Tag Archives: modernism

On re-reading Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing

I’ve been thinking about the “bottom dogs” genre that emerged in the Depression-era US, and so I recently picked up Tom Kromer’s novel Waiting for Nothing (1935), a book I’d not read since grad school.  The novel (or memoir: like many instances of “life writing” from this period, the boundary is pretty hard to make out) consists of several episodes in the life of a young unemployed “Stiff” who is “on the fritz,” trying to make ends meet by hustling, panhandling, stealing, pimping, whoring, and hobo-ing.  What makes the text distinctive is its language: paratactic, spare, unsentimental, yet razor-sharp and uncannily moving in its close observations of social rituals embedded in everyday life that appear in the clearest light precisely because the novel’s unnamed first-person narrator is so alienated from them.

We get a feel for this oddly moving mix of hardboiled posture and sympathy in the dedication, certainly one of my favorites in all of literature: “To Jolene, who turned off the gas.”

The preface also speaks interestingly to what is for me one of the most fascinating aspects of narratives by working-class authors in this period: the investment in authenticity, spontaneity  “telling it like it is,” coupled with an investment in describing the gritty materiality of the writing process.  The latter tends to complicate the former, shedding light on how the “Stiff” became an author and how the “low” experiences that make up the text’s content came to be represented in book form.  Here’s how Kromer describes the process:

Save for four or five incidents, it is strictly autobiographical. Some of the events portrayed did not occur in the same sequence as I gave them, for I have juggled them in order to better develop the story. The “Stiff” idiom is, of course, authentic. (unnumbered page)

 Parts of the book were scrawled on Bull Durham papers in box cars, margins of religious tracts in a hundred missions, jails, one prison, railroad sand-houses, flop-houses, and on a few memorable occasions, actually pecked out with my two index fingers on an honest-to-God typewriter. (from the Preface, unnumbered page)

So the content leaves its signature on the form, in a way, since one can connect Kromer’s brutal, paratactic style to the exigencies of the “material support” of the writing (in book history-speak): the   particular means of inscribing a blank space that is the sine qua non of composition.

The style also lends itself to the book’s distinctive humor, a quality that differentiates it from other narratives of low life.  I remember one of my grad school friends, Damien Keane, writing something about the comedy (with a nod to Samuel Beckett, as I remember, who also knew a think or two about comedy and waiting for nothing), and the first part of the book is full of bleak, dark, humor: grotesque comedy rooted in the body, comedy of manners that casts a bright light on the way inequality creates comic juxtapositions, comedies rooted in the humiliation and violence of capitalist exchange.

One of the most interesting of these moments comes when our hero is compelled to ply the rough trade in order to get a “hot and a flop,” in the argot of the book. He loiters in a park and is picked up by a queen. He knows she knows he knows she’s a he, and their relationship proceeds incrementally, while both sides calculate the risks and benefits. The narrator expresses neither of the reactions one might expect: violent disgust by way of protecting one’s “proper” identity and boundaries or a frisson of pleasure at transgressing said norms. Instead, we get a laconic set of captions for the ritual gestures of seduction that manage (like most of the humor in the book) to be at once deeply ironic and humanely earnest. The end of the seduction scene arrives with what seems like mutual fatigue rather than bliss: after delaying the inevitable by calculating how to get the most benefit for the least humiliation, he capitulates as he (and we) knew he would, “You can always depend on a stiff having to pay for what he gets. I pull off my clothes and crawl into bed” (74).

And this sense of passive activity, of waiting for nothing of, (with apologies to Wallace Stevens) the pain of merely circulating, resounds throughout the book in ways that mark it with the Depression-era stamp yet show its distinctiveness within that cultural moment.

