor is a form of wish that obstacles in the present will also dissolve.

Let Us Now Consider Walker Evans, Part I

This post is going to continue my museum adventures. Last year, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see American Photographs by Walker Evans, an exhibit that recreated his ground-breaking show of the 1930s, also at MOMA. (Last year’s exhibit celebrated the 75th anniversary of that exhibit, also called American Photographs.  The photographs were later captured in his book with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on southern sharecroppers during the 1930s.

For most of us, a lot of these photographs are quite familiar, particularly of the farm families in Alabama. Evans, Allie Mae BurroughsThe photograph on the left, of Allie Mae Burroughs, for example, I think of in the same category as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (below on the right); a kind of “we look at the 1930s poor and in them, see the human face” moment that have served as examples of American photography in the American century as long as I’ve been an adult. They exerted a lot of influence. Lange-MigrantMother02




So the surprise I’ll be talking about in this blog is how different they looked from what I thought I had gazed on so frequently, and how different Evans’s photography seemed as a result.

First, most are tiny. I include here a shot of MOMA’s book commemorating the exhibition, which displays a sheet of contact prints. Most of the photographs are Evans, book cover showing tiny imagesthe size of one of these prints.

And to top it off, they are surrounded by a great deal of white matte backing that dwarfs the image, so that the entire representation is about 8 ½ x 11, surrounded by silver frame. Part of the impact of seeing poverty in these two photographs has always been the “we look at the poor and see their human face” reciprocal gaze (or, semi-reciprocal semi-gaze).

But the size of the Evans photographs nearly obviates the possibility of reciprocity, as if we were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. (I have also included a picture of the Burroughs photograph on the wall—yet even that doesn’t convey the full effect of all that white space surrounding the figure. shot on the wall) The original size distances us from the subjects far more than their more conventional reproduction—as bigger—does.Evans, allie mae burroughs in context framed

The American Photographs project always seemed like an offshoot of American realism and filled with sympathy toward those portrayed. The sizing makes it clear that these are as much representations of another piece of realism, though—the scientific specimen—as much as of the human face. Evans seems much less sympathetic toward them as a result.

The museum’s notes on the exhibition also decenter these photographs slightly from an American context, making it clear that Evans was influenced by French photographers and their work documenting the working class. In fact, that piece of the exhibit shifted my idea of what Evans main reciprocity focus was: more on the art of other photographers then on his subjects, perhaps.

Part II soon!