Trashy Thoughts

I recently gave a paper in Boston at NEMLA as part of a splendid panel on trash and modernism.  In it, I’m trying to kick-start a book manuscript, tentatively entitled ABCs of Modernism, that will look at modernism and pedagogy: both the way teaching, schooling, and learning are represented in modernist texts (e.g., think of Joyce’s Stephen scribbling in the margins of his geography text at Clongowes) and how modernist texts enact a mode of pedagogy (e.g., Brecht’s Lehrstücke, or “teaching pieces,” plays that enfold audience members within the action as participants, judges, and/or critics).  Here, I’m looking at two self-consciously proletarian fictions of the Depression-era U.S., Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio and Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs.  I argue that both novels invoke the classic tradition of the Bildungsroman in a harshly negative manner by their blunt depictions of the failure of working-class individuals to grow and develop according to the bourgeois model.  But more interestingly, both novels feature refuse and trashy space as site of counter-Bildung, a means by which protagonists can compose and express themselves.  So here goes:


The Fourth “R”: Refuse, Pedagogy, and Proletarian Lit in the Depression-Era US,

The keyword for my talk today is refuse, what I am puckishly calling the fourth “R” that follows and contaminates the three Rs that make up a traditional secondary education.  The literary archive for this project is made up of two subgenres of the novel that grew out of the Depression era, the proletarian bildungsroman and the “bottom dogs” novel.  Both are structured around the tension between “proper” formation on the one hand and the various trashy objects, people, and practices abjected by that propriety on the other.  Through brief readings of Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1973) and Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs (1929), I will argue that these two traditions sift through the ruins of the Bildungsideal that emerged in early nineteenth-century German culture, the notion that youthful novel protagonists provide a template for a successful harmonization of the restless, striving individual on the one hand and relatively static, conservative socio-economic structures on the other.  As Franco Moretti has argued, this ideal depends upon the productive paradox that, in order to participate in the Bildung process, one must choose that which social structure has always already mandated: the proper sort of marriage, schooling, religious affiliation, and social milieu, for example (Moretti).  The reward for such a compromise is, to quote the title of Moretti’s book, the discovery of a “way in the world” that enables accumulations of all kinds of capital, from economic to cultural to social, in a process that resembles organic growth and proceeds naturally, as it were, alongside the development of the body and mind. 

There is no proletarian bildungsroman, properly speaking, for many reasons.  The most vulgar and best reason is that the rhythms imposed upon early 20thC working-class life in industry, service work, and domestic labor demand stultifying repetition in ways that retard or preempt the developmental processes the ideal depends upon: values, in other words, flow though the working-class subject without accumulating there.  So, rather than recover certain ignored or underappreciated works by elevating them via the prestige of a traditional genre, I want to use them to highlight the way plebeian writers of the 1930s deformed and ironized the still-forceful ideology of Bildung as the basis of an egalitarian and democratic society.  Refuse and the related concept of refusal form the crux of this irony, as working-class protagonists move between the scant traces of Kultur they encounter and the superabundance of trash, both literal and figurative, that litters their lives.

The most obvious aspect of the cultural work of these novels is the implicit argument that modernity has bankrupted the bourgeois model of “development,” especially in its “lower” precincts.  Nathanael West subtitled his mock-Bildungsroman, A Cool Million (1934) “the dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin,” and the joke points to the way working-class experience dismantles the genre’s structure.  Today, however, I will focus on the subtler face of proletarian representations of Bildung: the way working-class children figure as both the objects and the subjects of cultural inscription.  I will argue that novels like Olsen’s and Dahlberg’s are most valuable not simply as lamentations protesting poverty, but as explorations of how plebeian subjects might gain access to means of inscription, often in the humblest forms.  These novels mount a negative critique of the formal channels of education available to working-class subjects: schools, churches, orphanages, libraries, and homes inscribe exploitative dominant narratives onto youthful subjects and offer few opportunities for autonomous expression.  More unexpectedly, this refusal of what passes for a proper working-class education is paired with explorations of refuse and condemned space as the means of an alternative/emergent mode of expressivity.  So vacant lots, dumps, alleys, toilets, and other marginal objects and spaces become the pads and pencils, as it were, for youthful proletarians who hope to escape the fate of being trash by learning to compose (not to say compost) with it.

Yonnondio features a young protagonist, Mazie, whose family careens from Wyoming mining town to Dakota plains farm to, finally, urban meatpacking district.  From the novel’s first pages, we see her penchant for imagination hemmed in by the sordid conditions of her life.  In an early scene, she asks her mother, “what’s an edication?” and receives the reply that it “means,” quite simply, that “your hands stay white and you read books and work in an office” (4). Later that evening, Mazie occupies the only free space she can access so she can contemplate her mother’s words: she lies outside, “between the outhouse and the garbage dump” and “pushed her mind hard against things half known, not known” (4-5).  The rest of the novel works out the implications of this pregnant moment, as the plot simply shoves aside Mazie’s mother’s vague idea of education as meritocratic ladder leading from filth to hygiene and explores instead the expressive possibilities latent in Mazie’s dreaming in spaces surrounded by excrement and garbage.  There is much to say about the many thematizations of imagination, reading matter, and schooling in the text, but in the interests of time, I’ll skip to the end of the novel, when Mazie’s family has moved to the city to work in the meatpacking industry.

There, the theme of the constriction of Mazie’s development intensifies, as she roams the streets and experiences something like the dissociative “urban shock” attributed to modern cities by critics like Benjamin and Simmel in the early 20thC.  While suffering from the heat and din of the urban streets and the ubiquitous stench of the packing plants, Mazie looks up to find a billboard towering over her, emblazoned with the letters A-R-M-O-U-R (100).  It’s a rich and suggestive moment in the text for its condensation of the position of the vulnerable working-class subject vis a vis capital and especially for its framing of this relationship in terms of inscription.  First, the brand name ARMOUR looms over Mazie and her peers in ways that scramble their own capacity for response or reflection, an impression that’s deepened in surreal fashion by the way the stench, the literal residue of the production process that exploits her family’s labor, penetrates her lungs and disables her ability to sense her surroundings with any subtlety.  And of course the brand name itself ironically points to the nakedness of Mazie over and against corporate power: there is no armor against Armour, it seems.  No armor, and yet, the children of the town manage to recover some freedom from the pressures of their lives in an unexpected place: the town dump.  There, the narrative tells us, they release themselves from “the cramp the clamp of school” and discover “deeper, more ancient play” in the dump, where

territory is established, shifted, abandoned, fought over, combined.  Peerers, combers, and excavators go treasure hunting. […] Children … plan, measure, figure, design, invent, construct, costume themselves, stage dramas; […] live in passionate absorbed activity, in rapt make-believe. (149)

 As the string of active verbs suggests, the dump is where students slip the yoke of traditional schooling, which cramps their style, and discover the alchemical pleasures of transforming worthless trash into narratives infused with new values.  The students, in other words, have gone from being the blank slates upon with hegemonic values inscribe themselves to agents of inscription.

If the dump is the children’s slate, it is hardly blank; rather, it collates a disarticulated, prelinguistic image repertoire taken from adult life and repurposed by the semicomprehending minds of children.  As such, its creations are neither innocent nor separate from the subsuming ideologies that structure social life.  If the play is “deep” and “ancient,” as the narrative suggests, I would insist, against the grain of that narrative, that it is also quite shallow in the sense of rearranging the surface elements of mass cultural narratives.  The clearest view we get of both the form and content of this deep/shallow play comes from one Gertrude Skolnick, an older girl who fashions herself as Ginella the Great, a vamp/tramp persona assembled from silent-era Hollywood archetypes.  Mazie approaches the “tent” that holds Ginella’s precious collection culled from the dump bearing her own gifts, and Ginella reciprocates with a sumptuous drag performance riffing off of performances she’s seen on the screen:

Luxuriously on her rug, pretend silk slinking and slithering on her body, turbaned, puffing her long pretend cigarette: Say vamp me, vamp me. I’m Nazimova. Take me to the roadhouse, I want to make whoopee. Hotcha. Never never never. O my gigolo, my gigolo. A moment of ecstasy, a lifetime of regret.

One thinks of a more famous Gertrude, hearing Ginella vamp on these reconfigured fragments to generate freedom from a confining identity and social position and freedom to enjoy forbidden pleasures.  There is much to say about the figure of Ginella and the energies that she represents; however, in the interests of time, I will just point out that Olsen certainly tempers the optimism of this mode of expression with the realization of the subsuming power of the author, if you will, of the company town, against which this interstitial scribbling seems rather feeble.

The “bottom dogs” genre that emerged in the late 1920s from Edward Dahlberg’s autobiographical novels Bottom Dogs and From Flushing to Cavalry represents a much more radical negation of the novel of development, one that moves beyond the frustration or retardation of subjects’ attempts to rise and questions the very notion of a protagonist whose agency is so central to the novel genre.  As Baktihn points out in his classic essay on the Bildungsroman, the zero degree of novelistic narrative, going back to its prehistory in epic, is the “hero” as a “point moving in space” (11).  Whereas the subject of Bildung studies, wanders, courts, earns, and marries, capturing various forms of capital in a one-way flow, Dahlberg’s Lorry Lewis is borne about, willy nilly, by inscrutable socio-economic forces, forces that often flow through his very body and mind with no accumulation.  The name is symptomatic, as Lorry is constantly figured as a constantly moving, empty shell into which goods, words, and desires are loaded and unloaded.  Lorry does not find the proverbial “way in the world.”  Rather, the world has its way with him: instead of wandering footloose and fancy-free, the tracked, surveilled, and dispiriting process of hobo-ing; instead of working and accumulating capital, the flow of values through Lorry in the forms of confidence schemes, gambling, and entertainments; instead of courtship and marriage, prostitution and the clap.  The ending of Bottom Dogs leaves Lorry alone, having hooked up with a stranger met at a for-profit wedding between strangers at a cabaret, fearing that he has contracted a venereal disease.  Its last lines—“something had to happen, and he knew nothing would”—represent a total inversion of the Bildungsideal, a point at which the only traces that accumulate within the subject are contaminants and from which no progress or congress with proper social structure is imaginable.

And yet, as with Yonnondio, Dahlberg’s novel has a fascinating counterdiscourse that leavens this pessimism somewhat, one that also arises from the desire for inscription.  One of the major plot points comes when Lorry’s mother offloads him to an orphanage to please her lover, and the orphanage is, in even starker terms than Yonnondio’s schools, carceral and violent: the children are called “inmates,” they eat at a “convicts’ table,” they are known by number, and they are subject to malnutrition and brutal corporal punishment.  More subtly, the schooling offered by the orphanage emphasizes the subjection of the students to “proper” uses of language, as it attempts to overwrite, as it were, students’ corrupt natures with grammar lessons, classical music, homilies from mandatory services, and, most surreally, enforced tooth brushing using cakes of the purest Ivory soap. It is along the linguistic and inscriptive front, however, that the orphanage’s battle lines are most vulnerable, as the novel teems with examples of unsanctified uses of language on the part of the children: for example, graffiti in the bathroom, the ritual of carving one’s name on a bench upon graduation, and the attribution of extravagant nicknames (e.g., Herman Mush Tate, Watermelonhead, Shrimp, Spunk, Prunes, Nuts Becker, Bonehead-Star-Wolfe) to supplement the given carceral numbers.  Most fundamentally, this feature of the novel speaks to a familiar Calibanization that flows from the master-slave relation of modern disciplinary institutions, whereby the gift of language returns to the giver in the form of a curse-laden and creative backwash.  As with Yonnondio, however, we see a more subtle and subversive form of creativity through a peripheral character, one Herman Mush Tate.  Tate’s nickname comes from his unique capacity to thrive on even the most disgusting products of the convicts’ table, and he is associated with many forms of refuse and excess, especially in the form of trashy collections.  A physical coward, he lingers at the periphery of schoolyard fights and ferrets away objects dropped during brawls in his cubbyhole.  More to the point, he keeps a chapbook of sorts, a “de-luxe notebook” that is a virtual dump of language.  This “dictionary,” as he calls it, possesses a talismanic power within the orphanage, enabling Mush’s status as a “champeen arguifier” whom boys deploy as a verbal weapon in fights.  In ways that vividly prefigure the competitive “toasts” and “battles” of African diasporic culture, Mush uses this homemade archive to enable a powerful flow of nonsense that rearticulates the raw material of the orphanage’s attempts at disciplinary acculturation as something much more extravagant and pleasurable.  In response to an older boy who wants to fight, Mush responds with a speech-act of “cannonading”:

 Think yer much hu … come on, say something, down the hill, down the gully, around the bend, Mr. Berger’s red flannel underwear, Doc’s overalls, tomato cans, Christine’s drawers, green-pea hash, goulash, prunes, aw hell, talk, think you’re in school, stale cakes, Washington pies, Becker’s doughnuts, heavy neck boils, Abraham’s bosom, wash your own, Doc’s clodhoppers, Doc’s overalls twice, the Lord shall not want, God humbles the proud, I am thy rod and thy staff, hymn 86, hymn 87, hymn 88, Ring’s tobacco heart, Deutschland ueber alles, aw, bull, come on talk, you don’t stutter, you’re not sunburnt …” (197).

 Sacred and secular, Kultur and trash mix promiscuously here in Mush’s nearly colonic flow.  What seems like schizoid nonsense is actually richly resonant and meaningful to Mush and his peers: in fact, it is much more sacred than the homilies that are “torture” to students and expresses rebellion against the deprivations, hypocrisy, and repression on the part of the orphanage and its leadership.  Symptomatically, Mush is expelled from the school after an incident in which the children have heard a homily on David and Goliath, and he leads them to shatter the chapel’s stained glass windows with a homemade slingshot in a deformation (or is it a faithful translation?) of a sacred text.  As he leaves, he bequeaths his entire “estate,” which is composed of his “dictionary” and his collections, on the dimwitted Bonehead in what the narrative calls his “last ironical gesture.”  The entire arc of the subplot captures, on the one hand, the power of the desire for cultural inscription on the part of the lumpen mass of orphans, and on the other, the evanescence of their scribbling, given their remoteness to any means of recording their thoughts, feelings, and impressions in a sturdy, publically visible and shareable way.  The dictionary fades, like all subaltern forms of wisdom, into orally circulated myth: the book vanishes, but legend has it that it was buried beneath a “burning bush” by Bonehead and “was always talked about with awe and in the same tone as the Israelites speak of the mosaic slabs on which Jehovah struck lightening and the ten commandments” (202).

In wrapping up our tour of the junkyard of my own paper, I want to think about the implications of these modernist revisions of classic depictions of Bildung.  For me, the most striking involves our own practice as writers and educators in a moment dominated by austerity-driven efficiency, with its catchword of assessment and its placement of humanistic inquiry on the Procrustean bed of the STEM disciplines and the corporate university.  As much as we may cling to the notion that the humanities are the repository of sweetness and light, it may be the case that our trashiness is in fact our most distinctive characteristic.  I mean by this that our signal contribution is to gather up the wreckage of cultural history and reconfigure it to express what Benjamin calls the “revolutionary energies of the outmoded.”  The decisive linkage here is that between articulation, refuse, and refusal: I would like to think that what we offer our students, to put things formulaically, is a refusal of standardized efficiencies that inscribe themselves upon the democratic majority and an embrace of a ludic mode of inscription that uses trash, waste, and abandoned spaces as its means.